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 computer.

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.*

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