The road to corporate acceptance has been rocky for Windows CE.
sing their 'gadget' tags. Lance Concannon runs an eye over four of the best. The first and most obvious problem was the business case. CE machines were, and still are, viewed by many as gadgets that have no real place in the office, far less powerful than a laptop PC and far more expensive than a pen and notepad.
A laptop PC is fine - it can do everything a desktop can and has the advantage of being mobile so your staff can work on the road and at home, so no problems there.
But CE devices are still classed as PC companions, not being powerful enough to exist as solitary computing devices and generally having to be used as well as a desktop PC rather than in place of one.
This leads on to perhaps the biggest concern large companies have with CE - synchronisation. It is easy enough to hook a CE device up to a Windows-based desktop and synchronise basic file and calendar type data, but getting the system to work well with larger client-server applications was never going to be easy.
However, this is changing. Increasingly, we are seeing ISVs tackling the problem and we have begun to see companies like Lotus and Oracle pay serious attention to CE and develop synchronisation software that may really help CE machines become useful components of the corporate IT infrastructure.
Another major hurdle has been the issue of application compatibility - Windows CE comes in several flavours to run on the various processors that manufacturers build their handheld computers around.
On the desktop PC the Wintel axis may rule, but in the world of handheld computers Microsoft and Intel are not dominant, and devices are built on a variety of processors. This causes a problem because even if the machines are all running the same operating system, applications need to be rewritten for each processor. This makes life difficult for software vendors in terms of development and support - causing many of them to shy away from the CE platform.
Windows CE does come with Microsoft's Java Virtual Machine, which makes it easier for developers, but there are still performance issues with Java applications because essentially a JVM is just another layer of code between the application and the processor. This slows things down on a platform that is already far from speedy.
Things are not all bad, though. Windows CE machines can offer a lot of value if well implemented. CE-based sub-notebooks can provide users with pretty much all of the computing power they need to carry out their day-to-day tasks, such as word processing, e-mail and Web access, spreadsheets and so forth. The advantages they offer include much lower purchasing costs than laptop PCs and vastly reduced support costs.
The latter can be attributed to a couple of factors. First, most such devices are entirely solid state with no moving parts (for example, disk drives) and therefore rarely suffer from hardware failures. Second, because the operating system and key applications are all stored in ROM, it is next to impossible for end users to cause the system to crash.
What many people do not realise is that CE is not a cut-down version of Windows 95 but is infact an entirely separate 32-bit operating system written from the ground up. As a result, it is a lot more stable and bulletproof than other versions of Windows.
While it would be inaccurate to describe CE-based machines as thin clients, they do offer many of the advantages of such while retaining enough local freedom to offer end users a useful but relatively safe level of flexibility.
In this feature we look at four CE devices that could in many instances be considered viable replacements for a full-blown laptop PC.
JORNADA 820 NEEDS WORK TO STAY IN RACE.
HP's offering has a good keyboard but needs upgrading
Hewlett-Packard's Jornada 820 was one of the first machines to take a real stab at using CE in a proper sub-notebook design, and while it is still a strong contender, it is becoming apparent that the 820 could do with a few minor tweaks to bring it bang up to date with the competition.
Although it is not quite as large as the Packard Bell device, this machine is a little thicker at 3cm and somehow manages to feel a bit bulkier.
The screen offers a viewable diagonal of 21cm and has a resolution of 640 x 480 with 256 colours which, it must be said, looks pretty poor in comparison to the Packard Bell. In particular we noticed that the brightness was not very even across the screen, and there was a distinct and noticeable difference between the screen's centre and its borders.
Where the Jornada still wins is in the keyboard department. It has easily the best keyboard and users should have no problems typing at speed. Across the top of the keyboard is a row of hot keys that automatically load up the main CE applications and control panels; there are no user-programmable hot keys.
The only possible fault we could raise is that the smaller Phenom manages to fit in a large enter key, so why can't this one as well?
Interestingly, the machine does not use a touch-sensitive screen like pretty much every other CE device. Instead it has a touchpad with a couple of mouse buttons, just like a laptop PC.
There are two advantages to this. First, there is no stylus to lose and second, the life of the screen is prolonged because you do not have ham-fisted users constantly jabbing at it.
The system ships with 16Mb of RAM as standard, and as you would expect this can be upgraded with CompactFlash memory cards. At the heart of the device is a 190MHz StrongArm SA-1100 processor, which keeps things chugging along smoothly. Like all of the other machines tested the Jornada features a built-in modem, the port of which is hidden at the back along with the VGA, IrDA and USB ports and Kensington lock. On the machine's left side is a solitary PC Card slot.
The system is bundled with a copy of Starfish TrueSync CE 2.0, which allows the device to work seamlessly with the REX range of PC Card personal organisers - assuming anybody out there actually has one.
A range of HP applications and utilities are also supplied with the system.
These include OmniSolve - a business-orientated mathematical problem solver - none of which are particularly earth shattering, but all useful and welcome additions.
The Lithium Ion main battery provides a claimed maximum 10 hours of continuous usage. A speaker and microphone are both built into the machine's palm rest. These are primarily designed for the recording and playback of voice memos.
As you would expect from a company such as HP, the Jornada is a well-built device put together with corporate users very much in mind. The opulent keyboard alone may be enough to sell most people on the Jornada, but we suggest you pay close attention to the screen before making a decision, as we believe this is the device's weak point.
While this is a good machine in its own right, the competition has produced some pretty strong contenders so it is worth considering alternatives - not least of which is HP's own Jornada 680. Unfortunately, HP was unable to supply a 680 model in time for inclusion in this feature.
Size (cm): 24.5 x 17.5 x 3
Processor: 190MHz StrongArm SA-1100
RAM: 16Mb ROM: 16Mb
Screen res: 640 x 480
Colour depth: 256
Tel: 0990 474747
PHENOM IS MUCH ADMIRED.
LG turns up a smaller-than-average notebook with some nice design touches
Now, before you all think "Aargh! It's Korean!" and skip to the next review, let us assure you that we have had one of these machines in the PC Week office for about six months now and can vouch for the build quality and reliability.
Somewhat smaller and lighter than both the HP and Packard Bell machines, the Phenom nevertheless features a perfectly serviceable keyboard that rivals the Jornada 820 for usability. The keys are almost as big and the device offers the almost sinful luxury of a full-sized enter key.
With a resolution of 640 x 240 the screen has a viewable diagonal of 20.5cm and is physically as wide as the Packard Bell's screen.
Despite being half-height it is quite a good screen and works perfectly well for most applications, although it has to be said that browsing Web pages can be very tedious.
Along the bottom of the screen is a row of hot spots that allow fast access to the main applications and control panels.
The device is based on a 100MHz Hitachi SH3 processor, and we did note that the Phenom seems just that little bit slower to open up applications.
This is not really much of a problem; after all, the speed of loading up apps from ROM is fast as lightning compared with waiting for a sluggardly desktop's hard disk to grind away while it gathers up the necessary data.
The machine comes as standard with 16Mb of RAM, which can only be expanded with a proprietary memory card rather than using CF cards like most of the other machines here.
There are several nice little design touches that endear the Phenom to us. For a start the battery pack (Lithium Ion, with a claimed 12 hours of use) placed at the rear of the machine folds down to act as a leg that tilts the keyboard forward.
Doing this also reveals another nice touch - the machine features full-sized VGA and parallel ports which means that you can plug in printers and monitors without using any kind of special proprietary cables or connectors.
Being able to plug straight into a printer is a huge boon, as it means that you no longer need to transfer files to a desktop PC in order to produce hard copies of documents. This exponentially increases the viability of this machine as a standalone computing device, as opposed to being merely a "PC companion".
Also useful is the rechargeable backup battery - most of the Phenom's competitors use disposable backup batteries. As mentioned before there is no CF slot but there is a PC Card slot on the machine's left-hand side, along with the IrDA port and RJ-11 jack for the integral V.90 modem.
On the right side of the machine you will find the serial port, speaker, microphone and voice memo record button - a handy feature usually omitted from the larger CE devices.
Although it is not much thinner or narrower than the Jornada, the Phenom Express is about an inch less deep, which makes it a lot more compact and far easier to fit into a briefcase or travel bag.
Like most mobile computing devices, the Phenom is about compromise - you get a well-featured machine with long battery life, a usable keyboard and compact design, but you have to put up with a half-height screen and comparatively slow performance. Put it next to the Jornada and you would think that the screen was not that much smaller, but put it next to the Easy Mate and you will find it hard to justify putting up with the smaller screen.
We like the Phenom's design a lot and would like to see LG produce a version with a faster processor and larger screen.
In its current guise the Phenom Express occupies a happy medium between the handheld computer and sub-notebook markets. It is small enough to be carried around without any inconvenience and yet offers a high-quality keyboard and a screen that is perfectly adequate for most users' requirements. It also enjoys a lower price than both the Jornada and Easy Mate.
Size (cm): 23.5 x 15 x 2.5 Weight: 850g
Processor: 100MHz Hitachi SH3
RAM: 16Mb ROM: 16Mb
Screen res: 640 x 240
Colour depth: 256
Tel: 0870 6075544
C SERIES A DIFFERENT CLASS.
Compaq's small but thick machine is more at home in the handheld market
The Compaq C Series differs from other models in this group test in that, although it offers a similar specification to the others it is closer to the handheld computer category than the sub-notebook. But Compaq has yet to begin shipping in Europe its Aero 8000 device, which might have been a more fitting subject.
The machine is far and away the smallest here, measuring 18.5 x 9cm, although an unusual design ploy of placing the speaker behind the screen means that it is actually the thickest device at 4cm.
Although the screen offers the same resolution as the Phenom's (640 x 240), it is much smaller in physical terms with a visible diagonal of just under 17cm. This alone makes it impractical as a laptop substitute.
The keyboard is next to useless, using round buttons rather than proper keys - this makes it impossible to type with any degree of speed or accuracy.
To be fair, it was never intended to be used in this manner but rather as a pocket organiser along the same lines as the Psion Series 5, which itself has a far superior keyboard to this device. Unlike the larger machines, this device does not feature a VGA connector. It does, however, feature an internal 33.6Kbps modem, which is surprising for such a compact device and also offers a PC Card port, IrDA transceiver and serial port for synchronising with a PC. The machine comes supplied with a nicely designed docking cradle that allows you to connect to a PC very conveniently. The cradle also holds an extra stylus.
Based on a 75MHz MIPS R4000 processor, the system comes with 20Mb of memory as standard which can be upgraded to a maximum of 32Mb.
Like the Phenom, the Compaq does not support CF cards without the use of an adaptor, and so memory upgrades are based on a proprietary card.
Performance is never going to be as swift as the larger sub-notebook devices, but it was never meant to be.
The machine comes with a rechargeable battery pack but can also be powered by a pair of AAA batteries if you find yourself caught short without the AC adaptor to hand.
Traditional Compaq attention to security is evident - the machine features multilevel password protection and asset tagging to help organisations keep track of their systems, and the docking cradle features a Kensington lock facility that allows the whole system to be secured to a desk.
Like many CE devices, the Compaq offers a voice memo facility that can be activated by means of a side button without having to open the case up. The machine also offers an alarm facility which can be switched off by another side button.
While the Compaq is a well-built machine, it does give off the distinct whiff of a "me too" product introduced as a means of jumping on the CE bandwagon without giving much thought to its practicality. It is a bit too large to be comfortably carried in a pocket and used as a personal organiser, losing out in that field to palm-sized machines.
Unfortunately, it does not work very well at the other end of the scale either - the keyboard being a major failing point. It is an anomaly, failing to serve any particular market sector particularly well.
Size (cm): 18.5 x 9 x 4
Processor: 75MHz MIPS R4000
Screen res: 640 x 240
Colour depth: 256
Tel: 0845 270422
PACKARD BELL TAKES IT EASY.
Easy Mate 800 has a nice big screen, but the keyboard leaves a lot to be desired
Although only by a slight margin, the Packard Bell Easy Mate 800 is the largest machine reviewed in this group test. Its dimensions are 24.5 x 18.5cm, and with the lid closed, it is 2.5cm thick. With its battery pack fitted it weighs 1,160g.
Despite being only marginally bigger than the Jornada, the Packard Bell offers a considerably larger screen; with a viewable diagonal of 24cm and an 800 x 600 resolution it is easily the best screen of the bunch.
It even offers 64K colour and almost manages to convince you that you are using a "real" laptop PC. Like the majority of CE devices, this uses a touch-sensitive screen with a stylus.
Having covered the machine's best point, the next thing to discuss is its worst - the keyboard. While it does feature a proper keyboard, it must be noted that the keys are much smaller than the Jornada's and, to a lesser extent, the Phenom's. This is perplexing as the larger case would easily allow for a keyboard of equal quality to the HP device. A small niggle about the keyboard is that the cursor keys are laid out consecutively rather than positioned relatively, making them a little awkward.
Along the top of the keyboard is a row of quick access keys. These are pre-programmed to instantly load CE's various core applications such as Pocket Word, Excel, Calculator and so on. Also, on each side of the screen are hot spots, half of which are preset to instantly load up the system settings box, memory and battery gauges and suchlike, leaving five free to be programmed by the end user.
The 800 is based on a 131MHz NEC VR4121 processor and ships as standard with 32Mb of RAM, which can be expanded by placing a standard CF memory card into a slot on the right-hand side of the machine.
On the left of the system is a single PC Card slot. You will not need to buy a modem card as the Easy Mobile features a built-in V.90 device - a jack on the right side of the machine connects to your phone line via a standard RJ-11 cable that comes supplied with the system. The large, high-resolution screen would make this the best CE-based machine for Web browsing, as it is able to display most pages as they are intended to be viewed.
The removable Lithium Ion battery pack delivers a claimed maximum life of eight hours, or four and a half if the modem is being used. The machine features the usual array of ports: a serial for connecting to a desktop PC; VGA out for using a monitor; IrDA infrared and USB for the few peripherals that are supplied with CE drivers.
Along with the internal speaker and microphone, the 800 uniquely has a headphone jack. Another small but useful feature is the Kensington lock slot as CE devices are among the most pinchable items of office equipment.
Neatly finished in grey and silver plastic, the Easy Mate 800 certainly looks like a professional piece of kit. Its only real failing is the marginally undersized keyboard, but other than this the machine has plenty to offer.
If you follow the argument that CE-based machines are ideal substitutes for laptop PCs, then you should consider the Easy Mate as it is much closer to validating that argument than any of the other machines here.
Size (cm): 24.5 x 18.5 x 2.5
Processor: 131MHz NEC VR4121
RAM: 32Mb ROM: 24Mb
Screen res: 800 x 600
Colour depth: 64K
Tel: 01628 508200
- The obvious winner here is the Packard Bell Easy Mate 800, offering the best overall specification at a good price. The large 800 x 600 screen is the main selling point. Its only real failing is a slightly smaller than average keyboard, but as this does not prevent the user typing at speed, it should not be considered too much of a drawback.
The machine would make a viable replacement for a more expensive laptop PC in situations where the user only needs to perform general computing tasks. Things like word processing, spreadsheets, Internet and e-mail access can all just as easily be performed on the Easy Mate.
Organisations wishing to develop their own software for the CE platform have several options, ranging from Visual Basic to Java.
All of the machines we looked at here are based on Windows CE for Handheld PCs version 3.0. The OS comes supplied with pocket versions of Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint. Pocket PowerPoint allows users to display only presentations that have been put together with the full version of the product. This is one of the system's main failings - even rudimentary editing facilities would allow last-minute changes to slides, but we hope future versions of the software will allow users to create presentations instead of only displaying them.
Our ideal machine would be a combination of all four of these systems, featuring the Packard Bell's screen, the HP's keyboard and touchpad, the Phenom's slick design, rechargeable backup battery and full-size connectors and Compaq's security features.
It seems clear that although CE devices have developed into useful business tools, they still have some way to go before people really start take notice of the platform. Over recent months we have seen new product announcements that should help drive the corporate uptake of the Windows CE platform.
These include Compact-Flash network connectivity cards from the likes of Xircom and the Clik! disk system from Iomega, which enables CE machines to save data to non-volatile disks that share compatibility with desktops.
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