Color Your PDA World
Users of personal digital assistants have been living in a black and white world-trade-offs in cost, battery life and screen readability have made color an elusive dream. Until now.
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Three new palm-sized PCs-the first such color devices to ship-each take advantage of recent advances in display technology and other improvements to Windows CE. The Hewlett-Packard Jornada 420 has a 240- by 320-pixel, 256-color CstN (color supertwist nematic) screen that is clearer and brighter than the 240- by 320-pixel, 256-color TFT (thin film transistor) screens on the Compaq Aero 2100 and Philips Nino 500. But the Jornada gets only about half the battery life. As second-generation devices, both the Jornada and the Aero have CompactFlash slots with sufficient shielding to work with Motorola's CF1350 Flex one-way pager, which could allow you to replace two devices in the field with one. Improved audio capabilities are adequate for voice recording and for playing back audio content from Audible (www.audible.com), but any hopes of using these devices to play MP3s will quickly be dashed by their monaural sound. All three devices sport rechargeable batteries that go at least part of the way toward addressing the abysmal battery life of the previous generation, but only the Nino 500 can also take off-the-shelf AA alkaline or lithium batteries. Your sales force is probably already bugging you for an upgrade. Should you give in to their desires?

Hewlett-Packard Jornada 420
The accounting department may balk at the Jornada 420's chunky purple case, which suggests a toy rather than a serious business tool, but closer examination reveals a thoughtful design. At 5.1 by 3.2 by 0.9 inches, with a weight of 8.8 ounces, the Jornada 420 is sturdy enough that a case isn't required and most functions can be accomplished with one hand. For example, there's no need to remove the device from a case, pull out a stylus and tap on a button just to bring up a calendar. A jog wheel is used to navigate up and down through cascading menus and to make selections by pressing it in. A headphone jack is an indication of the audio capabilities found in these devices. The Jornada has a nifty see-through plastic cover that flips over the top of the device. When combined with the handy button layout, it's very easy to reference materials while on the go. Unfortunately, you must lift the cover to tap on the silk-screened application buttons at the bottom of the screen.

Unlike earlier PDAs, the Jornada 420 actually requires that the backlight be kept on at all times for the screen to be seen. Hold down the start button for a couple of seconds and up pops a program that allows you to control the level of backlighting. There are settings for Indoors, Outdoors, Low Power and Custom (users can define their own combination of brightness and contrast). At the highest setting, the screen can be read outdoors in the shade, but not in direct sunlight. Not surprisingly, this puts quite a strain on the unit's batteries. The Jornada 420 tops out at about five hours.

The Jornada 420's software bundle fills more holes than the one that comes with the Aero 2100. It includes Inso's Outside In for viewing e-mail attachments, Landware's OmniSolve calculator, Bsquare's bTask task switcher, EZOS's EzExplorer file manager and Quicken Expensable.

Compaq Aero 2100
The Compaq Aero 2100 is Compaq's first palm-sized PC and it's clear the company's learned a few things from its competitors while sitting the first round out. The Aero 2100 is quality through and through. At 5.27 by 3.34 by 0.78 inches and 10.92 ounces including the battery, the Aero 2100 is longer, wider and heavier than the Jornada 420, but it seems smaller due to sleek styling that seems borrowed from the Philips Nino. Tapered edges and a two-toned silver and black paint job give it a racy appeal that seems appropriate since this is the fastest palm-sized PC I've ever used. Like the Jornada 420, the Aero 2100 also has a jog wheel instead of the rocker switch found on the Nino. Four recessed buttons along the bottom of the screen provide access to calendar, contacts, tasks and notes applications. Each button has a divot that can be pressed by the stylus, a superior design to the silk-screen icons on the Jornada 420. The stylus silo is spring-loaded like the one on the old Apple Newton 2000, and the stylus itself is better balanced than the unremarkable plastic stick that comes with the Jornada 420. Another notable feature is the vibrating alarm notification-but it's unclear how useful this is since the Aero 2100 is too big for most pockets.

Compaq decided to go with a reflective TFT color display that supports up to 256 colors. This new type of display, first seen on the Gameboy Color, doesn't require either a frontlight or a backlight to be seen outdoors. However, if your users spend a lot of time working outdoors, they'd be better off waiting for the next generation of this display, as it can be harder to see than a good monochrome screen like that on 3Com's Palm V. A frontlight with two levels of brightness can be activated in dark rooms. The Aero 2100's screen is too dim to be viewed indoors without the frontlight and the colors appear washed out.

Compaq addresses the other drawback of color screens-short battery life-with a rechargeable Li-ion battery that gets up to 10 hours of battery life, enough to get you through a day away from the cradle.

The Aero 2100's small software bundle includes HTC Picture Viewer, VCA Expense Tracker and Applian Technologies CoolCalc.

Philips Nino 500
The Nino 500 is a testament to the sound engineering choices made by Philips when the company first designed the product. The Jornada 420 and the Aero 2100 required a significant ground-up engineering effort, but the Nino 500 is essentially the same machine as its predecessor. It still weights 8.6 ounces and measures 0.9 by 3.4 by 5.4 inches and has the same 75 MHz MIPS processor. It now comes standard with 16MB of memory and 16MB ROM packed with additional software.

Most remarkably, Philips was able to add a color screen to the Nino, without increasing the size and the weight of the unit. Thus, what was one of the largest palm-sized PCs is now the most compact unit to offer a color screen. The screen is similar to the one on the Aero 2100 and is a vast improvement over the screen on the Nino 300 series. While users can adjust brightness and contrast with a control panel, the Nino lacks the ability to define settings for different lighting conditions as on the Jornada 420. The backlight remains on at all times.

Battery life hasn't been significantly affected by the addition of the color screen. It has decreased slightly to around 8 hours, but one of Nino's strengths has always been the ability to recharge the battery in the docking station. In a pinch, the Nino will take standard AA batteries.

Like earlier Ninos, the Nino 500 is optimized for one-handed operation. While other manufacturers have moved to a scroll wheel, the Nino 500 retains the rocker switch and side-button placement. The Nino could be a better choice for vertical applications because the buttons are unlabeled and all four can be customized. The only difference in the case is the addition of a headphone jack at the top of the unit next to the stylus silo. Walkman-style headphones will come in handy for listening to audio content on the bundled AudiblePlayer.

Philips led the way in value-added bundling with the original Nino, and the Nino 500 includes an even more useful set of programs. Besides AudiblePlayer you get AvantGo, an offline Web browser, BSQUARES's bFAX Express and bPRINT for faxing and printing, BSQUARE's bTASK for program navigation, Tegic T9 for text input keyboard and NinoImage for viewing pictures.

While few Windows CE applications take much more advantage of color than highlighting overdue tasks in red, color opens up a world of potential applications that move personal digital assistants beyond their role as organizers. Real estate agents could carry photographs of all of the homes they are showing, parts diagrams can be made clearer and even forms-based order entry benefits from black text on a white background.


Jornada 420

Aero 2100

Nino 500

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