Hands-on Review of New PocketPC devices.

20 April 2000
by Larry Garfield

I had the good fortune on 19 April to be at Comdex in Chicago the day Microsoft released their new PocketPC line, and had the chance to play with some of their new devices. In particular, they had the new HP Jornada and Casio Cassiopeia on hand, and I was able to give both a try. I thought I would throw my comments up on the Web in case anyone else was interested.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, a comment or two about the reviewer. I do not currently use a WinCE device. I used a Palm III from August 1998 until just last week, when I upgraded to a new TRGpro (a PalmPilot clone that looks almost identical to a Palm IIIx, but has PalmOS 3.3, 8 MB RAM, the new Palm screen with reverse backlighting, and a type II CompactFlash slot). I am also the Secretary for the DePaul Linux Users Group at DePaul University, Chicago. There is no love lost between me and Microsoft, and I would be perfectly happy to see the company broken up, but I do acknowledge that, on occasion, Microsoft has done something useful or beneficial.

Now that I've alienated both the Palm community and the Linux community at the same time, on with the review. :-)

PocketPC is Microsoft's name for their new version 3.0 of the Windows CE OS, designed for "consumer" devices. In particular, PocketPC (WinCE 3.0) is designed specifically for Palm-sized / Palm form-factor devices rather than super-thin laptops, as were earlier versions of CE.

The Hardware

The HP Jornada is fairly thin, as WinCE devices go. It's a bit longer than my TRGpro, and pretty much the same thickness. (The TRGpro is the same dimensions as the Palm III, IIIx, IIIe, and IIIxe, but 1-2 mm thicker, so the Jornada is thicker as well.) It has the silver-like front face of the Palm V, but has a flip up cover like the Palm III series. It has 4 buttons on the front, like Palms, but they don't correspond to the 4 Basic Apps (AddressBook, DateBook, ToDo, Notes). Three are for the basic Apps (AddressBook, DateBook, ToDo) and the 4th links to the "Home" screen, analogous to the Launcher on PalmOS. They are supposedly reprogrammable. There is a scroll wheel on the left side (which only functions as a 2-way rocker, actually, but is also a select button), along with a record button for the voice recorder. For some odd reason, the stylus is not round but flat, almost like a popsicle stick with a pointed end. It slides into a slot on the inside of the heavy flip cover, from which it is actually rather hard to remove. It has 16 MB RAM standard, although there is also a 32 MB version.

The Casio Cassiopeia is a bit larger than the Jornada. In fact, the case design is very close if not identical to the design of previous Cassiopeias. There are only three buttons on the front, a Home App plus 2 of the Basic Apps, plus a large 4-direction rocker switch. It has the same pseudo-scroll wheel and recorder button on the right side. The device is much squarer than the Jornada or the current Palms. It comes with 32 MB RAM standard.

There are no permanent "silk screen" buttons on either device, the way the Palm has. So it there are effectively 8 buttons on the Palm, 5 on the Jornada (counting the record button), and 4 on the Cassiopeia (again, counting record, but not the 4-way rocker, which is not programmable).

The screens on both devices are 16-bit, 65k colors. The resolution is much higher than the Palms, although the dimensions are comparable if you include the Palm silk screen area. The screen brightness is adjustable, but there are in general two modes, dim and bright. The bright is very readable, the dim is not very readable. In indoor lighting, there is no trouble reading the screen when in bright mode. (I was not able to test it outdoors, only under bright fluorescent lights at McCormick Place Convention Center.)

Battery life is listed as 8 hours, with internal rechargeable batteries. In comparison, a grayscale PalmOS device will run for 4-6 weeks on 2 AAA batteries (based on my personal experience). The rechargeable Palms (V, Vx, and IIIc) will go for 2 weeks without a recharge, under normal usage, according to Palm. Microsoft claims, however, that Palm's definition of "normal usage" is 30 minutes a day, which over 2 weeks adds up to around 8 hours. I can neither confirm nor deny Microsoft's assumptions, claims, or math, but the devices they had on hand did run low on power while I was there, which was only about 4 hours after they had been fully charged according to the person running the booth.

Both devices have a cradle that connects to the PC to sync, however, there is no button on the cradle to tell it to sync. According to the Microsoft people at the booth, the running ActiveSync program on the PC will detect when the devices is inserted, and then continually sync it as long as it is in the cradle. (You can set it to just sync once, when you click a button on the PC.) They claim no performance hit on the PC when this is running. I was not able to test this claim.

Both devices have a type II CompactFlash slot on top and a headphone jack somewhere on the device. Both devices were noticeably heavier than my TRGpro. Both the Jornada and Cassiopeia include an mp3/wma player, video player, and voice recorder. They retail for $500-$600 a piece, supposedly.

According to Microsoft, it's up to OEMs to provide OS upgrades for users of older CE devices, although they will likely require firmware upgrades, (meaning you have to mail the device in to the company to have them change chips).

The Software

Microsoft claims that their device does more than the Palm, and is truly a "Pocket PC" as opposed to the Palm "Connected Organizer." Technically, they are right. Out of the box the PocketPC comes with more "stuff" in terms of software than a Palm does. However, almost anything the PocketPC does out of the box you can get for a Palm via third party software or hardware, some of it free, some of it not. Some of the features are only available on Handspring Visors via the Springboard, others only on the CompactFlash-equipped TRGpro, others on any PalmOS device. If you are not using any of those features, however (mp3 player, camera, video player, etc.), then the most expensive Palm device is the IIIc, which is $50 less than the cheapest PocketPC. My TRGpro was $330 by comparison, and has the same CompactFlash slot as the PocketPC devices.

PocketPC comes with the 4 Basic Apps, Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Pocket IE, and Microsoft Book Reader with ClearType(tm). MP3/WMA support is built into the OS.

The response speed on both of the PocketPC devices I played with was significantly slower than my TRGpro.

The biggest complaint about previous WinCE devices has been the usability. Microsoft kept trying to cram the Win95 interface onto a tiny, 2- or 3-inch screen, and it simply didn't work. Maybe on giant devices like the Vandem Clio or other not-quite-laptops, but in the Palm-sized category it was a flop. The folks in Redmond have revamped the interface in v3.0, and it is now easier to use. The Start button is still alive and well, but has been moved to the upper left a la Macintosh, with a clock in the upper right, also a la Macintosh. There is less clutter on the screen than before, for the most part, although the amount of clutter tends to change depending on the program.

Input is via either Jot character recognition or an on-screen keyboard. However, both are pop-up windows. There is no dedicated entry area as there is on the Palms. The Jot screen also has 3 regions on it; capitals, lowercase, and numbers, whereas the Palm handles both capital and lowercase letters on the same part of the entry area. There are also tappable "Return" and "Backspace" buttons on both the keyboard and Jot screens. You can't use a pen stroke the way you can with Graffiti.

Despite the improvements in the UI, the interface is still clunky compared with PalmOS. I remember when I first picked up a Palm III in the store to play with it and see if I like it. I was able to dive right into the 4 Basic Apps almost immediately with no trouble whatsoever, and reading the data that was there was a snap. The organizer apps are easier with PocketPC than with previous CE versions, but are still very inferior to PalmOS in terms of getting the job done. There's just too much "stuff" on the screen that's distracting, and it's too inconsistent from program to program.

The UI design is also not as streamlined as the PalmOS. The Home App on both devices is similar to the Launcher on PalmOS, but not really. It doesn't list all the programs on the device. Then there's also the Programs item in the Start Menu, which lists more programs. The lists don't coincide. The Start Menu also has a Settings entry, which takes you to the equivalent of the Control Panels window. In addition, some programs you close with the "Tools | Exit" menu (which is at the bottom of the screen) and some you close with an "ok" button in the upper right corner. Others don't seem to have an Exit option, at least not one that is obvious.

That is a very significant problem. PalmOS handles all its RAM as one big chunk. A program is installed in one location in RAM, and when activated runs right where it is. There is no difference between "active" memory and "storage" memory. That's not the case on CE. PocketPC, like all previous versions of CE, lets you easily change how much of the system is dedicated to "active" programs and how much is left for "storage." Programs are copied from "storage" RAM to "active" RAM to run, and then stay there until closed, just like a hard disk vs. RAM on a PC. If you run out of "active" RAM, you have to close programs or increase the amount of RAM you give to "active" RAM, thus decreasing the amount of storage space you have.

If you run out of active RAM the device slows down, and may even stop responding. The Jornada and Cassiopeia both have a reset button on the back, in a sunken hole large enough that you can stick the stylus in to push it without unscrewing anything. That is actually very useful, since the Microsoft exhibitors at the booth used that method to clear the RAM when it ran out. (They had the devices loaded up with a ton of extra software, so there was very little active RAM available.) There is a screen in the Memory applet (control panel, for all intents and purposes) to kill active programs, but it takes 4-5 steps just to get there. The Microsoft people didn't bother (I'm not sure if they even knew it was there, to be honest), they just rebooted the device every few minutes. That doesn't speak well for it.

The PocketPC devices also use a hierarchical folder system, rather than the flat namespace of the PalmOS. I presume the reason is to model the desktop, as well as allow you to organize files better. However, I actually found it got in the way. PalmOS programs naturally give you only the files that pertain to them, and let you sort them by category anyway. The hierarchical file system actually got in the way more than it allowed for organization. Again, the Desktop paradigm doesn't translate well onto the Palm-sized form-factor.

Pocket Word is not the full-blown program. It's somewhat on the level of WordPad for Win9x. It does basic formatting, knows 4 fonts and a few styles and sizes, but not any of the advanced features.

Pocket Reader with ClearType(tm) is the only app that I, as a Palm user, found personally interesting. There are many Doc readers for the Palm, but they are almost all (that I know of, at least) based on either a proprietary data format or else on the "Doc" format, which is unique to Palm. Yes, there are free programs to convert MS Word or Text files into Doc format, but you're then still limited to what you can get into MS Word in most cases. And the text formatting, while it is nice, doesn't stand up against dedicated eBook readers. (Hey, Palm, this is someplace you should be working. You listening? :-)

The MS Pocket Reader should be familiar to anyone who has used AportisDoc or TealDoc for the Palm. When you first start the program, you get a splash screen for a few seconds. What purpose it serves is beyond me, because the program should not be taking that long to start up. After that you get a list of the eBooks on the device. There is a standardized, XML-based eBook format in the works, known as the Open eBook Initiative (OEB), but the Microsoft folks at Comdex didn't know what format the MS Reader used. My hunch is that it is not OEB but a proprietary format, although I really do not know. Reading an eBook is fairly easy, thanks in part to the ClearType "technology" (the word "technology" really doesn't apply, but I'll use it anyway). It was much easier to read than the screen on my TRGpro, and the included images looked nice. Still, all of the eBooks that were listed were public domain (Hans Christian Anderson tales, etc.). So while it is better for long documents than the Palm, it's not a Palm killer by any stretch of the imagination.

I also played around with Pocket IE on the HP Jornada. It had a CompactFlash Ethernet adapter installed, so it had a full wired Net connection. The screen is fairly cramped, but mostly readable. Just to test it, I logged on to PalmStation.com (SlashDot for PalmOS devices, really nice site). The graphics were a bit dithered, but it was readable. However, it didn't scale the page very well, so I had to scroll left to right as well as up and down. I was able to post a message on the BBS there with no problems. I posted "Just as a test, I'm posting this from a PoccketPC at Comdex. More of a review when I have more time, and am on a real computer. " Someone replied to my post, saying "Wow, great feature I am posting this wirelessly from my Palm Vx/Omnisky with Proxiweb." So neither device has an edge here, since both require you to buy additional hardware. (I've not used the OmniSky myself.)


When all is said and done, the PocketPC Windows CE 3.0 OS and devices are a notable improvement over previous CE devices. They're easier to use, lighter, and more geared towards reality than their predecessors. That said, they still suffer from a sub-par UI, feature bloat, a fairly bad memory management design, and overpricing, and while the form-factor iproves it is still not as good as the Palm devices. There are some features that, as a Palm user, I would like to see on Palms, most notably an eBook reader based on a standardized format (which the PocketPC may or may not be), but not the whole device.

When I walked into Comdex that day, I had a PalmOS-based TRGpro in my pocket. When I walked out, I had a PalmOS-based TRGpro in my pocket. It is still there, and will be for some time to come. The PocketPC is a valid upgrade for existing CE users, but not for anyone else.