When Casio announced that it intended to release a PDA called the Cassiopeia Pocket Manager BE-300 that would utilize its own user interface on top of Windows CE 3.0 rather than Pocket PC, the critics were undoubtedly curious and skeptical.
"What could Casio possibly be thinking?" they asked.
Some analysts speculated that it was the fallout of Microsoft's decision to drop support for other processors, such as the NEC MIPS processor that had graced previous Cassiopeias, and standardize on ARM processors. Others said that Casio simply wanted to release a low-cost device that could be used in vertical markets, right down to loading a custom vertical market image into ROM. From what I can surmise, the impetus for the BE-300 likely incorporates those two reasons, as well as several others.
It's no secret within the industry that several Pocket PC manufacturers had considered creating lower priced Pocket PCs. However, only Hewlett Packard, with its Jornada 525, came close. Still, HP couldn't meet its original goal of building a $199 Pocket PC, which is one of the reasons we believe there's a low-cost Linux-based PDA/calculator in HP's future.
What Pocket PC manufacturers such as HP discovered was that it was nearly impossible to build a reasonably priced Pocket PC and meet the stringent conditions of the Pocket PC license. And I believe that that's the primary reason that Casio built the BE-300. It could bypass not only the cost of the Pocket PC license (rumored to be less than $10 per device) but it wouldn't have to incorporate features such as an infrared port and external speaker, thus deflating the bill of materials and eventually the cost of the device. And Casio could also leverage its prior investments in the MIPS processor architecture (made history when Microsoft rewrote the Pocket PC rules and standardized on ARM processors) and its outstanding STN screen technology. Therefore, it's highly likely that if you snuck a peek inside the BE-300 you'd see a lot of similarities with the E-100 series.
Still, despite Casio's rationale,
the BE-300 is an enormous gamble for Casio and the chips are
still on the table.
The BE-300 Basics
The Pocket Manager BE-300 (US$299) is intended to fill the mid-range in the Cassiopeia product line, between the low-end Pocket Viewers and the high-end Pocket PCs. It is powered by a 166MHz NEC Vr4131 64-bit processor that Casio claims is capable of achieving 280 MIPS. However, it is backed by only 16MB of Flash ROM (5MB of which is dedicated to the operating system) and 16MB of RAM, which is used for running applications. So in reality you only have 11MB of memory for storing additional programs and data. In other words, you'll likely need a storage card for your BE-300.
Still, the performance of the BE-300 was good, not quite the response of the new Pocket PC 2002 devices but more than acceptable for normal usage. And I also did not notice any performance degradation when multiple applications were opened.
The BE-300 has a 240x320, 32,768-color STN display that's somewhat reminiscent of the display in Casio's earlier E-100 devices. However, at only 3.2 inches, it's a bit smaller than your typical Pocket PC screen, such as the Compaq iPAQ's screen, which is 3.8 inches. Also, since it's an STN screen, it's not much good outdoors and there is a slight delay as the screen warms up to its full brightness. Otherwise, it is a very good color display that will satisfy all but the pickiest of users.
Other notable features include a Type II CompactFlash slot, a serial/USB port, and a stereo headphone jack. Also, it uses a rechargeable Li-ion battery, which unfortunately is not user-replaceable.
So, those are the basic specifications of the BE-300. Now let's take a closer look at this unique device.
What's in the box
Inside the BE-300's box are the following:
On the outside
The BE-300 certainly feels more fragile and less substantial than your typical Pocket PC. The reason is simple: it's not a Pocket PC. Casio used lightweight materials in the BE-300, in an effort to minimize weight. For some folks this translates to cheapness, and you'll get no argument out of me. The BE-300 is intended to be less expensive than a Pocket PC, and it shows.
Casio has never been at the forefront of design, and this is reflected in the BE-300's buttons. In an effort to be different, Casio used diamond-shaped buttons rather than standard round or oval buttons. Big mistake. There is a fundamental reason why buttons are round, but Casio must have no clue when it comes to ergonomics. It's difficult for me to believe that this was passed by a single consumer, let alone a product focus group.
Still, one area that Casio truly got it right was in leaving the sides button free. (The only thing you'll find is the reset button.) I've always felt that while a cellphone can be a one-handed experience, a PDA is typically a two-handed experience. Therefore, the preference should be to move the key buttons to the face of the device and leave behind only those occasional buttons, for example the record button. Speaking of a record button, that's yet another thing that Casio left out (as well as a microphone) in its desire to produce a lightweight and low-cost (relative to a Pocket PC) device.
The top of the BE-300 is also relatively feature-free. There's the stylus and the charge indicator light, but again you won't find an infrared port. However, Casio has added a strap hole for those of you who like to tote your PDA around on your neck. (I hear it's very popular in Japan.) I attached a strap called The Teather from The Clip Company just to test it out and it opened my eyes to a new way to carry a gadget.
Finally, the back of the BE-300 is where you'll find the battery door, kept in place with a single screw.
Another thing I really like is the BE-300's cradle pictured below. It features an adjustable slotted tab so that it will accomodate any of the BE-300's add-on (such as the PC Card sled).
The BE-300 sits in its cradle about as solidly as any cradle I've used. And it's nicely bottom weighted for stability.
Speaking of accessories, the one that comes to mind is the PC Card Unit (US$159) pictured below, which I can't wait to get and try out. Casio is also offering its CompactFlash Digital Camera (US$199.99), an auto adapter (US$39.99), an external power pack (US$69.99), a serial phone cable (US$29.99), a CompactFlash modem (US$129.99) and a serial modem (US$149.99). It also lists the GoType (US$99.99) and Targus Stowaway (US$99.99) keyboards in the Accessory Catalog that's included in the box.
On the inside
The biggest downside to the BE-300 is not what's on the outside, but what's on the inside, namely software.
The soul of the BE-300 is the Windows CE 3.0 operating system, which is also at the core of all Pocket PCs. So why isn't the BE-300 called a Pocket PC? Well, that's something that's confused even the wisest of handheld experts, so let me try to explain.
Unlike other Windows products, Windows CE 3.0 is an operating system that cannot be purchased directly by consumers. It is only available to device manufacturers to build into its devices. That's what Casio did in the case of the BE-300. It licensed Windows CE 3.0 and created its Pocket Manager platform on top of that. Its platform consists of the graphical user interface, or GUI, and any other software that it included with the device.
On the other hand, Casio also makes the E-200 Pocket PC. The E-200 uses a platform that Microsoft created using Windows CE 3.0 called Pocket PC. It is intended for a specific type of device (also called a Pocket PC) with specific hardware and performance requirements.
So the E-200 is a Pocket PC that runs Pocket PC 2002, which is built on the Windows CE 3.0 operating system, while the BE-300 is a Pocket Manager that runs Pocket Manager, which is also built on the Windows CE 3.0 operating system.
So if they're both built on Windows CE 3.0, then why do I state that the BE-300's biggest weakness is its software? Well, it's simple: Pocket Manager is no Pocket PC.
Pocket Manager software
The Pocket Manager's synchronization software is called PC Connect, something Casio built on top of Pumatech's Intellisync product. It's simple enough to install and synchronize your calendar (see screenshot at right,) contacts and tasks, but it's not so easy to synchronize files and mail. In fact, I was unable to get my mail (see sample screenshot below) downloaded from Outlook. PC Connect couldn't locate Outlook's mail folder and I couldn't figure out any way to point to it.
Synchronizing files is also a drag. Well, actually it's not a drag. The drag-and-drop ability found in ActiveSync is nowhere to be found in PC Connect. You must set up synchronization folders to import and export files between your desktop PC and your BE-300. And these folders must bear specific names to reflect their contents. For example, the Image Viewer software can only locate pictures in the Photos folder, and the Music Player can only grab songs from the Music folder.
The BE-300 comes with its own set of basic PIM applications--Contacts, Calendar, Tasks, Mail and Notes--loaded into ROM, along with a web browser (nope, not Pocket Internet Explorer) and calculator. Five additional apps--File Manager, Quick View, Music Player, Movie Player and Photo Viewer--are available on the CD and are simple to install. But that's where the software well runs dry. If Casio has its sights set on making the BE-300 a consumer device, then it must rally the software developers around the platform and get some software developed...and soon.
Casio did manage to hit a bullseye in the area of input. Its handwriting recognition software (written by Decuma) is fast and accurate. And its soft keyboard (which I must admit has always been my preferred input method) does Pocket PC's soft keyboard one better. I especially like how easy it is to capitalize letters.
The general navigation introduced by the Pocket Manager software takes some getting used to. The four hardware buttons and directional pad are strictly for navigation. There's the Top Menu Button, used to return to the list of applications; the OK Button, used to invoke a selection from the screen; the Escape Button, used to back out of a screen; and the Power Button. There's also seven icons printed at the bottom of the screen for launching or switching to the common apps.
I hesitate to comment on the navigation other than to say that it's sometimes simple, sometimes confusing. The reason I'm avoiding the issue is that there's a general tendency, or bias, towards a method that you're used to, like Pocket PC or Palm. So I think my opinions in this area are better left unsaid. Suffice it to say that Pocket Manager is not Pocket PC.
The Casio Cassiopeia Pocket Manager BE-300 must find its place in the increasingly crowded handheld computer market. While originally intended as a business device (hence the BE, for Business Edition), it's now showing up in consumer retail stores, such as CompUSA in the United States.
Casio should firmly position the BE-300 for the business market as it will likely have more success offering the device as a customized solution for vertical businesses than it will competing in the consumer market against the likes of Pocket PC and Palm.