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Windows CEntral
December 2002

Stuck in Neutral?

I am holding in my hands a new device that really blows me away. It looks like something right out of a science fiction movie, though it seems far more advanced than anything Captain James T. Kirk ever had on the good old Enterprise 1701. It is beautifully designed and sculpted, with every line interesting, purposeful, and just right. Its surfaces feature a gorgeous matte silver powder finish that not only looks like a million dollars, but also provides extra grip. Though sporting the standard portrait-oriented PDA form factor, the device is actually a little clamshell. It opens to reveal a small thumb-type QWERTY keyboard. Above the keyboard are the PDA-standard navigation disk and four function buttons. The display swivels just like those on some of the new Tablet PCs reviewed in this issue of Pen Computing. You can twist it 180 degrees and lay the display flat on top of the little keyboard. The display flips automatically and the device is now a standard PDA. The hinge is relatively thick not only to provide stability, but also because it contains a 640 x 480 digital camera. The camera swivels so that it can look at you or away from you. I turn on the device and I am greeted by the sharpest color display I have ever seen on a PDA. It has 320 x 480 pixels, twice that of my iPAQ 3970. I go outside and see that the display remains readable. It is one of those leading-edge transflective displays that are sharp and bright indoors and reflective outdoors. I tap the main menu button and am greeted with a very well designed vertically scrolling menu system with gorgeous, elegant icons. I see icons for items like "Remote Control," "Camera," "Photo Editor," "Movie Rec," and "Audio Player," in addition to the usual PIM functions and other PDA stalwarts. A handwriting recognition input area pops up or disappears just like in Microsoft's new Tablet PC Edition of Windows XP. Everything is blindingly fast. I walk around the office and shoot some movies. Self-explanatory. Quick frame rate when I play them back. The machine's processor is three times faster than the one used in its predecessor. An incredible device. It's a Sony NX70V running the Palm OS.

Wow. Awesome design, twice the video resolution of a Pocket PC, built-in camera, great looking user interface, blazing speed. When did that happen? I thought Palms were boring little el-cheapo devices that couldn't touch a Pocket PC. I used to pity all those neophytes scribbling onto their crude, barely legible black and white Palm screens while I listened to crystal-clear stereo music, contemplating a real PowerPoint presentation in glorious color in bright sunlight at the same time. No way a lowly Palm could ever touch that. Palm and its minions sold lots of cheap, entry-level PDAs. Pocket PC ruled the high end. Had all the cool stuff, all the technology. All that really mattered.

Not anymore, apparently. Pocket PC 2002 may still be ahead in some areas, but what I saw on that Sony running Palm OS 5 with a Sony-modified user interface was nothing short of amazing. And the hardware is simply lightyears more innovative than the same old, same old I've seen coming out of the Pocket PC camp. And it's not just Sony. Palms, too, have changed. The new Palm Tungsten T, while nowhere near the Sony's league, is an innovative, interesting, cool design. It, too, has higher resolution than any Pocket PC, speed that I as a Pocket PC user can only dream of, and applications that are no longer much behind those on a Pocket PC, if they are behind at all. And that's even before all the Palm third party software.

What does it all mean? I think it means what I have been contemplating in my last few editorials: The Palm camp is moving ahead. The Pocket PC camp is not. At least not at anywhere near the same speed. We're stuck, folks.

Yes, there have been some pretty nice new products. ViewSonic and Toshiba are offering full-fledged Pocket PCs with 300 MHz XScale processors for around US$300, and at least in the ViewSonic that bargain basement price even includes a terrific transflective color display. Hewlett Packard is introducing two new iPAQs, the low-cost iPAQ h1910 and the high-performance h5400 with integrated wireless. T-Mobile and Siemens are selling the same nice HTC-made Pocket PC with Microsoft's Phone Edition software. The new transflective TFT displays are a vast improvement over the reflective ones where the sidelight always resulted in annoying glare and uneven illumination. And the transition from the StrongARM processor to the XScale Application Processor family is underway. Those PXA processors are more efficient in every way and they are faster. We're not seeing the full benefit from the transition just yet because the current hardware and software doesn't take full advantage of them, but once they do we'll see faster and more power-efficient Pocket PCs than ever.

What worries me is the general lack of progress and enthusiasm in the Pocket PC camp. When we published a long, detailed review of the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone Edition, T-Mobile never responded to any of our queries and questions at all. Dell, a newcomer to the Pocket PC camp, likewise never responded to any inquiries. Just about the only exciting Pockert PC offering next to all those cool Palms and Sonys and Handsprings in our office is HP's new iPAQ 5450 and a couple of pics of the iPAQ1910.

In addition, none of those machines break any truly new ground. They look the same, feel the same, and work the same as they always have. The new iPAQs are pretty enough, but there isn't any of the wow-factor bold innovation that marks the new Sonys and Palms. And at the end of 2003, the Pocket PC 2002, which was a minor update to the original Pocket PC software, which was an update of the old Palm-size PC software, is getting mighty long in the tooth. As a result of all this, I continue to use my by now ancient Casio EM500. It does just about everything a brand-new Pocket PC does, and it does some things better.

The current situation is that the once low-tech Palm camp now offers anything from the competent US$99 Palm Zire all the way up to that incredible Sony that retails for US$599. Palms come in all sorts of cool form factors and they can now do amazing things. The gap between Palm and Pocket PC has not only narrowed considerably, but completely closed in many areas, and there are some where Palm has pulled ahead. All that from a company that continues to teeter at the brink of extinction and whose stock continues to drop even after a reverse 20-to-1 stock split. Something is definitely wrong with this picture.

I want to feel proud again to have a Microsoft Windows Powered Pocket PC. I want to feel ahead of the curve. I want something interesting and exciting, not just the same old stuff. I don't want to look at someone's Palm device and feel jealous! So can we please get out of neutral and start moving again? -

Conrtad H. Blickenstorfer

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