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Faster, wireless Pocket PCs

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The race to make the “World’s Best PDA” continues with industry-leader Palm recently announcing OS 5 to help bring their handhelds into the same hardware class as Pocket PCs. But you knew Pocket PC manufacturers weren’t going to sit around resting on their laurels — they’ve been quiet for many months, because they were busy readying the next versions of their devices. And at this week’s TechXNY expo in New York, they’re all on display.

InsertArt(1535480)WHILE PALM WAS ANNOUNCING a total revamping of their operating system to take advantage of recent hardware breakthroughs, Pocket PC companies were already producing devices containing those same breakthroughs.

The biggest advance I’m talking about is a much faster processor which allows handhelds to do complex tasks and do more of them at the same time. Palms maxed out at 33 MHz versions of the old Dragonball (68000) chip (original Macs/Amiga, etc.) Modern Pocket PCs had been using 206 MHz StrongARM chips — which is why Pocket PCs were able to do more complex tasks than Palm OS devices.

But now Intel has come up with faster versions of its chips. Palm has announced they’re going to be using the new PXA250 (known as XScale) in future models. Last week Toshiba announced it’s using a 400 MHz version in its new e740 machine, and Monday Compaq (of HP-Compaq fame) proclaimed it’s doing the same thing in its new 3900 series.

Let’s start with the Compaq. The new 3900 series looks exactly like the older 3800 Pocket PC. Size, weight, buttons, all look the same. That’s because it almost is the same — until you turn on the device. The first thing that jumps out at you is the screen. Oops! I’m getting ahead of myself.

Inside the iPaq 3900 is the new 400 MHz XScale processor. That makes the handheld computer sing. Then, when you check out the stats you notice that there’s 64 MB of SDRAM inside — and a whopping 48 MB of Flash ROM. I was sent a top-of-the-line H3970 model to check out so it has all that memory (some versions will come with 32 MB of flash) and a built-in Bluetooth radio for instant connections to other Bluetooth devices.

There’s a 1,400 mAh Lithium Polymer rechargeable battery inside which provides a few hours of battery life. But most iPaq users carry their computer in an expansion pack — basically a slide-on back that allows you to use an expansion card — and the PC card version has a second battery built-in to the pack. You should expect you’ll need the capacity of that second battery if you plan on using your iPaq for wireless connections of any kind.

Now it’s time to talk about the screen in detail. 64K color, 16-bit touch-sensitive transflective TFT liquid crystal display. Sound impressive? All you really need to know is that this is the best screen ever on a handheld computer — and rivals (in quality if not size) the best screens you’ve ever seen on a portable device. The big difference here is that Compaq has changed screens and the way the screen is lit — now from the back instead of the sides.

I was never a fan of the Compaq side-lit screen. As a matter of fact the first time I saw it I wondered why many people told me it was so terrific. It looked slightly washed-out in subdued light — and just OK in bright sunlight. The new screen is an entirely different story. This time around Compaq got it exactly right.

To understand why, go to your nearest Compaq dealer and turn on this device. You’ll be bowled over by the quality of the screen resolution and color rendition. My test model came with 3 test photographs. Everyone who has seen them on the 3900 has been completely bowled over.

As for the Bluetooth option, I think it’s really neat. I sent back my Ericsson phone with Bluetooth inside so I had to ask my friends at Socket Communications for some help. On very short notice Peter Phillips helped me find a Pico Communications Bluetooth access point to do my testing. Think of it as a WiFi (Wireless Ethernet) hub that does Bluetooth instead of 802.11b protocols.

In my test environment I placed the PicoBlue access point about 5-6 feet away from my WiFi hub and tried it out. I compared the Compaq with built-in Bluetooth and also with an external WiFi card. I found that the Bluetooth signal was nearly as strong (and penetrated almost as far) as the WiFi signal. Especially through walls and doors! Throughput or speed of what was being received was nearly the same for both — with WiFi being perceptive faster.

One vexing problem was that I could not initiate a Virtual Private Networking (VPN) session over the 3900’s Bluetooth connection (or through a new Bluetooth card I tried in the Toshiba e740. See below). That was until I disabled the Network Address Translation feature of the Pico access point. After that - everything worked just as advertised.


Toshiba took another route to achieve a similar goal. Instead of Bluetooth, Toshiba has built an 802.11b radio inside their new Pocket PC. The e740 is small, compact and lightweight, sporting the new 400 MHz XScale processor, 64 MB of RAM and 32 MB of ROM in a very neat-looking, compact package. I find it interesting to note that an e740 with Bluetooth inside (instead of WiFi) is not available in the United States.

What the Toshiba has that the Compaq lacks is a built-in Compact Flash II slot — they both have a Secure Digital (SD) card slot on top of the device. That means you can use an SD card in either device — but with the Toshiba you don’t need to slide on an expansion pack if you want to use a Compact Flash card. That’s not only a big space saver but it helps keep the overall package price down.

The e740’s battery is removable and interchangeable. That’s so you can buy an optional high-capacity Lithium-ion battery pack ($129.99) which comes in handy when you’re using the wireless Ethernet or Bluetooth services. But, the larger battery makes the Toshiba larger, chunkier and heavier (more like a fully decked-out iPaq). There are trade-offs with everything.

The screen in the e740 is very, very good, 64K, 16-bit color TFT — and if there were no Compaq to compare it to, I’d say it’s a wonderful screen. The Toshiba is still side-lit and that’s now second-best in the marketplace. The quality bar has now been raised a giant notch — so the Toshiba suffers somewhat in the comparison.

One problem I encountered was that I couldn’t get the Toshiba’s WiFi to work — until I turned off the Power Saving Mode in the Wireless LAN utility. Once up and running, the connection — and the e740’s screen refresh ability was very, very fast. I was also able to install a newly released Socket Bluetooth card (Version 1.1) and get that to work just fine. Toshiba has just announced their own SD-sized Bluetooth card!

With the WiFi radio turned on battery life drops quickly. I was getting one-to-two hours with the standard, primary battery. One last thing, I began to get battery recharge warnings when capacity dropped to 50 percent — and that took less than an hour. Think about buying the larger capacity battery if you intend to use the e740 wirelessly.

The Toshiba e740 has a suggested retail of $599. Expensive, but pretty good for what you get inside. The best optional equipment (aside from the bigger battery) I’ve seen listed for the e740 is the Toshiba expansion pack ($99.99) which attaches to the bottom of the device and allows you to connect to a monitor or projector via a RGB (Monitor) port. It also includes a real USB port for attaching a full-sized keyboard or other native devices.

On the other hand, when you see Compaq’s new iPaq prepare yourself for sticker shock. My test unit with the 48 MB of flash and the built-in Bluetooth option has a suggested retail price of $749. And that doesn’t include any optional expansion pack extras (Compact Flash expansion pack is $49.99 and the PC Card packs are $149.99 to $199.99 — depending on one or two slots). You may not want to spend that much on a handheld computer — but because of its screen it’s the best one on the market at this moment.

I must mention one software title (and some hardware) bundled inside my 3970. It’s called Nevo and what it does is allow you to use your iPaq as a multi-function, multi-device, universal remote control unit. I didn’t get a chance to fully test this but if it works as promised it could save you hundreds of dollars over buying a separate remote.

About six months ago I was privileged to be shown a very early Beta version of this iPaq with the new, amazing screen. I told the Compaq folks that if they could mass-produce devices with this kind of screen quality they’d have a big hit on their hands. Well, they did — and I think they do.