Microsoft's Windows CE operating system for handheld computers is like a bright but underachieving child. You figure it's capable of doing great things some day, but more often than not, it disappoints.
That's certainly the case with the latest generation of CE-powered Palm-size computers. I tested the first two models with color displays, the Compaq Aero 2100 and the Hewlett-Packard Jornada 420. (The Nino 500 is due next month from Philips Electronics.) While they are much better than the original Palm-size PCs that came out last year, they have not improved enough to make me want to carry one. Little wonder that CE devices of all types have been bought mainly by big corporations, which use them to run specialized programs. But the rival Palm line from 3Com is still the handheld of choice for the rest of us.
Color overcomes the single worst problem of the original monochrome models. The complex system of Windows icons and buttons was almost incomprehensible on a 2 1/2-by-3-inch display. The color screens are easier to navigate and generally far more legible, though I still find the design way too complicated for so small a display.
Microsoft maintains much tighter control over Windows CE hardware than it does with desktops or laptops. But it's loosening its grip a little, and the new designs show more variation than their predecessors. In particular, HP and Compaq have chosen different display technologies. The HP Jornada 420 uses a conventional backlit, passive-matrix liquid-crystal display. The Compaq Aero 2100 uses a new design called reflective TFT. I find the Jornada screen more readable under most lighting conditions, but you pay a price in battery life, with HP claiming six hours per charge of its lithium-ion batteries in normal use to Compaq's 10. The Aero was also more readable in sunlight.
Comparisons between the CEs and 3Com's Palm are inevitable, since they are designed to do the same tasks. Windows CE devices are bigger than a Palm III--by enough that holding a CE is not quite comfortable. Unlike the skinny new Palm V, they don't come close to fitting comfortably in a pocket. While the Palm's display is smaller, monochrome, and in older models, dimmer, a simpler user interface makes Palms easier to read and use.
PCs ONLY. In theory, a more advanced operating system, faster processors, and higher resolution displays should make the CE devices more capable, but this isn't quite the case. Information is entered by writing in either Windows CE's "natural character set" or its clone of Palm's Graffiti characters. Both are easy, fast, and accurate. The CE contact manager and calendar are highly usable. But swapping data with your desktop PC--Macintoshes need not apply--is tricky and depends heavily on Microsoft's Outlook 97 or 98 contact manager. Syncing with information managers, such as Lotus Organizer, requires Puma Technology's $70 Intellisync software. The built-in software includes a basic mail program and Web browser, but using them online requires a $169 modem from Pretec (www.pretec.com), the only modem that fits the CE's Compact Flash slot.
One place where the Jornada and Aero have a clear advantage over the Palm is in their built-in sound systems. Audible (www.audible.com) offers a player and wide range of recorded spoken material, with audio books generally priced between $5 and $10 each. Compaq bundles the Audible player with the Aero, but, for some weird reason, chose to equip it with a 2.5-millimeter headphone jack rather than the ubiquitous Walkman-style 3.5-mm jack. The Jornada has a 3.5-mm jack. Although Audible players are available for a variety of other devices, the CE devices make handy packages. One drawback: It can easily take 10 minutes or more to download an hour's worth of audio from the Web to your PC and then from your PC to a handheld.
Microsoft designed Windows CE to make it easy for programmers familiar with desktop Windows to write applications. But its insistence on controlling hardware design and on making the displays as Windows-like as possible has produced palmtops that are neither imaginative nor easy to use. A little freedom might help CE live up to its potential--and give us all better handheld computers.