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Fall 93 Comdex Review
Each November in Las Vegas amidst hotel's named "Treasure Island", "Circus Circus" and "Caesar's Palace", the mother of all U.S. computer trade shows "struts and frets its hour upon the stage."
By Hal GoldsteinComdex is like an international city that gets erected, prospers and is annihilated all within a period of one week. At this past November COMDEX 170,000 attendees from 100 countries viewed 2200 exhibits. During the week CEO's, the press, industry pundits, vendors, dealers, and consumers hobnob on the show floor, in private suites, and at parties doing business.
I admit it, I look forward to this show each year. It's a Disneyland for computer enthusiasts. Booth after booth after booth of interesting hardware and software. Each year I vow in vain not to get lost in the exhibit hall.
Industry luminaries speak. Lavish parties are thrown. And the backdrop is Las Vegas itself. It's as if you could walk through the pages of a dense computer magazine talking to advertisers and listening to articles.
Show Guide All on My Palmtop
Thanks to the HP Palmtop, I was probably the only attendee that had the contents of the thick 3 pound COMDEX program guide in my pocket. If I wanted to know where the HP booth was or find all booths that exhibited a PCMCIA device or attend all conferences on wireless communications, I would just pull my Palmtop and enter a couple of commands and find my answer. Any doubts from skeptics about the value of an HP Palmtop were dismissed when I demonstrated my alternative to lugging the bulky, heavy show guide.
To accomplish this feat I had to transfer the Folio Views Comdex show guide given to the press on 5 1/4" floppy to my Palmtop flash card. (Folio Views is a program that allows you to put lots of text in a format such that information can be found easily. For example the dense Clinton Health Plan has been put in Folio Views so anyone wishing to study it can find information quickly. We are seriously considering creating a CD-ROM with all past HP Palmtop Papers and other relevant HP Palmtop support material in similar accessible hypertext format.)
I brought my Folio floppy disk over to the HP booth. One of the HP exhibitors was kind enough to let me borrow a Vectra for a few minutes. I used the HP F1015A PC Connectivity Cable to connect my HP 100LX to the Vectra. Then I used ZIPDUP.COM (archived in ZIP163LX (ON DISK ICON)) to copy ZIP.COM over to the Vectra. Running ZIP .COM on both sides I was able to install the 2 MB of Comdex Show Guide files to the flash card on my Palmtop. (If the Vectra had a PCMCIA card drive all I would have had to do is install the floppy disk files directly to my flash card).
At the HP Booth
I spent much of my time at the HP booth meeting subscribers, HP Palmtop vendors and demonstrating the HP Palmtop to potential customers.
I was quite impressed with the HP booth. For years users have joked that HP stands for "high price," and made light of HP's marketing efforts, saying that if HP were to market sushi they would advertise it as cold dead fish. Times have changed. HP was one of the most populated booths at the show, teaming with interested customers and well-presented, well-publicized products. HP microcomputer products are now competitively priced especially its dominant DeskJet and LaserJet printers. (One evening I attended an HP bash celebrating the sale of 20,000,000 DeskJets and LaserJets).
Having said this, I repeat last issue's plea for HP to be more aggressive marketing its Palmtop. What I saw at COMDEX reinforced my thinking. When the show started, I immediately found the HP booth and looked for the Palmtop display. I looked and looked and looked. I found DeskJets, LaserJets, Vectras, scanners, the HP OmniBook, and other equipment in different displays. Finally, tucked away in a little stand in a corner of the HP booth was the 100LX "exhibit".
Hewlett-Packard advertised heavily at the show, at the Las Vegas airport, in the Comdex newspaper. I even saw an ad for HP products on a truck. Ads mention all sorts of HP goodies from LaserJets to OmniBooks, but not once did I see the HP Palmtop mentioned. I hope HP doesn't take its lead in the DOS Palmtop market for granted.
Talking with Two Leading HP Palmtop Vendors
HP is fortunate to have such strong third party products and services associated with its products. (Glance through the many advertisements in this issue.) These products and services make our HP Palmtops more valuable.
At the HP booth I talked with two of the leading manufacturers of innovative products for HP Palmtops: Sparcom's president, Dr. Steve Bares, and ACE Technologies president, Andy Fu.
Steve told me that Sparcom has chosen to develop new lines of application software and connectivity products for the HP 100LX. Sparcom has spent the last nine months studying the PDA/Palmtop market and concluded that HP 100LX consistently out-performed recently introduced pen-based products and super organizers. Sparcom's evaluation criteria included product availability, reliability, operating speed, ergonomic design, user interface and power consumption.
Sparcom has already introduced a number of popular peripherals for the HP 95LX, Drive95 and SmartDock. Sparcom's will introduce three new HP 100LX connectivity products to be test marketed during the first quarter 1994: PrintStation, includes a serial/parallel converter and standard serial connector; Station100, a basic docking station with serial connector and optional communications software; and Drive100, a 3 1/2" serial drive, like the Drive 95. [In the Sep/Oct 93 issue of the HP Palmtop Paper we reported on users who had been able to use the Drive95 with their 100LX. As it turns out most 100LX's will not work with the Drive95, therefore Sparcom does not recommend the Drive95 for 100LX owners.] Also on Sparcom's 1994 product development agenda are PCMCIA-based software applications for the wireless market.
When at trade shows, I am always impressed with the fact that vendors of Palmtop and OmniBook related products all seem to know Andy Fu and have a high regard for him. According to Andy, ACE will continue its commitment developing and adapting products for the HP OmniBook and the HP Palmtops. Those of you who have subscribed to The HP Palmtop Paper know of Mark Scardina's exceptional contributions to the HP Palmtop knowledge and product base. Mark joined ACE as the head of product development in the Summer 1993. Expect to continue to see an array of high quality, well-thought out, and breakthrough products from ACE in 1994.
One of the reasons I am an ACE fan is that being technical Palmtop experts, they truly adapt products to the Palmtop user. For example, many vendors of SRAM and Flash cards include Stacker, a file compression program. That way the user effectively doubles the amount of disk space available on the card. The ACE Double Card uses Stacker. However, ACE developed their own driver optimized for the Palmtop user. As an unadvertised example, the ACE driver corrects a serious bug in the HP 95LX that can result in a corrupted C drive and lost data. (If you press (CTRL)-(<Shift>)-(ON) to reset the HP 95LX and it is configured with less then 512K of System RAM, there is a good chance you will corrupt the C drive.)
On the other hand, we have received complaints from a few subscribers about customer service problems at ACE. Mark and Andy, both very customer-oriented, have assured me that things are now under control and want to make sure all customers, past, present and future are satisfied.
The PCMCIA Room
This was the first COMDEX where PCMCIA cards have made it to the mainstream. Vendors offering cards could be seen throughout the show. In addition, the PCMCIA committee itself sponsored a 4000 foot showcase with 100 companies featuring over 100 PCMCIA-related products..
Until the 2MB HP 100LX (see pages 6 and 10), HP Palmtop users have mainly been concerned with PC memory cards rather the I/O cards. For most users, Fax/Modem and other I/O cards have not been practical since there has been a limited amount of storage space on the HP Palmtop C: drive (see I/O article). The 2MB HP 100LX offers a whole new world of possibilities for HP Palmtop users.
SunDisk Flash RAM Cards
I had a long discussion with Nelson Chan, the Director of Marketing for SunDisk. SunDisk Flash RAM products have played a major role in the evolution of the HP Palmtop as a useful tool. Flash RAM PC Cards supply more file storage space at significantly less cost per megabyte than SRAM PC cards. Furthermore, while SRAM cards are battery-backed, Flash RAM is non-volatile, which means the chances of losing Flash RAM data is greatly reduced.
The only thing stopping users from purchasing flash cards is the price. EduCALC, 800-677-7001, at the first of January is selling SunDisk's 10MB card for $739. However, prices are volatile. EduCALC is selling a similar card with an Epson label and file compression software for $539. I asked Nelson how fast he thought prices would go down and how much capacity will increase. Nelson told me that very conservatively, we can expect the cost per flash megabyte to halve each year. Similarly, we can expect the capacity of the SunDisk cards to double each year. (A 40MB uncompressed Flash Card was recently introduced for about $2000).
Another interesting point that came up was that SunDisk is the source of all PCMCIA ATA Flash Cards offered for the HP Palmtop. Hewlett Packard, ACE, EPSON are some of the companies that have OEMed (put their name on) the SunDisk card. These companies can add value by bundling compression programs or other utilities or drivers, but the card itself originates with SunDisk. SunDisk also has a distribution agreement with six Pacific RIM companies. These organizations serve SunDisk not only as distributors. They also work with SunDisk to insure that new computers from Asia are designed capable of reading SunDisk cards. (The HP 95LX needs a special "driver" installed in order to recognize SunDisk cards. The HP 100LX and OmniBook were designed to be able to utilize SunDisk cards.)
Seagate, a major manufacturer of disk drives now owns a significant portion of SunDisk. Nelson Chan told me of a SunDisk/Seagate plan similar to the way Gillette marketed razor blades at the turn of the century. (Gillette sold the razor real cheap, or gave it away, and made all their money on the blades.)
The SunDisk/Seagate plan is to sell more SunDisk cards by selling new Seagate PCMCIA drives for PC's near cost. That means a consumer will be able to purchase an internal PCMCIA drive for his PC for around $80. PC manufacturers will be able to add a PC drive to their systems for, say, $50. I have a PC card drive for both home and work desktop. Transferring files between Palmtops, OmniBook and Desktops is as easy as removing and inserting a PC Card into the HP Palmtop. Inexpensive PC drives in desktop PC will be a boon to PC memory card users.
Epson is making a major push in the PCMCIA area. They are one of SunDisk's suppliers making the flash card, and now they sell flash cards with their label. I was sent a 10MB Epson card to test. I was pleasantly surprised to learn it was a new 5 volt card which will work in both the HP 95LX and the HP 100LX. A disk comes with the necessary drivers for the HP 95LX. It works right out of the box on the 100LX.
It comes with Stacker compression software on the disk. My plan was to use the card on my HP OmniBook and from time to time in my HP 95LX and HP 100LX. I did not want to use Stacker because its drive takes precious DOS system memory from my OmniBook which I did not want to give up. It took me a few minutes to realize that in order eliminate stacker, I had to install it from the files on the card and then remove it.
After talking with SunDisk, I walked over to DataBook, maker of PCMCIA drives. I asked if they feared Seagate and their inexpensive drives. They didn't appear worried -- they felt in the next few years the demand for the drives with different variations will be huge. For example, the Seagate drives will read PC memory cards but not PC I/O cards such as Fax/Modems. On the other hand, PC's with DataBook internal drives can use PCMCIA Fax/Modems. DataBook also has PCMCIA drives that connect to the PC parallel port.
Last issue we listed the known information on Fax/Modem cards and the HP Palmtops. Mark Scardina furthers our knowledge base with his article this issue (page 24). As people have more experience using these cards with the new two megabyte 100LX, we will report their findings.
My main recommendation for those wanting to get fax/modem card now is to purchase one that the manufacturer has spent time customizing, or has at least tested on the HP Palmtops. Ask him if both the fax and modem and the fax and modem software have been tested on the 100LX. Another strong consideration will be how much of the limited C: drive disk space the fax software requires. It may take a little, a lot, or it may reside on the fax/modem card itself, thus saving precious HP Palmtop C drive space. (A smaller fax program on the C: drive leaves you more room for data files, but smaller fax programs may not be sufficiently robust or user-friendly to meet your needs). Here is a brief, first impression discussion of some of the fax/ modem manufacturers I saw at the show.
New Media PalmModems
We have devoted the most The HP Palmtop Paper space discussing the New Media PalmModem. They were the first (and only) company to support the HP 95LX. They also have a HP 100LX version. There fax and communications software is built into the card. I have heard very good reports on these cards from pleased users. The only negative is that you are restricted to using the fax and communications software supplied on the card.
New Media has three modem cards for the HP Palmtops. The original PalmModem for the HP 95LX is a PCMCIA 1.0 card which includes on the card PalmFax and PalmTerm software and 128K of memory to translate text data to fax data. It can send faxes at 4800 bps and data at 2400 bps. It has an external DAA with RJ-11 connection. A version of the PalmModem is also available for the HP 100LX.
Since the software resides on the card it doesn't take any space on the C: drive except a configuration file and phone book file that take a minimum of 572 bytes. It does use 210K of System RAM when running. The PalmModem does not support the built-in DataComm on either Palmtop or cc:Mail on the 100LX.
The 24/96 Data/Fax Modem is a PCMCIA 2.1 data/fax modem for products like the 100LX that except release 2.0 PC cards. It comes with Windows programs not compatible with the 100LX. You can use the 100LX's built-in DataComm and cc:Mail programs, but for you'll have to find your own fax software.
EXP ThinFax Basic-LX
As I walked by the EXP booth at COMDEX, I immediately spotted an HP 100LX. It contained an EXP ThinFax fax/ modem card with a phone line connected to it. I asked them if I could fax my home office a message and they readily agreed. I typed in my Memo message, pressed a couple of keys and the fax was sent in seconds. The transmission was so fast, I called my Fairfield office to confirm the receipt of the fax.
The ThinFax Basic-LX is a PCMCIA 2.0 fax/modem card, with fax send at 9600 bps, fax receive at 4800 bps, modem speed of 2400 bps and includes software designed specifically for the 100LX.
The fax software, Mini Fax 3.0, resides in ROM in the modem card and doesn't use up any space on the C: drive. The software is System Manager compliant for the 100LX with the same interface as the built-in applications and allows use the PHONE application as a fax telephone directory. Because the 100LX doesn't support "execute in place" from the PCMCIA card, the Mini Fax software is copied to System RAM to run, but uses less than 64K. The card is designed so that the ROM software can be upgraded by down loading a file form EXP's BBS.
To send a FAX the software converts an ASCII file to a fax file which can include a cover page. It can send multiple pages but only one FAX at a time. It also can receive Faxes but this depends on the memory available in the C: drive. The received faxes can be viewed and you can preview a fax before it is sent. The card supports the 100LX built-in DATACOMM and cc:Mail programs. The ThinFax Basic-LX will be available beginning of February 1994.
As I walked the miles of booth space, I was always surprised to discover the appearance of a HP 95LX or an HP 100LX. The DataTrek booth like the EXP booth had a 100LX on display with a fax modem card. Fax software was also included in their "ComCard". The company had documentation specific to the 100LX. As a consumer, that makes me feel much more confident.
ComCard-1 is a 2400 bps modem/ 9600 bps FAX. ComCard-2 is a 14,400 bps Fax/Modem. Both cards include error correction, data compression and power management. It connects to phone lines through external modules which allow comparability with international phone company standards and switching between voice and data.
The software comes on disk. Along with DTFAX and Eclipse for Windows, it includes MicroFax for the 100LX, which installs as an icon in Application Manager. The software takes up approximately 47K on the C: drive and uses about 75K of System RAM. It can handle multi-page Faxes and can send up to 3 files at a time. The software is send only and does not include a viewer. The modem is compatible with the built-in DATACOMM program and should support cc:Mail which was not tested.
Both modem cards are currently available. ComCard-1 has been shipping since August 1993 and ComCard-2 started shipping in December 1993.
Unfortunately, I missed Jack Yu of Chaplett at his booth. Their software is not built into the card. However, the fax software only takes about 200K. We have heard good things from our subscribers not only about their EgoFax/Modem card but about Chaplett's technical support.
The Ego Fax/Modem is PCMCIA 2.0, with 14,400 bps send and receive speeds for both fax and modem. It has hardware data compression and low power consumption (10ma in sleep mode). Designed for the US market it has internal DAA, comes with an RJ11 cable that plugs directly into the card. Customer have reported using the modem in other countries with an RJ11 adapter for the local countries phone system.
It is compatible with the 100LX built-in DATACOMM and CC:MAIL. It comes with 100FAX, fax software for the 100LX which runs in DOS only, and fax and DataComm software for the HP OmniBook. 100FAX allows you to send, receive and view a fax or print to a fax machine. It requires 300K bytes disk space on the C: drive and needs 230K bytes of System RAM to run. The software comes on disk and has to be transferred to the 100LX using the HP Connectivity Pack or another data transfer program.
The Ego/Fax modems are available now, and have been shipping since September 1993.
External Fax/Modem Alternative
Many subscribers use an external modem with the HP Palmtops. Even with the new 2MB 100LX, external modems make sense if you have files on a memory card you have to access while using the modem. Many external fax/modem units are available. Most work with the 100LX, some work with the 95LX. (See modem article on pages 14-18 of the Jan/Feb 93 issue for more on modems that work with the 95LX.)
One popular battery powered modem that a lot of CompuServe forum members like is the Practical Peripherals PM1440FX PKT external fax/modem. It's also an "Editor's Choice" from PC Magazine for portable fax/modems. It's small (see photo), has lots of LEDs flashing on and off to let you know what's going on, and transfers data well, even on bad phone lines. It comes with an AC adapter, an external battery pack of four AA batteries, and a carrying case.
You can connect it to the Palmtop with serial cable and adapters, or use one of Shier Systems custom HP/PPI cables ($35) to connect.
The price just went down from $499 to $399, but it's still a bit pricey. Check discount sellers and you should be able to get a better price.
Other I/O cards
Fax/Modems are the first widely available PCMCIA I/O (input/output) cards. However, as time passes we will see more innovative possibilities for the HP Palmtop PCMCIA slot. These other PCMCIA card types such as wireless receivers, SCSI and VGA adapters, and smart cards are just beginning to be introduced. (See sidebar). Power requirements and HP 100LX incompatibilities may impede the use of these cards with the HP Palmtop for a little while. But I bet a year from now HP 100LX users will have an array of possibilities for their PC Card slot. The new two meg 100LX helps as it relieves some of the storage space concerns. HP 95LX users must remain content with PC Memory cards and the New Media PalmModem.
Smart PC Card
The portability of computers makes possible the wide dissemination of sensitive or proprietary information. Protecting that information is becoming a major issue for information owners and providers. GEMPLUS Card International Corporation has come up with a solution that uses some of the same technology that is being used in the "smart" credit cards in Europe.
The Smart PC Card is a Type I releases 1.0 and 2.0 PCMCIA memory card with 128K bytes of flash memory (larger sizes available). More importantly, the Smart PC Card also has a microcontroller chip that maintains secret security keys, codes, password control, message or file ciphering/ deciphering, and more.
The Smart PC Card can be used wherever information or programs with financial or intellectual value are to be used on portable computing devices. For example, sales personnel could carry a proprietary database with contact and product information. Consumers could carry "smart" credit cards with up-to-date personal financial data.
HP 95LX users were the first users to notice New Media's technical wizardry with the PalmModem fax/modem PCMCIA card for the HP 95LX. No other company has been able to create a PC Card I/O card for a PCMCIA version 1 slot. New Media is a startup company devoted to producing PCMCIA cards. I was quite impressed when I visited their booth at COMDEX.
The first thing I noticed at the booth was a 100LX connected to a CD ROM drive and some speakers. As you can see from the above photo which also includes a hard disk, this is accomplished by using a PCMCIA SCSI card. (The advantage of a SCSI interface is that you can chain a number of SCSI peripherals one SCSI port such as a PCMCIA SCSI card.) This HP 100LX stereo system was playing music. It could also run CD ROM software that doesn't require high resolution graphics (more than CGA). The SCSI card for the HP 100LX is not shipping because problems such as power issues have not been worked out and New Media is not sure of the demand.
New Media also displayed a number of other innovative cards such a SVGA card, a Wave Sound card, and network cards. The SVGA card will let HP OmniBook users access a desktop color VGA monitor. The WAVjammer is the world's first PCMCIA sound card. The WAVjammer samples up to 44.1KHz at 16 bit samples per second for CD quality recording and playback. The NewMedia 10Base-T and 10Base2 Ethernet LAN card contains device drivers, diagnostics and power-on selftest.
At this point none of these products work with the 100LX.
I was also impressed by a demo at the Pacific RIM booth. Pacific RIM makes parallel port peripherals such as a 3 1/2" portable disk drive for the HP OmniBook. Pacific RIM is developing a PCMCIA card that will work in conjunction with their peripherals. Soon you should be able to plug one of these cards into an HP 100LX. From the 100LX you could then drive a Pacific RIM CD-ROM drive, a disk drive, or a hard disk. Expect this product to be released in a couple of months.
Games of the month
I am now successfully playing bridge(ON DISK ICON) (37K Dieted), gin rummy, and cribbage on my 100LX. (Bridge can work on the 95LX with scrolling. But it sometimes locks up the computer.) Tom Gibson, who is in charge of all our mailings at Thaddeus Computing, found an old shareware bridge game. It allows bidding and playing and includes some options (like always deal me the best hand). It's been years since I played much bridge, so for the casual user such as myself it plays a nice game.
I have taken to browsing sections of software stores that sell games or have sales. I have often stumbled on older software that will work on CGA graphics for $5-$20. Most of this software should run quite well on the 100LX. I came across the CD Game Pack from Software ToolWorks on CD-ROM. Most of the games seem to run. I liked Cribbage and Gin Rummy where you can even select the personality of your opponent.
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