Handhelds Still Have A Ways To Go

The latest models' color screens look great, but their weak software is limiting

What a difference color makes. When I first looked at hand-held computers built to use Microsoft's Windows CE software about 18 months ago, I found that the attempt to recreate the look and feel of desktop Windows--designed for big color screens--on a small, gray display didn't work very well.

Now, color handhelds are on the market. These devices still are too large to slip into a pocket or purse and too small for true touch-typing. But they can be useful for folks who use basic E-mail, light-duty word processing, or custom programs.

CONVENIENCE LOSS. Color imposes some trade-offs. Models from Hewlett-Packard, Sharp, and Hitachi, plus upcoming products from NEC and LG Electronics, cost $850 to $1,000. That's $400 to $500 more than monochrome versions. Perhaps more significant, the monochrome devices get 20 hours or so of use from a pair of AA batteries, while color models gets only six to eight hours from a rechargeable. That should be plenty of power to get through a day's work, and you can always carry a spare. But you lose the emergency fallback of simply popping in a couple of available-anywhere alkaline cells.

After spending some time with both the $859 HP 620LX and the $999 Sharp HC-4500, I think the advantages of color are well worth the cost. Not only are the windows much easier to recognize in color but in poor light especially, the bright, backlit screens are much easier to read than the original gray.

These similar models use calculator-style keyboards that are unsuited for serious typing, though I found the HP model's bigger keys easier to use. The Sharp justifies its higher price with a built-in 33.6 kbps modem that's much easier on the batteries than the PC Card modem required by the HP.

Microsoft has improved Windows CE in version 2.0, but much remains to be done. For example, the original Windows CE E-mail program was so bad as to be almost unusable. You could not, for example, receive any file attachments.

The new program is much better but still flawed. It does let you download file attachments, but it doesn't use the latest technology that allows remote users to manage mail on servers efficiently. Nor does it give you access to public or corporate E-mail directory servers.

Similar limitations hobble other applications, which must be kept small because the handheld PCs lack disk storage. Pocket Word, for example, cannot display or create justified text. Pocket Excel supports only a small subset of the desktop worksheet's built-in functions, omitting, for example, most statistical calculations.

ECLIPSED ALREADY? These software limitations are frustrating to anyone who would like to use a handheld PC as a laptop substitute. This is especially unfortunate because some handhelds that are coming out soon could fill the bill. Both the NEC MobilePro 750C and the LG Electronics Phenom Ultra will offer displays measuring about eight inches diagonally (vs. 6.5 inches in the HP and Sharp versions) and nearly laptop-size keyboards.

Later this year, Microsoft will release a third version of Windows CE, code-named Jupiter, that will move handhelds closer to laptops. Jupiter will support 640-by-480-pixel displays, compared with the current 640-by-240 screens. The additional pixels provide a much more laptop-like display that shows twice as much information, making it far more suitable for spreadsheets and word processing.

Weighing in at two to three pounds, Jupiter machines could be very attractive alternatives to six-pound laptops for many uses. The question is whether Microsoft will come up with the software needed to do the job.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE