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What Handheld PCs should have been all along (January 2001)
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

Note: On December 10, 2012, Intermec announced that it will be acquired by Honeywell. [See Intermec press release]

The mere mention of the term "Handheld PC" is enough to make mobile computing aficionados wince. After all, handheld PCs--or H/PCs for short--were supposed to ring in a new era of handheld computing when Microsoft introduced the platform in the fall of 1996. However, despite sticking to a form factor Hewlett Packard had successfully used for years in its small DOS-based clamshell computers, H/PCs pretty much bombed. In retrospect it's easy to see the problem: Microsoft's underpowered "Look honey, I shrunk Windows" software limped along on marginal, lackluster hardware, and the whole concept left a lot to be desired. Despite significant improvements over the following three years, the H/PC never really managed to overcome that disastrous start, and the situation wasn't helped by some opportunistic hardware vendors, such as Philips and LG Electronics, that quickly abandoned the market and left their customers stranded when barrels of cash didn't roll in. Eventually Microsoft diverted the thrust of its mobile computing initiative into vertical markets and the Pocket PC, and today there isn't a single consumer market H/PC left. Though the HP Jornada 720 and the MobilePro 780, to name two survivors, are vastly more useful than the initial crop of handheld PCs, they do not even show up on the public's radar screen.

Perhaps more than anything else, early H/PCs suffered from a reputation of being sluggish and having lousy screens. None of the RISC processors used in H/PCs seemed up to the task, and though they got faster over the years, their development didn't keep pace with that of desktop and notebook processors. Worse, while consumers came to expect glorious TFT color even in economy notebook computers, they had to put up with dim DSTN screens in H/PCs whose cost just below the US$1,000 mark seemed preposterous in comparison. When Microsoft added functionality with the introduction of the H/PC Pro platform, the H/PC was given another chance, especially with major players like Compaq and IBM joining the fray. Unfortunately, though we saw some exceptional designs, such as the Clio, and exceptional engineering, such as the Jornadas and MobilePros, H/PCs continued to fall farther and farther behind. To be fair, the five-fold increase in processor speed from the 40MHz chips that powered the first generation of Windows CE devices to the 206MHz Intel StrongARM roughly mirrors the fivefold increase in clockspeed from the 166MHz Pentiums of the time to the 850MHz Pentium IIIs now appearing in notebooks. But considering that a 190MHz StrongARM was used in the Newton MP2000 three years ago and that RISC processors were supposed to outpace CISC designs in clockspeed, the state-of-the-art in current Windows CE chips is not good. Then again, it's all relative as Palm OS devices on a wheezy old 20MHz chip can now do almost everything a Pocket PC can do.

As for the screens, that again isn't an easy call. Of course we all prefer color to black and white, more color is better, and bigger screens are better yet. But that line of thinking would lead to the perfect mobile device having a 15-inch TFT which means it wouldn't be a mobile device anymore. Furthermore, the most successful PDA of all time, the Palm, manages just fine on a tiny 160 x 160 pixel monochrome screen. The question really is whether a chosen screen technology is suitable for a given form factor. Despite, say, a Palm V's low pixel count, the screen is so sharp and contrasty, and so well suited for the limited information displayed on it, that it's (almost) perfect for the job. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the screens used in almost all Windows CE devices. The monochrome models were, for the most part, barely readable and the advent of color brought only limited relief as it employed an ancient display technology long abandoned by all but the cheapest bargain-basement notebooks. Bottomline: combine the (real or perceived) limited functionality of Windows CE, sluggish performance, and barely legible displays and you just don't have much. When I used to ask manufacturers why PDAs and H/PCs can't have TFTs, I was always told that a), cost and power consumption were prohibitive, and b), such screens simply were not available. Casio was the first to debunk that myth when it introduced the Cassiopeia E-100. While still not prefect, the new Casio EM-500 multimedia Pocket PC combines great functionality, a superb TFT screen, more than acceptable battery life, and good speed into a very compelling package. I'll go out on a limb and say that had someone shown the same degree of leadership and commitment in the H/PC arena, Windows CE handhelds might have become a rousing success.

Perhaps we'll never know, but there is one device on the market today that shows what the future of the handheld PC might have been like. Tellingly, it isn't made by one of the early Windows CE players. In fact, the vast majority of the population won't even recognize the name on this device: Intermec 6651. That's because Intermec isn't into consumer electronics. They provide vertical market systems solutions and build rugged industrial terminals and pen computers. Yet, now it also offers what is arguably the most advanced and most versatile Windows CE-based handheld PC. How did this come about? Because of Intermec's long-standing relationship with Sharp. Norand, now part of Intermec, has been selling rebadged Sharp pen tablet computers for several years. Those computers were part of Sharp's line of Copernicus tablets made for the Japanese market. Norand sold them as the Pen*Key 6620, then the upgraded 6622, and finally the ultra-elegant slimline 6642 reviewed not so long ago in this magazine. The Intermec 6651 is in fact a Japanese-bred descendent of Sharp's shortlived "Mobilon" brand Windows CE handhelds offered on the US market. That line included some rather forgettable models but also the Mobilon Pro which held the title of "fastest CE device" for well over a year. What makes the Intermec 6651 so special? Here are the top four reasons:

  • 1) It is the fastest CE device we ever tested.
  • 2) Its screen can be flipped around so that you can use the 6651 as a pen tablet.
  • 3) it has a built-in digital still/video camera. And
  • 4), and most importantly, it has a brilliant, razor-sharp 64k color TFT screen.
It is hard to describe the enormous difference that the TFT screen makes. Instead of the dim, jittery fuzziness of most DSTN displays, the 6651's TFT is as sharp and brilliant as we've come to expect from modern notebooks. Blacks are black, whites are white, there is no lag, and the entire viewing experience is as it should have been on a handheld PC all along. This perceived snappiness is confirmed by the 6651's benchmarks, which we conducted as always with bSQUARE's bUSEFUL Analyzer benchmark suite. The Intermec 6651 is powered by a 129 MHz version of Toshiba's formidable TX3922 chipset, the same core that Fujitsu used to replace the PenCentra 130's NEC 131MHz VR4121 processor with in their new PenCentra 200 pen tablet. The high performance of both these devices is somewhat of a surprise as earlier TX3900 devices, including the Sharp Mobilon Pro, didn't score as high. In fact, the MIPS 3000-based TX3922 with its 16k instruction and 8k data cache is not a new design and is nowhere near as powerful as Toshiba's new 167 and 200MHz TX4955 chipset demonstrated at the April 2000 Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in New Orleans. Still, somehow Sharp managed to squeeze every last ounce of performance out of this chipset. The combination of excellent benchmark performance and the bright TFT screen makes for a device that feels substantially crisper and quicker than any other Handheld PC we have tested.

In terms of size and weight, the 6651 is somewhat unique. With a footprint of just 8.4 x 5.5 inches it is noticeably smaller than some of the "full-size" handheld PC experiments, but not as small as the initial crop of H/PCs. In fact, the 1.9 pound 6651 pioneers an entirely new form factor. Its 7.1-inch screen displays 800 x 480 pixels, almost four times as many as the initial 480 x 240 Windows CE standard. Though this display ratio is somewhat unusual, it makes for a better viewing experience than the hard-to-get-used-to 640 x 240 format. You could ask why Sharp didn't go for a full 800 x 600 SVGA screen, but that would have meant a deeper, less handy device. The 69%-scale keyboard of the 6651 is small but well laid out. With a key pitch of under 16mm, the 6651 isn't for touch-typists, but after a bit of practice you get used to it even for typing an occasional documents.

An ingenious hinge mechanism lets you use the 6651 in three different modes: as a standard clamshell, as a tablet with the screen folded over, and as a display easel for presentations. The screen rotates at the touch of one of the silk-screened touch controls alongside the display, and also turns off the keyboard. A brilliant solution (with the sole drawback that you have to disconnect the AC adapter before you can flip the screen).

The screen hinge also contains the 6651's unique built-in digital camera. Depending on your needs, this may a God's end or an option that you could do without. On the plus side, you can easily snap pictures and record short movies with the rotatable camera. That can come in very handy if you're a field worker who has to quickly document an inspection or an accident. The camera is also well supported by imaging applications ranging from a Camera Viewer, to an image editor, a movie player, and a picture gallery. On the other hand, though it's billed as a 350,000 pixel camera, you only have a choice between 320x240 and 160x120 dots. That's hardly enough for advanced work, but it makes it easy to quickly attach images to an email and send them off.

How does the 6651 fare as a communicator? It is very flexible in the I/O department, supporting USB, serial, and VGA, though that requires a special cable as all three share the same connector. The 6651 has both a PC card and a CF card slot, and there is an RJ-11 jack for the internal 56k modem (something that we're sorely missing on Pocket PCs). Our 6651 came with an Intermec 11Mbps 802.11b wireless LAN card that worked flawlessly through the Symbol Technologies access points installed in the Pen Computing editorial offices. A special Web Surfing application made surfing easy. The combination of the hi-res TFT and the ultra-fast 11Mbps access to our T1 made for the fastest web browsing we've ever seen on a CE device. A word of caution here: though Pocket Internet Explorer has come a long way and properly displays most web sites, there's still the occasional glitch and hang-up.

What about battery life? The 6651 has a 1,800 mAh Lithium-Ion pack that's supposed to last for ten hours of typical or four hours of continuous use. In our tests, the power indicator went from 96% to 60% in three hours of continuous operation. While that is not bad, there are now ultra-fast Pentium III notebooks that can run over five hours continually. The 6651, despite its speed and TFT really does no worse than other Handhed PCs, just not as good as we had hoped when CE came onto the scene. The bottomline is that in Intermec's 6651 we have a Windows CE Handheld PC that shows what such devices could and should have been, and perhaps may still become. The sensational TFT screen is way better than any other H/PC display we've seen. The camera may come in handy, though we'd like to see a version of the 6651 without it. As is, it drives the price of the 6651 up to $1,499, a bargain for what it offers, but also right up there with economy Windows notebooks. If you're willing to part with this kind of cash, the good news is that you can order the Intermec 6651 right off the web at www.mobileplanet.com. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Processor Toshiba TX3922 129MHz
OS Windows CE 3.0
Memory 32MB RAM, 24MB ROM
Display 8.4" 800 x 480 65k-color TFT
Digitizer Pressure-sensitive panel
Storage Internal RAM or via PC Card or CF card slots
Size 8.4 x 5.5 x 1.1 inches
Power Li-Ion (up to 10 hours)
Interface USB, audio, VGA, IrDA, AC/DC, digital camera
Options Keyboard covers, cables
Price US$1,499 (incl. camera)
Contact Intermec www.intermec.com