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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.