The HP 100LX: More Than An Upgrade

The new HP 100LX is a fully PC-compatible palmtop computer with an improved library of built-in applications, a CGA-compatible display, a 9-pin serial port, and longer battery life.

By Mark Scardina

After waiting two years for the palmtop market to catch up, Hewlett-Packard has sprinted back into a comfortable lead with the introduction of the 100LX Palmtop PC. HP positioned the 95LX primarily as a Lotus companion and organizer. HP does not consider the 100LX as a replacement or upgrade to the 95LX, but is touting it as a fully capable palmtop PC. HP will continue to distribute the 95LX as it has in the past, but will distribute the 100LX through HP's PC dealer network. Retailing at $749, HP is aggressively marketing this ground-breaking product.

HP 100LX Keyboard Layout:  Graphic

 Physical Size and Keyboard Layout

I was grateful to see that the strengths of the 95LX have carried over. The 100LX is the same pocket size as the 95LX and boasts the same robust construction. The most notable visual improvement is the keycaps -- black letters on light gray tops. This change significantly improves readability of the keys.

Users who do a lot of text entry may bemoan the retaining of the numeric keypad. An embedded keypad could have meant larger keys and easier typing. However, the keyboard now more closely resembles a standard PC-compatible AT keyboard. The !@#$%^&() keys are now in the shifted positions above the fifth row of keys. In fact, any key that can be generated on a standard PC- compatible AT keyboard can be generated on the 100LX.

The Shift keys are in the same locations, but the CHAR key is gone. In its place is a more traditional function key ((Fn)), which is used to access dual key functions such as HOME, END, INS, etc (the 95LX used the SHIFT key for this). Finally, the Fn key is used to access some new shortcut keys for the CUT, COPY, and PASTE functions as well as new current DATE and TIME insert keys.

New, More Readable Display

The new display is the 100LX's next, most noticeable change. The 100LX has a 640x200 CGA compatible screen, different from the 95LX's non-standard screen. HP engineers have totally rewritten the software to take advantage of the screen. Instead of the Lotus 1-2-3-based menu system, the 100LX has a more Windows-like graphical user interface, complete with pull-down menus and dialog boxes. The higher screen resolution lets the 100LX display more characters and rows. The built-in applications now function in a standard 64-column-by-18-row mode. At this size, the characters look smoother than the 95LX characters due to their 8x12 pixel bit mapping. They are also half the size of the 95LX characters.

Fortunately the display mode MEMO and text-based DOS applications easily toggled to a 40x16 with the Zoom key (press (Fn)- (<Spacebar>)). This is especially handy for applications requiring extended text entry.

The 100LX characters have greater resolution. However, because the pixel ratio is different on the two palmtops, the characters on the 100LX appear squattier with greater character separation.

64X18 Display Mode in MEMO:  Graphic

40X16 Display Mode in MEMO:  Graphic

80X 25 Display Mode in MEMO:  Graphic

 In addition, you can press the Zoom key combination again ((Fn) (<Spacebar>)) to toggle to a standard but small 80-column- by-25-row display. This display is a great addition for users of standard DOS programs, but try it before counting on its usefulness. My guess is that HP developed the 64x18 mode because the 80x25 mode was a bit small.

Full CGA 4 color mode is supported (colors are mapped to gray scales).

HP 95LX graphics mode is supported, which means that you can display .PCX graphics developed for the 95LX. However, the 240x128 95LX screen is mapped into a 480x128 centered window on the 100LX. Because of this, the graphic appears stretched on the 100LX.

Improved Performance

Not only has the 100LX been physically enhanced but it has been given a big boost in performance. A brand new PC on a chip from Intel has been used that is 80186 compatible and runs at 7.91MHz. This results in a 66% increase in speed. This coupled with a CGA graphics accelerator results in very impressive performance.

The total available RAM is still1MB, 10K to 636K of which is allocatable for System RAM. However, the 100LX has 2MB of built- in software on ROM, twice the amount of the 95LX.

Increased Battery Life; Charge Batteries Internally

Usually, an increase in performance means a reduction in battery life. This is not the case with the 100LX. My tests revealed a 66% reduction in power consumption which should effectively TRIPLE its battery life as compared to the 95LX. The 100LX can also internally charge NiCd batteries. Nickel-Metal-Hydrides are not recommended, but this pertains to charging them onboard, not in using them. Lithium batteries are also not recommended, but can be used. Remember that lithium batteries last a long time, but once they start to die, they die quickly. With lithium batteries, once you get a low-battery warning it may be too late to save files you are currently working on.

Memory Card Slot and Other Hardware Features

The single memory card slot has been retained, but it is now PCMCIA 2.0 compatible. This means that the 100LX will be able to use RAM cards up to 64MB (when they are developed). In addition, I/O cards such as modems and LAN adapters cards can be used with the 100LX, if the card is rated at 150ma or less. Because of the power drain of such devices, the 100LX should be connected to an AC Adapter when they are being used.

Another surprise is that the 100LX provides built-in support for the Sundisk flash cards. You no longer have to install drivers. Just slip the cards in the slot and you're ready to go. In fact, HP is offering both a 5M and 10M Flash cards as accessories. (HP will sell 512K and 1MB RAM cards until current supplies run out.) These are 12V cards and cannot be used on the 95LX. However, owners of the older 5V Sundisk cards can use them on the 100LX provided that the unit is off when they are inserted (recommended for all memory cards).

Existing SRAM cards work fine with the 100LX. However, if you are using specialized compression software, such as DoubleCard, you should contact the source company for 100LX setup instructions.

Serial and Infrared Ports

One cause for rejoicing is the 100LX's new serial port -- it's a true RS-232 compatible port. While it still sports a proprietary connector, all of the signals are provided. This means that you will be able to use most modems with the 100LX, as well as communications and other software that relies on a standard RS- 232 port.

The downside is that some communications programs may not run while System Manager is present. The IR port has been enhanced to support high speed communications. While it allows for 115K baud selection, the actual transfer speed I attained was closer to 9600 as opposed to 2400 baud on the 95LX..

New, Better, Built-in Applications

Not only has HP improved the built-in applications, but they've also doubled the number of them. (See end of article for a listing of built-in applications and their features.) HP carefully compiled thousands of customer requests and then wrote most of the software themselves. The best of the new application, in my opinion, is the new Database program. This flat file database is very flexible and a breeze to set up. In fact, it's the foundation for Appointment Book, Phone Book, and Note Taker.

DOS and System Features

Data safety and security is more emphasized in the 100LX. Most applications automatically save your data as you are entering it. While the Global Password function is gone, individual files can be password protected. One caution is that if the application is editing a file stored on a memory card, don't pull the card or you may lose data.

DOS compatibility and its accessibility has been greatly expanded on the 100LX. Besides the keyboard and display enhancements discussed above, HP has provided no less than seven ways to access the DOS prompt. I will be discussing this in more detail in future issues, but three of those ways are as follows: You can launch a program in a pre-defined partition (i.e. set aside a specific amount of system RAM for the program to run in); you can run the program from System Manager like you did with the 95LX; or you can exit System Manager completely and launch the program from DOS. With the first two methods, you can still access your built-in applications without quitting the DOS application.

One downside is that the new and improved System Manager is a larger program, taking up twice as much system RAM when running, and leaving about 420K for DOS programs. However, because the 100LX only loads small portions of its data files at a time, the size of Phone Book, Appointment Book, and other built-in application data files are only limited by the amount of disk space available (maximum of 5,000 records).

One other concern for 95LX users is that when a DOS application is launched, the default mode is CGA. Many of the third party applications written for the 95LX assume MDA mode and will launch with a blank screen. Fortunately, the graphics display mode can be switched by either the DOS MODE command or a small utility called MONO8025.COM.

DOS 5.0 is provided in ROM, but only a small subset of the external utilities are included. Fortunately, the DOS desktop 5.0 utilities work fine.

The D drive now contains the ROM files. CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT startup files are now included in ROM. In addition, the 100LX has the ability to select the boot drive on startup. This eliminates the problem encountered on the 95LX where you needed to reinitialize the RAM disk if the start up files become corrupted.

There appears to be a high level of compatibility between the 100LX and 95LX system compliant software. However, if the 95LX software was written to directly access information in specific locations of the 95LX's built-in software, there may be problems running it on the 100LX. For example, myREMOTE writes directly to the registers that control the 95LX's Infrared port. While these registers exist in the 100LX, they are in different locations. Similarly, 95Buddy, written for the 95LX, will not work on the 100LX. Users should contact the software developer for help.

The only 95LX feature that has been eliminated is the digital sound capability. PC sound is still available.

The Connectivity Pack should be available in late June. Until then the 95LX version can be used if you have the 100LX cable. Included with the Connectivity Pack will be a Redirector application to allow the 100LX to access a desktop PCs peripherals and drives. Expanded conversion and reconciliation utilities are promised.

Palmtop Tour-de-force

The HP 100LX once again demonstrates Hewlett-Packard's technological superiority in the palmtop arena. While some users may find the display too small or the menus not as efficient, overall the 100LX is a much more capable and easy-to-use product. The 95LX is not being discontinued and I am equally looking forward to what HP may have in store for it. Run, don't walk to your local HP dealer for a test drive.

PC Memory Cards

HP 100LX Built-In Applications and Some of Their More Important Features