Micronotebooks: More Than a Handheld

Power and functionality in a small package

More than 30 years ago, Mr. Spock eschewed the keyboard in favor of a handheld computer. He called his handheld a tricorder rather than a PDA, but Star Trek accurately predicted the widespread desire to pack computing power into a unit small and light enough to carry anywhere.

Today, handheld computers such as Palm Handhelds and Handspring's Visors are conveniently portable and versatile. Although millions of users wouldn't dream of traveling without their PDAs, they still lug their laptops along, too. Wouldn't it be nice if you could bring only one device? PDAs aren't a PC substitute, and laptops are bulky to carry around. Fortunately, you have a third option: micronotebook-style handheld computers.

Micronotebooks: Versatile and Powerful
Micronotebook-style handhelds that run Windows CE 3.0 are a great alternative to PDAs or laptops. Intermec Technologies' 6651 Pen Tablet Computer, Hewlett-Packard's HP Jornada 720 Handheld PC, and NEC's MobilePro 790 each offer most features that a laptop has, and they eliminate the weight and power consumption of disk drives. I reviewed these three devices because other such devices were as large as some laptops (e.g., NEC's MobilePro 880) or based on proprietary OS and software configurations that don't easily integrate with Windows-based desktop computers (e.g., Psion's Psion Revo). Table 1 shows a quick comparison of the three products. (Since I conducted this review, HP has released the HP Jornada 728, which is replacing the HP Jornada 720. Although I haven't tested the new product, it appears to be identical to the HP Jornada 720 except that the HP Jornada 728 has 64MB of RAM, expandable to 128MB.)

For users who need a portable computer that lets them do more than take notes and retrieve contact information, micronotebooks provide a powerful alternative to PDAs. With Pocket versions of applications such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Internet Explorer (IE), you can use a micronotebook to write a letter, display a slide presentation, or fully browse the Web more comfortably than on a palm-sized PDA. And, like all handheld computers, micronotebooks can function as MP3 players when you take advantage of their speakers and headphones. Each product I reviewed has impressive hardware features, including full-color backlit SVGA screens, QWERTY alphanumeric keyboards, faster CPUs and more memory than standard PDAs, and built-in modems and expansion options such as USB ports.

The micronotebook's most powerful function is that it can run any program a desktop PC can run, even network-based applications. Windows-based handhelds achieve this functionality through Windows 2000 Server Terminal Services (or Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition). The Terminal Services client installed on the handheld lets the device connect to a Win2K or NT machine acting as the Terminal Services server. (For more information about Terminal Services, see "Related Reading," page 87.) A Terminal Services server acts as a multisession link for remote computers. These clients can view and control applications running on the server. For example, if a custom expense-reporting application is running on the Terminal Services server, a remote user connecting to the server from a micronotebook can run that application as though he or she were using a PC on the LAN.

The Cost of Portable Power
Micronotebooks' versatility and functionality aren't without cost. An entry-level PDA such as the Palm m105 Handheld can retail for as little as $99, but micronotebooks cost at least $799 and as much as $1495. In other words, the micronotebook might be able to take the place of a PC or laptop, but it also costs nearly as much as those machines.

A consideration in comparing micronotebooks to PDAs is that micronotebooks are substantially larger. The smallest unit I reviewed—Intermec's 6651 Pen Tablet Computer—is still half an inch thicker than a Palm PDA, several inches wider and deeper, and more than a full pound heavier. Micronotebooks aren't in the weight class of laptops, but they're not small enough to carry in a pocket or organizer, either.

Intermec's 6651: The Best of Both Worlds?
Intermec's 6651 has a rugged case and solid feel. The device weighs in at 1.9 pounds and measures 8.4" * 5.5" * 1.1". It comes standard with 32MB of RAM, expandable to 128MB. Like all the micronotebooks I reviewed, it has the design of a scaled-down laptop, and it runs Pocket versions of Microsoft Office. Beyond this initial similarity to other handhelds, however, the 6651 has a couple of striking physical differences:

  • Fold-over display—Once opened, the 6551's 7.1" display keeps pivoting until it can wrap completely around to the back of the device and lie flat again. With the screen in this position, you can hold and use the device like a big touch-screen PDA.
  • Integrated digital camera—Between the keyboard and the display is a digital camera that you can operate with one hand. The camera can record still or video images. The resolution is only 640 * 480 VGA, but the camera is a nice tool for occasional use (e.g., videoconferencing, photographing product inventory).

The device has only a couple of drawbacks. One drawback is its small keyboard, which makes extensive typing uncomfortable and potentially error riddled. The other drawback is the 6651's cost: The manufacturer's price of $1495 with no secondary retailers' discounts will intimidate many potential buyers.

HP's Jornada 720: A Lightweight Contender
Currently, no device with a keyboard weighs less than a pound. The handheld that comes closest is the HP Jornada 720 Handheld PC. Unlike the NEC and Intermec offerings, HP's Jornada line is available in both palm-size PDA and micronotebook forms. With dimensions of 7.4" * 3.7" * 1.3", the product is thicker and broader than a PDA but not much deeper. At a featherweight 1.1 pounds, the HP Jornada 720 is by far the lightest micronotebook I reviewed.

The HP Jornada 720 includes a 6.5" color display, a V.90 modem, slots for a CompactFlash (CF) card or PC Card, and the full Pocket Office suite of applications. However, it also has the least memory (32MB of RAM, expandable to 64MB) of the units I reviewed. The keyboard, which is even smaller than Intermec's 6651 keyboard, makes anything but two-finger typing impossible. Perhaps because of the keyboard's light weight, the keys feel flimsy, with no positive feedback. The HP Jornada 720's price (originally $899) recently dropped, and many retailers have been offering sharp discounts. However, HP is replacing this unit with the nearly identical HP Jornada 728, which currently costs $999 (and has more memory than the unit I tested).

NEC's MobilePro 790: Bigger and Better
Only someone who wanted to get attention would carry a 1.8-pound computer nearly as wide as a laptop into a group of PDA users and call it a handheld. NEC's MobilePro 790 stretches the term handheld to its limit. With dimensions of 9.6" * 5.2" * 1.1", it's roughly the size of three PDAs side by side, and the keyboard is big enough for typing. In fact, the main alphanumeric keys are almost the same size as a laptop's keys, and the keyboard's spacing and feedback are excellent. The MobilePro 790 was the only micronotebook that I successfully used to write its review for this article.

The MobilePro 790's design isn't particularly flashy. The clamshell case unfolds just like a laptop's. The display is quite shallow in height, but it's so wide that it can display the full width of a printed page. The backlit 8.1" screen is extremely bright and crisp. The device comes standard with 32MB of RAM, expandable to 128MB. The MobilePro 790 has all the capabilities you expect from a laptop substitute, including a V.90 modem, CF card and PC Card slots, and a port for attaching an external VGA monitor (useful for presentations).

Anyone who chooses a micronotebook over a palm-sized PDA has already realized that size—or lack of it—isn't everything. At $999, NEC's MobilePro 790 is the best micronotebook for anyone hoping for one computer that can do the job of a PDA and a laptop.

The Glass Is Half Full
In some ways, the success of palm-style PDAs has come at the expense of handheld-computer forms such as micronotebooks. Many computer buyers seem to have overlooked micronotebooks as "tweeners" (i.e., between PDAs and laptops) that don't provide either the best price or the smallest size. However, I prefer the glass-is-half-full approach. For many users, one micro-notebook can adequately replace a PDA and a laptop.

Related Reading
You can obtain the following articles from Windows & .NET Magazine's Web site at http://www.winnetmag.com.

"Keeping Up with Terminal Services," January 2001 Web Exclusive, InstantDoc ID 16504
Remote Possibilities, "RAS Meets Terminal Services,"
January 2001, InstantDoc ID 16251
Remote Possibilities, "Win2K Server Terminal
Services and TSAC," December 2000, InstantDoc ID 16014
Windows 2000 Ready, "Using Terminal Services for
Administration," October 2000 Web Exclusive, InstantDoc ID 15813
TAGS: Windows 8
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