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November/December 1995

Pen Lab Review

Casio PA-100A

Casio launches a business execution support tool.

First publicly seen in the US at the Chicago PC Expo, the Casio PA-100A represents another innovative step in the evolution of PDAs. Casio is quick to point out, though, that this sleek new machine is not a PDA, but a "pen input handheld terminal for vertical use". We should also mention that the PA-100A is not available in the US yet, though it's been on the Japanese market for over a year. Casio is just now starting to show the unit around to determine potential customer interest, and a number of units should be in the hands of selected VARs by the time you read this.

The first time you see the PA-100A you're surprised at just how small and polished it is. The case has a shiny, smooth, silvery finish and the smoothly rounded soapbar curves of a late model luxury car. Even more eye-catching is the size of the screen: the crisp and clear 5" x 3.5" 480x320 LCD takes up most of the surface of the little Casio. Though the unit is smaller than a Newton MessagePad, the screen is significantly larger. In fact, it's almost as big as that of a 486-based Dauphin DTR-2. On top, unlike most PDAs, the Casio offers four scales of gray, enough to display crude photographs. And the screen can be rotated 90 or 180 degrees, enabling operation both in landscape and portrait mode. The screen is touch-sensitive and can be operated by a finger or with a small black plastic pen that recesses into the case. Weight isn't a factor; the unit weighs just 3/4 pound. You barely notice it in your pocket.

But what about power? Casio's Zoomer isn't known for speediness (unless you run PenRight! on it), and if you're looking for a 486 under the hood of Casio's latest, you'll be disappointed. We're talking 8086-compatible here, not fast enough to run Windows, but plenty fast enough for vertical market applications using PenRight! or HOPE! And unlike most of its potential competitors, the PA-100A runs virtually forever on its four AAA batteries: expect up to 80 hours from a set. This is even more impressive since the PA-100A actually has two CPUs. On top of the 8086-class CPU that handles system management, there is a 32-bit RISC chip dedicated to handwriting recognition. Standard memory is 2MB of RAM. There are also configurations with an additional 2MB or 4MB of Flash. Optional memory cards can boost storage up to 30MB.

The unit has one 350 milliamps PCMCIA Type II slot, a 3-pin RS-232 serial port, and an optical port that can transfer data at speeds up to 2Mbps. The infrared port can also communicate with a special stackable docking unit.

The unit we saw ran MS-DOS, but had Japanese software. A Casio representative said the company was negotiating with Geoworks for porting the GEOS operating environment to the PA-100A. The PA-100 will also run PenRight! and Mobile Computing Systems' HOPE! (High-performance Open Portable Environment) system, making it ideal for speedy vertical applications. Similar to HP's new OmniGo, this unit could have Palm Computing's Graffiti character recognition software integrated into the operating system. The combination of a low overhead OS such as GEOS, PenRight!, and integrated Graffiti would make the PA-100A a formidable handheld terminal for a variety of applications where small weight and size count.

It is too early to tell what the fate of the Casio PA-100A, also called B.E.S.T. (Business Execution Support Tool) will be in the US market. Its large screen and small size puts it into a class of its own, as do battery life and sleek design. A lot hinges on a successful implementation of GEOS . If it runs as speedily and responsively as on the OmniGo, Casio has a hit on its hands, deserving of the B.E.S.T. moniker. Of course, there's still the price to be considered. Initial indications point towards a unit price of slightly below $1,000, a bargain for a vertical market machine.