ISSUE 395: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE--Alan
Tiny Compaq computer a useful communicator but is
best as companion to more powerful PCs May 20 1997
Last week, we were introduced to the miniature
world of handheld computers, small marvels that intentionally pack much
less punch into much less package than the typical notebook-sized
Notebooks often try to duplicate the power and
versatility of a big desktop system with brightly coloured screens,
CD-ROM, and stereo sound. But handheld units make no claim to be able
to replace your main office machine. Instead, by focusing on a core set
of functions, they are truly able to go anywhere.
Last winter, Microsoft teamed up with a range
of hardware manufacturers to try to duplicate the power-grip that the
various forms of Windows hold over the desktop and notebook markets.
Windows CE is an attempt to provide a consistent standard user
interface that can run on tiny computers from different manufacturers,
even using different brands of processors. Models are currently on the
market from companies like NEC, Casio, and Philips.
I spent several weeks with the Compaq version
of the standard, called the PC Companion. As the name suggests, it's
conceived as a companion to your existing computer, as a second or
third computer. Like other CD devices, and weighing in at under 500
grams (about a pound), it sports a four-shades-of-grey screen, four
megabytes of permanent read-only memory (ROM) that holds the operating
system and basic applications, and either two or four megabytes of
user-accessible random-access memory (RAM).
There's a plastic-pen-like stylus in place of a mouse
(your finger works too). This stylus is used not for actual writing on
the screen, as it is on other varieties of tiny computers, but simply
for pointing and clicking. For writing, all the CE devices sport a
miniature keyboard, boasting tiny keys in a standard QWERTY
arrangement. The small size will slow down most typists, and it took me
a while to stop hitting the Tab key when reaching for the letter 'A,'
but it is instantly usable. Along with a nearly-standard Windows
95-like look and feel, the keyboard will enable most computer-familiar
users to be up and running on a CE device almost instantly.
There are no disk drives (that includes floppy
diskettes and hard drives). Instead, saved documents are stored in the
computer's RAM. To print, they have to be sent to a "real" computer,
using the included serial cable. That's how new applications are loaded
too -- copied onto your big computer, then installed over the serial
cable onto the handheld. Because there are no disk drives, storage is
limited, and eats into the RAM available for running applications.
Don't install unneeded applications, and move older data files onto the
big machine. If you can afford it, spring for a model with four megs of
RAM, raising the basic cost from about $700 to $900.
The upside of having no drives is that the machine is
instantly on: there's no waiting for bootup. And unlike bigger
notebooks, these machines run on a couple of standard AA batteries, and
can last a couple of weeks on a set of them -- the manufacturer's claim
of 20 hours matched my experience. A couple of things can reduce
battery life, however. Pressing a backlight button gives a much
brighter screen that's much easier to read in dim light, but it comes
at a cost of battery life. Much worse, however, are PC cards. The CE
can use standard PC card devices such as modems -- it immediately
recognized my Megahertz 28.8 modem card, for example, but using this
device can run down a set of batteries in under an hour. Plan on using
the included AC adapter if you want to use a modem.
But with a modem, the CE becomes a capable, if basic
communicator. The standard built-in software package includes the
"Pocket Internet Explorer" basic Web browser and Internet mail
software. There are also pocket versions of Microsoft Word and Excel,
allowing users to create and edit documents. There is no spell
checking, and importing a large document into the limited amount of RAM
will choke performance, but users can transfer documents between a CE
handheld and a standard Windows machine (but not a Mac). Calendar,
contacts, and task lists can also be exchanged with Microsoft Office's
Schedule Plus and Outlook applications.
There aren't many third-party applications yet, but
users can get up and running with what's built in, and Microsoft claims
many companies are developing software for the platform.
I found working with the dim screen an ongoing
frustration, but otherwise, this is a very credible first attempt;
Windows-trained users will find any CE handheld a useful investment if
they need a very portable unit for basic tasks for which the weight,
cost, and size of a standard notebook would be overkill.*