A Pc For Every Pocket

Today's wide range of sizes and features means there's one that's right for you

When Bruce Whitehead needs to check a phone number or an appointment, whether in his Dallas investment-banking office or at his ranch 85 miles south of town, all he has to do is whip his REX-3 out of his pocket. The tiny credit-card-size gizmo from Franklin Electronic Publishers Inc. provides a handy readout of Whitehead's address book and schedule on an easy-to-read screen--and REX's sealed design makes it impervious to the dust and grit of a Texas ranch.

Whitehead, a principal in BritWill Investments, a private investment company that takes equity stakes in assorted businesses, has surveyed the field of handheld computers. He has been using them since the early '90s when he bought one of the earliest models, a Hewlett-Packard Co. 95LX. He moved up to the 200LX but eventually abandoned the DOS-based handheld when it became too hard to make it work with the Windows programs he uses on his laptop PC. He tried one of the first handhelds based on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE operating system, an HP 360LX, but it was too big and gobbled up battery life. After rejecting even the diminutive PalmPilot as too bulky, Whitehead settled on the $100 REX. "I wanted something I could stick in my pocket for a week at a time," he says.

Like most owners of handheld devices, Whitehead uses his as a PC accessory. He keeps his calendar and contact information in Microsoft Outlook on a Toshiba Corp. laptop. At regular intervals, he pops the REX into a PC Card slot in the laptop and, using Puma IntelliSync software, downloads the data.

Whitehead's REX is just for reading information, though the newer REX Pro will let you enter data, too--but with a degree of difficuLty. He doesn't miss the ability to enter information on the fly: "I make paper notes of what I want to enter into the computer." He types it into the Toshiba, then downloads it to the REX.

The REX is the ultimate in simplicity, but it represents just one end of a spectrum of handheld computers that ranges on up to the newest Handheld PC Professionals that run a version of Microsoft Windows, cost $1,000, and ofFer displays that are eight inches or bigger.

The PalmPilot ($240) and Palm III ($350) from 3Com Corp. remain the kings of the handheld heap, with more than 2 million sold--far more than all other handhelds combined--and for good reason. Palm products are designed to do relatively few things, so they do them well. Although owners and third-party software developers have pushed the Palms well beyond their designers' intentions, the vast majority of owners stick with the built-in programs and use their palmtops to carry around contact lists, calendars, and to-do lists.

Although much bigger--and bulkier--than the REX, the 6-ounce Palm fits easily into a pocket or purse. And unlike the REX, entering data is easy once you learn a special alphabet called Graffiti. Drop the Palm into a cradle, press a button, and its data files quickly update information using a variety of Windows and Macintosh contact-management software. While the 160x160 pixel screen leaves something to be desired, especially in poor light, the Palm will run for weeks on a pair of AAA batteries.

The Palm's success was bound to attract competition, and it has--in the form of the Windows CE-powered Palm-size PCs (an unfortunate name chosen after 3Com sued to stop Microsoft from using its first choice, the Palm PC). Contenders include the Philips Nino and the Casio Cassiopeia E-11. These are larger than the Palm, especially the Nino; offer higher-resolution screens; and provide somewhat easier data entry, also using a Graffiti-like shorthand. Nifty features include a built-in recorder for voice messages.

The Palm-size PCs also come with some big negatives: The user interface, a variant of Windows, complete with a start button, is crowded, fussy, and difficult to navigate on the small display. The software is sluggish, and you'll spend some time staring at the Windows hourglass. Batteries last days rather than weeks. Making sure all your files are up to date with your desktop is more complicated than with a Palm and works only with computers running Windows 95, 98, or NT.

BIG BOYS. If you want a superlightweight device with the flavor of Windows, you would probably do better to step up to a Windows CE Handheld PC (HPC). These come in a wide variety of styles, ranging from designs that you can slip into a pocket (if you have big pockets) to the newest HPC Professional models that are more suitable for holDing on your lap than in your hand.

Even among the smallEr HPCs, there's a considerable range of size, price, and capability. The most compact version is the Velo 500 ($500) from Philips Mobile Computing Group. The Velo, which weighs less than a pound, has a monochrome screen. The lack of color is a handicap in working with the Windows-style screens because without color, it can be hard to distinguish among the icons. You navigate through the displays by using a stylus to select icons and menu items on the touch-sensitive screens. Like most of the HPCs, the Velo's calculator-style keys are unsuited to touch-typing, and data entry is probably best kept to short E-mail messages.

There is also an assortment of slightly larger HPCs with color displays and rechargeable batteries that typically last 8 to 10 hours and cost around $800. These include the HP 660LX and the Sharp Mobilon HC-4500. Color makes using Windows much easier and improves the readability of the display, especially in dim light.

Finally, there are a couple of still-larger HPCs, the NEC MobilePro 750C and LG Electronics Inc.'s Phenom Express ($800-$900), which use larger keyboards with real keys. Although the keyboards are cramped, it is possible to touch-type on them if you're careful.

HPCs come with a broad range of software built in, including slimmed-down versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, PowerPoint, the Internet Express browser, and an E-mail program. Built-in modems let you communicate via the Net or corporate networks with dial-in access.

The snag is that the E-mail software just isn't very good. The biggest problem is the inability to read files attached to messages. Pocket Word, for example, can't open an attachment saved in the regular Word format. In corporate settings, where Word and Excel attachments fly fast and furious, this can be a crippling shortcoming.

John Weigel, an information-systems executive for Andersen Corp. in Bayport, Minn., rarely uses his HP 660LX for mail. But he finds it handy for carrying around the contact and calendar information that he keeps in Microsoft Outlook on his desktop. Still, Weigel would like to see better applications programs and a better mail solution. "That would make it a true corporate citizen," he says.

Significant software improvements are coming in the next version of Windows CE, though upgrading older units will require replacing a module containing the read-only memory chips. For now, however, the only way to get the new and improved CE is by buying one of a new class of handhelds that are much more laptop-like.

TOUCH AND GO. The first of these new models--the Sharp Mobilon Pro ($900); the Vadem Clio, also sold as the Sharp TriPad ($1,000); the HP Jornada 820 (due out in November); and the NEC MobilePro 800 (set for release in late winter)--sport whizzy designs and pose a challenge to low-end Windows 98 laptop computers.

The Mobilon, Jornada, and MobilePro resemble somewhat shrunken laptops. They weigh in at under 3 pounds--about the same as mini-laptops--and feature nearly full-size keyboards. The Mobilon and Jornada have passive-matrix color displays measuring a bit more than 8 inches on the diagonal.

But they part ways in one important respect: The Jornada uses a conventional laptop-style touch pad for screen navigation, while the Mobilon borrows the touch screen and stylus used in the smaller Windows CE products. Although Jornada's design forces the touch pad to be a lot smaller than what you would find in a laptop, it is easier to use than a stylus in this laptop-like design. Clicking the buttons on the touch pad feels a lot more natural than tapping the screen. And not having to make the screen touch-sensitive allows for a slightly crisper and more contrasty display.

The Clio/TriPad takes a different, and altogether novel, approach. Instead of the screen being attached to the keyboard base with a rigid hinge, the display pivots on two aluminum arms that swing up from the back of the base. This allows the unit to be used in three different modes: as a more-or-less conventional notebook, in a presentation setup with the display flipped over, and with the display folded flat over the keyboard for use as a 9.4-inch tablet. In tablet mode, where the keyboard is inaccessible, the Clio automatically runs Vadem's Calligrapher handwriting-recognition software.

Windows CE 2.11 offers some major improvements for this new class of handhelds. The larger screens support displays of as much as 640x480 pixels, compared with a maximum of 640x240 on older versions, allowing twice as much information to be shown. Meanwhile, the NEC unit will offer 800x600 pixels.

The biggest improvement, however, is in the E-mail program. For the first time, it supports the IMAP protocol that is widely used in corporate mail systems. Unlike the older POP3 protocol used in previous versions of CE, IMAP lets you keep and manage mail on the server, so that the messages you see on your handheld and what you will see when you get back to your desk will be exactly the same. This makes it much easier to manage a mail account using different computers. For now, this feature is available only with these handhelds. If you decide to purchase another model, make sure you get a free upgrade to Microsoft's new software.

You can also open attached documents written in the desktop versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Of course, this is a highly Microsoft-centric solution. Although the desktop version of Word can open files from Corel's WordPerfect, and Excel can handle Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets, the pocket versions are not as versatile. A forthcoming version of Inso Corp.'s QuickView will enable you to at least look at attachments in non-Microsoft formats, but you still won't be able to edit them.

With the size and bulk of these newest "handhelds" approaching such mini-notebooks as the Toshiba Libretto, the choice of which type to get is not obvious. As always, it's a matter of trade-offs. The HPCs are significantly cheaper, since mini-notebooks start at around $1,500. The notebooks use Windows 98 or even NT and can run all standard applications. The HPCs are limited to their built-in applications and a limited selection of add-on programs.

FRUSTRATION. Most users will find Pocket Word and Pocket Excel adequate as long as they're content to limit themselves to the basic functions of a desktop word processor and spreadsheet. Pocket Excel is useful mainly for showing presentations on an external monitor, rather than creating them. Without a disk drive, HPCs offer limited storage in expensive flash memory, but they're a lot more rugged.

There are three areas where Windows CE is a clear winner. The handhelds turn on the second you hit the power switch, with no boot-up. Their batteries last at least eight hours on a charge, while mini-notebooks rarely get more than two hours. And while Windows CE's synchronization with a desktop is nowhere near as slick as the Palm's, it's a lot better than the mini-notebooks', which have no built-in way to sync.

All of these handheld devices offer one common source of frustraTion: When you are away from your desk, getting any handheld to communicate with the rest of the world is harder than it should be. Most of the Windows CE handhelds feature built-in modems. The rest can use PC Card versions, while the Palm uses a special snap-on modem. All require plug-in access to a standard analog phone line, which can be tough to find when you are on the go.

These extremely portable computers really want to communicate through wireless links, but owners are faced with the reality of a wireless infrastructure that isn't quite ready for prime time. Users who live outside Of North America and Japan, especially in Europe, have it a lot easier. There, the GSM cellular system provides a standard for wireless communications. The GSM solutions will work in the U.S. on such networks as OmniPoint and Sprint Spectrum, but coverage is spotty.

Much easier wireless communications would greatly enhance the utility of all handheld computers. But even with their communications limitations, these lightweight gizmos are useful additions to any mobile executive's arsenal. The trick is sorting through a crowded field to pick the one that most nearly meets your needs.