Can a Pocket PC Replace Your Laptop?

Rather than look at another laptop this month, I decided to test whether a Pocket PC device could provide a workable substitute to the road warrior's standard companion. Replacing your laptop with a Pocket PC requires purchasing a few additional pieces of hardware, but the end result is a fairly capable end-to-end solution, assuming that you have good eyesight and don't need to run any Windows-specific applications. If email, Web, word processing, spreadsheets, and the like are your modus operandi, you might be intrigued by the possibilities of traveling ultralight while still getting your work done.

First, you need a Pocket PC device. I recommend Compaq's iPAQ because it's more expandable than other devices and seems to have the best hardware and software support. All next-generation Pocket PC 2002 devices will be based on the same hardware architecture as the iPAQ and must use upgradeable Flash ROM, as does the iPAQ. Why not use a Palm device? A Palm device would probably work, and a variety of keyboard solutions exist for these units, but most Palm devices have small amounts of RAM, black-and-white screens, and lack good desktop applications. This situation will improve over time, but right now, I believe the Pocket PC makes more sense for business travelers.

You also need a keyboard, and I recommend the Targus Stowaway Portable Keyboard, although other options are coming down the road, including Blackberry-like thumb keyboards that attach to the bottom of a Pocket PC.

The Targus Stowaway Portable Keyboard is a miracle of engineering and utility. My particular unit works with the iPAQ I'm currently using, but Targus has versions for Hewlett-Packard's Jornada and various Palm devices. The keyboard features a wonderful folding hard-sided case that protects and minimizes the keyboard when not in use. You must use the keyboard on a flat surface because it doesn't stay level and will bend. Also, the connector on which the Pocket PC sits is small, and you can inadvertently dislodge the unit from the keyboard. However, the keyboard should work fine on any table or airline seatback tray for in-flight note taking and email.

Functionally, the Pocket PC/keyboard combination has a few other small limitations. Because Microsoft didn't write the Pocket PC OS and the main Pocket applications with a keyboard in mind, some of the niceties we've come to expect on a full-fledged laptop aren't present. Touch typists that use Ctrl+N for a new document or similar shortcuts will be disappointed, or at least in the dark, when the system ignores keystrokes or performs them without feedback (Ctrl+S is a good example: The command saves the document but gives no indication that the command worked). And some desktop features I've come to rely on—such as Microsoft Word's Track Changes feature—are not available on the Pocket PC.

You still have to use the stylus to perform certain operations on the Pocket PC. If someone could figure out how to add a handheld PC-like mouse cursor, Targus could add a mouse nubbin, such as those found on IBM laptops, which would eliminate a few minor annoyances.

You'll also need a modem or network card so that you can connect to the Internet while on the road. To connect to the Web, I tested the Xircom CompactCard, a 10Mbps Compact Flash (CF)-based Ethernet adapter, but various companies make a variety of modems, Ethernet adapters, and even wireless 802.11b-based cards, in several formats, including PC Cards and CF. In general, if you can get only one card, get a modem card because most hotels are still wired solely with phone lines.

After you have a keyboard and a device for connecting to the Web, you're just about ready, assuming you're familiar with ActiveSync, Microsoft's Pocket PC synchronization software. You'll want to synchronize any email and work documents you need before you hit the road.

Other recommendations include massive CF expansion, such as the 128MB and 256MB storage cards that Kingston Technology, Viking Components, and other companies provide, and the upcoming CF-based hard disks. I have several large CF cards that I've loaded with MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, work documents, and even movies. A Pocket PC can provide the functionality of a portable music player, which is one more thing you don't have to cart around with you on the road.

The Pocket PC hardware might be a limitation for some users, unless your eyesight is in good shape. The tiny Pocket PC screen is difficult to see while typing at arm's length, unless you bump up the font size, but then, you can't see much text at one time. Still, given the size and weight of the device, I'm not complaining: I wouldn't want to write a book using a Pocket PC and Targus keyboard, but I could do most of my typical work—email, writing, and Web browsing—quite effectively.

Connecting your Pocket PC device to the Internet through a modem is similar to the process on Windows 9x; however, connecting through a network card is not. You can't browse Windows workgroups as you can on a laptop, so you have to rely on ActiveSync and the ActiveSync Explore functionality to move files back and forth. This process isn't as bad as it sounds and is actually quite speedy over an Ethernet connection. Plus, you can configure ActiveSync to automatically synchronize certain files or directories. The current version of Internet Explorer (IE) on the Pocket PC is a bit behind the desktop versions, but quiet usable.

Although this setup can be expensive—$500 for the Pocket PC, $100 for the keyboard, $100 for the modem, and $70 to $125 for a CF-based storage card—it's still less expensive than the cheapest laptop and far more portable. If not for a few minor limitations, I'd seriously consider this solution. And for many frequent travelers, the Pocket PC is definitely worth looking into.

Compaq iPAQ
Targus Stowaway Portable Keyboard
HP Jornada 700 series
Kingston Technology
Viking Components

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