EO computer is promising, but expensive, bulky


It is too big to fit in a pocket, too expensive to buy on a whim, and at first glance it resembles the head of a robot flattened by a steamroller.

But the AT&T; EO Personal Communicator 440 is still an intriguing device, and it provides important wireless communications and computing tools for mobile executives.

The AT&T; EO Personal Communicator 440, until recently known as the EO Personal Communicator -- shorter, but still not as catchy as "Newton" or "Zoomer" -- is a pen-based portable computer that is finding the greatest success among workers and executives who need to fill out forms, keep data bases, send and receive faxes, check electronic mail and make telephone calls when there are no phone lines around.

On its most basic level, the AT&T; EO Personal Communicator competes with the Apple Newton, the Tandy-Casio Zoomer and other so-called personal digital assistants.

Like those, AT&T;'s machine comes with a personal information management program -- called Personal Perspective -- that keeps track of telephone numbers, appointments and addresses.

But at a cost of nearly $2,000 for a model with 8 megabytes of system memory and a modem, there must be a more compelling reason to carry this device than logging phone numbers and meetings.

The compelling reason, for many,is the combination of wireless communications and computing. The AT&T; EO computer does all the things that the Newton and Zoomer promise to do, including sending fax and E-mail messages.

To take full advantage of the wireless communications strengths of the AT&T; EO Personal Communicator, however, the cellular phone and data module, which costs $500 extra, must be added.

AT&T; recently cut the prices for both the computer and its accessories -- the cellular module was $799, the base computer $2,799 -- but at $2,500 for this setup it is still a relatively expensive system.

If price is no object, and if the executive doesn't not mind carrying a fairly bulky note pad, there is much to like about the AT&T; EO computer. It uses an impressive pen-based operating system called Pen Point, developed by the Go Corp.

Go was an early proponent of pen-based computing, in which the actions of the software are controlled by a stylus instead of a keyboard or mouse. The pen has found a home in such portable computers as the Newton, the Zoomer, Compaq's new Concerto and others.

But pen computing -- and the handwriting-recognition systems used by pen computers -- have frustrated many executives.

Critics have praised Pen Point for its innovative style and power.

But it is unclear whether Pen Point can become a standard for pen computers. The influential Microsoft Corp., is proposing its own pen-software standard based on Windows.

Pen-based systems are not good for extensive data entry, so the main fans of the AT&T; EO computer are field workers, including insurance agents and others who fill out forms with simple handwriting and check-boxes, and executives who want to scribble a short note and fax it to someone.

One problem with the field-worker application is that businesses usually have to develop their own custom software for the AT&T; EO computer.

AT&T; EO machine also attaches to a regular phone line, from which users can tap into an AT&T; Mail electronic mail account that comes with the computer and send and receive conventional data and fax files. A standard keyboard can also be attached to the machine.

The AT&T; EO Personal Communicator is not a computer for the && average executive. It weighs 2.2 pounds without the cellular communications module, which doubles the weight and adds bulk, and the cellular phone, resting in a cradle atop the unit, is awkward. In contrast, the Apple Newton weighs about a pound and fits in a coat pocket.

Although faxing a document via the AT&T; EO's wireless modem was easy, the fax was illegibly small on the system's 7-inch screen, (measured diagonally) and there appears to be no way to enlarge the document image.

Also, it seems there are no easy ways to connect the AT&T; EO to an office computer network or to share files with fellow workers using Windows or Macintosh systems.

When the Personal Communicator is eventually brought down to more Newtonian dimensions, and some software corrections are made, it will be invaluable for mobile executives. Until then, it is a useful but novel tool for wandering workers who want phone, fax and data capabilities in one unit.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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