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Compact Confusion

Ultra-lights, handhelds, Pocket PCs: You want a portable, but what does it all mean?
February 1, 2001
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/36286

Whether your notion of business travel is flying to Norway for a conference or just driving downtown to meet with a client, it's hard to imagine not taking some hardware along for the ride. These days, Windows comes in all sizes, and it's not just a matter of 98 or NT, and desktop or laptop. Today's road warriors have the luxury of choosing between computers the size of a hardback or those that easily tuck into a coat pocket.

Think of these portable Windows offerings in terms of drink sizes at fast-food restaurants. Pocket PC palmtops are small, handheld PCs are medium, and ultra-light notebooks are large. In general, they are priced accordingly. Factors to compare include mobility, price and capability. After running through the features in each department, we'll look at which one of these types fits your entrepreneurial appetite.

The Lighter Side

When it comes to pure portable computing muscle, ultra-light laptops can't be topped. The main difference between ultra-lights and regular laptops is the heft. Ultra-lights typically weigh less than 4 pounds, while most notebooks tip the scales at 6 pounds or more. A few pounds makes all the difference when you're lugging your gear between planes or meetings.

The trade-off for featherweight computing is in price and peripherals, as you'll have to pay a little extra to get the functionality you need. The cheapest ultra-light in our table is the Dell Latitude LS. The bottom- of-the-line configuration runs $2,179 (all prices street)-and that's without a CD-ROM drive, which adds $99 to the final price.

When looking at the listed weight of an ultra-light, see what peripherals are included. Many come with external drives, which aren't figured into the weight listed in the literature. The Toshiba Portege 3480CT is 0.8 inches thick and weighs in at 3.4 pounds. The floppy drive is external, however, as is the $179 optional CD-ROM drive add-on. Take those with you and your trusty portable, and you add extra ounces to the total package.

Some of the ultra-lights in our chart peel off the pounds by using lighter-weight batteries with limited capacity. Longer-lasting batteries are heavier. And if you plan to go more than a few hours without a recharge, you'll need to carry a spare. For instance, you can customize a Gateway Solo 3350cs online to come with two batteries for an additional $149.

Holding Hands

The Windows handheld PC seems to be a dying breed. At one time, great herds of them roamed the computer-retailing landscape, but now there are only a few left. Too small to be laptops and too big to be palmtops, they have built-in, reduced-size keyboards and run Microsoft Windows for Handheld PC 2000 instead of regular Windows.

Two that are still alive and well are the HP Jornada 720 and the NEC MobilePro 780. At $999 and $899, re-spectively, they cost about as much as bargain notebook computers. So what's the point? It comes down to willingness to pay for portability and convenience. The Jornada 720 weighs a slim 1.1 pounds. HP promotes it as a "PC companion," and that's where it works best. A handheld PC won't satisfy as a desktop replacement the way some well-stocked laptops will, but it could be considered a desktop enhancement.

Handheld PCs aren't just limited by small size and memory capacity. (Both the HP and the NEC have 32MB RAM.) The Microsoft software programs that come with Windows for Handheld PC 2000 are merely toned-down versions of the regular software. Pocket Word, Pocket Excel and Pocket Power-Point aren't loaded with the same features as their big-program siblings. Pocket PowerPoint, for example, acts primarily as a viewer, limiting slide creation to title slides only. Still, handheld PCs can be hooked up to external VGA monitors or TVs for presentations just about anywhere.

Another consideration is size. The HP Jornada 720's keyboard measures in at three-quarters of normal size. It's best to get your hands on one and find out if it will work for you before you buy. (People with large hands may find it awkward.) Check out display size, too: The NEC MobilePro 780's 8.1-inch display tops the Jornada 720's 6.5-inch display, but the HP retains a slight edge in processor power.

Handheld PCs also sport integrated modems (like notebooks) and color touchscreens (like Pocket PC palmtops). Depending on your needs, these devices can be either the best of both worlds-or just an exercise in compromise. Either way, it makes checking e-mail on the go easier. Web surfing is also made possible with the addition of Pocket Internet Explorer to the software bundle. These devices are more flexible than the palmtops but lack the full gamut of features you'll get with laptops.

Palm Reading

One of the most successful-and, frankly, surprising-portable stories of 2000 has been the immense popularity of palm-sized personal digital as-sistants. Even though we covered such offerings in December's "Buyer's Guide," it's still important to include them here so you can compare them with your other portable options.

The trend began long ago with the original Palm Pilot but has really picked up steam lately, thanks to powerful new Palm versions and the introduction of the Palm OS-based Handspring Visor. After stumbling twice in this area, Microsoft is also putting forward a revamped version of its Pocket PC version of the resource-hungry Windows CE to provide connectivity to your Windows desktop for portables and Internet appliances. Pocket PC has the advantage of bringing Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office applications to a new crop of hardware from manufacturers like Casio, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Symbol. Visit www.pocketpc.com for the lowdown on new offerings.

Of course, the main appeal of palm-sized portables is the size. You don't have to lug around a laptop case or tuck your handheld into your briefcase to access your contact list or calendar. Many of these devices really do fit in your purse or pocket, though there are still some size differences to consider.

For instance, the HP Jornada 548 is a hefty 9.1 ounces, while Compaq's iPAQ H3650 weighs a mere 6.3 ounces. It's up to you how portable your portable has to be.

Which Windows

It shouldn't be too difficult to figure out which kind of portable fits your needs. If you're a globe-trotting entre-preneur who roams from hotel to airport and rarely sees your desktop, an ultra-light laptop makes sense. All but one of the notebooks in our table come equipped with 600MHz Pentium III processors. But you might want to upgrade the bare-bones configurations we've listed. Doing so would make any of these ultra-lights a good candidate for a desktop replacement notebook. Yes, Virginia, you really can take it with you.

If you're somewhere between being a world traveler and a homebody, a handheld PC might do the trick. It covers the bases for those of you who just have to have a keyboard, but it doesn't involve the weight and hardware commitment of a laptop. Your desktop will still be your main machine and act as a home base for syncing up your handheld before you hit the road. The less-than-full-blown Windows software and relatively expensive price tag may be a turnoff to some. If that's the case, look to a laptop or a palmtop instead.

Speaking of palmtops, it's hard not to consider these little gadgets as convenient, whether you hang around the home office all the time or are on the road day and night. Easy portability and tight integration with big Windows operating systems put them a step up from just being glorified Rolodexes and appointment calendars. Priced at about $500, they're about half the price of handheld PCs. Their processors (up to 206MHz for the Compaq iPAQ H3650) and 32MB RAM make them comparable to the handhelds on the market.

Glossary

Handheld PC: a computer sized between a palmtop and a notebook, with a reduced-size keyboard

Palmtop: a small, lightweight computer with no keyboard

Pocket PC: Microsoft's latest OS for palmtops, or any device running the Pocket PC system

Ultra-light: a thin, lightweight laptop computer designed with easy portability in mind

Windows CE: predecessor to Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system for handhelds and palmtops

Shopping List

TYPE
WEIGHT/FEATURESSTREET PRICE
CASIO
Cassiopeia E-125
(800) 836-8580
www.casio.com
Pocket PC8.8 ounces/150MHz, 32MB RAM, USB interface, headphone jack, CompactFlash card slot$549
COMPAQ
iPAQ H3650
(800) OK-COMPAQ
www.compaq.com
Pocket PC6.3 ounces/206MHz, 32MB RAM, USB or serial interface, optional CompactFlash Expansion Pack

$499

DELL
Latitude LS
(800) 917-DELL
www.dell.com
Ultra-light laptop3.5 pounds/400MHz Pentium III, 64MB RAM, 4.8GB hard drive, 12.1-inch display, optional CD-ROM drive, Windows 2000, customizable online

$2,179

FUJITSU
S-4542
(800) 8-FUJITSU
www.fujitsu.com

Ultra-light laptop4 pounds/600MHz Pentium III, 128MB RAM, 12GB hard drive, modular DVD drive, 12.1-inch display, Windows 98

$2,699

GATEWAY
Solo 3350cs
(800) 846-4208
www.gateway.com
Ultra-light laptop3.65 pounds/600MHz Pentium III, 64MB RAM, 6GB hard drive, external CD-ROM drive, 12.1-inch display, Windows Me

$2,399

HEWLETT-PACKARD
Jornada 548
(800) 752-0900
www.hp.com
Pocket PC9.1 ounces/133MHz, 32MB RAM, USB or serial interface, built-in voice recorder

$549

HEWLETT-PACKARD
Jornada 720
(800) 752-0900
www.hp.com
Handheld PC1.1 pounds/206MHz, 32MB RAM,6.5-inch color touchscreen display, ¾-size keyboard, 56Kbps modem

$999

NEC
MobilePro 780
(888) 632-8701
www.nec.com
Handheld PC2 pounds/168MHz, 32MB RAM, 8.1-inch touchscreen display

$899

TOSHIBA
Portege 3480CT
(800) TOSHIBA
www.toshiba.com
Ultra-light laptop3.4 pounds/600MHz Pentium III, 64MB RAM, 12GB hard drive, 11.3-inch display, Windows 2000

$2,399