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NT in the Palm Of Your Hand?
Just about, thanks to Windows CE.
For three years, I have faithfully written this column on a Windows NT-based machine. This month, I'm breaking with tradition by drafting my column on a Casio A-10 Cassiopeia hand-held PC running Windows CE, Microsoft's new portable operating system. At first glance, Windows CE is about as far as you can get from NT. A closer look, however, reveals that WinCE and NT can live quite happily side by side.
Windows CE hand-helds, also available from Compaq Computer, Philips and LG Electronics, provide no-frills word processing, spreadsheet, organizer and communications functions-exactly what I need when I'm on the road. Best of all (at least for me), they can communicate with Windows NT 4.0.
Rather than reiterate what WINDOWS Magazine has already written about Windows CE (see Reviews, December 1996 and Features, January), I'd like to focus on some items that will be of special interest to NT users.
First, Windows CE is a desktop companion rather than a desktop replacement-an approach that's particularly well suited for NT desktop users who don't want to lug an NT laptop on the road. Simply put, NT Workstation 4.0 is too big (more than 100MB in typical installations) and too slow (unless you have more than 16MB of RAM) for most notebooks. Worst of all, it's not fully supported by many major notebook makers. Only a handful of manufacturers-the Austin Edge Duet reviewed in our January issue is a case in point-develop power-management and Plug-and-Play support for NT, and few offer more than 16MB of RAM on base systems.
Further complicating matters, Microsoft has modified NT setup in version 4.0, creating a "gotcha" situation that works against notebook users. Specifically, NT 4.0 setup doesn't support floppies. You can circumvent this limitation during initial installation by copying files to a network drive. Still, if you hit a snag you'll need a local CD-ROM drive (which many older laptops lack) to run NT Setup's Repair option and replace damaged files.
That last problem killed off my old, reliable Zenith Noteflex 486 notebook. Its intended replacement, a Samsung Sens 810, doesn't support NT 4.0. After trying Windows 95 (and getting some quick reminders of what made me switch to NT in the first place-if I never see another Registry Corrupted message it will be too bloody soon!), I was about ready to give up.
Then I found Windows CE, which is quite stable and offers just enough power for mobile users. As is the case with NT, crashing a CE app won't take down the entire system. In fact, Windows CE feels a lot like a pocket-sized version of NT. Multitasking is very smooth-background operations, such as mail transfers, won't cause foreground applications to become jumpy as they do under Windows 95. The system is so well-behaved it makes you wonder if Microsoft somehow managed to shrink NT down to palmtop size.
Is CE really NT for palmtops?
In a word: No. But that is how CE got started. Reliable sources (including Deep Dark, my inside contact at Microsoft) tell me the original CE plan was to base it on a stripped-down NT microkernel. However, once the CE team (whose proud motto is "small code for small minds") brainstormed a bit, they decided it would make more sense to start from scratch.
The result is an elegantly designed, 32-bit preemptive multitasking operating system with a built-in database and compression. All this can work in as little as 2MB of RAM-though you'll likely prefer a 4MB model. Much of the code is execute-in-place, and can be run directly from ROM, preserving the limited RAM available for data storage.
The CE team's attention to detail is evident in the operating system's development environment, which is hosted on Intel-based NT systems, and features cross-compiler support for both the Hitachi and Mips processor families. Also impressive is the protocol used for connecting CE to a Win95/NT desktop: Internet-standard point-to-point protocol (PPP), which makes CE units Internet-ready out of the box.
Incidentally, the new Windows CE-based units aren't the only palmtops that support NT 4.0. Sharp's Zaurus does as well, and it provides handwriting recognition, among other features. (Visit Sharp's site at www.sharpusa.com/zaurus/index.html.)
In order to make NT and CE work hand in hand, you must enable NT's guest account with a blank password the first time you connect a Windows CE hand-held to an NT desktop. Once the two systems are working together, you can set Windows CE to use a standard NT user name and password. To synchronize schedules between NT and CE, you must run Microsoft Schedule+ 7.0a on NT; it's included on the hand-held PC (HPC) Explorer CD shipped with Windows CE. One minor note: Schedule+ and the Windows Messaging inbox locked up when I ran both at the same time, but that problem was resolved by applying NT 4.0 Service Pack 1. Also, since Windows CE's remote access/Dial-Up Networking software doesn't support data encryption, you can't use or require it on the NT side.
Unfortunately, the Windows CE Explorer application that lets CE communicate with NT is yet another Microsoft "unsupported pre-beta preview" item. Full NT 4.0 support, including automatic setup, should be available by the time you read this or shortly thereafter.
There are some non-NT specific issues to be aware of. For one, Casio doesn't include an AC adapter with the Cassiopeia. I recommend that you buy one or invest in Energizer stock-Windows CE can drain batteries dry in a single day. And don't even think about using a PC Card modem with a CE hand-held unless you have an AC adapter, as it will drain the batteries in just minutes-as I discovered.
If you're into multitasking, you might want to spend an extra $100 for a CE model with 4MB of RAM, rather than a base model with 2MB. Windows CE does such a good job of multitasking that it seems natural to have several windows open at once, but doing so (I have six open as I write this) can consume the base 2MB of RAM. Multitasking will also reduce your battery life even further.
Of course, Windows CE
is not meant as a desktop replacement. If you expect Pentium-or-better performance, high-resolution graphics and the ability to run the latest applications, you'll be bitterly disappointed. Performance on the Casio (powered by a low-power 40MHz RISC processor) is better than on most competing palmtops, but it can't match a speedy Pentium or Pentium Pro desktop. Also, the Casio's screen is small and dim. Its keyboard is usable, but cramped (I can touch-type on the Cassiopeia, but only at half my usual speed), and WinCE applications lack convenience features like spell-checking.
Still, Windows CE has just enough power to make me realize NT and Win95 are overkill for most of my mobile needs. I spend considerable time out of the office. I coordinate meetings via e-mail and file my reports online. NT on a notebook (assuming I can get it to work) is more than I need for these tasks-so is Windows 95, for that matter. (Of course, when it's time for me to write features or my column on the road, a notebook computer remains superior to a Windows CE hand-held.)
Waiting for NT 5.0
I'll reevaluate this situation when NT 5.0 (which is supposed to support advanced power management and Plug and Play) arrives. In the meantime, I'll be using Windows CE for my basic scheduling and e-mail needs when I'm on the road. My guess is that running NT on notebooks will always be a stretch. No matter how well NT 5.0 works, I doubt I'll go back to carrying 10 pounds (and $4,000) worth of notebook PC for my simple Rolodex and communication needs when a companion weighing under a pound (and costing about $500) can do the job.
Senior Technology Editor John D. Ruley is the principal author of Networking Windows NT 4.0, Third Edition (John Wiley & Sons, 1996). Contact John in the "Enterprise View" topic of the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe, via his Web page at www.winmag.com/people/jruley or at the e-mail addresses here.
Copyright (c) 1997 CMP Media Inc.