Cool Tools: A Pocket Full Of Windows

Cool Tools: A Pocket Full Of Windows


November 30, 2000

Deb Shinder

Like many others in today's high tech world, I'm more than a little dependent on my computer. My husband and I were computer hobbyists for many years before we made the big career switch in the mid-1990's and began making our living using, teaching others to use, writing about, networking together, and otherwise attempting to tame the electronic beasts.

I will confess without shame that my PC and I share a codependent relationship. Like most such relationships, though, it's not an evenly balanced one. The computer wants only one thing from me. Talk about power-hungry; our machines are dead in the water without electricity. We don't have to worry about them taking over the world a la the Matrix until they learn how to acquire electrical power without us. As long as we have control over the fusebox, we're safe from mutiny. The hand that can pull the plug rules the world.

I, on the other hand, rely on my computer for numerous things. Without it, I would be relegating to scrawling this column - and all my books - by hand. Or at the very least, pounding on a typewriter, getting high on Liquid Paper as I white out mistakes or mind-changes, buried under reams and reams of the product of dead trees. Been there and done that. Like it this way better.

I also depend on my PC to keep up with my appointments and deadlines, to send and receive hundreds of email messages per day, to provide quick, inexpensive and almost limitless access to a wealth of information (both reliable and otherwise) about almost any subject under the sun, from the comfort of my own home or office. No way do I want to go back to the days of trudging to the library uphill for twenty miles in the snow to research an article (okay, perhaps I exaggerate a little).

Much as I love my computer, it has one serious flaw. It's too big. It sits nicely on my desk, the magic beige box surrounded by all manner of fancy peripherals - scanners, printers, speakers, microphones, cameras, ergo keyboards and optical trackballs and three (count 'em) monitors across which I can lavishly spread my desktop. This is all well and good - unless I want to go someplace. Then what? I'm tethered to my PC, its Ethernet cable like some electronic umbilical cord through which pulses the elixir of life. Cut it and I'm lost, in a world of isolation, unable to check my mail or log onto the CCN website to find out who's filed the latest lawsuit in the infamous Florida election fiasco.

At the very least, I need my Outlook calendar and task list with me at all times. That doesn't seem like too much for a PC junkie to ask.

Deb Shinder

This led me to consider, a few years ago, buying a Palm Pilot. They were cute and popular; almost everyone had one. But I couldn't muster any enthusiasm. I do Windows. Unlike many people, I like Windows. I welcomed the emergence from the Dark Place of DOS into the sunlight that came streaming through the Windows back in 1985 (who else remembers Windows 1.0?) I've been working on the Microsoft desktop for over a decade, rode out the upgrades to 2.x, 3.x, 9x, NT and now Windows 2000. Getting ready to do my impression of Whistler's mom as we prepare for the next transition. I'm comfortable with Windows, and I notice with no small sense of irony that the most popular of the Linux graphical interfaces, such as KDE, seem to be those that look the most like ... you guessed it: Windows.

So Palm O/S, as compact and efficient as it might be, never tickled my fancy. And Windows CE, though I badly wanted to love it, left a lot to be desired. It had the name, but it didn't have the heart and soul of Windows. I flirted with it, but it never won my love or loyalty.

Then the Poki PC came along.

In the wake of the international craze for Pokemon toys (the word said to mean "Pocket Monster"), Microsoft released the latest version of the CE operating system, called Pocket PC. HP, Casio and Compaq designed new, sleek handheld devices to run the o/s. I couldn't resist dubbing it the PokiPC. And from the moment I read about it, I lusted after it. Unlike the typical Palm of the day, the Pocket PCs ran in beautiful, glorious color (up to 16 bit color, depending on the model). Unlike the typical CE palm-size computer, the Poki ran Pocket versions of Word, Excel and Outlook. New features, like the handy Microsoft Reader for downloadable e-books, had me excited. Best of all, the handwriting recognition feature was said to actually work.

I was sold. All my life I'd heard that "you can't take it with you." But maybe now you could.

Making the decision to buy a Pocket PC was easy. Deciding which one to buy wasn't. The major players all advertised feature-rich models at surprisingly reasonable prices. Each had its advantages and disadvantages. The HP Jornada was smaller, but so was its screen, and the color wasn't nearly as good as the Casio. The Cassiopeia E-115 had more RAM (32 MB) and a 64K color screen. Graphics were gorgeous, but it was bulkier and cost slightly more. The Compaq IPAQ was rumored to have a screen that was usable in full sunlight, and to do everything but the dishes (maybe those too, in the next upgrade) but when I was in the heat of buying fever, it was nowhere to be found. All the retailers were "hoping" to get shipments in "sometime real soon."

Deb Shinder

I am not a patient person when it comes to satisfying a hardware craving. After much serious thought and consideration, lots of comparison research, and the decisive flip of a coin, I decided on the Casio. I have no regrets.

The Cassiopeia E-115

Getting used to this new, scaled-down version of Windows took a little doing. But the ability to go mobile with a mini version of Outlook is, alone, worth the price. It's great to be able to download my Inbox to the Poki and read it when I'm on the go. I can reply to email messages and when I rest the little guy in its cradle again, he'll automatically connect to my desktop PC and send my responses.

If I have reminders set for appointments in my Outlook calendar, they're synchronized with the Casio and even though I have it stuffed into my briefcase side pocket and turned off, when the reminder time comes around it will turn itself on, sound an audible alarm (if set to do so) and pop up the reminder. Now I have no excuse for forgetting anything, ever.

I can download Word documents or Excel spreadsheets to the pocket device and review them, or even change them or create new documents, on a plane, at the park, or anywhere else with my Pocket PC. Admittedly, I won't be doing the 90+ words per minute that I can attain on a full size MS Natural Keyboard, but the characters I jot with the stylus are recognized surprisingly well, and even the tiny on-screen keyboard is workable for smaller documents.

I especially like the e-book Reader; my only complaint is that there aren't nearly enough books available yet in that format. The ClearType technology makes it easy to read from the screen, and instead of propping a big, heavy Tom Clancy novel up on my chest when I read in bed, I can hold the Poki in one hand and even "turn pages" with only the flick of a finger (or thumb).

Getting the small computer to "talk" to its big brother on my desktop was pretty simple. The Pocket PC's cradle connects to the PC's serial port (there are USB models now, too), you install the ActiveSynch software on the big PC, and the two are exchanging information in no time. Moving files between the two is no more difficult than copying data to another system over the network.

Deb Shinder

You're not limited to the software that comes loaded on the pocket device. I've downloaded several neat new programs, and installation is easy and quick. There are numerous hardware peripheral add-ons, as well: modems, Ethernet cards, digital cameras, and more. If you need additional storage space, it's no more complicated than slipping a Compact Flash card into the slot. You can even use the Pocket PC with a cell phone for wireless Internet connectivity. It doesn't get much better than that.

When I think about it, I'm a little amazed that this 9 oz. machine that's no bigger than a small stack of index cards, at a cost of $599, has 32 times as much RAM and a faster processor than the desktop-dominating 386 for which I paid over $2000 less than a decade ago. Next time we complain about the price or performance of today's technology, we should consider just how far we've come, and how fast. Even five years ago, when I stood in line at midnight to get a copy of the newly released Win95, I would never have guessed how easy and inexpensive it would be in the very near future to carry around a fully functional pocket full of Windows.

For more info on the Pocket PC and links to relevant websites, see Dale Coffing's Pocket PC Passion page at http://www.dalecoffing.com.