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Windows CE /
John D. Ruley
John Ruley

Pocket Windows
CE puts Windows in the palm of your hand.

I'm using one hand to type this column on a tiny keyboard, while my other hand holds a computer. That's easy to do-the computer weighs less than a pound, and it's attached to the keyboard. Nevertheless, it's a real computer, fully capable of running applications like the word processor (Microsoft Pocket Word) I'm using to write this column. Welcome to WINDOWS Magazine's new monthly Windows CE column, where pocket-sized computers are the rule rather than the exception.

What's a pocket computer? Mine is a 1-by-6.9-by-3.6-inch black clamshell that opens up to reveal a 320x480-pixel display and a tiny qwerty keyboard. It's powered by a 33MHz Hitachi SH-3 low-power RISC processor. Its 4MB of ROM contain the operating system and built-in applications. The computer also includes 2MB of RAM, internally expandable to 4MB, for add-on apps and data. Because it's all solid state (with no disks to spin up), it comes on instantaneously. There's no delay when you click the On button. It connects to the outside world using a serial cable (unfortunately, a proprietary one) or an infrared port. It also has a PC Card slot that holds a "battery-friendly" low-power modem or other Type II PCMCIA card.

Why low-power? Because the SH-3 is a 3-volt CPU, my pocket computer gets by on two standard AA batteries for main power. A hearing-aid-style mercury button provides backup power while you change the main batteries. Standard 5V PC Card modems will work, but you'd better have the optional AC adapter set. Otherwise, a 5V PC Card will flatten your AA cells in minutes. In normal use, they last around a week.

So far, this sounds like any standard pocket organizer. Why dedicate a monthly column to it? Because unlike the Sharp Zaurus, the U.S. Robotics PalmPilot or the Apple Newton, the pocket computer I'm using is based on Windows-specifically, Windows CE. What "CE" stands for is a matter of some debate. Microsoft says it doesn't stand for anything in particular, but it's most commonly referred to as "Consumer Electronics."

Windows CE, the OS

Windows CE, rather than Windows for Palmtops? Yes, indeed-CE is designed to run on more than just palmtops. Microsoft calls them "hand-held personal computers," but we don't, because CE-based pocket computers don't have Intel processors and won't run PC software. Microsoft hopes CE will ultimately run on a wide range of different devices, including cellular phones, home entertainment systems, desktop Network Computers and probably other machines we haven't heard about yet. But for now, we'll concentrate on the Windows CE palmtops, because they're the only systems you can actually go out and buy.

You don't buy Windows CE by itself-it's built into the ROM on compatible palmtops. As I write, palmtops from Casio, Compaq and NEC are available; Hewlett-Packard, Philips, LG Electronics and Hitachi have units on the way.

Windows CE builds on everything Microsoft learned from earlier attempts to make a version of Windows for hand-held use. Designed to make the most of relatively inexpensive (around $500) hardware, it forgoes built-in handwriting recognition. And while it has a Windows 95 look and feel, it makes no attempt to support existing (DOS, Win3.x, 95 or NT) applications.

What the CE operating system does offer is a full 32-bit architecture portable to multiple processors (it currently supports Intel, Hitachi, Mips and Philips CPUs). It's a preemptive multitasking (maximum of 32 tasks), multithreaded operating system that uses a single memory address space with interprocess memory protection. It supports Execute in Place (XIP), provides built-in database functions with automatic data compression and has a remote application programming interface (RAPI) that allows a pocket computer to be controlled from a connected desktop PC.

Communications between the CE-based pocket computer and an attached desktop PC (or the Internet) are provided by Windows 95- and NT 4.0-compatible Dial-Up Networking, which uses Internet-standard point-to-point protocol (PPP)

Although you can't run PC Windows apps on a CE-based palmtop, you can still do many of the same things you do on a PC. All CE-based pocket computers come bundled with a decent collection of ROM-based software. The bundles include Microsoft Pocket Word and Pocket Excel, which are slimmed-down versions of the familiar Microsoft Office apps (though Pocket Word has no spell checker, and Pocket Excel lacks graphics/charting features). The palmtops include a set of Microsoft Schedule Plus 7.0a-compatible organizer functions (address book, task list, calendar), a dual-time clock, a basic calculator and an Internet-standard Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP)-compatible e-mail client. The organizer tools will soon support Microsoft's new Outlook organizer.

In addition to what's built into the ROM on a CE-based pocket computer, a CD-ROM is bundled with the unit. It contains Microsoft HPC Explorer, which runs on the desktop and is used to transfer files to the pocket computer when connected. It also includes Microsoft Pocket Internet Explorer (the CE Web browser). You might find additional software on the CD, depending on where you buy the pocket computer. You install all of this software from the CD onto a PC running Windows 95 or NT 4.0. Microsoft refers to this as the "companion PC" for the CE-based pocket computer in question.

Third-party software and accessories

Add-on software for Windows CE includes Symantec's PCAnywhere CE remote control (see WinLab Reviews, this issue), Odyssey OnSchedule-CE contact manager, Microsoft's Pocket Automap Streets and Microsoft's CE Entertainment Pack. These packages all come on either standard floppy disks or CD-ROMs. To install them on your pocket computer, you'll have to connect it to the companion PC and start HPC Explorer. Then you run a Windows-based installation program on the PC, which uses RAPI to install the software onto the pocket computer. If the installation program is well designed, it will check first for sufficient available space before copying files to the pocket computer. If you don't have enough free space, you'll have to use Windows CE's Remove Programs feature (in the Settings menu) to make room.

Hardware vendors view CE as a major opportunity-especially for communications devices. I've tested CE-compatible pagers (Socket's PageCard and Skytel's Messenger) and WyndMail wireless e-mail. There are also CE-compatible flash RAM cards; think of them as small solid state hard disks. The Casio Cassiopeia (see WinLab Reviews, April) can store pictures taken with Casio's QV line of digital cameras, and you can control the camera with the pocket computer. That may seem senseless at first, but the QV cameras have a standard VCR-style video output, making them ideal devices for business presentations.

My hip pocket (or the jacket pocket of a suit coat) has a computer in it nowadays whenever I'm out of the office. For the first time in years, I can go on short business trips without my notebook computer.

Aside from its basic organizer functions (which I even use in my office), my pocket computer takes care of all of my e-mail when I'm on the road. It only handles plain-text messages, but that's fine most of the time. I've used both conventional and wireless modems.

Tips of the month

Battery life is a major issue with CE-based palmtops. I've found the best way to extend battery life is to forget about using batteries altogether. Use an AC adapter when connecting to the companion PC or using a modem. Unfortunately, some vendors (among them, Casio, Compaq and HP) don't include an AC adapter with their pocket computers. Do yourself a favor-before buying a pocket computer, find out if the AC adapter is included. If not, ask for one. If the store you're buying from can't get it for you, shop elsewhere. It will save you many frustrating trips to the battery counter. And yes, I think all pocket computers should come with one.

Owners of Casio and Compaq pocket computers should also download CE Service Pack 1 from Microsoft's Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsce/hpc/support/bug.htm). It fixes a bug in the power management logic that can flatten the batteries under certain conditions.

For the record, I'm using Casio's Cassiopeia A-10. I bought it because Casio got to market first. Newer units offer more features (the HP 320LX has a larger screen, and the Philips Velo 1 has audio input and a built-in software modem), but for me it was most important to get my hands on a unit and start using it. I've had no cause at all to regret that decision.

Next month, I'll have more on Windows CE and life with a pocket computer. In the meantime, check out our new CE Web page at www. winmag.com/windowsce.

Senior technical editor John D. Ruley is WINDOWS Magazine's Windows CE columnist. He's also principal author of the book Networking Windows NT 4.0, Third Edition (John Wiley & Sons, 1996). John happily accepts e-mail to jruley@winmag.com.

Windows Magazine, June 1997, page 269.

[ Go to June 1997 Table of Contents ]