- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

The introduction of the Pocket PC platform by Microsoft Corp. earlier this year has spawned several great hand-held devices. Among these are the Cassiopeia E-115 and Hewlett Packard's Jornada 540.

But the best may be the latest to market. I'm utterly gob smacked, as the Brits would say, by Compaq's iPAQ H3650 version of the Pocket PC, retail price $499, and offering 32 MB of RAM for starters. (The HP and Casio units start at 16 MB.)

It also uses a 206 MHz Intel Corp. StrongARM processor, which is faster and more powerful or so it seems than the chips used by other units. Add in a good color display and decent battery life, which to me means an average business day, and you're good to go.

I define such average use as including recharging in the docking cradle or direct AC adapter plug-in. Compaq, in a statement on its Web site, refuses to estimate, saying "Battery life will vary based on an estimated typical use pattern of an average user, the configuration of the computer and the usage pattern of the individual user."

But most of all, the iPAQ H3650 is thin, light and stylish. It's easy on the eyes and on your pocket, both in terms of weight and price. It offers an impressive range of features and fairly easy navigation, even with one hand. The screen display can be read in varying kinds of light, and more easily than many other hand-helds, including the Palm IIIc, the color version of that hand-held.

The unit packs all of the features of a typical Pocket PC, with portable versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, as well as Internet Explorer and e-mail capabilities. The handwriting recognition seems to work a bit faster and even better than on the other units; perhaps the StrongARM chip has something to do with that.

Another "fast" performer is the Microsoft Reader, the much-ballyhooed system where you can read an electronic book on the device. It loads in mere seconds, and reading is a delight. A company called OverDrive Systems Inc. has taken the hassle out of creating an electronic book. Go to www.readerworks.com/English/ index.html, the firm's Web site, and you can download a Beta version of their ReaderWorks software. It allows you to take text or HTML files and convert them to the Microsoft Reader format. It took me less than 20 minutes to download the software, install it and convert one electronic text into the format. It's just amazing.

Amazing, too, is Peacemaker from Conduits Software (www.conduits.com/ce/peacemaker/), which lets you "beam" a business card from a Pocket PC to a Palm device, and vice versa. The basic software is free; a more robust version is due out July 17, offering the ability to exchange appointments, tasks, memos and other files, at a price of $14.95. This is stuff worth getting.

But all this software would be worth a bit less if the platform running it wasn't a solid performer. The iPAQ is, and it does so at a price about $50 to $100 below comparably equipped competitors.

One interesting thing about the device is that it lacks, as an integrated part, the onboard slot for compact flash cards. Instead, Compaq offers two optional sleeves, one for compact flash and one for PC Card devices. The result is not only greater expandability and compatibility, but something that is easy to handle solo, while retaining the ability to handle modems, extra memory and so forth.

I'll be blunt: This is a winning product, and I haven't found a downside to it yet. The aggressive pricing means you won't find discounts on the device one on-line merchant claims they have to charge a bit more (think of the Chrysler PT mania this year, or the arrival of the VW Beetle a couple of years back) in order to cover extra freight costs. But even at a slight premium, the Compaq iPAQ H3650 may have a bit of an unwieldy name, but in performance it's a winner.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to MarkKel@aol.com, or visit the writer's Web page, www.markkellner.com.

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