Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 132 / AUGUST 1991 / PAGE 28

Power in your pocket. (hand-held computers)(includes related article) (evaluation)
by Scott Leibs

Laptop and notebook computers let you take your work where you've never taken it before, but when you're standing at an airport pay phone or making your way through the crowded aisles of a trade show, they simply aren't portable enough.

Fortunately, a recent explosion in hand-held electronic organizers now lets you reach into your pocket and pull out reams of data as well as a variety of powerful applications. Push a few keys, and you can call up phone numbers and appointments, keep track of expenses, and maybe even recommend the perfect bottle of wine at dinner.

In fact there are so many electronic organizers, if you decide you need one, you could get completely disorganized trying to sort through them all. And with new models being introduced frequently and competitors copying each other's best features, the field can seem to be one big moving target. Fortunately, all this competition also means prices are dropping fast.

The first thing to do is set your spending limit; then decide how much computing power you need to hold in your hand. If you want to keep to a minimum the price of your initial foray into this new breeding ground of electronic brains, the DataStor 1000c from SelecTronics might be a good place to start.

This device retails for about $40 and offers the most basic functions--calculator, electronic memo pad, phone directory, and appointment calendar. Just slightly larger than a credit card, it has a two-line screen, alarm, battery-backed memory, and other features. Despite the fact that its limited functionality keeps programming to a minimal level, programming it isn't entirely intuitive--don't throw away the directions. But if you want to keep phone numbers handy and you can keep your memos brief (the non-QWERTY keyboard will likely frustrate anyone accustomed to touch-typing), the DataStor 1000c has its uses. If nothing else, it allows you to invest very little money to find out if you've got what it takes to leave diary and pencil behind and trust your appointments to an electronic device.

Far more function-rich--and expensive--are the high-profile Sharp Wizard and the Casio B.O.S.S. In fact, these are entire families of products, with new models added seemingly every month. They're powerful tools with many built-in features and they're enjoying a boom in the variety of available software.

The Sharp Wizard, the pioneer production in the field, comes in several different models ranging in price from $110 to $360 and weighing from five to ten ounces. The low-cost ZQ series is designed primarily for people who don't have extensive software needs. It has a QWERTY keyboard and up to 64K of memory, and it offers the ability to transfer data among members of the Wizard family (and with some models, between Wizards and IBM-compatible and Apple PCs) by using special cables.

The ZQ series offers built-in functions such as a calendar, calculator, scheduler, phone book, memo feature that can accommodate up to eight pages of data, and, on some models, a built-in ledger that tracks expenses as well as a to-do list that can prioritize activities. Data is displayed either 12 characters by four lines or 16 characters by eight lines.

The more sophisticated OZ series can accept software on smart cards. These credit-card-size circuit boards offer applications ranging from language translators to city guides to a new fax/modern card to--naturally--videogames.

The OZ series also features a much better display of 40 characters by eight lines, more memory, and an expanded array of built-in functions, including a very useful built-in help feature. More software is coming every day (see sidebar), and the devices are proving popular among both consumers and business people. Several corporations, including Pepsi-Cola and Prudential, have bought thousands of units to give to field salespeople and others who need easy access to a wide range of information. San Diego Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine uses a Sharp Wizard to track the performance of minor league players, and New York Mets marketing vice president Jim Ross uses one to store the team's complete schedule as well as a list of good restaurants in each city the Mets visit.

The Casio B.O.S.S. (Business Organizer Scheduling System) is similar to the Wizard in virtually every way. While some Wizard models are meant to be opened like a book, with keyboard on one side and screen on the other, all the Casio models open like a carton of eggs, with the keyboard held in the palm. While recent entries in the B.O.S.S. family accept software and memory upgrades in the form of smart cards, users can also buy some applications on 3 1/2- or 5 1/4-inch disks that must be down-loaded to the B.O.S.S. from a PC. While that's time-consuming, the applications cost only $22.95. As of this writing, such "diskware" includes guides to wine, foreign languages, travel sites, weight loss and nutrition, and horoscopes/lottery numbers. Smart cards from Casio are more business-oriented and include a spreadsheet, expense tracker, and various dictionaries.

Casio has also begun to build some electronic-organizer capabilities into its calculators, allowing users to program in phone numbers and brief memos. And two models of its Digital Diary fall squarely between the B.O.S.S. and upgraded calculators, allowing users to enter not just phone numbers but longer memos and schedules while also providing a month-at-a-glance feature.

Scientists and engineers who'd like a pocket-size tool all their own should take a look at Hewlett-Packard's $350 HP 48SX (for Scientific eXpandable) calculator. This device lets you enter equations as you would write them on paper and provides a new level of graphics and calculus functions. The 48SX also accepts memory and applications smart cards, but be warned: This device is for the mathematically sophisticated. I literally had to read the owner's manual to figure out how to add 2 + 2.

For those who simply can't have enough power in hand, the emerging field of palmtop computers may be the answer. Like personal information organizers, these devices are lightweight (about a pound), can be held in one hand and operated with the other, and accept smart cards.

The similarities end there. The Poqet PC, a pioneer in the field, is a full-blown DOS computer with all the power that implies. The Poqet PC has a 77-key QWERTY keyboard, a display of 80 characters by 25 lines, and four drives (two internal, two that accept smart cards via sliding doors). By cabling to a desktop PC, you can download any DOS application as well as transfer data in both directions. The unit comes with a handful of built-in (ROM-executable) applications, including a word processor, calculator, scheduler, and phone directory. An optional modem, external 3 1/2-inch disk drive, and the ability to expand RAM up to 2MB takes you well beyond the typical electronic organizer, as does the $1,450 list price. In fact, if your eyes are good enough and your fingers small enough, the Poqet PC could satisfy all your portable computing needs. Many other PC makers, including several Japanese companies, are aggressively pursuing the palmtop market, so the options here could mushroom by late 1991.

Atari offers a sort of hybrid between the Poqet PC and the Wizard and B.O.S.S. Its Portfolio is a DOS-compatible $300 device that has five built-in applications (Lotus 1-2-3 file-compatible spreadsheet, text editor, calendar, address/phone directory, and calculator), a 40-character by eight-line display, and RAM expandable to 640K. As with the Poqet PC, one of the beauties of the Atari Portfolio is that it can run for weeks on three AA bateries (the Poqet uses two). A host of optional products, including a PC Card Drive, serial and parallel interfaces, file transfer cables, and 1200-baud modem let the user connect easily between the portfolio and a desktop PC. While the base product doesn't pack the power of the Poqet PC, letting users buy peripherals as they are needed is a sound strategy.

Hewlett Packard's 95LX is the newest palmtop to hit the market. Weighing just 11 ounces with a 40-character by 16-line display, it's somewhat smaller than the Poqet and has 1MB of ROM and 512K of RAM. Designed primarily for spreadsheet users, it has a QWERTY keyboard with separate arrow keys and a separate numeric keypad, and includes ROM-executable versions of DOS 3.22 and Lotus 1-2-3 release 2.2 built in. The 95LX includes an advanced financial calculator and several printer drivers. Along with graphics, database, and macros features, 1-2-3 accessories include a filer, phone book, appointment book, communications module, and memo writer. Suggested retail price for the 95LX is $699.

The real power of the 95LX palmtop comes with an optional Connectivity Pack from Traveling Software that includes DOS Connect, a TSR program that allows the 95LX to act as an additional drive to your desktop PC so you can access files without having to transfer them. The Connectivity Pack contains DOS Connectc software and PC versions of the filer, phone book, appointment book, memo writer, and calculator; merge and translate utilities; and a special serial cable to connect your PC to the 95LX. Although not cheap at $99.95, you'll want the Connectivity Pack if you get the HP 95LX.

The power being packed into these hand-held devices is impressive, but they aren't panaceas. The QWERTY keyboards, for example, are a big improvement over the ABC type that many of the original pocket computer products offered, and the 95LX's separate keypad is certainly an advantage for speadsheet users, but mainly they simplify the search for a given key; touch-typing is virtually impossible due to the small size of the keys and keyboards. And the displays are fine for reading a phone number or entering in a quick note to send so-and-so a business card, but draft a letter or two, and your eyeglass prescription will suddenly be obsolete.

The efforts going into improving laptop screens and finding ingenious ways to make keyboards both portable and full-functioning (and, with folding keyboards, even full-size) are certain to further boost the potential productity of these hand-held devices. Add to that the deep price cuts that intense competition is already inspiring, and business people in all walks of life will soon be reaching for pint-size computers the way they reach for pens today.