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User to User: HP 200LX Alive and Well, Thank You!

User to User: HP 200LX Alive and Well, Thank You!

At Comdex, HP shows its notebook-sized Jornada, a new kind of Windows CE product.

By Hal Goldstein

I recently returned from Fall Comdex in Las Vegas, where 200,000 attendees visited some 2400 computer exhibits. Windows CE hardware and software was present everywhere! Even so, I came away believing more firmly that the HP 200LX will be a viable choice for the foreseeable future.

Where are the Palmtops?

Strangely, manufacturers did not promote palmtops -- HP 200LX-sized Windows CE devices. If you looked hard, palmtops a little larger than the HP 200LX, could be found in the HP and Sharp booths. Rather, a half a dozen manufacturers proudly displayed PalmPilot-sized Windows CE devices. Even more notably, a new category, the small notebook-sized "Handheld PC Professional" (H/PC Pro) appeared at the HP, Sharp, Vadem, NEC, LG Electronics, and Hitachi booths. HP, the first to ship, showed off its Jornada 820.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that HP 200LX-sized keyboard units are best suited for vertical markets and do not have broad-based appeal. On the other hand the success of the PalmPilot suggests that there is a large market for palm sized units that synch easily with a desktop and carry basic contact and appointment book information. Similarly, manufacturers apparently believe the larger H/PC Pro will achieve widespread acceptance.

Why an H/PC Pro When You Can Buy a Laptop?

The obvious question, why are so many manufacturers introducing H/PC Pros, especially now that notebook prices and sizes are coming down. After all, you can buy a low end Windows 98 notebook for $1000, the price of a Jornada. How well manufacturers can communicate the answer to its corporate and consumer clients will determine the success of the H/PC Pro.

So, why an H/PC Pro? Imagine an enlarged HP 200LX with color screen and touch-typeable keyboard. Suppose it could handle all your email, Web browsing, and desktop PIM synchronization requirements. Instant on, long battery life, light weight, small footprint ... you get the idea.

Right now I am writing this article in a cramped coach airline seat with two burly passengers on either side of me on a 4-hour flight to San Francisco. A passenger next to me, after struggling with his bulky laptop, is now getting a low battery warning. I continue typing away on my NEC 750C Windows CE machine that I described a few issues ago.

There are advantages to the H/PC Pro over a Windows 98 notebook. Like the HP 200LX, an H/PC Pro comes with lots of built-in software in ROM that just works. No installation. No corrupting or deleting key files by mistake. Built into all H/PC Pros are Windows CE pocket versions of Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, Internet Explorer, and Outlook (for email and PIM functions). These and third party apps synch with the desktop versions automatically. Bottom line: total cost of ownership as well as general frustration level is much lower with an H/PC Pro than a Windows 98 notebook. Lots of corporations will seriously look at these machines as cost-effective solutions for mobile professionals who do not have large processing or storage needs.

The Answer for Your Non-Technical Friends?

Microsoft from the start has dubbed Windows CE handhelds, "PC Companions". Easy, fast synchronization between desktop data and the PC companion, has been Windows CE strongest virtues. This strategy targets the business desktop user. However, if Windows CE manufacturers are unwilling or are unable to educate the average consumer, I think they are missing a huge market.

How many times have you been asked by non-technical friends, what computer should they buy? Most would-be users want email and Internet. Maybe they also want to do some light word processing and personal finance. They don't really want to devote a desk or a room to a computer. They certainly do not want to struggle learning and "fixing" their (Windows 98) computer. They want to be able to press a button and start working.

It seems to me a $800-$1000 Windows CE Handheld PC Professional, perhaps with a printer and a flash card, is an excellent choice. What do you think?

What about the 200LX?

So where does all this leave the HP 200LX? I think in surprisingly good shape. All the DOS software and great PIMs will continue to make it both a solid general, as well as vertical, solution for years. The fact that Windows CE manufacturers are down-playing the palmtop form factor (and making CE versions too large in the first place) will only add to the HP 200LX staying power. Many of us realize that the HP 200LX is a great size -- the best of a Jornada and PalmPilot: it fits in your pocket and you can do a reasonable job typing on it.

My conversations with HP indicate that HP has no intention of obsoleting the HP 200LX. It seems that manufacturing, distribution, and sales of the HP 200LX are on automatic. At the same time HP has no plans to either market or enhance the HP 200LX platform.

The most important function missing from the HP 200LX is synchronization. Many users would like to synch with Microsoft Outlook. Several programmers have said they are working on this. Hopefully, I'll be able to report a solution soon.

That synchronization function which is the strength of Windows CE is also its weakness. Windows CE shares the look but is a totally different operating system then Windows 98. The files are not compatible. You can't directly read desktop Word or Excel files into a Windows CE machine. You have to synchronize first. Personally, I don't like messing with serial cables and software. Somehow, no matter how easy the process is supposed to be, often something goes wrong. I like moving files from my desktop and notebook to my HP 200LX via PC Cards.

A final wish. I wish that the color screen H/PCs could use regular alkalines (or at longer lasting lithium Energizers.) That way, in case of an emergency on long trips or while traveling in foreign lands, backup battery power would always be available. Rather, H/PC's with color screens commonly use lithium ion rechargeables, which admittedly are better for the environment and give acceptable performance.

Windows CE Goodies for the HP 200LX

HP 200LX users hopefully will benefit from all the Windows CE product development. In particular, I have high hopes for new low-powered storage and I/O CompactFlash cards. Any CompactFlash card using an inexpensive adapter, meeting the CompactFlash specification, potentially can be used in the HP 200LX PC card slot.

Sandisk, just announced 64, 80, 96, and 160MB CompactFlash cards. The advantage over full-size PC cards is that they can be used in more devices including most digital cameras. Iomega and IBM showed two other novel solutions for data storage that may eventually work with the HP 200LX. Iomega's Clik! Drive (www.iome ga.com) reads a tiny $10, 40MB Clik! Disk. Iomega offers solutions whereby the disk can be accessed in a CompactFlash or PC card slot. IBM promised a 340MB shock resistant, mechanical drive (microdrive) that works in a CompactFlash slot at around $1 per megabyte. No shipping date given.

More exciting to HP 200LX users are new low-powered CompactFlash-sized I/O (input/output) cards. We spoke at length to Pretec about its 56K CompactModem and 10BaseT and 10BaseT/2 CompacLAN cards. Ready first quarter 1999, are CompactParallel and CompactSerial. Second quarter comes CompactGPS, CompactSSFDC (smart card reader), CompactSCAN, and CompactIRDA. We will be testing these products on the 200LX, and as necessary writing custom software drivers. Hopefully, I will be able to report success in future columns.

HP Jornada 820 H/PC Pro - $999

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