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Fujitsu PenCentra 200

Speedier and better (November 2000)
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)


The Fujitsu PenCentra 200 is an updated version of the company's PenCentra 130. When I first saw the new PenCentra at this past June's PC Expo in New York it looked exactly like its 130 predecessor and I wondered what had changed. Not much, really. It looked like Fujitsu simply had exchanged the 130's NEC 131MHz VR4121 processor with a 129MHz Toshiba TX3922. I left the briefing wondering whether this was really a new product at all, and why Fujitsu had decided to change the name. Turns out they had a very good reason. But first lets recap what the PenCentra product line is all about.

When Fujitsu introduced the PenCentra at DEMOmobile 1999 in San Diego, it was the company's first ever Windows CE device. At that point, Fujitsu Personal Systems, Inc. (which later was merged into the Fujitsu PC Corporation) was the undisputed leader in decision support pen tablets, having grown from virtually zero into a US$100 million company within just five years. Adding a Windows CE product to FPSI's successful lineup of Stylistic and Point tablet computers took a bit of a leap of faith, especially given Microsoft's often inexplicably erratic course with the platform. Whatever reasons Fujitsu had to build a CE device, the PenCentra certainly was a terrific first effort. We reviewed the 130 in our October 1999 issue and came away more than impressed. The PenCentra was one of those rare designs that looked and felt just "right" from the moment you picked it up. With a footprint of 8.9 x 6.5 inches and weighing about two pounds, it was significantly smaller and lighter than Fujitsu's Stylistic and Point tablets. Despite its small size, however, the PenCentra had a surprisingly "grown-up" and businesslike feel to it. We concluded that the PenCentra was "an incredible value for the money and another landmark design from Fujitsu Personal Systems."

A year later, the newly updated PenCentra 200 remains an remarkable device. Its timeless design hasn't lost its appeal and we were impressed all over by how well this tablet fits into your hands, how sturdy it is, and just how much functionality Fujitsu managed to pack into it. When the original PenCentra appeared, it featured more ports and interfaces than anything else in its class, and that hasn't changed. Along the top of the PenCentra you find two separate Type II PC Card slots, a 4mbps infrared port, an alarm on/off button, and an RJ-11 jack for the internal 56k modem.

Along the right side there is a PS/2-style port for an external keyboard, a power jack, a USB connector, a full-size 9-pin serial port covered by a plastic door that snaps securely into place, and standard-size headphone and microphone jacks. The bottom features high-usage contacts for the optional desktop dock. On the front, along the right side of the screen, are the microphone, indicator lights for alarms and power status, and a recorder button.

Like the PenCentra 130, the 200 comes either with a DSTN transmissive or a SSTN reflective 64 x 480 256display. Both measure eight inches diagonally and are limited to 256 colors. Our test unit had the reflective display which, like all such displays, is a compromise. It was clearly readable in bright sunlight but didn't fare nearly as well indoors where the display had noticeably less contrast and sharpness than, for example, the Compaq iPAQ which also uses a reflective screen. In addition, the sidelight, which can be adjusted to three levels, cast a distracting fluorescent glow when viewed at an angle. Unchanged also are the silkscreened controls along the left side of the screen: screen contrast and backlighting, right mouse button, audio volume, and three programmable buttons.

A comparison of the 130's and the 200's specification sheets shows that the new model comes with 32MB of RAM, expandable to 64MB, as opposed to the base 16MB of the 130. The 16-bit graphics controller has been replaced by a 32-bit accelerator, and for some reason the 200 has a slightly larger temperature operating range of 32 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Preloaded software has changed a bit as well. Instead of CIC's Jot and Handwriter recognition software, the 200 comes with CalliGrapher. New also is the Java EVM. In addition to that you get the standard complement of Windows CE applications (Pocket Office/Outlook, InkWriter) and Fujitsu's own suites of CE utilities and software development tools.

We finally understood why Fujitsu changed the name of the PenCentra when we ran the bSQUARE Analyzer benchmarks. The PenCentra 130 had been a good performer, running significantly better benchmark results than other CE devices with the same 131MHZ NEC processor, but the new model totally blows it away. In fact, with an average score of 55.20 it clocked far and away the best performance numbers of any Windows CE handheld PC we ever tested, besting the former champ, the NEC MobilePro 780, by more than 30%, and the PenCentra 130 by over 70%. It posted the best benchmark results of any Handheld PC in five of seven benchmarks, and also de-throned the vaunted Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC with its 206MHz StrongARM processor. As far as Windows CE devices go, this new PenCentra is a serious performer.

The big picture is that the new PenCentra is a terrific little pen tablet computer with significantly improved performance over its predecessor. It is very well made, fits well into your hands, is small and light enough so that it's never a chore to carry it around, and its application potential is almost unlimited. The PenCentra, while not a fully ruggedized design, is tough enough for outdoor use, especially when you get the optional harsh environment case. When selecting a PenCentra, make sure you pick the right screen. The transmissive screen is significantly more readable indoors, but you cannot use it outdoors. The reflective screen works well outside but is really marginal indoors.

Also make sure to check out the many options Fujitsu has available for this machine. You can get either a PS/2 or a USB keyboard, a desktop dock or stand, several different power adapters, a bar code reader, holsters, a vehicle cradle, wireless LAN/WAN cards (the PenCentra is "Radio-Ready"), a pen tether and more.

As far as small Windows CE tablets go, the Fujitsu PenCentra is not only the fastest, but also among the very best. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Processor Toshiba TX3922 129MHz
OS Windows CE 2.11
Memory 32MB RAM, 24MB ROM
Display 8" 256 color 640 x 480 reflective DSTN
Digitizer Pressure-sensitive panel
Storage Internal RAM or via PC Card or CF card slots
Size 8.9 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
Weight 2.0 lbs
Power Li-Ion 1,300mAH (up to 10 hours)
Interface USB, audio, IrDA, RJ-11, PS/2, AC/DC, serial
Options USB/PS2 keyboaard, bar code, holsters, stand, cradles
Price US$1,499 (varies with quaantity and equipment
Contact Fujitsu www.fujitsupc.com