ONE REASON Microsoft's Windows CE operating system instantly became known as Wince was that using the first CE hand-held computers could be characterized as a form of abuse. After a session with the cramped keyboards and murky screens, your hands hurt and you worried about going blind.
The latest, top-of-the-line CE machines cost more and work better. But they make you wonder whether your shirt pockets will burst at the seams, whether the batteries will last long enough and whether you will go mad trying to figure out some of the software.
Windows CE devices now come in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices from several manufacturers. At the bottom of the pack are units with improved keyboards but monochrome screens that are only marginally better than their dim predecessors. In the middle is the Mobilepro 700 from NEC Computer Systems, a division of Packard Bell NEC, with a wider keyboard and a bigger dim screen (a color model is in the works). I tried two top-shelf units, the Mobilon HC-4500 from Sharp Electronics Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s 620LX Color Palmtop PC, which cost about $1,000 and $900, respectively. Each comes with 16 megabytes of RAM and a clear, bright color screen that is easy to read. It has 640-by-240 pixels and is about 6 inches wide.
The Sharp unit is a little bigger than a standard address book and about twice as thick. It weighs a little more than a pound. The more ungainly Hewlett-Packard model is a bit bigger in every dimension and slightly heavier. Detachable AC power adapters add about a half-pound; Hewlett-Packard also includes a redundant docking cradle that may waste precious desk space.
Both machines include standard Windows CE software, including cut-down "pocket" versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook and Internet Explorer, along with special software for tasks such as sending faxes. The system has been improved with features, such as the ability to hide the taskbar to reclaim precious screen space. Being able to turn on the machine and get right to work is still delightful, but drawbacks remain.
These units are virtually impossible to use in your lap because their top-heavy screens make them tilt back and forth as you type. Touch-typing is no prize even on a table, but Sharp's flatter, bigger keys are more forgiving than Hewlett-Packard's angled ones. The screens' brief delays in displaying characters as you type can be irritating. And the only available pointing method is pointing and clicking directly on the screen with a built-in stylus or your finger. That is a wonderful interface only if you have three hands. Printing is a problem, too; you may be able to send data to the rare printer with a serial or infrared port, but standard parallel interfaces are not included.
To install new software or back up these little computers, you need a fancy peripheral: a bigger computer that runs Windows 95 or NT and has a serial port to spare. Unfortunately, the Microsoft software that manages the units' connection and keeps files synchronized is fraught with maddening problems and confusing solutions.
Solving the installation difficulties that kept the big computer from communicating with the little ones required plodding through poorly organized help files. And even after communications were established, the software did not always work properly.
By using various convolutions of arcane Windows plumbing, the CE software takes the Microsoft mania for inscrutability to dizzying new heights. The desktop software routinely sets the data transfer rate between the two devices to a low speed and offers no obvious way of changing it. It took a session with a Microsoft product manager to learn that the trick involves adjusting a setting tucked away under the Modems listing under the Control Panel's System icon even though no modem is actually involved. Microsoft's documentation? Wretched.
The product manager said that more than half a million Windows CE devices had been sold and that the operating system had become popular enough to support a broad range of third-party software and hardware offering everything from handwriting recognition to games and paging. But these machines are not cheap, and one look at those help files reminds you that Microsoft has a well-deserved reputation for not getting things right until at least its third try.
The next try will be the forthcoming Palm PC units, which shamelessly knock off the popular Palm Pilot, right down to the name. They should be available soon, and so should an updated Pilot. Trade publications have reported that CE units code-named Jupiter will offer bigger screens and keyboards in 2-pound packages around the middle of the year.
For now, if you want a little computer with a little keyboard and a lot of potential software headaches, a CE device may do. I also recommend looking at the Psion Series 5, which has many elegant touches and the best teensy keyboard around. Another attractive option, the Toshiba Libretto 50CT, includes printer and video ports, runs standard applications instead of junior editions and has dropped in price to about $1,300.
But despite the increasing number of choices in the ever-bigger world of tiny computers, the perfect little compromise still seems a long way off.
Pub Date: 2/23/98