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Windows CE handheld PCs due

The devices will serve as a prelude to a greater variety of portable computers due next year.

On Monday, Microsoft (MSFT) and a coterie of handheld PC makers will announce new Windows CE devices that will serve as a prelude to a greater variety of portable computers due next year.

Sharp will debut its first Windows CE device, while Hewlett-Packard, LG Electronics, Casio, and others are expected to roll out revised handheld PCs that will offer improvements such as color screens and faster processors.

Previously, none of the Windows CE devices offered color screens. Microsoft announced in September an updated version of its Windows CE operating system that enables support for 32-bit color displays, direct access to Windows 95 and NT file and print servers, and support for additional processors. (See related story)

Some of the new handheld PCs are expected use the 100-MHz version of the 32-bit SH-3 RISC processor from Hitachi Semiconductor. Current designs using the 60-MHz SH-3 include Casio, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, LG Electronics, and Hitachi.

Support for other processors such as the PowerPC made by IBM and x86 chips made by Advanced Micro Devices has been added to Windows CE, in addition to existing support for the Advanced RISC Machines (ARM) and MIPs chip designs. This is in contrast to Windows 95 and Windows NT, whose use is closely tied to the presence of x86 processors such as Intel's Pentium and Pentium II.

Although the newest handheld PCs won't look much different than the first-generation devices, some research firms think that the market for portable "PC companion" devices will splinter this year into several new segments.

Companies are also readying larger Windows CE "companions" for PCs, according to International Data Corporation (IDC). These will come with either color or monochrome screens that are larger than those offered in current handheld PCs such as the Velo1 from Philips and larger keyboards for touch typing.

The devices will be selling against a similarly sized Toshiba Libretto mini-notebook, which weighs under two pounds and runs Windows 95, as well as new mini-notebooks from Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric.

IDC expects the beefier PC companions to be priced between $700 and $1,000, while the mini-notebooks will be priced closer to the $2,000 mark.