The PocketPC began life as a very ugly duckling. But if the clunky "Palm-size PCs" of 1998 haven't quite turned into something beautiful, the latest versions built on Microsoft's new PocketPC 2002 software have at least become a flock of attractive and useful handheld computers.
I checked out three brand-new models, the Hewlett-Packard Jornada 560 (HWP), on sale starting Oct. 4, and the Compaq iPAQ 3800 (CPQ) and Toshiba e570, which appear in a few weeks. Although all share the same basic software, a 240-by-320-pixel color display, and an Intel (INTC) StrongARM processor (Technology & You, Oct. 1), each offers its own strengths.
When the first iPAQ model came out last year, its sleek design made it the star of the field, and it remains the sharpest-looking and the most versatile of the class. While the weight has dropped a smidge, to 6.5 oz., the iPAQ has gained its first internal storage slot, which uses the same memory cards used in Palms. Although the slot currently can only be used to add memory, Toshiba (TOSBF) is about to offer a card that provides short-range Bluetooth wireless communications with other devices, such as cell phones.
BRIGHTEST. For broader networking options, iPAQ retains a system of accessory "sleeves" that slide onto the iPAQ and let it accept either CompactFlash or PC Card accessories. This gives the iPAQ the broadest range of communications choices, from standard telephone modems to wired or wireless Ethernet to wireless phone network access. There's a price for this flexibility, though: The sleeves, especially the PC card unit, add a lot of weight and bulk to the sleek iPAQ.
The iPAQ also continues to have the brightest screen of the bunch. But be careful. You have to turn the brightness down if you want to get the claimed 10-hour battery life. And in a small but important change, the stylus storage slot is less prone to jamming.
The new Jornada marks a big improvement from last year's 540 series. Although it's about the same size as its predecessor, it has lost nearly three ounces of weight. It retains the flip-up cover of the earlier version, but the odd "popsicle stick" stylus that was stored inside the cover has been replaced by a conventional round stylus kept in the body of the unit.
The most important change is a frontal attack on the PocketPC's weakest point, battery life. Batteries on the older versions lasted 8 to 10 hours. But despite a much brighter screen, HP promises up to 14 hours power on a charge, enough for several days of use. Better yet, it's the only PocketPC with a removable battery, so you can carry a spare, and HP will offer an optional bigger battery with double the life.
It's not clear what will happen to the iPAQ and Jornada lines if and when the planned Compaq-HP merger is consummated. Officials of both companies declined to speculate. Since each product has been adopted as a corporate standard by various companies, both may survive, at least for a while. A PocketPC combining the best features of both might be the ultimate handheld.
Toshiba's e570 (sold in Asia as the Genio) is the big Japanese computer maker's first entry into the handheld arena. Its design is conservative--basically, a rectangular box. Its most interesting feature is that it has slots for two types of expansion cards, SD and CompactFlash.
The bigger CompactFlash cards are being used for a lot more than memory. Until recently, the only way to get a PocketPC onto a wireless local area network--great for reading e-mail during boring meetings--was to use the iPAQ with a PC Card designed for a laptop. But Symbol Technologies (SBL) now offers the Wireless Networker, a $150 CompactFlash card that can get any PocketPC onto a wireless LAN that uses the Wi-Fi standard. It's much less power-hungry than the PC Card version, with Symbol estimating it will reduce battery life by about 15%, compared with about 50% for a Wi-Fi PC Card.
While Palm (PALM) and its partners still dominate the market for handhelds, these products show why the PocketPC is coming on strong. And additional models are on the way, including one from NEC and a more consumer-oriented version from Casio (CSIOY). Competition and technological innovation are combining to make handhelds powerful and versatile tools. By Stephen H. Wildstrom