For a surprisingly long time, the Psion 3 has been the king of electronic organisers. Now Psion is facing a force that many other market leaders have come to fear - Microsoft, via its Windows CE operating system. Although technically this is a review of Casio's Cassiopeia handheld, Microsoft's iron grip means that Windows CE is the star. The current crop of CE organisers are very similar, and it's instructive that of the two manuals enclosed, Casio's runs to a mere 22 pages against Windows CE's 180.
Nevertheless, it is worth a brief look at the hardware. The Cassiopeia feels solid and well made, and at 18.5cm by 9cm just about rates a pocket fit. The 12cm by 7cm screen is comparably clear with the Psion's excellent screen, though the smaller Windows furniture makes it look a little fuzzier.
The keyboard is big enough for a reasonable two-finger hunt and peck - this review was written on it - but I did occasionally overlap keys and my fingers are not particularly big.
The Cassiopeia comes with between 2Mb and 4Mb of RAM, a serial port and a PCMCIA slot. It runs off two pencell batteries for a not very generous 20 hours, assuming you aren't using the back light.
Windows CE itself is totally familiar to any Windows 95 user. That's the first plus. I use one of Casio's conventional electronic organisers and, though it's fine, it took a lot of studying the manual to become familiar with the user interface, and it's still the case that infrequently performed tasks take several attempts. There was none of that with Windows CE. The manual has remained closed; I have simply done what I thought I should and the outcome was as expected. For instance, needing to set the time, I double-clicked the clock on the taskbar without thinking and there I was.
CE is still strongly mouse-oriented. This is handled with a small stylus (or even your finger) on a pressure sensitive screen. It can be a bit fiddly, but it supplements the keyboard well without resorting to the difficulties of handwriting input. There are some differences with CE's big brother, of course. Most notably, you never shut Windows CE down.
The off switch simply suspends everything; switch on and you are back where you were, down to cursor position in the document. Multi-tasking is different too - only one item is on the screen at a time, selected from the toolbar button. Clicking the button again drops you back to the desktop.
Of course, an operating system is nothing in isolation. Windows CE comes with an effective set of mini-applications. Unlike the Psion, these take an appreciable time to load or swap (I missed the hot keys), but less so than a typical PC application. Once running, applications are perfectly responsive. Office functions are represented by Pocket Word and Excel.
Word is an exaggerated name for something with no more functionality than Write, but it does the job for the sort of documents you are liable to type and read on a device like this.
Pocket Excel had a very similar functionality to the Java Quattro Pro I reviewed recently (11 Feburary 1997). It had multiple sheets, a good set of functions and autosum, but few other features. Again, though, fine for keeping track of your expenses or business mileage.
Calendar, contact and task management are handled by separate modules that bear more than a passing resemblance to the equivalent sections in Schedule+. By comparison with the office applications they have retained more features, and have a better set of fields, than many handheld competitors.
Windows CE also has some familiar applets in the form of a calculator, solitaire game and extended version of the Windows 95 time-setting panel to allow for a home and away world-time clock. Most impressive of all is the communications.
Windows CE comes with an Inbox similar to the Exchange client in Windows 95. It can be used to read and generate Email locally, then will connect up to Internet mail and exchange information using a modem. Also in the bundle, though not pre-loaded, is a cut-down version of Internet Explorer.
While generally I would make more use of Email, it's nice to know that you could link up, say, to the BR site and get train times while in the cab on the way to the station.
The real stunner, though, is PC connectivity. You might expect Microsoft to understand this, but after years of dealing with botched solutions, this was a real eye-opener. Sadly, Microsoft has made the error of initially providing links to Schedule+ rather than Outlook. I say error, because the sort of early adopter who wants Windows CE now will also have the latest version of Office. But Outlook connectivity is promised this year, and for the moment you get a copy of Schedule+ on the CD-ROM accompanying CE.
The other bundled PC application is HPC Explorer. This is a Windows application mimicking your organiser's screen.
When you run HPC Explorer with the cable in place it automatically synchronises Calendar, Task and Contact files - it really is as easy as that. Any conflicts are brought to your attention for resolution, but otherwise there's nothing more to do. You don't even have to switch the handheld on - it's all done for you.
Once synchronisation is over, you can back-up your organiser to the PC to make sure precious data isn't lost. You can also move files back and forth with the simplicity of ordinary Windows file manipulation. Because HPC Explorer shows your handheld's desktop you can literally drag things on and off. Pull a Pocket Word or Excel document onto your PC and it's automatically translated to the PC format. The same happens in reverse, though you will lose any fancy formatting or features you have used.
HPC Explorer also offers an alternative approach to Email. If you are happy to wait until you are back in the office to send your Emails, you can connect up to Windows 95 and upload the CE outbox, using your PC to interact with the Email service. You can also do the reverse, pushing items from your PC inbox down to the handheld. There's a choice here of taking down the first 50 lines of each message, or the whole works. This was the only place I hit a bug in Windows CE: only three of the seven Emails I selected to download were transferred, and they went twice. Rather oddly, while Schedule+ data is automatically accessed from HPC Explorer, this mail interaction has to be done from the Task menu of Exchange or Outlook. It would have made more sense to leave the control with Explorer.
I was very impressed with Windows CE. While Windows isn't ideal for a small screen - some aspects of it had to be trimmed down - the sheer familiarity far outweighs minor disadvantages from the less tailored interface.
If you use Microsoft Office on your PC, particularly if you use Schedule+ (and soon Outlook), there is no other approach that can touch Windows CE for ease of use and connectivity.
If you don't, the Psion remains a firm favourite - although there is third-party software for Windows CE connectivity, Psion is already widely supported. But it's hard to believe we aren't seeing the future of handheld computing.
Handhelds from Casio and others featuring Windows CE will be available in the UK from June. Costs are expected to be in the #300 to #500 range.
For more information on Windows CE, see www.microsoft.com/windowsce/default.asp
For more information on the Cassiopeia see www.casiohpc.com/
VERDICT: Windows CE
- Total familiarity
- Brilliant PC connectivity if you use Office
- Good Email support
- Outlook support missing
- Short battery life
- No non-Microsoft PC connectivity (yet).
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