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NEC to release mega-handheld

The company plans to release the MobilePro 900, a handheld that resembles a mininotebook but contains the guts of a PDA. It's meant for hospital staff and other roaming workers.

NEC plans to release the MobilePro 900 later this month, a handheld device that resembles a mininotebook but contains the technological guts of a PDA.

The device--which will be pitched to niche markets such as hospitals and companies with a sales force out in the field--essentially tries to combine the attractive elements of two different product categories.

Like a PDA (personal digital assistant), the MobilePro contains an energy-efficient processor and can survive up to eight hours on a single battery charge, or five hours when connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Like a mininotebook, the MobilePro 900 has a keyboard that's nearly the same size as those found on regular notebooks and an 8.1-inch screen, larger than those found on PDAs. At 1.8 pounds, the device is also similar in heft and size to a mininotebook.

"Doctors like the PDA layout, but they found they had a high attrition rate with PDAs because everybody drops them," said Joe Harris, director of product marketing for NEC.

Several companies, including NEC, have sold "tweener" products like this before, with only modest success. But interest in experimenting with mobile designs is growing again among hardware makers. The tablet PC, a slatelike computer with handwriting recognition, came out last year and so far is exceeding modest sales goals.

A number of start-ups are also gearing up to sell pocket-size computers. Vulcan Ventures, the investment group headed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is currently marketing its Mini-PC to hardware makers. The Mini-PC is a full-fledged Windows XP PC containing a 1.8-inch hard drive--the same thing found on Apple Computer's iPod--and a 5.7-inch touch screen.

Vulcan is currently talking to hardware makers about licensing the design. Products could come out by the first quarter next year and sell for $1,200 to $1,500, said a Microsoft representative demonstrating the Mini-PC at WinHEC this week.

Unlike tablets or the coming mini-PCs, NEC's MobilePro does not contain a built-in hard drive and runs Windows CE, as well as the pocket version of Microsoft applications. On the other hand, NEC's device has a longer battery life and costs $899.

This class of devices was "originally positioned as companion products to a notebook or a PC, but they failed miserably because they are full-blown computers," Harris said. Since their repositioning as independent computers, sales have begun to tick upward, he said. NEC also sells a tablet that weighs 2.2 pounds.

The MobilePro 900, which will start to go on sale in late May, comes with a 400MHz XScale processor from Intel, 64MB of memory, and 64MB of flash memory for storing and managing applications. Extra options include a supplemental battery that can run for 10 to 16 hours.

Although wireless might be integrated in a future version of the gadget, consumers now need to get a separate add-on card. "We've tested it with a suite of about 50 Wi-Fi cards. They all passed," said Harris. The device is also compatible with IBM's microdrive, a hard drive that comes on a PC card.

The product will be sold through Amazon.com, CDW Computer Centers, PC Connection and other sales outlets that handle small-business needs.