Tech Industry

Bigger CE devices to rival mini-notebooks

The new products will debut at Comdex, but there are questions regarding viability and whether they will confuse an already jumbled sector.

Larger Windows CE-based handheld computers to rival mini-notebooks in size, price, and performance will make their debut at Comdex, but there are questions regarding their viability and whether they might further confuse the already jumbled "subnotebook" sector.

The doubt centers on whether the larger Windows CE form follows any function. Pointing out the overlap between larger Windows CE devices and ultra-compact Intel-based notebooks (referred to as mini-notebooks), Randy Giusto, notebook analyst at International Data Corporation, stated that "These two will definitely be competing. They will hit hard in mid-1998."

Current Windows CE handhelds are light (usually weighing well under one pound), run a stripped-down version of Windows 95, and cost a nominal $500. These devices use RISC processors from manufacturers such as Hitachi and generally come with extremely cramped keyboards, usable only for simple data input.

Enter larger Windows CE devices, a larger-than-handheld form factor which sources say has been code-named Jupiter by Microsoft. Some vendors are now moving to the slightly larger design in order to provide bigger keyboards, larger screens, and more processing power. Importantly, the price should not go up significantly, keeping "Jupiter" devices at about half the price of mini-notebooks.

Mini-notebooks, though smaller than standard notebooks such as IBM's ThinkPad 560 or Compaq's Armada 7300, are larger and more powerful than current CE handhelds. Mini-notebooks run the standard Windows 95 operating system, integrate hard drives, and use Intel Pentium processors. But they generally cost about $2,000, a high price for this category of computer.

With keyboard and screen size equalized and Windows CE devices using less power, the larger CE device wins hands down over the more expensive mini-notebook, said Mike McGuire, mobile computing analyst at Dataquest, noting that cheaper screens and the use of dedicated memory instead of a hard drive will keep prices around $900 and below.

"At worst, [larger CE devices] could fundamentally shift the entire market," said McGuire, adding that "The [Toshiba] Libretto [mini-notebook] brings a new form factor, but it doesn't do anything about the operating system or battery life."

According to McGuire, larger CE products are likely to attract current CE enthusiasts. "You can expect all of the guys who are serious about CE aren't just going to stick with the [current CE devices]," he said. "They will eventually go to the [larger CE devices]."

Unfortunately, like mini-notebooks, the small screens and keyboards of enlarged Windows CE machines can make them an irritating choice as productivity machines, said IDC's Giusto. Mini-notebooks are "a solution looking for a need," he noted. "What you have is a bunch of Asian vendors looking for volume because it took off in Japan." At best, mini-notebooks will be a subspecies of ultra-portables, which occupy only 6 to 8 percent of the total notebook market, Giusto asserted.

More important, CE devices still will not necessarily process complete desktop applications, possibly keeping them relegated to the role of a computing companion.

The larger CE devices will continue using simplified versions of Excel or Microsoft Word, and conversion between the two platforms is still not perfect, said Jay Wright, chief executive officer of Wright Strategies, a mobile computing software vendor. Users, he said, can have trouble modifying attachments created on desktop versions of the applications.

Microsoft contends that compatability exists and will continue to improve. "I'm sure there are some idiosyncrasies, but it's pretty seamless," said Roger Gulrajani, group product manager at Microsoft. Gulrajani, however, added that these types of attachments are typically translated into CE format at the user's main desktop. Thus, the CE device is dependent to a certain degree on other computers to work.

The possible glitch won't stop vendors from testing the waters.

NEC, Casio, and others will start rolling out products and prototypes of new Windows CE devices with screens and keyboards that will rival the latest mini-notebooks from Toshiba and others.

NEC is expected to unveil its large CE device at Comdex later this month. The new device will have a larger screen than current NEC devices and a keyboard that approximates the keyboard used in the mini-notebooks. The device is already being marketed in Japan.

In October, NEC officials stated that they were planning on releasing a new CE form factor in mid-November with a bigger keyboard and screen.

HP has said that toward the end of the year it will release the HP 620LX, a CE device larger than current models that will also contain a color screen. Casio will also debut a larger version of its Cassiopeia at Comdex.

Other vendors will start to ship products in the next six to nine months, said another analyst, who requested anonymity.

Intel could have a hand in both product areas. Intel acquired Digital's StrongARM division in the last week's settlement of Digital's patent infringement suit against the Santa Clara chipmaker. While Intel's plans in this area are far from clear, the pieces are mostly in place to jump into this market, if the company chooses. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

"It [StrongARM] does fit well into Intel's portfolio. Intel's embedded processors have not been competitive," said Michael Slater, principal analyst at the MIcroDesign Resources earlier this month.