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They're so power hungry that they have a hard time handling E-mail

I've spent a long time looking for a something that would let me leave my laptop home on some trips. What I want would be small, light, and cheap. It would enable me to read E-mail, check my schedule, and do some other basic tasks. Some new handheld PCs built around Microsoft's specially designed Windows CE operating system are supposed to be just what I want. So I tried some out. But while their potential is great, I'm not ready to leave home without my laptop.

These handheld computers, which Microsoft has dubbed HPCs, are the result of a close collaboration between the software giant and hardware makers. The first units on the market are identical twins from Compaq Computer and Casio and a close cousin from NEC. Versions from Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, LG Electronics, and Philips Electronics are due out in the first half of next year.

COLOR COMING. Windows CE was designed to duplicate the look and feel of Windows 95, a mixed blessing. Win95 users will feel at home with an HPC as soon as they get used to tapping with a stylus instead of clicking a mouse. The meanings of such icons as My Handheld PC, the Start button, and the Taskbar are obvious. The keyboard is tiny, but usable in small spurts. I wrote much of this column on the Compaq and NEC models.

The problem is that a graphic interface designed for a big screen that offers 256 colors loses a lot on a small one with four shades of gray, and familiar icons become tiny and obscure. Color screens are on the drawing board, but keeping the price and the power consumption reasonable are big challenges.

The integration with Windows does offer some notable advantages. The HPC's address book and calendar synchronizes names and appointments instantly with the desktop version of Schedule+ when you connect to your computer by plugging in a cable or setting the HPC in its cradle. Synchronizers that will do the same for other information managers will be available from Puma Technologies and DataViz. If you've mastered Win95's Dial Up Networking to link to a corporate LAN or the Internet, you'll have no trouble with the HPC's Remote Networking.

The HPC Explorer, a clone of the regular Windows Explorer program, makes it a snap to transfer files between desktop and palmtop. Other handhelds, such as the Sharp Zaurus and Apple Newton, have greatly enhanced their ability to exchange files with desktop machines, but the degree of integration still falls short of what Windows CE offers.

The Windows CE versions of Word and Excel work smoothly with their desktop big brothers. Strangely enough, though, they offer no way to print, even though many printers, including most new Hewlett-Packard LaserJets, are equipped with an infrared port compatible with the one on the HPC. The HP version, due in mid-1997, will offer infrared links to printers as well as a bigger display.

As good as the HPC is at connecting to desktops, communication with the rest of the world is a real problem. The culprit is the power appetite of modems. Even with speed throttled back to 14.4 kilobits per second and using new, energy-conserving modems, going online without an AC adapter plugged in can reduce the normal 20-hour life of the two AA batteries to 45 minutes.

WASTED SPACE. Slow communications are just one reason why Pocket Internet Explorer, the CE version of the Microsoft browser, isn't a very good idea. You would really have to be addicted to the World Wide Web to read pages on a two-inch-high, gray-on-gray screen.

The precious memory space wasted on the browser could have been used to build better E-mail software. It's simple to connect to any Internet service provider and many corporate mail servers. In addition, software from River Run will allow connections to Lotus cc:Mail and Microsoft Mail post offices.

The built-in Inbox mail-handling program, however, is weak. You can't organize mail into folders, and you can't set up rules to process mail automatically. But the greatest failing is that it can only handle straight text, not file attachments. The results are perverse. You can easily transfer a Microsoft Word file using a cable connection to your desktop, but you can't get it by E-mail if you're on the road.

Fortunately, the worst problems are with software. Both upgrades from Microsoft and third-party add-ons should bring on improvements to overcome the initial difficulties over the next year or so. I'm still carrying that laptop, but I'm hopeful.



PHOTO: Compaq HPC Windows Computer

TABLE: The Prototype Palmtop

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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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