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Future handhelds take shape

A more complete picture of coming palm-size PCs is emerging, revealing a device modified to better compete with the dominant PalmPilot.

A more complete picture of the future palm-size PC is beginning to emerge, revealing a device modified to better compete with the dominant PalmPilot.

The latest revision of the palm-size PC platform, code-named Wyvern, may mark a turning point for the struggling Microsoft Windows CE devices, as more major manufacturers sign on, and key hardware and software improvements emerge.

Microsoft and its manufacturing partners have met with some resistance in the handheld market thus far, making only a slight dent in 3Com's PalmPilot dominance. Manufacturers and users have reportedly complained about problems with the operating system, including glitches with desktop synchronization. Additionally, palm-size PCs typically cost up to $200 more than PalmPilots.

But the upcoming revision of the operating Everex's Freestyle 540system and the third generation of hardware devices may give the palm-size PC a much-needed boost.

As previously reported, Compaq is expected to launch its Wyvern device this spring. The Aero 2100, as it is reportedly called, will feature a reflective 256 color display, 8MB of memory, 4 customizable launch buttons, left-hand scroll bar, voice recording with integrated microphone and speaker, and lithium ion battery capable of 10 hours of battery life, according to some sources.

Expected on March 1, the Compaq device will have an estimated retail price of $449.

Compaq, which already markets a clam-shell handheld PC, is expected to expand its Windows CE line later this spring with the Aero 8000, slightly smaller than a notebook with a larger keyboard than its existing H/PC. The Jupiter-class Aero 8000 may include a 128MHz processor and 32MB of memory, according to one source.

Compaq's expansion of its Windows CE product line, along with Hewlett-Packard's expected entry into the U.S. palm-size PC market later this spring lends credibility to the emerging platform, observers say.

Among smaller vendors, Everex is preparing to launch its Freestyle 540, a color palm-size PC with 10-hour lithium ion battery. Although color displays tend to quickly sap battery life, the reflective screen technology featured in Everex's and Compaq's devices mitigates the battery drain, according to Everex.

"The reflective screen technology uses natural light to give you the color display, and this gives you better battery life," said Mike Hu, Everex director of business development, explaining that unlike notebook displays which tend to get washed out in natural sunlight, the palm-size PC displays are readable outdoors. However, color displays do add to the price and girth of a device.

"To take full advantage of the applications, you really need color," he said, adding that popular mapping applications benefit from color displays: "Otherwise, you can't tell the difference between a river and a freeway."

The Freestyle 540 will also be ambidextrous, Hu said, unlike other existing palm-size PCs. The Everex model will offer a dial to navigate the operating system on either side of the device.

Everex will also include four application-launching buttons in a diamond formation under the display, reportedly a hardware trend with Wyvern manufacturers. The Everex device is expected to cost around $450.

With the release of the Wyvern devices, palm-size PCs may become price-competitive with PalmPilots for the first time. Compaq will also release a lower-priced version of the palm-size PC with monotone display, sources say, while Everex will lower prices on its existing models to make room for its newest product, Hu said.

"The black-and-white models will go down in price," he said, as the new color models become available.