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PC power in a pocket.

In today's helter-skelter work environment, people want a strategic weapon to manage both their personal and professional lives. For many, that device is a pocket computer. From elementary school teachers to electrical engineers, a wide array of people are getting hooked on electronics. In fact, some 2.6 million people nationwide use electronic organizers, according to New York-based market research firm Link Resources Corp.

The smallest portable computers, those that weigh in at under one pound, have always offered more for less. Sold as handheld digital assistants, these checkbook-sized gizmos are fast emerging as alternatives to bigger and more expensive portable systems.

These excellent traveling companions let you take business information on the road and swap updated files with a computer back in the office--without having to type in the same information twice. With a modern connection, you can fax a message or access electronic messages. These lightweight, durable machines are surprisingly affordable, with starting prices under $300.

It wasn't until 1991--when Hewlett-Packard Co.'s legendary HP 95LX hit the market--that pocket computers were elevated above "gadget" status. Even at a steep price of $799, the Cupertino, Calif., company's palmtop quickly became a best-seller. The 11-ounce unit was one of the first personal communicators to offer a PC-compatible version of the Lotus 1-2-3 financial spreadsheet program and to provide wireless messaging (using an optional Motorola News-Stream receiver).

Still a hot item, the HP 95LX runs on the same chip that IBM Corp. used in its original desktop PC. And because the 95LX is an MS-DOS machine, it's compatible with most desktop systems. Users can take information from their home PCs and download it onto a palmtop for business meetings.

Portable handhelds typically weigh under one pound and fall into two groups: palmtop PCs (which use an MS-DOS operating system) and high-end electronic organizers. Market research firm BIS Strategic Decisions Inc. in Norwell, Mass., projects 142,000 palmtops will be sold this year, reaching sales of $170 million. That's up 50% from the number of units shipped in 1991.

Each of the leading products takes a different approach to customizing programs. However, all offer a version of Lotus 1-2-3 or a compatible spreadsheet and word processor program. They also provide personal organization functions, such as a daily scheduler, to-do list, calculator, clock and program for tracking daily expenses.

Because they don't have disk drives, these handheld devices are more rugged than bigger portable computers with moving parts. And, unlike laptops and notebooks, they don't need to be recharged: Alkaline batteries keep them going for weeks at a time.

Of course, no unit that slips into a jacket pocket can duplicate the ease-of-use or power of a laptop or notebook PC. Obvious sacrifices are in the keyboard and screen design. Although most machines use the standard qwerty typewriter layout (with manufacturers trying to squeeze as much space as possible between keys), they are still unsuitable for true touch-typing. The bottom line: Be prepared to plod along these keyboards with your index finger.

The other kink is in the screen--none of these machines have backlighting and must, therefore, be used in available light. Some may appear darker than others, so be sure to try them out in a variety of settings. Typical screen sizes are 40 characters by 8 lines. Enhanced sizes--53 characters by 30 lines--are featured on newer models such as the OZ-9600 from Sharp Electronics Corp. in Mahwah, N.J.

Most palmtops require their own special version of PC programs, such as WordPerfect, LotusWorks and ACT, a leading contact manager. Such software is available on memory cards, which slip into the palmtop's serial port. Add-in cards with customized programs are also widely available for electronic organizers, including Sharp Wizard Series and the Casio BOSS, which doesn't support MS-DOS.

Gameboy addicts will love loading games onto these high-tech wonders. In addition, a spate of reference tools--such as dictionaries and spell checkers--add to their practicality. Even popular packages, such as the Physician's Desk Reference and the Berlitz Interpreter, have been formatted especially for some palmtops.

What's Hot Now

The idea behind handheld products is to provide a user-friendly device that's quickly mastered and doesn't necessarily require any computer knowledge. The new personal digital assistants (PDAs) coming onto the market have this goal in mind.

Reflecting the trend in pen-based PCs, Sharp's OZ-9600 features a new touch-screen that uses a special stylus. This lets you write short notes, diagrams or charts on the screen, which can then be saved as files and later displayed. The screen also lets you retrieve data and enter commands by simply touching it with your finger. Also new is an integrated filing system. This lets you pull information from all software applications into a single file by simply pressing an on-screen collect command.

Unlike PDAs, which are designed entirely as pen-based systems, the OZ-9600 doesn't do away with a keyboard. "We feel there are two different markets for the OZ-9600," says Wizard product manager Scott Campbell. "One is for those people who use keyboards and the other is for those who've never touched one and never will."

The OZ-9600, which lists for $649, runs on four triple-AAA batteries. Like the HP 95LX, it features infrared communications, which lets two Wizards exchange data files from across a table without using a cable. In addition, you can send files to an HP Laserjet and other supported printers with an optional infrared receiver (at $149).

The Atari Portfolio's $299 list price is its biggest attraction. Slightly bigger than pocket-size in its calmshell case, it has a larger keyboard than most handheld PCs. Another plus: Its built-in applications include a file transfer program, so you can download software programs directly from an electronic bulletin board via modem. Like a full-size PC, it automatically dials phone numbers and produces audible tones.

Outside of an address book and telephone dialer, the Portfolio comes with four key built-in applications: a financial calculator, text editor, diary/calendar and a Lotus 1-2-3 compatible work-sheet.

The newest model in Psion Inc.'s Series 3 product line is the 256K-S, which lists for $545. The Concord, Mass., manufacturer's palmtop takes its cue from HP's 95LX by building in Lotus 1-2-3 rather than making it an add-on card option. Lighter than most palmtops, this hot-selling 9-ounce product is highly portable.

The Psion Series 3 also has a powerful word processor that's compatible with Microsoft Word. Using a pull-down menu, you can take advantage of a range of formatting and layout controls, including headers and footers, automatic page numbering and various fonts.

Most pocket computers let you swap files with a PC hassle-free. However, many vendors also offer an optional file transfer program that converts to the ASCII format. Among them: The IntelliLink 2.5from IntelliLink Inc. in Acton, Mass., which supports Windows applications and automatically formats palmtop and desktop files.

IntelliLink supports such software programs as Borland Sidekick, Polaris Packrat, Microsoft Word for Windows, WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Excel, dBase and Paradox. And it provides a flexible means to receive and send data directly to the desktop. The IntelliLink is also fairly inexpensive, listing for $99.99.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:palmtop computers
Author:Raymond, John
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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