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Upgrade zaps Compaq's iPaq handhelds

Compaq pulls a downloadable upgrade for the iPaq off the Web after it renders some of the handheld computers inoperable.

An upgrade designed to offer modest improvements to Compaq Computer's iPaq handheld turned into a major headache this week for a number of people who discovered that the update rendered their devices unusable.

Compaq said it pulled the downloadable upgrade from its Web site Tuesday, only hours after it was posted, when it received reports of problems. Compaq asked people whose devices crashed after downloading the upgrade--the iPaq's first--to send their handhelds back to the company for repair.

"The vast majority of people who downloaded the upgrade installed it and installed it successfully," said John Brandewie, product manager for the iPaq Pocket PC. The total number of problems reported to the company's customer service center is "in the single digits," he said.

"We're going to figure out what's wrong with it, and we're going to repost it when it's fixed," Brandewie said. He estimated that the number of people who downloaded the upgrade before it was removed from Compaq's Web site was in the hundreds.

Jeremy Horwitz, a student at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y., said he downloaded the upgrade Tuesday. The first time he tried to install it he got an error message, and the second time, late Wednesday night, the handheld died.

"To their credit, they are answering phone calls at 3 a.m.," Horwitz said.

However, Horwitz said he is frustrated to be without his handheld, especially since this is the third time he has had to send back his iPaq since buying it at Thanksgiving.

"To be without your organizer because Compaq released a faulty upgrade is just absolutely insane," Horwitz said.

The problem appears to be with the software that installs the upgrade, Brandewie said, not the update itself. Compaq doesn't know yet why some people's handhelds are crashing and others are not, he added.

Those who successfully install the upgrade should have no problems. However, Brandewie suggested that anyone still considering adding the update wait for Compaq to post an improved version to its Web site.

The upgrade, a new version of the iPaq's read-only memory (ROM), offers relatively modest changes, such as a minor update to the Pocket PC operating system, better drivers to improve the connection between the handheld and a PC, and visual improvements such as snazzier icons and better-looking menu bars.

Although this upgrade is relatively minor, Compaq touts the ability to upgrade the handheld's ROM as a key feature. Other handhelds with Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system cannot be upgraded in such a manner.

"We think it's one of our advantages," Brandewie said. "We can incorporate enhancements to the Compaq portion of the software" or those from Microsoft.

Unveiled in April, the iPaq handheld has been a hot commodity, as a component crunch limited Compaq's ability to produce enough of the units to meet demand. When it began shipping last summer, the unit was selling for $700 and $800 on online auctions at eBay and Amazon, well above its $499 sticker price.