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-- by Jim Forbes
Pocket computing seems to be getting a lot more respect these days, since Microsoft finalized its long-awaited Windows CE specification and hardware vendors immediately jumped on the bandwagon. The first WinCE devices have hit the streets, where they're confronting more established products that use proprietary operating systems. We checked out two of the current contenders: a non-CE device, U.S. Robotics' PalmPilot Professional Connected Organizer, and one of the new WinCE products, Hewlett-Packard's 320LX Palmtop PC.
We found that the hand-held category in general has come a long way in terms of usability and functionality, although these devices are still not likely to replace your notebook or desktop system anytime soon. Both units we tested have their strong points and could fill the bill if you're looking for portability at a price that is reasonable.
U.S. Robotics PalmPilot
The PalmPilot, which debuted last year, now comes in two new models: Professional and Personal. The Personal model has 512KB of memory and costs $299. The Professional, which we tested and recommend, has 1MB of memory and costs $399.
The form factor is distinctive. While some hand-helds can be fairly sizable, the PalmPilot is small enough to tuck into your shirt or jacket pocket. It measures 0.7 by 4.7 by 3.2 inches and weighs 5.7 ounces with two AAA batteries installed-roughly half the size of some WinCE devices. Not surprisingly, its monochrome display is also on the small side, about 2.4 inches square, or 160x160pixels. The backlit screen is brighter than those of many other hand-helds and is easy to view in low-light situations.
This unit is also noteworthy for something it doesn't have-a keyboard. Instead, it operates with a handwriting-recognition system using a stylus, a pressure-sensitive pad and a proprietary language called Graffiti. Graffiti requires you to draw characters in a specific way-easier said than done. You can also write normally and store an image of your notes in a bitmap-like format called Ink, or call up an on-screen display of a keyboard, which you then tap with the stylus.
Once you develop some skill with Graffiti, you should have no trouble utilizing the basic functions: to-do lists, appointments, contacts, expense tracking, memos and e-mail. The appointment scheduler and contact manager, two of the functions likely to get most use, are especially good. The interface is outstanding.
We were impressed with how easy it is to synchronize and exchange data with your notebook or desktop computer using the PalmPilot's Pilot Desktop software. Designed to run on your primary computer, Pilot Desktop provides access to the hand-held applications. The software works with Windows 3.1x, 95 or NT. We tested it under Windows 95.
Synchronizing information on one platform with corresponding files on the other is a snap using an application called HotSync and the synchronization cradle. As with earlier versions of PalmPilot, it's very easy to install the software, make a first-time connection and synchronize files. Synchronization is fairly speedy. It took about 1.5 minutes to load a combination of 225 address, date and memo records (addresses made up about 65 percent of this file)
Pilot Desktop requires at least 10MB of free disk space under Win95 and up to 13MB of free space under Win3.1x. The application will work on virtually any Windows computer as long as it has at least 8MB of RAM (although 16MB or more is preferable). The PalmPilot Professional's pocket e-mail application (MAPI-, VIM- and POP3-compliant) gives synchronized remote access to your primary e-mail client, a boon for corporate users.
In our tests, battery life averaged, conservatively, 20 to 25 hours of use-better than many other hand-helds. We'd recommend changing the batteries at least every four weeks, although the documentation says they can last for up to six.
Options include a $129 snap-on modem (powered by two AAA batteries capable of connecting about 150 times) and, for $69, Network Hotsync, which lets you transfer and update files across TCP/IP networks. Our review unit did not come with either option, so we have not tested these.
PalmPilot outshines most WinCE devices in several areas. The battery life is easily twice as long as on some WinCE hardware we've tested. Its synchronization technology is among the best we've seen, and the backlit screen makes viewing data in dim light very easy. Add to this a small form factor, and you have a very compelling device that costs considerably less than most WinCE machines.
However, you don't have the benefits of a keyboard or the familiar Windows interface, and the Graffiti handwriting system leaves a lot to be desired. Still, its functionality earns it a spot as the first hand-held computer on our WinList.
HP 320LX Palmtop PC
Hewlett-Packard's earlier 100LX and 200LX devices were landmark machines that featured tremendous functionality and good basic connectivity. The new 300LX and 320LX carry on the tradition. We reviewed the 320LX; the 300LX is similar but has 2MB of RAM, compared to the 320LX's 4MB.
The 320LX uses the Hitachi SH-3 microprocessor. It has an excellent keyboard, provisions for backlighting, long serial cables, an extra-wide screen and a self-contained printer driver.
Software includes Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Pocket AutoMap Streets (providing maps of major U.S. cities), a custom version of Internet Explorer, and appointment manager and database software. Like all WinCE devices, the 320LX is designed to exchange information with Windows computers. HP includes a unique utility that automates the process of backing up and comparing data on the hand-held and its desktop client.
Our complaint with CE devices in general is that they are large. The HP 320LX is among the largest of its kind-1.12 by 7 by 3.6 inches, and almost 1 pound with its two AA batteries installed. However, you may be willing to put up with the size to get the excellent screen and keyboard.
The 64-key keyboard on the 320LX is incredible. It has about 3mm of spacing between the keys and tremendous tactile response (reinforced by audible clicks). The keys have a throw of less than 2mm. The keyboard uses a qwerty layout and has special function keys.
The 320LX has a wide, 640x240 monochrome touch screen that measures 6.6 inches diagonally and has a diagonal viewing area of 6.36 inches. The screen is about one-third larger than the 480x240 displays used on other WinCE devices. HP's screen lets you view text on your hand-held in the same aspect ratio as it appears on a desktop or notebook, and the screen's backlighting is brighter than on other WinCE computers we've tested.
The included serial cable connects the 320LX to your primary computer. The 320LX includes an IrDA port. We had good results with an ink jet printer equipped with an IrDA receiver. Like other WinCE devices, the 320LX is equipped with a single Type II PCMCIA slot and a special slot for dedicated stubby CompactFlash ROM cards. The battery compartment's latch stayed firmly closed-an important asset for a palmtop's rough-and-tumble lifestyle.
The HP 320LX is quite rugged. The hinged two-piece case is made of slate-gray molded plastic. While testing, we accidentally dropped this unit about 4 feet. The 320LX survived the fall onto a concrete floor without a scratch.
If you buy a 320LX, carry a spare set of AA batteries. Buying the optional AC power supply is also a good idea. In our tests (which involved repeated hookups to our primary computer), the HP averaged only 10 to 14 hours of battery life, a far cry from the manufacturer's claim of up to 20 hours. And, if you use a PCMCIA modem while it's on battery power, you'll likely find the batteries depleted in minutes. Hewlett-Packard recommends changing the batteries every four to five weeks.
Performance was slightly better than we've found on other WinCE devices. It took the 320LX 9 seconds to load and 8 seconds to save a 415KB Pocket Word document. The load and save results for our preliminary Windows CE Pocket Excel benchmarks were 25 and 22 seconds, respectively. By way of comparison, the best times for a 4MB Casio Cassiopeia A-11 were 11 and 9 seconds for Pocket Word and 29 and 22 seconds for Pocket Excel.
We've tested four WinCE machines to date, and the HP 320LX sits at the top of this small heap. As with all WinCE devices, its short battery life is a problem. But its wide screen, exceptional keyboard layout, notable performance and rugged construction set it apart. The HP 320LX becomes the first Windows CE pocket computer on our WinList of recommended products.
Apples and oranges
While the PalmPilot and HP are both hand-helds, they're quite different and difficult to compare directly. If you want the smallest size possible, don't need a keyboard and can cope with Graffiti, the PalmPilot offers several advantages, including long battery life and low cost. If you need file compatibility with major applications like Word and Excel and prefer a larger screen, consider the HP 320LX.
It's encouraging to see that hand-helds are making progress toward becoming truly useful, functional devices. But be prepared to invest some time in learning how to use these devices if you want to reap maximum productivity from them.