Windows CE Versus Palm OS, Round Three

Good reviews and massive back orders of Compaq's new Windows CE device, the iPAQ, convinced me to buy my third CE device a few weeks ago. The previous two—a Cassiopeia E-11 and an NEC Color 800—each lasted about 2 days before I put them in the "junk hardware" box. So what's the iPAQ verdict?

Well, it's not in the junk box yet . . . but neither is my Palm device, a Handspring Prism. I've begun to think that they aren't comparable devices at all, and that I might have to carry both around. I'll share a few thoughts about Palm OS versus Windows CE (or perhaps I should call it Pocket PC because that's Microsoft's latest name for Windows CE).

I've used the Palm OS since 1994 or 1995, I forget which. I recall being pleasantly surprised that I could use HotSync on Windows NT even as far back as the original Palm Pilot. And I've always liked the minimalist nature of the Palm device. Most Palm OS devices have about 2MB of RAM, a CPU in the 25MHz to 33MHz range, a monochrome screen, and a font model that includes "small and hard to read," "small and hard to read but boldface," "larger and almost readable," and "larger and almost readable as well as bold." Programs are small, cheap, and often free. And something about the Palm Pilot has always reminded me of the good old days of DOS software—Spartan but focused.

In contrast, the iPAQ sports a 206MHz processor, a color screen that displays 4096 colors, 32MB of RAM, and a beautiful, readable font odel. And it doesn't stop there, friends, oh no. You can actually put CompactFlash (CF) and PC cards in the iPAQ. IBM sells a 1GB hard disk that fits in the CF slot (about 1 1/2" square by 5mm high). No—you didn't misread that. The next time you see a mint on a hotel-room pillow, the mint might be larger than this hard disk. Cool, eh?

Despite the iPAQ's major tech-sex appeal, however, I still carry the Handspring around. Here's why.

First, Pocket PC device makers and Palm device makers apparently differ philosophically. Until I left it at a hotel recently, I carried around a Palm Vx. What it lacked in bells and whistles, the Palm Vx gave back in battery life and compactness. I could literally take the Palm Vx on the road for 2 weeks without recharging it. In contrast, I can't travel for more than a day or two without the iPAQ's charger. I basically have to recharge the iPAQ daily, just as I do my cell phone and laptop (I have to find THREE outlets in each hotel room. Guess I need to start packing a six-outlet strip and a surge protector).

What I want in a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) is basically a glorified address book, something to keep my schedule, phone list, to-do lists, and an electronic version of the scraps of note paper that I used to stuff in my paper-based pocket calendar—and the Pilot handles all of that. The hundreds of freeware and shareware games for the Pilot are just lagniappe, letting me add GameBoy to its list of functions. I also want a PDA to synchronize easily with a Personal Information Manager (PIM) application on my desktop. Furthermore, I don't want that PIM application to be limited to Outlook because I prefer Lotus Organizer 6.0. In addition, I want my PDA to synchronize with several desktops because I tend to work in two locations, and my Pilots are the easiest way to transport my contacts, to-do list, appointments, and notes from one location to another.

The iPAQ handles the contacts, to-do lists, and appointments, if not the notes. None of the three commercially available Organizer-aware synchronizer programs—Intellisync, CompanionLink, and XTNDConnect PC—seems able to synchronize the Notepad in Organizer or any other PIM except Outlook. And my two locations are troublesome because the iPAQ wants to "partner" and sync data with just one computer, so shuttling between two PCs causes a bit of trouble. Yet iPAQ works much better than Windows CE 1.0, my first Windows CE experience.

However, the iPAQ does some things that the Palm device doesn't do (well). My iPAQ can display Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) movies, play MP3 files, edit Excel spreadsheets and Word documents effortlessly, play audiobooks, and run some games with truly impressive graphics.

When I shopped programs to enable those neat iPAQ features, I stumbled across another philosophical difference between the two markets: what applications cost. The Palm's wealth of good applications typically cost little or nothing. Pocket PC applications are scarcer but that's changing. However, Pocket PC applications are neither free nor cheap—perhaps because of their greater complexity. In any case, I feel chary about leaving the Palm OS world behind for the don't-leave-home-without-your-wallet feel of the Pocket PC universe.

Are Palm OS or Pocket PC devices better? I increasingly think that the question might not be meaningful. Pocket PC is a mini (pocket-sized) version of Windows. It has some growing to do, and in a few years, we might see a 1GHz version of the iPAQ, outfitted with 512MB of RAM and a voice-recognition module that will overcome the lack of a keyboard. Pocket PCs don't make sense without color screens, and color screens require backlighting, so Pocket PC users must accept lousy battery life. As long as we accept that, then spending a bit more power on faster CPUs and RAM seems reasonable.

But the Pilot's simpler UI lends itself well to a monochrome screen that seldom requires backlighting, so Pilot users expect (and get) power efficiency. But adding MPEG movie playback, voice recognition, or other bells and whistles would require a better screen, more CPU power, and more RAM. At that point, it's not a Pilot any more. (The tradeoff of "yes, the UI is Spartan but I can run forever on a single battery charge" disappears, as if bicycle manufacturers were to decide that they could boost sales by adding power steering and air conditioning—which would require adding an engine.) When faced with either buying a Pocket PC device or a Palm OS device TRYING to be a Pocket PC device, most Palm users might then start eyeing the Pocket PC devices. I've noticed that my current Palm OS PDA, the Prism, has a pretty color screen, but I must charge it far more often than I've come to expect from Palm devices, so I might end up getting another Palm V after all.

Perhaps the Palm OS and the Pocket PC are simply two different animals—one a highly refined, electronic "little black book" and the other a screen-cramped version of Windows in a very small laptop that features a mildly longer battery life than does the traditional laptop. They might look similar and seem to inhabit the same niche through parallel evolution, much as sharks and dolphins seem similar in form and goals (both are large marine carnivores) but operate quite differently. Sharks owe their incredible effectiveness as marine predators to nearly 400 million years of evolution, but they won't go much further. Sharks 100 million years from now will probably look much like those of today, assuming we don't eliminate them from the planet altogether. In contrast, dolphins have been in the sea for only one-tenth the time that sharks have, but have changed radically from land-dwelling creatures—and will continue to change.

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