Handheld computers offer convergence
if you have a fistful of dollars to spend - March 3 1998

One of my favourite over-
used buzzwords of the late 1990s is "convergence," which refers to how technology is bringing together different media-types.

Watch feature films on your computer's DVD player? Convergence.

Surf the Internet on a set-top box attached to your TV set? Convergence.

Last fall, after receiving Internet e-mail on a borrowed PCS cell phone, I mused about the possibilities of convergence between the two up-and-coming technologies of digital phones and handheld computers. Less than six months later, we've fast-forwarded a technological generation as portable phones and portable computers have each gained in power and capability.

Microcell, using the Fido brand name, is one of the four companies offering PCS digital phone service in Canada. Top of their current lineup is the Nokia 9000I Communicator, costing a cool $1,500.

At first glance, it looks like a large cell phone resembling one of the first- or second- generation analogue units. But the phone case flips open, revealing a handheld computer.

As a computer, you get a reasonably crisp grey-scale screen, with an Intel 386 running a proprietary operating system and built-in software. There's a miniature keyboard, but no pointing device such as the stylus used on many other handheld models. None in fact is needed -- it's easy to get around the screen using the cursor keys, and there are buttons on the keyboard to switch between the built-in applications.

As with competing handheld models, you can keep appointments, contacts and address lists or write short memos. You can ex-
change data with a standard PC using either a serial cable or infrared connection.

The real fun, however, is combining the miniature computer with the wireless telephone capabilities. You can send your memos as fax documents, for example, and Microcell promises you'll be able to receive faxes as well, though that capability wasn't in place when I was using the unit.

If you already have an Internet account with a local service provider, you can use built-in software to log in and send and receive e-mail, and even browse the World Wide Web. (Not all ISPs allow connection at the unit's maximum 9600 bps rate -- and 9600 is a fairly slow connection rate.) Imagine checking your e-mail while stopped at a red light at rush hour!

While the Nokia 9000I brings handheld computer capabilities to digital phones, hand-held computers are moving into territory previously staked out by laptops.

A year ago, Microsoft, together with a variety of hardware manufacturers, brought out the Windows CE standard for miniature computers. CE (which presumably doesn't stand for Compact Edition) gave us a variety of handheld units, featuring a Windows 95-like interface in 500-gram units with keyboards and styluses as pointing devices.

Sales of about 400,000 were less than hoped for, but as we've seen in other circumstances, Microsoft is nothing if not persevering. Now we get CE version 2.0, along with the first crop of second-generation hardware. One example is Hewlett-Packard's $1,250 620LX.

My biggest grumble about the first generation of handhelds has been the low-contrast monochrome screens. Even with back lighting, I've found them hard to read, at best. Indeed, 15 minutes of Solitaire playing is guaranteed to give me a headache.

HP's new model offers a very usable, bright and attractive colour screen, a feature that by itself makes it stand out from the competition. At 640x240 pixels, it's the same width resolution as a standard VGA screen, making it more usable for Web browsing, and working with the built-in word processor and spreadsheet software.

(The lovely screen does result in much lower battery life, although the rechargeable battery pack makes this less of an issue than it could have been.)

At the same time, the wider screen results in a somewhat larger unit, which makes for a somewhat less cramped keyboard than on the original CE models. Its 16 megs of RAM avoids the memory-cram of the first generation units.

The built-in software includes the Pocket Word and Pocket Excel programs of the original CE handhelds, along with Pocket Internet Explorer for Web browsing (you need to provide your own PC-Card modem). As well, like other CE version 2.0 units, it offers Pocket PowerPoint, letting users show off a sales presentation.

(If you want to show it to an audience of more than one, be prepared to invest an additional $150 for a VGA-adapter card.)

Pocket PowerPoint doesn't let you create a presentation -- for that, you'll need a copy of the real program on a "real" computer, but the ability to carry a presentation in purse or jacket pocket should be a real plus for many potential users. If you're considering purchasing a laptop for light duty, something like this -- at one-third the price and one-fifth the weight -- may be worthy of consideration.

When I was using them, both the Nokia 9000I and the HP 620LX attracted a lot of interest. If either were priced at $500, I could recommend them to many of you without hesitation. With prices triple that, either could still be a worthwhile purchase for some of you.*

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