New Rex PC Companion so tiny it could hide under playing card

Personal Computers

October 06, 1997|By Stephen Manes

JUST WHEN you think computing devices cannot get any smaller, along comes one that proves you wrong. A stack of five credit cards is an almost perfect match for the size and heft of the Rex PC Companion, marketed by Franklin Electronic Publishers Inc. under the Rolodex brand.

Although it is the tiniest electronic calendar and address book yet and weighs just an ounce and a half, its 256 kilobytes of memory should hold up to 3,000 items. Exactly how many depends on things like how many cellular phones, fax machines and e-mail addresses your friends and colleagues tend to have and whether you have a busy calendar or an empty one.

And for sheer portability, this little device beats everything that has come before it. Even with the leather-case cardholder that comes with the more capacious model, it is still small enough that you can slip it into purse or pocket, carry it everywhere and mislay it under a playing card.

Since the device has only five tiny buttons, the most obvious question is how information gets into it. A closer look reveals the answer: Rex turns out to be a Type II PC Card with a screen built into it. To fill it with data, you simply plug it into a standard PC Card slot (or an optional docking station that plugs into a serial port) and run Windows 95 software. The whole process typically takes no more than a couple of minutes.

The Rex-1 costs about $130, but it holds only about 750 items and you may have trouble finding one. Rex-3 is really the standard model; it sells for about $150 without the docking station, about $180 with it. The device uses two lithium batteries, the docking station takes four AAA cells; batteries come with the products.

But can you actually read the little monochrome LCD screen? Contrast adjustments and a backlight have been omitted, but except in extremely dim light, you can usually find a way to catch enough rays to get by. The screen can display nine 33-character lines at a time, which is enough to display a simple address card or a busy day's appointments.

The main menu displays icons for calendar, address book, to-do list, notes, a clock, and preferences such as whether the device will insist on beeping annoyingly every time you press a button. Since the five buttons do multiple duties, navigation can be slightly awkward, with lots of button pressing involved.

But no software cleverness can overcome Rex's greatest disadvantage: When you are out and about without benefit of a computer, you cannot do much more than check off to-do entries, set an alarm or change the time and date.

The PC software is called Truesync Information Manager. Although the name implies that the program reads the data inside Rex (whose design makes that technically possible), the current version essentially works one way only. Every time you ask it to "synchronize" the PC data with Rex's, it blithely overwrites all the information in the device with the latest data.

That is not much of a problem, because so little of the information in the device can be changed without the computer's help. But since the software cannot even pass to-do check marks from the Rex back to the PC software, you cannot use Rex to synchronize a calendar on a laptop computer with one on a desktop machine.

That PC software turns out to be a somewhat simplified version of Sidekick 98 from Starfish Software, which also developed the software inside Rex and plans to offer similar functionality in devices like pagers and phones. But the PC program has annoying ragged edges.

The program lets you set up memo files, but lets you transfer only one set of them to Rex each time you perform a synchronization, and changing which set gets transferred involves changing an obscure configuration setting.

Likewise, the address-book format limits transfers to four separate address books, even though the PC software that is shipped with the device includes five.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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