Latest generation of handheld personal computers

have more punch per pound than they did in the past May 13 1997

In our standard sci-fi vision of the future, people are forever wandering around with little portable computers -- computers in their pockets or purses, on their wrists, or on their belts.

If you've ever had a sore shoulder from hauling a 3.5-kilogram notebook down seemingly endless miles of airport corridors, you know that (despite the Timex Datawatch) we're not quite there yet.

Hence the appeal of a much smaller computer, something weighing in at around 60 grams to a kilogram. Such machines are not necessarily new.

Even a decade or more ago, while some business travellers toted 15-kilo "luggable" computers like the original Compaq around, others, particularly journalists, swore by their tiny Tandy 1000s, which could seemingly last forever on a couple of AA batteries while offering basic word processing on a tiny keyboard. With a modem, aspiring techno-reporters could even electronically file their stories to their editors. Pretty impressive for 1985.

That basic 1985 computer still defines what most of us would like to see today -- an easy-to-use machine that would let us store calendar and contact information, take notes, create and save a couple of pages of text, and check our e-mail. Add other criteria like light weight, long battery life, affordability, and an ability to connect and communicate with our more powerful desktop and notebook computers and you've got a machine with a huge potential market. One way or another, that describes a new generation of small computers.

There's not necessarily a consensus on what to call this category: Apple described its Newton as a "Personal Digital Assistant" (or PDA for fans of three-letter acronyms); more recently, Microsoft has been using the term "Handheld Personal Computer" (or HPC). No matter what you call them, these computers pack more punch (and cost more) than the common electronic organizers from companies like Casio and Sharp. Not just an address book, you can customize them, add software, and use them to get real work done (at least some real work!) and to access e-mail and the Internet. Each can connect to more standard office computers to synchronize calendars and exchange data files.

I've recently spent time living with several different tiny computers, each very different, yet all trying to pack just enough computing power into as small a package as possible. None can claim to be enough computer to make me want to throw away my more traditional desktop and notebook machines, but each has a certain charm, and, more importantly, can meet some real needs for business users. The contenders are:

* US Robotics' Pilot: This is the tiniest and least expensive of the trio and it has been a big sales success, with models starting around $400. The Pilot has no keyboard -- you write on its screen with a stylus. But it doesn't make any attempt to read your handwriting. Instead, it wants you to learn to write its way -- in a simplified alphabet where, for example, an upside-down "V" represents a capital "A." At about the size of a pack of playing cards, it will easily fit into your shirt pocket.

* Compaq's PC Companion: This is one of a half-dozen or so virtually identical models from various companies (Casio Cassiopeia, NEC Mobile Pro etc), all running Microsoft's Windows CE (a simplified version of the Windows 95 interface, complete with the Microsoft basic software package including Pocket Word and Pocket Excel). Unlike the Pilot and Newton, the PC Companion includes a miniversion of a standard keyboard (as do all the Windows CE machines). Not for the shirt pocket, but it fits handily in that inside jacket pocket, at a cost of about $700 with two megabytes, $900 with four.

* Apple's Newton: This Big Daddy of the little computers has outgrown all but the largest of pockets. It has a new version out called the MessagePad 2000. In the past, its attempts at reading users' handwriting became the butt of a couple of weeks of Doonesbury comics, but it's been much improved. The new version has smarter software and it is much faster and more powerful than previous versions. There's even an optional, add-on keyboard, but that adds $120 to the $1,300 cost.

(There are other contenders for this minicomputer market, with models like the Psion, the Sharp Zaurus, and several computers from Hewlett-Packard; my apologies to the fans of each for not reporting on your objects of devotion.)

Over the next weeks, we'll look at several of these little computers -- what their strengths and limitations are, and what they're like to work with. We'll try to help you decide whether any of today's generation of little computers make sense for you or your travelling staff.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan