Fast-selling palm-tops are the leastest with the mostest

ITTY-BITTY, HAND-HELD COMPUTERS PACK VERY BIG BYTES

October 14, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

CHICAGO -- The microcomputer keeps living up to its name.

Now we have a whole class of personal computers so small they are called palm-tops. But while they may fit your palm, their keys may not fit your fingers.

Hewlett-Packard's new palm-top weighs less than a pound and costs less than $700, yet has more computing power than the room-filling, multimillion-dollar Univacs of 35 years ago. The bad news is its keyboard is so small that one frustrated computer magazine reviewer wrote, "you spend more time hunting than pecking."

At the recent Laptop and Palmtop Computer Expo in Chicago, more than 100 vendors displayed their latest machines -- arguably the leastest with the mostest.

The largest PCs were the size of a ream of typing paper and weighed a mere 7 pounds. More intriguing were computers smaller than a billfold and weighing two pounds or less.

"Even with worldwide computer sales depressed, portables remain a bright spot," said Alan Soucy, a Zenith Data Systems vice president.

Palm-tops and other hand-held computers have been embraced as a portable data link for traveling executives, salespeople and technicians.

According to Dataquest International, which tracks computer sales trends, hand-helds are the fastest-growing segment of the worldwide portable computer business, with sales expected to grow from 800,000 today to more than 5 million in 1994.

Sharp showed a prototype palm-top that would have the power of an IBM-PC in a box the size of a videocassette and would run for 100 hours on two penlight batteries. Prices for the unit, to be available in December, were not disclosed.

"This type of machine is about as small as we can go," said national sales manager Robert Campora.

But even as he spoke, it was evident other computer companies were committed to further shrinking the palm-top envelope. Among them:

* Psion, a British-based pioneer in palm-tops, showed its new Series 3 computer, with up to four megabytes of memory and such functions as calendar, writing, filing and programming. It's the size of a cigarette pack, for less than $500.

* Palmcom, a new Hong Kong-based company, showed a model with the power of an IBM AT desktop machine that can display graphics and hold 16 megabytes of memory, all in a 2-pound box the size of a paperback book. The machine won't be for sale until later this year, and prices were not disclosed.

But just because these computers are small doesn't mean they are fragile. Psion President Tony Revis said his firm tests some of its palm-top models by dropping them 3 feet onto a concrete floor. Husky Computers Inc. displayed one of its palm-tops running a demonstration program -- while submerged in a fish tank.

What's next?

Alternatives to conventional keyboards are being developed. Grid, a firm owned by Tandy, showed the latest version of a 4-pound computer featuring a tablet that responds to the touch of a copper-tipped stylus. Such tablet-based computers are expected to become more common.

Another keyboard alternative was demonstrated by Infogrip Inc., Baton Rouge, La., in its new $600 palm-top computer.

You create letters by pressing just five keys in a variety of combinations. Infogrip founder Ward Bond said this "chording" technique takes less than an hour to learn and allows a person to type up to 25 words a minute -- one-handed.

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