Pocket PC does not quite match Palm OS' elegance

Pocket PC does not quite match Palm OS' elegance

By Michael Cheek and

Carlos A. Soto

GCN Staff

What once had been Microsoft Windows CE is now Pocket PC.

But it will be at least another generation before the new lightweight operating system is hearty enough to challenge the dominant handheld OS, Palm OS from Palm Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif.

GCN Lab reviewers spent a couple of weeks examining three devices running Pocket PC. We got a brief look at a brand-new Jornada 545 Pocket PC from Hewlett-Packard Co. but spent more time with two upgraded handhelds: an HP Jornada 430 and a Compaq Aero 1500 with a $99 ROM upgrade chip. Compaq also sells the ROM chip for some Aero 2100 handhelds. We plan to revisit the Jornada 545 hardware in later reviews.

Pocket PC's ruled sections for character and number entry, left, are confusing, and some symbols behave incorrectly.

In our tests, the Jornada 545's handwriting recognition was far better than the character recognition capability of the two upgraded units. Pocket Word on the 545 did a pretty good job of interpreting an entire word'cursive or printed. It reminded us a little of the now-defunct and often-ridiculed Apple Newton personal digital assistant, but it worked.

Often correct

Pocket PC on the 545 was generally accurate, even at recognizing signature stroke movements, which often confuse software.

In contrast, the upgraded Pocket PC handhelds had only character recognition capability, meaning each letter, number or symbol had to be written individually in three sections at the bottom of the screen'one for capital letters, one for lowercase letters and one for numbers.

The handwriting area looked like elementary school paper lined to show where ascending and descending strokes should appear.

Because each section serves a different function, knowing where to place commands and symbols was confusing. For example, writing a backslash only worked as intended in the third section. In the other two, writing a backslash deleted the previously written character.

Box Score

Pocket PC

OS for handheld computers

Microsoft Corp; Redmond, Wash,;

tel. 425-882-8080


Price: Free with new Pocket PC devices from Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.; $99 ROM upgrade chip for some Aero 2100 and 1500 handhelds

+ Cleaner and better organized than Windows CE

+ Built-in versions of Word, Excel and Outlook

' Confusing character entry

' Memory hog

Some symbols such as periods worked in any section, but most symbols and commands had to be written in the number section.

WinCE's character-recognition process, called Jot, is somewhat similar to the Palm OS' Graffiti. Pocket PC uses generic versions of both, although you wouldn't know it unless you look deep in the help menu. It offers a choice of lowercase or uppercase mode, the former called Jot-compatible and the latter Graffiti-compatible.

A complete diagram of the stylus strokes in the help menu would help. Instead, we were left guessing and, in the end, frustrated.

For comparison purposes, we sat down with an older WinCE device alongside the Pocket PC. It was definitely easier getting text into the older device.

Pocket PC moves the WinCE Start menu from the bottom to the top of the screen. Though slightly better organized, it still forces you to make several strokes to shut down running applications.

The built-in Pocket Word and Excel are much needed improvements over those in WinCE. Pocket PC also synchronizes well with the desktop version of Outlook. In tests, the systems running Pocket PC synchronized better than did WinCE, which had trouble digesting some custom-designed forms.

Pocket PC also handled contacts without glitches'just as well as a Palm OS device.

Microsoft touts Pocket PC synchronization as faster than that of Palm OS. We found it slightly but not significantly faster. Pocket PC can also handle e-mail attachments.

But Pocket PC sucks up a lot of memory compared to Palm OS. Pocket PC hardware must have 16M to 32M of RAM, whereas Palm devices need only 2M, 4M or 8M. Pocket PC and its complement of applets couldn't even fit on most Palm devices, because the OS takes up 1.8M to 2.5M of storage, and standard apps occupy from 1.6M to 4.7M, depending on whether the unit is monochrome or color. Palm OS and its applets occupy less than 175K.

Aesthetically, a Pocket PC device is better organized and feels roomier than a WinCE device. Instead of three windows cluttering the small 3- by 2.25-inch screen, Pocket PC gives you a new page with every selection.

The 320- by 240-pixel display it supports has far higher resolution than that of Palm units. Pocket PC also includes a version of Internet Explorer.

Fully auto-detectable Plug-and-Play compact flash memory cards make downloading a two-step process under Pocket PC. Click on Start, then go to Programs to see instantly what you can download.

With Pocket PC, Microsoft has achieved an interim improvement over WinCE. But the new handheld operating system doesn't match the simple elegance of Palm OS.

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