Latest in pocket computers are still exasperating

NEW HAND-HELD computers based on an operating system called Microsoft Windows C.E. are small enough to stuff in a Christmas stocking. After using one, you may want to stuff it back on the shelf. This latest attempt to cram a full-fledged computer into an address-book-sized package shows promise, but its first incarnations show little improvement over their many predecessors.

A bandwagon of sorts has been rolling nonetheless. Hand-held PCs with minor differences are now available, or soon will be, under the labels of Compaq, Hitachi, LG Electronics, NEC and Philips.


I tried Casio's Cassiopeia (your joke goes here), which weighs less than a pound and costs about $500 for a two-megabyte unit and $100 more for a four-megabyte model. A much more expensive Windows 95 desktop or laptop machine is also required, because some of the software comes on CD-ROM and must be transferred to the hand-held unit through a serial cable; the little computer cannot connect to printers on its own.

Even their makers seem to recognize that these first-generation devices are not exactly world-beaters. The Compaq Computer Corp. is deliberately positioning its unit as a companion to laptop machines rather than as a true computer. And the Hewlett-Packard Co. boasts that when its first C.E. model arrives next year, its enhanced screen will let you "read your e-mail without going cross-eyed."


That would be a welcome improvement. The current models can display wide lines of tiny type, but even the manuals admit that the monochrome screens are "hard to read under reduced light," and they are not much better in brighter settings. Turn on the dim built-in backlight, and you wonder, "Did I turn on the backlight?" Because typing on the undersized, imprecise keyboard is no picnic, you end up squinting at a screenful of errors. The pointing device, a removable stylus you tap directly on the screen, works decently if you happen to have three hands. Using a finger is possible but less successful and mucks up the screen.

There is no attempt to reflonite hardwaring, that is to say, recognize handwriting, which is probably all to the good. But as delivered, the device will not let you draw or take notes on the screen, either, and the infrared port can communicate only with other C.E. units. Special extra-cost add-on programs are already becoming available to fill these gaps; despite the Windows name, these machines cannot run Windows software you may already have.

The novel idea behind Windows C.E. is that if you use Windows 95, mastering this version of the interface should be easy. That is true enough, but inconsistencies remain. On a Windows 95 machine, you can hide the taskbar, but here, where screen space is precious, you cannot. Double-tapping with the stylus, the equivalent of double-clicking, often fails. Alt-tap, the equivalent of the right mouse button, can be an exercise in contortion, especially for left-handers.

The Cassiopeia revealed its Windows lineage by having to be rebooted when programs froze. The finicky CD-ROM software for the bigger computer must be installed in a particular order and may demand your original Windows installation disk as well as answers to mysterious questions about DLL files. The installation depends on many arcane Windows 95 settings with lots of potential to go wrong. The plentiful trouble-shooting screens did not quite solve my problems; the fruits of bitter Windows experience finally did.

The desktop software's special version of Schedule Plus makes it easy to synchronize calendar and contact data with the palmtop. A truly nifty feature: Even turned off, the unit can sound alarms connected with your calendar, both audibly and by flashing an LED that is visible even with the lid closed.

Techniques such as dragging and dropping are missing from the pocket versions, and many formatting elements have a way of disappearing when you transfer files from desktop to palmtop and back again. When they get home to the big machine, fancy documents will often need to be reformatted.

Most of these units include a standard Type II PC Card slot instead of a built-in modem. A generic modem I installed worked fine but depleted the batteries in about an hour, though the hapless battery meter started harassing me far too early. The companies claim that a pair of AA batteries will give 20 hours of computing time when power-sucking cards are left out.

The mail software uses standard Internet protocols, so for now you cannot use it to retrieve messages from the big online services, including Microsoft's own. The CD-ROM includes a Web browser designed for the pocket device. The Microsoft Network telephone help line had no idea how to configure the browser for Web access through its system; copying the settings for dial-up networking on the main machine to the junior unit did the trick. Using the browser is awkward, with lots of scrolling inevitable, but it does work.


The Windows C.E. platform may one day blossom into something better, because dozens of hardware and software vendors offering everything from handwriting recognition software to wireless e-mail hardware have pledged fealty to the standard. But the dim screens and third-rate keyboards on current models are problems no optional extras can fix. Wait for the day you can put a computer in your pocket without thinking of your ophthalmologist.

Pub Date: 12/16/96