Wait for hand-held PCs to get cheaper, better before buying

FORGET ABOUT lugging your laptop computer through airports and train stations. Leave that 12-pound package at home for a new, hand-held personal computer, or HPC, weighing less than a pound.

Need to check your e-mail while waiting for a plane? No problem. Plug your hand-held PC into a modem-ready pay phone and dial into your service.


Need to send a fax from 30,000 feet? Your HPC can handle it. Grab one of the seat-back telephones and fax away.

Want to revise a Microsoft Word document during the taxi ride from the airport? Fire up the word processor on your HPC and get with it.


Seem unrealistic? Hardly. Casio, Compaq and NEC are the first companies to release hand-held personal computers designed as temporary replacements for your laptop or desktop PC.

The new gadgets, available in stores now for $500 to $700, offer a scaled-down version of Windows 95, along with word processing, e-mail, Internet, spreadsheets and other built-in software.

Hand-held PCs first were marketed as personal digital assistants -- electronic organizers. But now they are capable of much more than tracking your appointments. Some business travelers really are leaving their laptops at home and traveling with a hand-held PC.

For me, that's a stretch. The gadgets are OK for light e-mail and word processing, but they can't match the computing power of a laptop or desktop. I use them strictly as an accessory to my desktop and laptop PCs.

It's nice being able to whip out an HPC and bang out a memo while waiting in line at the grocery store. They look like cosmetic cases or oversized calculators and are small enough to fit easily into a coat pocket or purse. Two AA batteries power them for about 20 hours. The gadgets feature built-in modems or have slots for modems the size of a credit card.

You enter data by hunting and pecking on a tiny keyboard. The keys are too small for real touch-typing. A small, flip-up screen displays images and text in a gray scale similar to black and white.

The technology is exciting, but you should wait before buying. The first wave of HPCs shows tremendous promise, but they'll be even better -- and cheaper -- nine months to a year from now.

Today's models need improving. The small monochrome screens are barely adequate. The keyboards could be better. There is little software available beyond built-in applications.


All of that will change over time, but if you just can't wait, choose from the Casio Cassiopedia, the NEC Electronics MobilePro and the Compaq PC Companion. They range in price from $499 to $699, but the total cost can grow to more than $1,000 when you add accessories such as docking stations, modems, carrying cases and more memory.

The Casio, NEC and Compaq products all feature the Windows 95-like operating system called Windows CE. If you're using Windows 95 now, you know all you need to use Windows CE.

Which model is right for you? That's like recommending toothpaste. It's a subjective decision that only you can make. All the models with the Windows CE operating system are similar.

Frankly, I wanted a hand-held PC that didn't run Windows, just for the sake of being different. I'm traveling with a Sharp Zaurus ZR-5000 ($399) that I have had for more than a year and a Sony Magic Link Pic-1000 ($399). The Zaurus and Magic Link can do anything the Windows CE machines can.

I bought the Magic Link on impulse because its price had been marked down to $150. With it, I can fax, send and receive e-mail, write memos, pull up a financial spreadsheet and more.

Look for the Zaurus and other hand-held PCs at most stores where computers are sold. The Magic Link is hard to find in stores but is available from Sony (1-800-556-2442), or check Sony's Web site for more information: http: // Magic.


Pub Date: 4/07/97