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WinLab Reviews
Head to Head: Personal Digital Assistants
PDAs Give a Little, Take a Lot

-- by Martin Heller

Is the glass half full or half empty? That's the traditional test that separates optimists from pessimists. If you're an easygoing optimist who really needs the portability of either the Casio Cassiopeia or the Apple MessagePad 2000 hand-helds reviewed here, then you'll probably be able to put up with their drawbacks. If you're a pessimist or perfectionist, then neither device will satisfy you.

The Windows CE machine

The Cassiopeia is the first Windows CE hand-held to ship. It features a Hitachi SH-3 RISC processor, Windows CE and utilities in 4MB of ROM and either 2MB (the A-10 model, reviewed here) or 4MB (the A-11 model, $599) of RAM. The Cassiopeia weighs about 13 ounces, including two AA batteries, which are supposed to last up to 20 hours. I typically got closer to 10 hours' use from a set of batteries. The unit measures 1 by 6.9 by 3.6 inches folded, and 0.6 by 6.9 by 6.9 inches unfolded.

The Cassiopeia's screen is 2.4 inches high by 4.6 inches wide, with 480x240 pixels at 4 levels of gray. The screen is shiny and plagued by reflections; its weak backlight tends to drain the batteries. Attempting to view the Cassiopeia for any length of time was a strain.

The Cassiopeia has a touch screen and stylus, plus a QWERTY keyboard. I found the stylus arrangement a perfectly acceptable substitute for a mouse, but I wasn't happy with the keyboard. Even my small hands made numerous entry errors, and my typing speed dropped dramatically.

You connect the Cassiopeia to the world through a serial cable (included), a built-in IR port or a PC Card modem in its single Type II PC Card slot. With a PC Card modem in use, battery life drops to mere minutes. Unfortunately, the power cord is a $45 option, or more than $100 if you purchase the adapter, battery pack and recharger.

Like all Windows CE machines, the Cassiopeia includes Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, synchronization software, Schedule+, Pocket Internet Explorer and some applets, including Solitaire.

The standard Windows software was surprisingly useful-even the Web browser. I missed spell-checking in Pocket Word, though. The HPC Explorer software makes a connected Cassiopeia look like another folder on your desktop, and makes conversions from Pocket Word and Excel to desktop formats completely painless. Synchronization with Schedule+ on a desktop is automatic and flawless. The standard e-mail software requires a POP3 mail server, which is fine if you get e-mail from most Internet service providers, but useless for most online services and corporate e-mail systems.

On the Apple Front

The MessagePad 2000 is the most powerful Newton Apple has ever made. Its features include a 162MHz StrongARM processor, 5MB of RAM and 8MB of ROM. The backlit screen measures 4.9 by 3.3 inches and has a resolution of 480x320 pixels at 16 levels of gray. At the proper angle and under good lighting, the screen is fairly easy to read, but in low light or glaring overhead light, it's nearly impossible to read. The nonfolding unit measures 1.1 by 4.7 by 8.3 inches and weighs 1.4 pounds with alkaline batteries installed. The MessagePad runs on four AA batteries or an optional rechargeable NiMH battery pack.

For input, the MessagePad 2000 uses handwriting recognition with a stylus and an on-screen keyboard. Like the Cassiopeia, the MessagePad has a serial port and IR port; it has two PC Card ports instead of one.

The unit runs Newton OS 2.1. The hand-held includes a word processor, spreadsheet, Web browser, e-mail software, notepad, appointment calendar and to-do list. Uniquely, the MessagePad accepts and stores line drawings and sound recordings along with text. But on the downside, the editing capabilities for line drawings are extremely limited.

The MessagePad connects to either a Windows or Macintosh desktop. I ran a beta version of Newton Connection Utilities for Windows and found them straightforward and useful. The utilities offer synchronization with a desktop, file import and export, backup and more.

In the field

I found typing on the Cassiopeia frustrating, but trying to get the MessagePad to read my printing was even tougher. Pecking at the MessagePad's on-screen keyboard was somewhere in between. The MessagePad gradually learns your handwriting, though.

I tend toward perfectionism: I don't think I can live with either the MessagePad or the Cassiopeia. Neither merits a place on our Recommended List-we're still looking for a palmtop that does.

Casio Cassiopeia A-10
Price: $499
Platform: CE
Pros: Windows CE interface; includes keyboard; good synchronization with Schedule+
Cons: Inadequate screen and keyboard; no included AC adapter; very short battery life when using PC Card modem
888-204-7765, 201-361-5400
Circle #605 or visit Winfo Online

Apple MessagePad 2000
Price:Under $1,000 (no fixed price at press time)
Platform: CE
Pros: Features; software; good connectivity with both Windows and Macintosh desktops
Cons: Hard to hold; poor screen readability when unit is on a table; marginal handwriting recognition; no standard keyboard
Apple Computer
800-538-9696, 408-996-1010
Circle #606 or visit Winfo Online

Windows Magazine, April 1997, page 124.

[ Go to April 1997 Table of Contents ]