Minicomputers outgrow former limitations

with new units by Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba - Sept 2 1997

In the ongoing quest for the perfectly portable, tiny computer, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba's latest offerings prove once again that, despite the clich?, more is more.

The original generation of CE machines, which includes models by Compaq, Casio, Philips, and NEC, all featured pretty similar-sized cases, and identically sized screens: 480 pixels wide.

With its latest model, the HP320LX handheld PC, Hewlett-Packard broke rank with the other manufacturers and extended the length of its computer case by about an inch. The other dimensions are still roughly the same so, like the other CE models, the HP320LX will fit comfortably in a jacket pocket.

But that extra little inch changes HP's model for the better in a couple of ways. First, it gives users just a bit more space between the keys. You see, unlike the Newton and the Pilot, the CE models all come with a tiny standard keyboard. No need to write on the screen and hope that the computer will understand. Simply type. But the tiny keyboards are awkward at best. On the regulation-sized Compaq model, I found I often hit the tab key when aiming for the letter "A." Because the HP320LX's keyboard is just a bit bigger, I did not make that mistake on this model.

That extra inch of space also provides room for a wider screen. At 640 by 240 pixels, it's got the same number of dots across as a standard VGA monitor even though it's much tinier, and it's exactly half as many dots high. That's surprisingly handy. When using the built-in word processor, you can see all the way across your page. And it's much nicer for browsing the Web. Again, you can generally see the width of an entire page, without having to scroll back and forth.

Using a PC-Card modem, which isn't included, you can actually connect to the Internet, browse the Web, and send and receive e-mail, all on a machine that fits in your pocket. Included, as with all the CE models, are scaled-down versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, and a calendar, contact list, and task list. Like the Pilot, HP's new computer offers a handy cradle, making it easy to exchange files with your desktop PC and keep your schedule lists in synch.

But the HP320LX, at around $900, is still expensive. I'll be a lot happier when the price drops by about half. There is a less expensive HP300 model, but it has less memory, and lacks the backlight and the cradle. You'll be happier if you spend the extra cash.

The small screens on both these models, however, aren't for everybody. Even with the battery-draining backlight of the pricier model, I found the screen just too hard to work with for any length of time. Playing a few rounds of Solitaire was a strain.

As well, it's worth keeping in mind that this is yet another hardware and software platform. While all the Windows CE machines try to be as much as possible like a big, Windows 95 computer in a little box, they are in fact completely different, and this just adds to the workload of people in your company who have to support your computing habits.

Toshiba may have the solution to that dilemma. Long a big name in notebooks, Toshiba has chosen not to produce yet another Windows CE pocket machine. Instead, by making a tiny machine that's just a bit bigger again, the company has managed to produce a computer that runs real Windows 95 on a real Intel Pentium.

Toshiba's new Libretto 50CT weighs in at a little less than a kilogram, and offers a six-inch colour screen -- a very crisp active matrix screen. Although relatively slow, it is a real Pentium 75 MHz model. It has a real, 70 MB hard drive. It has a keyboard, though one which is admittedly still a bit tiny for fluent typing. This model also features a variation of the pointing stick found on full-sized Toshiba and IBM notebooks, but it is somewhat awkwardly located on the edge of the screen, with the buttons around the back. There is also a mono sound system and a PC Card slot for adding a modem, a networking card, or even a CD-ROM. It's possible to add on a floppy drive, but there's still no way to connect to a full-sized keyboard.

The Libretto 50CT isn't as powerful as the current generation of notebooks, but it's also only 30 per cent as big or heavy as those other laptops. With a price tag of about $3,000, it's a very small, very portable, real computer -- not a computer wannabe like the various Windows CE models.*

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