More Laptop Woes and a Look Back at Windows CE

Paul Thurrott's continuing laptop adventures lead him from problems with his Compaq Presario 1700T to a Windows CE-based IBM WorkPad z50. He considers Microsoft's missed opportunity with Windows CE and users' expectations of laptops.

Paul Thurrott

October 23, 2000

4 Min Read
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I knew I was in trouble when I had to send my new laptop back a second time. Earlier this summer, I purchased a Compaq Presario 1700T, a cool-looking consumer-oriented portable. But the screen had a couple of anomalies even when the device wasn't being moved, a problem that a Compaq technician later referred to as a "waterfall effect." So I sent it in for repairs, and Compaq was good about the whole affair, turning the machine around in exactly a week. There was just one problem: The new screen had the same anomaly as the original, but in three places not just one.

So I sent the laptop in again. This time, I asked a question: If Compaq can't fix the problem, when do I get to choose a different model? Compaq said that I had three returns before I would make that choice. However, less than a week later, a Compaq technician who was working on the machine called and told me Compaq couldn't fix the screen problem. Apparently, the waterfall effect is endemic to this model, and, after trying 12 screens—each of which displayed the anomaly in some fashion—the technicians were giving up. So I'm looking at the Armada product line now.

But my problem with the Presario is just one of many that mobile users can face. By their nature, laptops involve a trade-off. And, although the current crop is closer than ever to the hallowed desktop replacement we've all been promised, the reality is that laptop performance simply doesn't compare to that of desktop PCs. For many people, desktop-level performance isn't a requirement. What they really need, for the most part, is access to email, the Web, Word, and a handful of other commonly used business applications. Anything else is just gravy.

And I'm coming to accept that notion. Originally, I wanted to get as powerful a laptop in as portable a package as possible. But I'm OK now with the notion that the laptop will never be as fast as my desktop PC. And the more I travel, the more issues such as low weight and small size matter.

On that note, Microsoft has missed a huge opportunity with Windows CE, which once offered users an interesting range of choices that would satisfy any mobile user. In mid-1999, the company released its Windows CE Professional Edition, which included support for color 640x480 and 800x600 screens. A few manufacturers released Windows CE-based devices that resembled mini-notebooks, and some of them were truly cool, such as the IBM WorkPad z50 and the Vadem Clio. But the units sold poorly, mostly because—at about $1000—they edged into low-end laptop pricing without offering application compatibility. By mid-2000, the expensive laptop-styled Windows CE devices were largely dead. Today, if you want to use Windows CE with a real keyboard, you're pretty much stuck with an odd half-height Handheld PC (HPC). For me, that's not an option.

While I was researching what had happened to the laptop-like Windows CE devices, I came across eBay, the online auction site. To make a long story short, I bought a never-opened Windows CE-based IBM WorkPad z50, which features a 95 percent-sized keyboard, an 8.5" color screen, a modem, and all the "Pocket" applications (Word, Inbox, and Internet Explorer—IE) that I'll ever need. It's like a baby ThinkPad. And it's perfect, which is sad because you can't buy these devices new anymore, and it will never be updated. I grabbed an extra 32MB of RAM (it comes with 16MB) and a Windows CE-compatible NIC. I use CompactFlash cards from my digital camera for removable storage. All told, the whole package cost less than $500, which is how much these things should have cost to begin with.

By the time you read this column, I'll be on my way to New York for Internet World—the perfect trip to test the WorkPad. I'm bringing my old laptop, just in case (it's a short trip, and the CE device is so light I'll hardly feel the difference). But if I can use the WorkPad while traveling, I will, even if the poor little thing is already obsolete.

I received a lot of email messages this week about Norton Ghost. Thanks again to everyone who wrote in. Enough people recommended PowerQuest Drive Image for me to request a review copy, so I'll revisit this crucial type of system backup at a later date. And I received a lot of good tips for using Ghost and similar products that I'll also pass along. In the meantime, I'm interested in any Compaq-related laptop recommendations. Something tells me I'll have to decide what to do about that pretty quickly.

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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