Windows PCs that fit in your pocket - that's the promise of Microsoft's Windows CE, a scaled-down version of Windows 95 designed for hand-held PCs, including palmtops, wallet PCs, wireless communication devices, cellular phones, and the next generation of entertainment and multimedia consoles, and Internet "Web phones".
We looked at US release units of the Compaq PC Companion, 4Mb Model and the Casio Cassiopeia 2Mb unit - they appear to be basically the same unit - from the Casio factory. But don't get too excited, as they won't be on sale here until sometime in the first quarter of 1997.
They live up to the promises. Compaq's hand-held PC is an easily transportable unit that carries your important data anytime, anywhere. It flawlessly integrates into your Windows 95 environment, whether on a laptop or desktop, and synchronises files so none of your valuable information is lost.
Thanks to Windows CE, the Compaq PC Companion is more like a desktop computer than any other currently available personal digital assistant or hand-held device. But that may not be a good thing.
Microsoft's minimum specification requires compatible hand-held PCs to weigh less than half a kilogram, open like a clamshell, and sport QWERTY keyboards, touch-screen grey-scale displays, and a screen with a 240-by-480-pixel resolution.
Also, the devices must have one Type II PC Card slot, serial and infrared ports, and at least 2Mb of RAM and 5.5Mb of ROM (for the OS and basic applications). The Compaq PC Companion meets these criteria, weighing around 400g and measuring about 175mm wide by 85mm deep by 25mm thick when closed. That makes it a little too big for some pants or coat pockets, although it could easily fit in a briefcase, purse, or shoulder bag.
The Compaq PC Companion's keyboard is tiny but useable. Its screen can be difficult to read in brightly lit conditions, but when it's dim you can turn on a backlight at the touch of a button. For running applications and storing data files, the Compaq PC Companion has 4Mb of RAM, which is expandable to 6Mb. A 2Mb model costs $US499. Ditto for the Cassiopeia.
The PC Companion comes with a cable for connecting to the serial port on your desktop or laptop PC, and it also sports an infra-red port for wireless connections.
Desktop-to-hand-held-PC connectivity was a snap. After connecting the Compaq PC Companion to a Windows 95 system and installing software on the latter's hard drive, we could flawlessly move files back and forth between the PC and the Compaq PC Companion by dragging and dropping, as if the hand-held PC desktop were physically integrated into the desktop.
The installation process also installs the latest version of Microsoft Schedule+ onto your PC and sets up Pocket Internet Explorer on the hand-held device. Compaq includes some additional OEM software - DataViz's Desktop To Go and River Run Software Group's Mail on the Run - for remote e-mail.
The PC Companion accepts standard disposable alkaline or rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride AA batteries, which provide 20 hours of battery life per charge, according to Compaq.
Other niceties that help improve the device's interface are a speaker and an LED that flashes red to provide visual notification of alarms. The speaker clicks as you press keys and tap icons on the screen, providing useful audible feedback.
One drawback of the design is that it's top-heavy; in the open position, the LCD screen is almost as heavy as the lower, keyboard half. On a flat surface, that's not a problem, but on a soft or slightly inclined surface (such as your lap), the PC Companion has a tendency to tip over backward, making it hard to type. Also, the removable stylus may be difficult for lefties to draw with, because it's located on the right-hand side.
Microsoft's Windows CE operating system is a 32-bit, multitasking, multithreaded operating system designed to operate in a compact environment. Included with Windows CE are integrated power management, basic communications capabilities, and a graphical interface that looks uncannily like Windows 95, right down to the Taskbar and Start Menu.
Our Compaq PC Companion was equipped with Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Pocket Internet Explorer, and an e-mail client. Desktop applications include a calendar, contact database, and task list.
Windows CE includes a subset of the standard Win32 API, which means developers will be able to use off-the-shelf programming tools to create hand-held PC applications. That will increase the odds that many new hand-held PC applications will become available in the coming months.
Token of my underwear
Just before completing this review, we received a prerelease unit of the NEC MobilePro. The NEC hand-held PC shares most hardware and software features with the Compaq/Casio, except for a few design differences. One of the most important is the MobilePro's less forgiving keyboard - even a light touch activates the key, and frequently two or more instances of each letter appear for each keystroke.
Another important feature difference is that the MobilePro allows you to have simultaneous access to external power and the serial port, whereas the Compaq PC Companion uses the same jack for both, which means you can't use AC power and a serial line at the same time (A cradle does allow this).
The audible feedback is more pronounced on the MobilePro, and the pen/screen interaction seems snappier. In contrast to that of the Compaq PC Companion, the MobilePro's infra-red port is located on the back. Finally, the MobilePro's design features, such as wavy lines and a green border, give it a pronounced art deco appearance.
A host of manufacturers are planning to introduce Windows CE devices over the next few months, in the US first in most cases. They include:
Compaq PC Companion, 4Mb Model and Cassiopeia 2Mb modelIf you need to make quick notes, tidy up a file during a cab ride, or simply keep track of ideas on the run, these PCs provide limited but adequate capabilities in a comfortable, familiar Windows environment. With a price tag of less than $1,000 sometime early next year, they fill a niche between dedicated electronic organisers and less portable laptop PCs.
Pros: Light and portable; relatively fast; easy connection to desktop; familiar interface for Windows 95 usersCons: Difficult to read in bright light; Windows-like GUI not appealing to everyonePlatform: Requires Windows 95 for desktop connectivity softwareShip date: Don't hold your breath as al production is going to the US for a whileCompaqTel (02) 9911 1999ÊFax (02) 9911 1800Loved it! Hated it! Don't ask me yet!
Our reviewers reached opposite conclusions when it came to Windows CE and the Compaq PC CompanionLoved it!
Here's one package that I won't wait until Christmas to open. The Compaq Computer Compaq PC Companion, 4Mb Model's sleek rectangle weighs less than .5kg and includes a Windows-like interface and familiar Microsoft applications. The keyboard is small but useable, and the included pen is a perfect weight. Automatic, seamless file synchronisation and backup is indispensable for me, because I work in many places during the day. The only drawback is that the screen can be a bit hard to see under direct light. Overall, however, I say it's a winner. by Anne KaliczakHated It!
Windows on a tiny hand-held computer? Give me a break! Everything I ever hated about Windows 95 seems even more ridiculous on a miniature PC such as the Compaq PC Companion. For instance, why should I have to double-tap on icons to open them? It seems like a single tap ought to be enough. And the Taskbar simply takes up too much precious real estate on that tiny screen. For true portability and convenience, I prefer US Robotics' Pilot, which, I might add, makes it even easier to synchronise with desktop data than a Windows CE device. by Dylan TweneyDon't ask me yet!
I don't know if it's my 45 year old eyes or what, but the biggest drawback is the poor screen contrast. I have to wear glasses, turn on the backlight and still squint at the screen. But I'm sure the Windows CE machines are going to be a great hit. After all, Microsoft says they are. Now all I need is an IRDA (infra-red) port for my PCs at work and home so I don't need a cable to update my handheld. by Paul Zucker