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-- by John D. Ruley
More than six months after Windows CE's introduction, you'd expect that Microsoft's latest operating system for consumer devices would be available on a wider range of hardware-and it is now, with the Hitachi HPW-10E4MB, NEC MobilePro 450 and Philips Velo 1 4MB Rechargeable.
There are many similarities among these three Handheld PCs (HPCs). All are clamshell-cased units with 61-key QWERTY keyboards; all come with Microsoft HPC Explorer on CD-ROM; and all have 480x240-pixel LCD screens, an IR port, and a stylus and touch screen-but the similarities end there. We found dramatic differences in speed, power consumption and usability, with the Velo 1 offering the strongest combination of performance and features (see next page)
With other CE vendors staking out variations of a high-end position-Philips with fast performance, NEC with low power consumption and HP with its wide-screen 300 and 320LX units (see WinLab Reviews, June)-it was inevitable that someone would try to undercut the others on price. That was most likely Hitachi's strategy with the HPW-10E4MB, which sacrifices screen backlighting in an attempt to keep the price down. Nonetheless, this unit is still more expensive than NEC's and Philip's models, although the sacrified backlighting does keep power consumption down.
Physically, at 1 by 6.63 by 3.8 inches (closed), the HPW-10E4MB is slightly smaller than other WinCE-based HPCs, and at 0.75 pounds, it's a bit lighter. While not backlit, its 5.63-inch diagonal LCD provides high contrast-indeed, it may have the best of all CE displays for use in bright light. Unfortunately, the good display is paired with a mediocre keyboard. The 6mm-by-9mm keys feel smaller than they actually are, possibly because they're separated by only 3mm horizontally, and there was an uneven feel to the keyboards on both of the HPW units we tested.
The touch screen on the HPW is also less than ideal, requiring excessive force on the stylus before a screen tap would be registered. In view of this-and the fact that the amount of force required varied significantly in the two units we tested-we strongly advise anyone considering the HPW to try the actual unit you're buying before walking out of the store.
The HPW-10E4MB is no speed demon. It took 12 seconds to start Microsoft Pocket Word and load our standard 415KB test file, and 22 seconds to start Pocket Excel and recalculate our 64KB table of common logarithms. Notably, it took a whopping 9 minutes, 50 seconds to display the names of all the Windows CE designers (an Easter egg built into the Solitaire game on all CE-based units). That makes it the slowest CE-based HPC we've tested to date. Like most HPCs-including both other units in this review-the HPW has the usual set of built-in Windows CE applications (Pocket Word and Pocket Excel, Pocket Mail, Calendar, Tasks, Contacts and Calculator) on ROM. Pocket Internet Explorer, the standard Windows CE Web browser, must be loaded on the unit from the companion CD-ROM.
And though Hitachi left out the backlight to stretch battery life, the HPW doesn't win on power consumption, either. At idle, we measured an 80-milliampere current draw; under load, it drew 185mA. Hitachi provides rechargeable batteries standard with the HPW-10E4MB, and we found the Hitachi's battery capacity more than sufficient with regular charging.
One area where the HPW has a slight advantage is memory use: The Hitachi SH-3 processor chip included in this unit (and other CE units from Casio, Compaq and HP) uses a fixed instruction length of 16 bits. This yields smaller executable file sizes, allowing the HPW to get by with a 4MB ROM, while the NEC and Philips units required larger ROMs.
NEC MobilePro 450
With the MobilePro 450, NEC marches to a different drummer, eschewing the Hitachi SH-3 microprocessor used in five other CE-based HPCs (the only exception is Philips' Velo 1) in favor of its own VR-4101 processor. The VR-4101 uses Mips RISC core logic, as does the Philips R3910 CPU used in the Velo 1. Beyond that point, however, the two CPUs-and the units that use them-diverge.
NEC chose to maximize battery life in the VR-4101 and MobilePro with outstanding results: We measured current draws of just 35mA idle, rising to 130mA with the backlight turned on. Under load, the MobilePro 450 drew 135mA; adding the backlight to that, it drew 255mA. To put those numbers in perspective: The MobilePro draws less power under load with its backlight turned on than the Velo does with its backlight turned off .
That kind of stinginess with current pays big dividends in battery life. NEC claims an average life of 50 hours for a pair of AA alkaline cells, and while we can't confirm that, we can report that a single pair of alkalines sufficed for almost two full weeks of testing.
The MobilePro is less stellar when it comes to performance. It loaded Pocket Word and the 415KB test file in 11 seconds, and loaded Pocket Excel and recalculated the 64KB table of common logs in 20 seconds-in each case, a bit quicker than Hitachi's HPW-but taking more than twice as long as the Velo. The MobilePro did better in video performance, displaying the names of all CE designers in a respectable 5 minutes, 40 seconds.
The MobilePro is a nice package. It measures 1.03 by 6.89 by 3.74 inches (closed) and weighs 0.8 pounds. Its clear, high-contrast LCD measures 5.19 inches diagonally and has a good, bright backlight. It also has the best keyboard of any CE unit we've tested-large, 8mm-square keys that have a good feel with a 4mm spacing. A hinged cover on the left side folds over and locks out of the way, revealing a concealed connector for the MobilePro's serial cable on the unit's left side.
Other nice touches include a spring-loaded door covering the MobilePro's PC Card slot (eliminating the need for an easy-to-lose placeholder) and the best battery doors of any CE-based HPC. All CE-based HPCs use main (AA) and backup (usually 3-volt lithium) batteries. While other CE units require you to use a screwdriver to remove the backup battery, the NEC has a three-position latch that allows you to remove either the main batteries or backup batteries without tools.
Philips Velo 1 4MB Rechargeable
None of the CE-based HPCs released to date has attracted as much attention as Philips' Velo 1-it combines outstanding performance, slick design and several unusual features in an impressive package. At 1.13 by 6.75 by 3.75 inches (closed) and 0.9 pounds, the unit does not differ much in size from other CE HPCs. Its 5.13-inch diagonal LCD has a very bright backlight, and its 61-key QWERTY keyboard offers 3mm separation between keys. The feel of the Velo keyboard gets a mixed reaction-some people like it, but others find the small (8mm by 6mm elliptical) rounded keys uncomfortable. In a unique approach, Philips has mapped certain key combinations to launch the built-in applications-a nice touch.
Those built-in applications include not only the standard CE repertoire, but also Microsoft Pocket Internet Explorer 1.1 (which has to be loaded from disk on other CE units), Allpen Software's mobile forms database and a unique voice memo application. The logic of providing a database on a unit with only 4MB of RAM for storage is questionable, but the voice memo feature is a nice idea. Unfortunately, its usefulness is limited by the poor audio quality of the Velo's microphone, a 2mm hole in the edge of the clamshell lid.
Unlike most other CE units, the Velo has a built-in modem. Philips engineered the custom R-3910 processor used in the Velo 1 to provide software modem emulation, eliminating the need for a power-hungry PC Card modem. A pop-up cover to the left of the Velo's LCD reveals a phone connector. We found the software modem worked well-up to its design limit of 19.2Kb per second. If you require higher performance, you can get it with an external modem-but then you'll have to deal with one of the Velo's more unusual features: It provides two miniature V-module slots instead of the standard single PC Card (what used to be called a Type-II PCMCIA) slot found on other CE-based HPCs.
In performance, the Velo is unquestionably the current CE champ. It loads Pocket Word and a 415KB word processing file in just 5 seconds, loads Pocket Excel and recalculates a 64KB table of common logarithms in 8 seconds, and displays the names of all the Windows CE designers in 4 minutes, 30 seconds. That's much faster than any other CE-based unit we've seen.
The downside of the Velo's performance, unfortunately, is high power consumption. We measured a current draw of 80mA with the unit idle, 180mA with the backlight on, 275mA under load and a whopping 415mA under load with the backlight on. When you consider that a pair of standard alkaline AA cells gives you only 4000mA-hours to 5000mA-hours total, you can see that the Velo's battery life won't be anything to write home about-particularly if you must use the unit continuously in dim light (your battery life will depend on how much you load)
Fortunately, Philips provides a rechargeable AA-sized nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack with the high-end version of the Velo that we tested. We found its battery capacity to be adequate, with light use of the backlight and regular (nightly) charging. We would suggest that anyone buying a Velo also carry spare AA batteries in case the rechargeable pack becomes exhausted. An accessory cradle is used to connect the Velo to a companion desktop or notebook PC-a nice alternative to a serial cable.
Overall, we think the Velo 1 is an excellent package-and when you consider that it provides a built-in modem (effectively replacing a $200 PC Card modem), it's a bargain.
And the winner is ...
Philips' focus on performance has paid off in the Velo 1. Its speed-almost double that of all other current HPCs-makes it by far the most desirable of the current CE-based HPCs, and puts it on our WinList, replacing the slower (though wide-screened) HP 320LX. Still, if battery life is more important to you than raw speed, you'll be better off with NEC's MobilePro 450. In any case, be sure to try the keyboard and screen on any WinCE machine you're considering before taking it out of the store.