Little device is handful

Overload: Compaq's new personal digital assistant has plenty of features - too many.


"Where do you want to go today?" the Microsoft Corp. ads lamely inquire. No wonder this outfit has an image problem.

Here's a livelier slogan, one that accurately describes many Microsoft products: "Two pounds in a one-pound bag."

Microsoft's habit of cramming extra features into new products has its benefits. Microsoft's Web browsers are full of clever and delightful gadgets that I didn't know I needed until I tried them. But often, that design philosophy gives you products that are too large and complex to get out of their own way.

The problem extends to Microsoft's efforts in the palmtop computing field. The company's Windows CE operating system shoehorns a hefty subset of full-fledged Windows into a package large enough to threaten irreparable harm to your shirt pocket.

I'm on the road, trying one of the latest Windows CE devices -- the Compaq Aero, a $450 personal digital assistant that offers more assistance than I know what to do with.

I suppose many gadget freaks will freak over the Aero, with its color touch screen and built-in sound capabilities. So why does this product leave me cold? After all, from the standpoint of sheer technical capability, the Aero impresses. I've been comparing it to the Palm Pilot IIIx, one of the latest in 3Com's red-hot line of pocket assistants. And the Palm Pilot's feature list seems paltry compared to the Aero's.

The Aero screen is in color, compared to the Palm Pilot's monochrome. The Aero can download, store and play music and spoken-word recordings from the Internet. It has a built-in microphone so you can use it as a digital tape recorder during business meetings.

As does the Palm Pilot, the Aero lets you enter data by writing on the screen, using a modified writing method that takes hours to master. But the Aero lets you also scrawl notes in your own handwriting on an electronic notepad that stores an image of your scribblings.

It's all rather slick. But I soon realized that these fancy Windows CE extras have almost nothing to do with the way I work. A color screen? Who needs it? It merely assures that the Aero will devour more battery power. The device uses a rechargeable battery, rather than the cheap standard AAA's that drive a Palm Pilot.

To use the Aero, I had to pack a recharger for the trip instead of buying spare batteries at the nearest drugstore. Those rechargeable batteries mean extra weight. I can slip a Palm Pilot into my jacket pocket and almost forget it's there; the Aero thumps against my chest with every step.

Sound recording? Nice, but it eats up memory that could be used in other ways. You'll need costly flash memory cards if you want to record more than a few minutes. It's easier to buy a cheap tape recorder at Radio Shack.

The notepad? I have terrible handwriting, and the Aero makes it look worse. Why bother? Has the world run out of paper?

The only Aero features I've found useful are its appointment calendar, to-do list and address book -- features you'll find in any Palm Pilot. Or, for that matter, in the most underrated pocket assistant of them all -- Franklin Electronics' Rex, a $100 device only slightly larger than a business card that runs on disposable watch batteries. I tried one a couple of years ago, and I still put the Rex at the top of the list for convenience and value.

So does Intel chairman Andrew Grove. Figuring him for a fellow gadget freak, I showed him my Aero the other day. He turned up his nose at it and began singing the praises of the Rex. But you can't jot notes to yourself with a Rex, I noted. "I just use paper," Grove replied.

Me too, Andy.

Pub Date: 05/03/99

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