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Read Mike's previous columns on Personal Video Recorders:
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    Tech Test Drive

    Posted at 9:48 p.m. PDT Saturday, April 29, 2000

    Microsoft's PocketPC, presents no threat to Palm empire

    I'M not worried about Microsoft Corp. taking over the world.

    Whether or not the Justice Department ultimately succeeds in breaking the company into bit-sized pieces, Bill Gates' creation is too weighed down by its own baggage to pose an ongoing threat to the future of technology.

    Exhibit A in my non-legal brief is the new PocketPC, Microsoft's latest attempt to grab dominance from Palm Computing in the handheld electronic organizer market.

    The PocketPC is a wonder of engineering. These nine-ounce gadgets can play digital music files, crisply present electronic books on their color screens and even browse the Web with an optional modem.

    But Microsoft still insists handheld devices should act like a Windows personal computer, a fatal miscalculation. So the PocketPC, like several previous Microsoft PDA attempts, is awkward to use.

    What's more, the Swiss-Army-knife functionality makes the PocketPC expensive, with the hardware starting at $500 and going up from there. On other hand -- or perhaps I should say, on the other palm -- a Palm IIIe organizer can be had for just $150.

    You want all your phone numbers and appointments in your pocket, and you want to listen to digital tunes? You could buy an MP3 player, such as the popular Rio 500, for about $250, along with a Palm IIIe _ and you'd still have spent $100 less than the cost of a PocketPC.

    Microsoft officially launched the PocketPC (www.pocketpc.com) April 19, with two models going on store shelves that day: the Hewlett-Packard Jornada 545 ((800) 443-1254; www.hp.com/jornada) with 16 megabytes of memory at $499, and the Casio Cassiopeia E-115 ((888) 204-7765; www.casio.com/mobileinformation) with 32 MB of memory at $599. Additional models from Casio and HP, as well as from Compaq, are due this summer.

    I borrowed the HP Jornada 545, and then spent an hour going through a complicated set-up procedure.

    First, I had to install Microsoft's Outlook 2000 organizer software on my computer, a step that would disrupt any previously installed organizer or electronic-mail program. Then I had to install another program called ActiveSync.

    Second, I plugged the Jornada's cradle into the computer's USB port for data exchange and into an AC power outlet to recharge the PocketPC's lithium ion battery.

    Third, I had to ``establish a partnership'' between the computer and the PocketPC, which sounds like forming a law firm but actually involved setting the parameters for sharing information between the computer and the PocketPC.

    This process was poorly explained in both the instruction manuals and the on-screen instructions, making it unclear in what order I should proceed. One nagging problem that took me several days to resolve: The PocketPC kept resetting its internal clock to the incorrect time after synchronizing; I eventually discovered my computer was set to the wrong time zone and therefore kept shifting the PocketPC to the other time zone -- even though the computer was otherwise showing the correct time.

    Setting up a Palm organizer, in contrast, is a model of simplicity. There's only one piece of software to install, and no decisions to make in creating a connection between the computer and the organizer.

    The PocketPC, I next discovered, automatically launches the synchronization process -- tying up the computer for several minutes -- whenever you put the device in its cradle. This is a huge annoyance if you don't need to do an update; the Palm only synchronizes when you push a button on the cradle.

    Because the PocketPC does so many things, navigation is a chore. There's a ``Start'' button, the same as Windows 95/98, except that it has inexplicably migrated to the upper left corner of the screen. Tapping the Start button with the Jornada's plastic stylus puts a menu of programs on the screen; HP has also included a custom `HP Home' screen that presents programs as rows of icons.

    The roster of programs included with the Jornada is impressive. Among them are Pocket Outlook for contacts, appointments and e-mail; Pocket Internet Explorer for Web browsing; Pocket Word and Excel for writing documents and working on spreadsheets; Windows Media Player for listening to MP3 and other digital music or audio files; Microsoft Reader for viewing electronic books; a slimmed-down version of Microsoft Money for tracking expenses; and the addictive Windows Solitaire.

    As with the Palm, you can enter information using either handwriting recognition or by tapping an on-screen keyboard.

    But the jazzier features of the PocketPC have limitations.

    The Windows Media Player did a decent job of reproducing an MP3 file that I downloaded into my computer and then transferred to the PocketPC. But carrying anything more than just a few minutes of music requires added storage capacity; the PocketPC comes with a slot for CompactFlash memory cards. A 64 MB CompactFlash card, what you'd need for an hour of typical MP3 music files, runs about $150 -- a significant additional expense.

    Microsoft Reader rendered pleasantly sharp text. But the tiny screen, just 2 1/4 inches wide by 3 inches high, only gives enough room for 15 lines of an electronic book at about 30 characters per line. I tried reading ``The Time Machine'' by H.G. Wells, included free on the PocketPC CD-ROM, but quickly grew fatigued from having to turn electronic pages after reading just one or two paragraphs.

    I also loaded photo-viewing software, HP provided on the Jornada CD-ROM, and was able to check out pictures from my digital camera by removing the camera's CompactFlash card and putting it in the Jornada. The color screen, while bright and sharp enough for text, turned out to be inadequate for photographs, showing images with muted colors and blurred detail.

    None of these complaints, I'll concede, are devastating. But, as I said above, the PocketPC doesn't offer the two things I value most in personal electronics: affordability and ease of use.

    The Palm product line (www.palm.com), supplemented by the new Visor from Handspring (www.handspring.com), is now supported by an army of independent software developers, so you can find programs that will mimic almost any function of the PocketPC. If you need a color screen, Palm now offers the IIIc at $450; you can even get a built-in wireless connection, something Microsoft doesn't yet offer, with the Palm VII at $500.

    Palm reportedly controls 70 to 80 percent of the PDA market, and I'm betting Microsoft won't make much a dent in the handheld field unless the company takes the highly unlikely step of tossing aside its Windows legacy to create something that meets or beats the competition.

       

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