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IBM joins the Windows CE-based race

The WorkPad z50 will be large for a device based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, but small compared to the typical notebook PC.

IBM will unveil its long-awaited handheld PC based on the Windows CE operating system today.

As reported earlier, the IBM WorkPad z50 will be large for a device based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, but small compared to the typical notebook PC.

The z50 is a "Jupiter"-class Windows CE device, which means that it looks a lot like a shrunken version of a ThinkPad notebook. It is similar in size to Hewlett-Packard's Jornada 820 and LG Electronics Phenom--both Windows CE devices.

Though small by notebook standards, it is bigger than the most typical Windows CE handhelds which can actually fit into the palm of your hand and use a stylus for input. This smaller class of device is exemplified by Compaq Computer's Aero 2110.

Devices based on the CE operating system are not exactly taking the computing world by storm, although they are gaining market share. Microsoft has previously acknowledged it is working out some of the kinks in the operating system, tweaking some problems with desktop synchronization and improving the interface.

But the platform offers some advantages. Windows CE offers "instant on," which is a bonus for anyone frustrated by the long boot-up time of most PCs, and much longer battery life than typical notebooks. In addition, these devices weigh 2 to 3 pounds on average, compared to 5-to-7-pound notebooks. Market analysts such as Mobile Insights' Gerry Purdy expect the category to grow at a clip of 100 percent per year.

The IBM z50 has addressed some of the drawbacks of the Jupiter platform, adding some features that blur the line between a CE device and notebook PC. For example, unlike most Windows CE devices, the z50 offers a hard drive: It comes with the capability to use IBM's new Microdrive. This matchbook-sized hard drive fits into a small slot in the device and offers data capacities up to 340 MB. But this device will not ship until later this year, said Bill Tsang, a manager at IBM's ThinkPad division.

IBM also offers a second option for hard-drive storage: the PC Card slot in the z50 can also accommodate a drive. These PC Card hard drives have capacities up to 1 GB.

As with most companies using Windows CE, IBM is aiming at corporate customers looking for a companion device rather than a full-blown notebook computer. "Some customers are saying they want a desktop with a companion device, not just one notebook," said Tsang.

There is a trend in corporate America to offer employees one notebook computer which serves as their desktop at work and a portable on the road. But Tsang says this doesn't work for all of IBM's customers, some of whom only need a small, lightweight, and functional companion which they can synchronize with their desktop.

The z50 weighs 2.6 pounds and boasts an 8.2-inch LCD screen capable of 64,000 colors--another departure from CE devices that usually offer only 256 colors. It also packs an NEC MIPS processor running at 133 MHz and can use up to 48MB of memory. It also has 20MB of ROM.

The keyboard is cramped compared to typical notebooks or desktop computers, but large compared to some of the tiny keyboards on the ultra-compact CE devices. IBM says it is "95 percent the size of current standard ThinkPad notebook keyboards."

It offers the typical suite of Microsoft "Pocket" applications including Word, Powerpoint, Internet Explorer, and Outlook. The integrated modem offers speeds of only 33-kbps. Tsang said this is done to save on battery life.

Battery life of eight hours is typical but can be extended to 16 hours with an optional attachment. The price for the z50 with 16MB of memory is $999.

IBM, surprisingly, has not kept this device under wraps. The company has been showing the device at various shows during the last six months. Tsang says IBM has waited this long to bring it to market in order to make sure all the software pieces were in place as the device is primarily targeted at corporate customers.

He points to one feature that allows information system managers to synchronize the z50 with desktop PCs using an application on the server. This makes it easier for a large company to implement this synchronization feature company wide.

The Palm operating system is also supported with this software, highlighting an interesting aspect of IBM's product mix: The company is the sole provider of both Palm and Windows CE-based devices, indicating that Big Blue's handheld strategy is still evolving.

The z50 will not be available at consumer stores such as CompUSA or OfficeMax but through large resellers and some online reseller such as Computer Discount Warehouse.

Options include an extended-life battery ($199), UltraPort Replicator ($99), 32MB memory upgrade ($89), and more.

News.com's Stephanie Miles contributed to this report.

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