CE upgrade causes confusion

The upgrade for Microsoft's OS for handheld PCs is due soon, but questions linger about its suitability for older CE devices.

3 min read
The latest version of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system for handheld computers is just around the corner, but questions about its suitability for older CE devices linger, pointing to critical differences in the upgradability of traditional PCs and these new-fangled handheld PCs.

NEC MobilePro 750C H/PC

Microsoft will introduce Windows CE 2.1 at the Microsoft Developers Conference in October, along with a new class of handheld computers that will run the revamped operating system (OS).

"This is the dawning of what we refer to as the companion PC class," said Gerry Purdy of Mobile Insights. "It's like the HPC on steroids."

The new handheld computers, code-named Jupiter, will initially cost around $999, have roomier keyboards, a display up to 11 inches diagonally, with a battery life around 10 hours, Microsoft confirmed.

But unlike the PC world, where all computer owners can purchase and install OS updates in pretty much the same manner, current Windows CE handheld computer users will run into different experiences when attempting to upgrade.

"Jupiter" device specifications
Up to 11 inches diagonally

Battery life
10 hours

Slightly larger keyboard, or stylus

Pocket Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Internet Explorer

Expected vendors
NEC, HP, Casio, Philips, Compaq

Sources: Various

In some cases, upgrades could be challenging for users. Unlike a PC operating system, which involves strictly a software upgrade, upgrading CE devices requires physically swapping out the ROM chip, which can be either a fairly simple task or more of a chore, depending on the manufacturer.

"Once you can physically get to the place where the ROM is, it's easy to upgrade," said Phil Holden, product manager for Windows CE. "But the decision on when and how a user may or may not get an upgrade is really a hardware position. I don't think Microsoft is in the business of telling a vendor how to build hardware."

But Microsoft does hold manufacturers to a set of "guidelines" before they can license Windows CE and put the "Powered by Windows CE" logo on a device, Holden conceded. "There is a certification process, and a set of guidelines," he said.

Another issue users face is price. Unlike Windows 98--Microsoft's newest upgrade for desktop PCs--which had a set upgrade and retail price months before its launch, there is no consensus among vendors as to the upgrade price for CE devices. And upgrades can be pricey--almost prohibitive considering the price of CE devices, which typically range from $399 to $799. Philips, for example, charges users $199, which includes extra memory chips, for upgrading its devices from 1.0 to 2.0.

Although Microsoft contends the newest version of CE will work "seamlessly" on older models, analysts say that companion PCs are not really meant to be upgraded like PCs, and are more like a consumer electronics appliance which is replaced instead of updated.

"You could take an old device and put the new OS on, but you wouldn't necessarily want to," said Purdy. "Microsoft has worked with the vendors so that the OS will be guaranteed to work and not break, but this is a pretty new platform and [vendors] will be more concerned with future versions."

Windows CE 2.1 contains bug fixes and some new features, but the changes are "so minor, and so under-the-hood, that nobody will notice," said Jim Turley of Microprocessor Report. "It's going to be pretty subtle. If you have a handheld PC already, you won't notice the difference."

Holden is also quick to point out that these devices are not PCs. "If you want a PC, buy a notebook. We don't want people thinking of this as a PC," he said.

Vendors NEC, Hewlett-Packard, Casio, Compaq, and Philips will make upgrade chips available to users for a price yet to be announced.