Handy units keep data close

HP's Jornada 420 palmtop and NEC's MobilePro 770 handheld rate high

By John Breeden II

GCN Stafff

A palmtop or handheld computer ought to be a road warrior's Swiss army knife. It should have every tool needed in the field yet be able to slip easily into a pocket or portfolio.

A real palmtop, compact and only about a half-inch thick, has no keyboard. Instead, the user taps a pointer stylus or a fingertip against a touch screen. Some high-end models have buttons for common functions.

A handheld, in contrast, is bigger and has more programs and system memory. It generally sports a miniature QWERTY keyboard, but some handhelds combine a keyboard with a touch screen for input.

The lab tested seven devices, clockwise from top: Compaq C-Series, 3Com Palm V, HP Jornada 820, HP Jornada 420, 3Com Palm IIIx, NEC MobilePro 770 and Compaq Aero 2130.

Operating systems range from various flavors of Microsoft Windows CE to the totally different Palm OS, which sorts programs as icons and has a pull-down menu to jump to any program or menu.

Cross my palm

Although Palm OS comes not from Microsoft Corp. but from 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., it integrates better with Windows 9x applications than did any of the Windows CE devices I tested.

The best version of WinCE is CE Handheld 3.0. It has an interface that resembles Windows 9x and the same keyboard commands. But it is available only in handheld computers, not palmtops.

Windows CE 2.11 for palmtops is not nearly as slick as Palm OS. WinCE tries to maintain the same look as desktop Windows programs, but it does a poor job of closing them down, and that leads to memory problems.

This review compares palmtops and handhelds separately because they're aimed at different user groups. There are fewer differences among the palmtops than among the much more complex handhelds.

Worth it

The Hewlett-Packard Jornada 420 earned the Reviewer's Choice designation in the palmtop category. It is the most expensive palmtop in the review. The brightly colored screen and intuitive features make up for the weight, which unfortunately is also on the high end.

Weighing in at 9 ounces, the Jornada 420 is twice the size of 3Com's Palm V. But the Jornada 420 fits inside a shirt pocket and has one of the best displays of all.

A 256-color touch screen contributes to the Jornada's extra size. It is almost bright enough to light up a dark room, and you would have no trouble reading in a typical office environment. But the Jornada lacks a good glare-reducing coating and can be difficult to read from slightly off center in ambient light.

Buttons on the side give fast access to programs from the WinCE Start menu without removing the pen from its holster.

That's a useful advantage when you are in a hurry or lack elbow room for penmanship.

The Jornada 420, like the Compaq Aero 2130, has standard programs for the WinCE 2.11 operating system, including a lightweight version of Outlook that syncs with desktop e-mail, a basic contact manager and a note-taking program that lets you tap a miniaturized screen keyboard to write simple notes.

But Version 2.11 of CE seems crippled without Pocket Word or Excel.

Open and on

Another annoying CE limitation keeps programs running even when you think you've closed them. You must go into the Control Panel and shut down programs from the Task Manager'a minimum of five clicks.

Otherwise, performance will drop off drastically as the palmtop tries to multitask.

Even then, WinCE cannot switch between the open applications except through the Task Manager, which requires time-consuming clicks.

The Jornada 420 has a docking cradle and rechargeable batteries, which are supposed to last about eight hours per charge. I found the cells dropped to low levels after about six hours.

3Com's Palm V is another star on the palmtop side. Weighing only 4 ounces and slightly bigger than a credit card, the Palm V easily slips into a pocket. The included leather flap looks stylish and gives some protection to the monochrome touch screen.

The Palm V easily syncs with a desktop system'an advantage of 3Com's entire line. You simply tap a button on the docking cradle to upload or download programs and data.

Battery life and recharge speed are impressive. Although 3Com claims batteries last only eight hours on a charge, in some of my tests they stayed charged after 10 hours. With cells fully drained, a full charge took 20 minutes in the cradle.

An optional modem for the Palm V adds some weight, but fully loaded weight is still less than that of the Jornada 420 or the Aero 2130.

The independently powered modem can last several weeks on two AAA batteries.

It would be good to have the modem and unified battery pack sited better for docking. Users unfortunately are liable to dock the unit and forget that the modem does not recharge.

The Palm's tiny size does have some disadvantages. The screen, though not color, is readable. But color is necessary in some programs, such as highlighting calendar events.

Sound is fairly weak even at the highest setting. During one meeting, the Palm V rang to remind me of another appointment. I have good hearing, but it took several minutes for me or anyone else to notice the beeping.

The Palm V's Palm OS 3.1 operating system closes programs easier than WinCE. One click of the pen takes the user to any menu or submenu.

Compaq's Aero 2130 has a mixed bag of advantages and disadvantages. It is the only palmtop in the review to have a working glare-resistant coating, and the 256-color touch screen is legible at any angle. But the coating dims the display.

Indoors, with the brightness at the highest setting, I could hardly read text. There was no glare, but information was washed out by other light sources.

In a dark room, however, the display was crystal-clear and far better than any other in the review.

Stylistic stylo

The Aero's spring-loaded stylus pen stores itself inside the unit and pops out of storage when any pressure is applied. It would be difficult to lose the Aero's stylus, a feature I particularly like.

Like all the palmtops reviewed, the Aero lacks a native print function. You can use the infrared port to exchange contacts with other systems, but not to send data to a printer equipped with an IR port. A third-party program is available for palmtop printing, but it costs extra.

3Com's Palm IIIx, at first glance, seems outclassed by its Palm V brother. But the Palm IIIx does pretty much the same things, though from a less visually appealing plastic case.

All the palmtops and handhelds in this review perform the same functions: keeping contacts, synchronizing with desktop e-mail and tracking appointments.

The Palm IIIx does them all at a low price.

At just $369, it costs hundreds of dollars less than some of the handhelds and a good deal less than the other palmtops. Its stable performance and low price earn it the lab's Bang for the Buck designation.

I see two disadvantages of the Palm IIIx. The display is the same monochrome green and black as the Palm V's, but with lower resolution. Some of the icons look a little blocky, although the features are nearly identical.

The Palm IIIx is the only unit in the review that does not come with rechargeable batteries.

When you store the unit in its desktop cradle, it will not recharge.

On the bright side, its standard AAA batteries worked for more than a month during extensive testing in the lab, and they still had about 30 percent of their original charge at the end.

Even though you must feed it new batteries, its efficient design keeps them alive a long time. A battery meter at the top of the display tracks the charge level.

Lots of memory

On the handheld side of the comparison, the standout performer is NEC Computer Systems' MobilePro 770. Built for a road warrior who travels light, the MobilePro 770 comes standard with 32M of memory, almost double that of any other unit in the review.'

Its functionality and compact size deserve a Reviewer's Choice designation.

The MobilePro has a beautiful color screen that can be set from 256 colors up to 64,000 colors, good enough for viewing photos.

The touch screen works beautifully in concert with the not-too-small keyboard.

The NEC's powerful 131-MHz processor, combined with generous onboard memory, delivers the fastest performance in this class. The small system measures only 1.1 inches thick when closed.

It is, however, too long at almost 10 inches to fit into most pockets, and it weighs 1 pound, 10 ounces.

The rechargeable batteries snap in easily. You can carry extra batteries with no problem.

Each battery pack held a charge for more than eight hours in my tests and recharged quickly when the unit was plugged into the included AC adapter.

Running Windows CE Handheld 3.0, the NEC has versions of Microsoft Outlook, Word, PowerPoint and Excel that synchronize with desktop versions.

Poor-quality voice playback of recorded words turned out to be the only downside to the fine system, especially at high volume.

But the 32M of memory means you can take more notes than with any other system reviewed, and the 56-Kbps internal modem would be a joy on the road.

The Compaq C-Series saunters down the middle of the road.

Compaq tries to present handheld functionality in a palmtop size.

Its fairly powerful unit has a 75-MHz processor and a nice 256-color touch screen. The programs are the same as in the MobilePro, but condensed into a smaller, lighter package.

But the keyboard is just too small. Manipulating programs is difficult, and typing a lengthy Word document is nearly impossible.

The insensitive touch screen is the worst aspect. You must press and hold the pen down to activate a program. Tapping the screen rapidly produces a click, confirming that contact has been made, but the unit stubbornly refuses to do anything unless you wait for programs to activate.

With 20M of memory, the C-Series is in line with other handhelds. The 33.6-Kbps modem is slower than the two other handhelds' modems.

The Jornada 820 rounds out the handheld set. Where the 420 shines, the 820 falls flat. Its weight of 2 pounds, 8 ounces is right at the limit for this review, and the dimensions are large.

Touchpad, not screen

The Jornada 820 looks like a notebook computer. It even has a common LCD screen, making it the only unit without a touch screen.

Instead it has a touchpad and two mouse buttons at the base of the keyboard, exactly like most notebooks.

For its $999 price, you could almost buy a notebook computer.

The Jornada 820 has an internal 56-Kbps modem and rechargeable batteries that last a little longer than eight hours. The keyboard is about 90 percent as large as a standard keyboard, so touch typists will not feel restrained.

The unit basically is a notebook computer with a WinCE operating system. If you must have an almost full-size keyboard, you have little other choice except for the MobilePro, which has nearly as good a keyboard and is smaller and lighter.

You might be better off, however, buying a full notebook running Windows 98.

Seven PC companions prove you can take it with you
Palm V
3Com Corp.
Santa Clara, Calif.
Palm IIIx
3Com Corp.
Santa Clara, Calif.
Aero 2130
Compaq Computer Corp.
Jornada 420
Hewlett-Packard Co
Palo Alto, Calif.
Compaq Computer Corp.
Jornada 820
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Palo Alto, Calif.
MobilePro 770
NEC Computer
Sacramento, Calif.
Standard memory2M4M8M8M20M16M32M
Operating systemPalm OS 3.1Palm OS 3.1Windows CE 2.11Windows CE 2.11Windows CE 2.0Windows CE
Handheld 3.0
Windows CE
Handheld 3.0
Weight4 ounces6 ounces9 ounces9 ounces1 pound, 4 ounces2 pound, 8 ounces1 pound, 10 ounces
Average battery life8 hours per charge1 month per
battery set
10 hours per charge8 hours per charge8 hours per charge10 hours per charge10 hours per charge
ProsSmallest, lightest
unit in review;
easiest to sync
with desktop
Least expensive,
sturdy case
Glare-resistent screen,
crisp color display
Bright color screen,
easy penless access
Good hybrid of palm
and system with
640-by 480-pixel
color screen,
internal 56Kbps
Fast processor,
ConsMonochrome screenNonrechargeable
AAA batteries,
Not very bright for
indoor work
Expensive for
a palmtop
Some problems with
pen touch screen
Nearly as expensive
as a notebook
Poor voice playback
Sound quality
Overall Grade


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/Shutterstock.com)

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected