Microsoft Continues in Its Quest

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Microsoft Continues in Its Quest To Cram Windows Into Pocket PC By WALTER S. MOSSBERG MICROSOFT IS A company that is always willing to improve its products little by little over time. Yet the software giant is also stubborn, unwilling to budge much from the underlying vision of the digital world it has always held — that the Windows PC is the center of the universe. So, it’s no surprise that the latest generation of Microsoft-designed Pocket PC hand-held computers, released this month, includes some welcome improvements, yet continues the company’s dubious quest to cram a Windows PC into a very small space. This is diametrically opposed to the approach taken by hand-held pioneer Palm, which sees the little devices as a different animal from a PC, requiring a different, simpler design philosophy. Palms work well with PCs, but they don’t try to emulate them. After trying out three of the new Pocket PC models — from Microsoft hardware partners Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba — I conclude that the Pocket PC’s natural fans — techies and corporate computer departments — will probably be happy with them. They are sleeker than before, more easily expandable and have a prettier software interface. They still have beautiful, bright color screens. But people like me, who prefer smaller, lighter and simpler hand-held devices, won’t be tempted to switch. MICROSOFT AND its partners missed the one improvement many hand-held users are dying for — integrated wireless connectivity to the Internet. The company and its partners are working hard toward this goal, but I suspect Palm and its largest licensee, Handspring, will now beat the Pocket PC team to market with new models that have wireless networking built in. Of course, you can connect the Pocket PCs — and today’s Palms — to wireless networks, but only by using extra-cost add-in cards, or heavy “sleds,” which are bulky backpacks that turn the devices into ugly bricks. Compaq especially favors these sleds, but to me they are like buying a small sports car, only to learn that you have to tote the transmission in a trailer attached to the rear. Also, the new Pocket PCs fail to solve the chief hardware weaknesses of their predecessors — high cost and lousy battery life. The new models I tested range from $569 to $649, putting them beyond the budgets of most mainstream individual users. By contrast, the costliest color Palm costs $449, and you can get a color Handspring Visor Prism for $299. As for battery life, most Palm and Palm-compatible models can go weeks on a single charge. But the Pocket PCs, like the laptops they emulate, leave you always worried that the batteries will die. The new Compaq gets a maximum of only 10 hours, with the screen lighting turned off. The Toshiba gets up to eight hours. The HP does better, claiming up to 14 hours, and its battery can be replaced with a spare. But that’s still not very good for a device you carry everywhere. iPAQ pocket PC H3800 series So what’s good about these new hand-helds? Well, the HP Jornada 565 has been totally redesigned. It’s a much better product than before, now almost as thin and light as the Compaq iPAQ. It has fewer and more logical buttons, a much better stylus than before, and still sports an internal slot for a compact flash card that can contain a wireless modem, added memory and more. Compaq’s new iPAQ 3800 is very similar to its predecessor, but now includes an expansion slot. Alas, the slot only accepts the same tiny SD cards that the Palm uses, which don’t yet include modems. But Compaq is offering a model with Bluetooth connectivity built right in. This won’t get you on the Internet directly, but it will allow the iPAQ to link up to cellphones and laptops without cables. Toshiba’s e570, the company’s first hand-held in the U.S., is uglier and stockier than the others, but has two expansion slots: one for compact flash cards, and one for SD cards. So, it’s more versatile. ALL THREE OF the new models, as well as forthcoming entries from Casio and NEC, use a new version of Microsoft’s Pocket PC software, called Pocket PC 2002. This isn’t a major revision, but it does have some welcome tweaks. The graphical design of the software is softer and subtler. There’s now a spell-checker for e-mail and word processing, and you can view graphical e-mail messages. There are canned phrases you can insert in e-mails you compose. These include: “I’m running late” and “I love my Pocket PC!” In the calendar module, small icons now make it easy to switch between day, week and month views (Palm has used such icons for years.) And you can now enter text using a handwriting-recognition system called Block Recognizer that is a copy of Palm’s Grafitti system. But the software still insists on following conventions similar to those used by Windows on a PC, which are often slower and clumsier on a hand-held without a keyboard and mouse. Too many functions still require menus. In the calendar, you have to tap “new” to enter a new appointment, and then “OK” to save it. On a Palm, you can just write on the line next to any open time. So, the hand-held world continues to move in two directions. People with money and a yearning for Windows will continue to buy Pocket PCs. Everyone looking only for the smallest, most efficient hand-helds, will go with a Palm-compatible device. The store is here

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