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Windows CE handhelds debut

Sharp Electronics makes its first entry into the market with a color-screen model.

    Handheld PC makers announced new Windows CE devices that extend the capabilities and form of handheld computing, following Microsoft's release last month of version 2.0 of the slimmed-down Windows operating system.

    Sharp Electronics debuted its first handheld Windows CE device, which will offer a color

    Sharp Mobilon HC-4500
    screen, while Hewlett-Packard updated its line of handheld PCs with a model that has faster processors and more memory. Next year HP will introduce a handheld with a 640-by-240-pixel color screen.

    NEC Computer says later this year it will offer a new, slightly enlarged handheld PC that features a larger keyboard than current Windows CE devices; Casio also says it will add a larger device to its stable of handheld computers.

    The newest version of Windows CE adds support for color screens as well as a greater array of screen sizes, new networking capabilities, and support for additional processors. A variety of new devices capitalizing on these improvements are expected this fall.

    Sharp's Mobilon line is one of the first to include a color-screen model. The HC-4500 features a 6.5-inch, backlit screen with 640-by-240-pixel resolution and touch screen capabilities. The HC-4500 and two other models can also record and play back audio and accommodate a digital camera.

    The Mobilon line comes with a 33.6-kbps modem and Internet connectivity. Windows CE comes with several bundled applications, including Microsoft Pocket Word and Pocket Excel and Internet Explorer.

    Sharp's move is a somewhat belated first entry into the growing Windows CE-based handheld market, in which Philips Electronics, Hewlett-Packard and Casio are currently major players. Previously, Sharp has offered personal organizers based on a proprietary operating system. Sharp is still in time to catch a growing wave of interest in the devices, though.

    "Windows CE 2.0 is a lot more mature," noted Jay Wright, president of Wright Strategies, which provides sales force automation applications based on standard handheld devices.

    "A lot of customers were looking at CE 1.0 as a first release--they'll evaluate it, but it's probably not something they'll deploy on," Wright said. With the latest version adding needed features and gaining stability, Wright thinks more corporations will be adding handheld devices to their arsenal of data collection tools. Color, in particular, was an important addition to CE 2.0, as are the new kinds of devices it is expected to be available on.

    NEC's as-yet-unseen MobilePro trends toward the size of so-called mini-notebooks, with keys approximately 16mm wide and a display that's roughly double the size of current handhelds, a company spokesperson said. It will weigh less than 1.5 pounds and is expected to offer either a grayscale or color screen.

    The MobilePro is likely to compete against the slightly larger Toshiba Libretto mini-notebook, which weighs under two pounds and runs Windows 95, as well as new mini-notebooks from Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric.

    The MobilePro will be available in mid-November for "under $1,000," according to a NEC spokesperson. Sharp's Mobilon products will hit the market in the fourth quarter and cost between $600 and $900, while HP's 620LX whandheld will ship in late 1997, the company says.