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User to User: Uncovering Palmtop Possibilities at COMDEX

Hal roams the halls of COMDEX with Mack Baggette turning up potential Palmtop enhancements.

By Hal Goldstein

 In the "Golden Era" of Palmtop computing, the Fall Las Vegas COMDEX computer show was a gold mine of possibilities for the HP Palmtops. At least I found goodies to write about for The HP Palmtop Paper. For the past couple of years however the show has been a bust. Commercial DOS software has all but vanished from the scene and HP no longer displays anything about the HP 200LX in its showcase. Happily, this year it was different. The industry seems to have finally recognized the potential of the handheld market. Consequently, a number of possibilities emerged that should bear fruit for HP 200LX users.

 This year I spent a lot of time wandering around the show with Mack Baggette, developer of the HP 200LX doublespeed and memory upgrades.
 
 

Mack and Hal's Excellent Adventures
Our first adventure took place at the SanDisk booth. Mack wanted to test his new driver which allows PC Cards with 220MB capacity or greater to run on the HP 200LX. We moseyed over to the SanDisk booth and asked the person in charge if he would "loan" us a spare card for a few hours of testing. SanDisk didn't have any commercial, high capacity cards available. However, they did have, under wraps, a 1.2 GB prototype PC card. 1.2 GB is enough room to store all the data from 833 micro disks or all the data from two CD ROMs. Imagine putting our entire CD InfoBase, including the Gutenberg collection, on a card and popping it your 200LX.

 SanDisk's Senior VP, Leon Malmed, let us test the card. Mack installed his software on the 200LX and successfully wrote data to, read data from, and deleted data from the card. I asked how much the card cost. Leon, with tongue in cheek, told me this card (the only one in existence) would set me back a cool $1.5 million. When Sandisk is ready to ship the card, in about a year, the price will be more reasonable -- probably $2,000-3,000. Thanks to Mack's testing, we already know it works with the 200LX!

 Mack's software PC card driver will be multipurpose. It will read large capacity SanDisk cards, take the place of HP's built-in modem driver and allow low-powered LAN cards to work. We expect to sell the driver commercially in several months and package it free with LAN and large SanDisk cards.
 
 

Low-Powered 56Kbps Modem
Our next adventure led us to Dave Ponce, formerly of EXP, now with New Media. I explained our need for fast, low-powered PC card modems. Dave told me about a project in Brazil where they used a 56Kbps fax/data modem card with the HP 200LX. The modem consumed as little power, both during operation and when idle, as any card he had come across. Mack's independent tests verified Dave's claims. We tracked down the modem and will be offering it in our Ultimate Palmtop Catalog for $99.95.

 This is the fastest modem we have found to work in the HP 200LX. However, the 200LX's CPU and the 16 bit DOS software available for the Palmtop won't push this modem to the limit. Users should expect the modem to operate at about the speed of a 28.8 Kbps or, at most, a 33.6 Kbps modem.

 Given these speed expectations I was pleasantly surprised to get the following e-mail from police officer, friend and neighbor of Mack, and strong Palmtop user, Jeff Johns. (See last issue's profile).

 "Yes, I like the modem. I would recommend it and Mack's tests prove that it is very low-power and in the same class as the X-Jack 14.4 or even better. It can also be powered down by using Stefan's LXCIC while it is in the slot.

 I had some problems initially with it maintaining a connection but after spending some time with AT commands we figured out that using the following commands:

 ATW2S37=30DTxxxxxxx

 x represents the phone number to be dialed, and it works great. The 30 can be raised or lowered to achieve different effects. I found that with my ISP with a value of 30, I am consistently connecting at about 45Kbps. It seems that the LX is able to keep up at this speed when using WWW/LX and when using the EPPPD packet driver, Rod Whitby's LXTCP and his LXTELNET. It seems to work fine about 95% of the time at this fast speed, the other 5% of the time it seems to want to slow down and retrain, but that could just be line noise. I would buy the modem and would recommend it. "
 
 

Keyboards for the Palmtop
For the first time a number of serial touch-typeable keyboards showed up at COMDEX. It seems a lot of Palm Pilot owners are getting tired of scratching out notes on their pocket digital assistant. They want a keyboard for easier data entry. Mack and I talked to several manufacturers. Based on what we saw, we thought we would be able to announce a reasonably priced solution in which the user would simply plug in the HP Connectivity cable to connect the keyboard and the 200LX. As always is the case, the follow-up on this item has taken much longer then we expected.

 In the meantime Mack found a better, although more expensive, solution. HP sells a new serial keyboard for its Windows CE HP 430SE Jornada Palm-size PC. Mack took the Jornada keyboard apart, replaced the HP Jornada serial cable with the HP connectivity cable and wrote a software driver to map the Jornada keyboard to the 200LX keyboard.

 What makes the solution superior to anything we saw at Comdex is the keyboard itself. It has a great feel and it's easy to type on. What's more, it maps almost perfectly to the 200LX keyboard. There are enough extra keys to take the place of the HP 200LX's blue keys. There is an ALT key (which can also serve as the MENU key) and a FN key. Mack wrote his driver to use the additional Windows Start key to generate application keys. If you hold the Start Key down while pressing the first eight function keys, you'll start the HP 200LX's built-in applications. Alternatively, press the Windows Key and the first letter of the application. So, Start Key P starts Phone, Start Key A starts Appointment and Start Key M starts MEMO. (Start Key & starts MORE).

 What makes the solution costly is that we have to buy the HP keyboard (retail $80) through a distributor and there is very little profit margin. In addition we have to either locate no longer manufactured HP Connectivity cables ($40) or have them custom made. Add to that the cost of Mack's software driver, labor, and our profit. Even so, the solution is excellent and definitely worth it if you want to enter data into the 200LX from a full-sized keyboard. Hopefully, we can trim the cost back as soon as we can buy the keyboards directly from the manufacturer.

 As of this writing, we have not located 200LX connectivity cable connectors. That means, in addition to the normal Jornada serial end, we will add a second end -- a standard serial plug. Users can then plug in their own HP Connectivity cable to make the keyboard operational.
 
 

110V/240V Small Adapters
Another popular product that Mack developed is the "one-outlet AC adapter" that we sell in our catalog. This adapter only takes up one electrical outlet whereas the HP adapter can cover up two outlets. Mack's adapter is the better solution if you're using an AC power strip. On the other hand, Mack's adapter can't handle 240V AC lines. Until now, the HP adapter was the only one that could do that. At Comdex we discovered a 110V/240V adapter that is about 60% the size of our current offering. We hope to have these newer adapters for sale in the Fall.
 
 
Backlighting
What can I say?! You're probably as tired as I am of hearing about our well-publicized vaporware product. Will we be able to offer backlighting soon? I think so, but then I've thought so for the past several months. I continue to be pleased with my prototype, but even though I'm the first kid on the block with a backlit Palmtop, I honestly hope I don't become the only kid on the block with one. Our current target for announcing the upgrade is March. However, that target date is only cast in silicon-based memory and there's still an outside chance that we will never offer the upgrade. For the latest on backlighting, you can e-mail me at backlight@thaddeus.com.

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