Pen Computing Issue #6

August/September 1995

Pen Lab Review

Norand Pen*Key 6100/6600

First look at these outstanding pen handhelds.

Norand (as in basic computing operators "NOR" and "AND") describes itself as "a leading manufacturer and marketer of mobile computing systems and wireless data communications networks used by corporations worldwide to apply information technology in real world distribution and industrial settings." As such, the company concentrates on route accounting, field sales automation, and inventory database management in manufacturing, warehouse, and retail settings. Norand was founded in 1968 in Cedar Rapids, where it is still headquartered, and employs almost 1,000 persons worldwide.
In its illustrious past, there are such innovations as the first hand-held order entry terminal in 1969, the first micro-processor based cash register in 1970, the first micro-processor based hand-held data collection unit, and the first integrated radio data network providing real-time interaction between remote hand-held terminals and a host computer in 1985. In its traditional niche of route accounting, Norand is said to have an 80% market share. Exercising midwestern prudence, Norand held off on pen systems until 1994 when the company launched its PEN*KEY 6300, the first in what is rapidly becoming a whole family of powerful, lightweight and rugged pen units. This year, Norand is branching out even further and leverages its already considerable core mobile systems expertise with substantially broader mobile systems applications based on two totally new pen computers, the PEN*KEY 6100 and the PEN*KEY 6600. As a result, Norand President and CEO Rober Hammer expects sales of pen systems go from 15 to 50% of all Norand terminals.

The Norand PEN*KEY 6100: a small wonder
After reading Norand's original press releases dated June 5, 1995, I couldn't wait to see the larger 6600 model with its Intel 486DX2/50 processor and Windows-capable VGA screen. The smaller 6100 was billed as combining the best of the notebook world-the DOS/Windows standard-with the best of the PDA world-reduced size and weight. I must admit I had my doubts about how Norand could have possibly accomplished this. I was wrong. When Director of Product Marketing Michael Colwell and Marketing Communications Manager Cheryl Wery handed me the little 6100, I immediately knew that Norand had indeed come up with a winner.

Elan Chipset
The Norand PEN*KEY 6100 is the first product resulting from a strategic alliance between Norand and chip maker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). The 6100 is built around AMD's Elan Am386 SC300 chip which roughly has the processing capability of an Intel 386/33 chip. However, the SC300 also includes direct support for video, PCMCIA, bus and memory controllers, power management, and other key features all in one chip. This, and Norand's clever design, result in a handheld computer with a footprint smaller than that of a Newton and a weight of only 22 ounces, just four counces more than a Newton. And yes, the 6100 actually runs Microsoft Windows, making it probably the smallest hand-held Windows machine.

One of a kind
It would, however, be misleading to compare the 6100 with other small Windows-wonders such as enigmatic Dauphin DTR-2 or the Fujitsu Stylistic 500, or even the new Telxon PTC-1134. Those machines weigh over two pounds, have 486 processors and full VGA capabilities and do not look and feel like PDAs, though the Telxon PTC-1134 comes close. The Norand 6100, on the other hand, is so small and light that it can be carried in the palm of one hand without any problem whatsoever. The unit is specifically designed for even the most demanding data collection tasks by offering access to a wealth of applications running under different operating environments which were not previously available in such a small package.

Display: Sharp, but CGA
The 6100's display is a very readable, very sharp 240x320 pixel LCD with a bright, green power-managed backlight. Contrast and legibility are excellent both inside and out in the sun, and the screen contrast compensates automatically for temperature fluctuations that can require constant adjustment in units without this feature. The screen size is almost 5" diagonal, roughly the same as a Newton. It has surprisingly little glare and virtually none of the dreaded parallax effect. Do not, however, expect VGA on the 6100. The display uses the CGA standard. While the choice of an older graphics standard may cause disappointment in some quarters, it is entirely adequate for a data collection device that will most likely be running point-and-click software where good design and legibility are far more important than high res graphics. On the other hand, I was surprised how clear and snappy the minimal version of Windows (the unit we tested only ran the Program Manager) was. Basically, what Norand has done is offer essential Windows capability for those who need it in such a small package. This can be a major selling point even though many applications may use the also available Power PenPal and PenRight! software development environments.

Small but tough
The 6100's tiny 4.5 x 7.0 x 1.25 case is made of very sturdy black plastic with additional rubber guarding the corners, the interfaces, and the keyboard. The case is built to withstand extreme weather conditions and a four-foot drop to concrete. There are none of the creaks and flimsy details that often marr otherwise rugged designs.

Smart power
A true breakthrough awaits in the 6100's power compartment where you find a sleek Lithium-Ion power pack. Lithium-Ion batteries do not suffer from the memory effect that plagues Nickel Cadmium cells. They are also lighter, allowing higher power density. They hold charges better, do not contain environmentally hazardous heavy metals, and can be recharged more often. As if this were not enough, Norand's LiION pack even has a built-in charging and fuel gauge. To check the charge of a spare battery, you simply touch the batteries electrodes and a bank of four LEDs shows how much charge is in the battery. In addition, the 6100 has a built-in battery that retains memory for up to 200 hours. We did not have a chance to verify this, but Norand claims that the battery provides enough charge for a full working day.

A keyboard, sort of
Like older members of the PEN*KEY family, the 6100 has a programmable, reduced keypad instead of a full QWERTY keyboard. The 6100's 16 small numeric keys provide acceptable tactile feedback. Norand also provides changeable keyboard overlays for shifted functions. There is no connector for a full function external keyboard.
The 6100's screen is pressure-sensitive and touch activated. A small plastic pen that cleverly snaps onto a clip right next to the keyboard can be used to point and click or to capture signatures. Depending on the operating environment installed, then 6100 offers various types of handwriting recognition, though we suspect that most data collection programs will be operated by finger and through the keypad.
Since the 6100 is designed for vertical market applications, it can be purchased with integrated standard and long-range laser scanners, a tethered want, CCD and laser scanners. There are also vehicle, single and multi-dock options. The 6100 also has a built-in IrDA-compliant infrared port for peripheral and peer-to-peer communication, RS-232 and RS-485 LAN communication. The unit can connect to a variety of LAN and WAN networks (such as RAM, ARDIS, paging, and spread spectrum). There are, however, no standard sized 9-, 15-, or 25-pin port connectors.
Despite its small size, the Norand 6100 can accommodate either two Type II or one Type III PCMCIA Card. The slots can be used for adding memory and communications options. Standard memory configuration is 1MB FLASH for DOS and BIOS and 2MB DRAM. Both FLASH and DRAM are upgradeable to 8MB without taking PCMCIA slots.
Norand sees a wide variety of applications for the 6100. The company's traditional markets in route delivery, transportation, merchandising, and field service are naturals, but the 6100 may also help Norand expand into health care, field auditing, market research, store ordering, training, baggage service, and car rental.
As far as we're concerned, Norand got the form factor exactly right with its new 6100. The unit is extraordinarily handy, powerful, and probably just what a large number of vertical market clients have been waiting for.

PEN*KEY 6600: full screen, full size, full power
Compared to the diminutive 6100, Norand's other new machine, the PEN*KEY 6600 looks huge. But it isn't. In reality, the 6600 measures only 10.1 x 8.5 x 2.1 inches and weighs just under four pounds, not much for a full-fledged Windows-capable computer with an Intel 486DX2-50 processor.

Full VGA screen
The 6600 has a very sharp, flicker-free 640 x 480 pixel paperwhite VGA LCD display that measures 7.25" diagonally and can display 64 gray scales. Screen contrast and the intensity of the white backlight are controlled by mechanical push buttons underneath the screen. Contrast is automatically adjusted for temperature, and advanced power management turns off the backlight until it's touched by the pen.

Wacom pen
Unlike the 6100, the 6600 has an electromagnetic digitizer with an inductive pen supplied by Wacom. The Wacom is light, sleek, doesn't need batteries, and is clearly our favorite electronic pen... as long as you don't lose it. Replacements aren't cheap. The pen is stored in a clip at the bottom of the computer, not an entirely optimal solution. We'd have preferred a place for the pen to the side of the screen where it can be reached more easily. Norand also delivers the 6600 with a touch-activated screen.

LiION power
Like the 6100, the 6600 comes with a LiION battery pack with built-in charging gauge that you activate by simply touching the electrodes. We didn't run our standard battery rundown benchmarks on this preproduction unit; Norand claims that between the LiION battery and advanced power management, the unit should run for a full working day without recharge.

Plenty of ports
External connections are more plentiful than on the tiny 6100. A water-proof rubber boot covers an RJ-11 jack for an optional internal PCMCIA modem, providing a sealed unit; a standard 15-pin VGA port, and a standard PS/2 keyboard port. There is an optional internal IrDA-compliant infrared port and a number of integrated laser scanner options. A standard 9-pin connector provides RS-232 serial communication, and RS-485 LAN communication is available as well. There is also a proprietary adapter for connection to the Norand Advanced Communication Network (ACN) which supports file management and data distribution between host systems and mobile clients of all sorts (including all Norand 4000 and 6000 Series mobile terminals) running a variety of operating systems.

Memory and expansion
The Norand PEN*KEY 6600 comes standard with 4MB of DRAM, expandable to 16MB, and up to 8MB of FLASH. A wide variety of LAN and WAN options are available. The 6600's two internal PCMCIA Type II (or one Type III) slots are securely located beneath a lockable, water-retardant cover. Like the 6100, the 6600 has two internal boards for flash and DRAM, so upgrades do not take PCMCIA slots.

One tough box
When you pick up the Norand 6600 you get a sense of purposeful ruggedness. There is nothing to break off. The unit doesn't twist or creak and feels rock-solid. Though not particularly small or light, the unit is well designed and ergonomically designed for two-handed operation, and you can even hold it in one hand. Unlike some competing products, the PEN*KEY 6600's screen is just large enough so that you can see what's going on in a high resolution Windows application. An interesting tidbit is that Norand has signed an evaluation agreement with Palm Computing and is trying to develop a special version of the Graffiti character recognizer for the PEN*KEY units.

Bottom line
So how does Norand's first foray into the world of full-function pen computers stack up? The company designed the unit with forms-based decision support and information capture in mind, the type required in field service, utilities, public safety, and home health care applications. As such, the 6600 will be welcomed with open arms by those who seek a much more advanced replacement for their now orphaned GRiDs, NCRs, Samsungs, et al. Not only is the Lithium-Ion powered 6600 with its 486/50 processor and VGA screen a more than worthy replacement for those early hardware vanguards of pen computing, but knowing that a company with the staying power and vertical market integration experience of Norand stands behind the 6600 should make the phones start ringing non-stop in Cedar Rapids.