mobile computing’s past, revisited

Mobile PCs grabbed my attention around the turn of the millennium. As I matured, so too did computer technology, and I loved the idea of taking the power and flexibility of Windows with me on the go. It began with a palm-sized PC (never a Palm Pilot!), the Uniden UniPRO PC-100. This was followed by a series of Windows Pocket PCs, with color screens, faster processors, and enhanced multimedia capabilities.

But while these devices seem limited by today’s standards, they really were quite powerful. With a voice recorder, touch screen with handwriting recognition, speaker, removable memory card slot, PC synchronization, and the ability to add third-party applications, they truly were handheld computers. And there were also the so-called “handheld PCs,” which ran on Windows CE and had integrated physical keyboards. I never did dabble in these, mainly due to the steep, $1000 price tag. I could only afford to upgrade to a new Pocket PC by selling my old devices.

A few months ago, I binged when I found that people were selling these once-prohibitively-expensive gadgets on eBay for a small percentage of their original worth. As any reasonable person would, I set out to rebuild my collection by purchasing devices that met one or more of the following criteria:

  1. Either I originally owned the model and it held nostalgic value, or it was a slightly-upgraded version of the model I did own
  2. It was unique in features, appearance, or power among its class of devices
  3. It was very, very inexpensive

ppc_collection

Let’s look at some representatives from a bygone era:

unipro_pc100Uniden UniPro PC-100 (click for specs)

I didn’t have to repurchase this – I held on to my original. The UniPro runs Windows CE 2.0. It’s big and plastic, with a grey-scale screen with an on-demand green backlight. It’s powered by AA batteries has an integrated modem for dial-up communications. I successfully connected to the Internet once, I recall.

casio_em500Casio Cassiopeia EM-500 (click for specs)

This was probably my second Pocket PC – I found one to repurchase on eBay for $5 plus shipping. It has Casio’s hallmark beautiful design, with a joystick on the bottom left corner that makes playing games a breeze. Its screen is a gorgeous HAST-type which is capable of 65k colors and looks great indoors, but washes out in sunlight. It is also one of the very first mainstream devices to use the Multimedia Card (MMC) format, which was the precursor to the modern Secure Digital (SD) card. This was frustrating when first released, because everything else used CompactFlash.

casio_eg800Casio Cassiopeia EG-800 (click for specs)

This is an enterprise-level rugged Pocket PC. It’s capable of withstanding drops/shock and is dust and water resistant. I never owned this guy back in the day but it’s essentially a rugged version of my first Pocket PC, the Casio E-125. It’s huge, but shares the same great screen as the EM-500 and has a nice rubber jog-dial for scrolling. This originally cost $899…I’m not sure how many they sold.

casio_e200Casio Cassiopeia E-200 (click for specs)

This is the last in the Cassiopeia line, and it followed Microsoft’s mandate to switch from the powerful MIPS chipset to a StrongARM processor. It features a futuristic spaceship-grill directional pad with a speaker beneath, which is actually a pain to use. It feels much less solid in construction than Casio’s previous Pocket PCs, but it does have both CompactFlash and SD card slots in a relatively compact form-factor. Again, I never had this one before, but I found it for $0.99, plus shipping.

hp_2215HP iPAQ 2210 (click for specs)

This is the only Pocket PC I held on to, prior to the transition to Windows Phone. It’s very compact, has nice rubber side grips, a removable battery, dual memory card slots, an area of non-volatile flash ROM storage, and Bluetooth. The directional pad has a clickable center button, and it feels great in the hand. It’s near the epitome of Pocket PC design. I’ve never used its Bluetooth.

toshiba_e750Toshiba e750 (click for specs)

This is the upgraded version of a Pocket PC I originally owned, the e740. It has a large amount of RAM storage (96 MB!), a premium-feeling metal design, and good navigation buttons. The e740 was one of the first Pocket PCs to feature integrated Wi-Fi; since no one had a hotspot in 2003, I never used mine. There was also an optional expansion pack to allow USB input and monitor output.

dell_x51vDell Axim X51v (click for specs)

This is the final, most powerful dedicated Pocket PC made; after this, the PDAs were combined with cell phones. It actually came out in 2005, which is downright modern; sadly, I didn’t own it when its power was appreciated. Its biggest draws are its 624 MHz Intel XScale PXA270 processor, 256 MB of ROM, VGA display resolution, and integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It even has a dedicated Intel 2700G graphics chip with 16 MB of video memory. Even still, it is so very painful to try to navigate the Internet on this device. This does rival the HP 2210 for best Pocket PC design; it’s compact, fully-featured, and feels sturdy and comfortable to hold.

hp_jornada720HP Jornada 720 (click for specs)

I would have loved this device back in the day. It’s a handheld PC with a full QWERTY keyboard, and it’s possible to touch type with only a few dozen mistakes. But it’s surprisingly compact, and there’s really nothing like it on the market today. The 720 was the most powerful HPC in its day, and runs HPC 2000 on an ARM processor, making it compatible with some Pocket PC programs. A nice touch are the dedicated external music controls; I’ve gotten it to play MP3s from a Compactflash card. It cost a whopping $999 upon release…I’m glad I waited.

nec_mobilepro790NEC MobilePro 790 (click for specs)

This is a large device, due to its 92% full-size keyboard and 8.1″ screen. It’s not as powerful as the Jornada 720 but offers a more usable typing experience. Other than that, it’s a standard handheld PC (if you can call a device this large “handheld”), with CF, PC card, and modem interfaces. Although it feels less “premium” due to its plastic construction, it apparently holds up well over time as mine is in good shape after finding it on eBay for much less than its original $900 retail price. I’ve actually been using mine to write some stuff.

And that’s it. By now you should be asking, is a used Pocket PC or handheld PC from eBay the right gadget for me? My answer is unequivocally “yes,” provided you have a use for a word processor with little or no possible distractions, or you’re feeling very nostalgic for a frustratingly-small on-screen keyboard being pecked by a stylus.

It was a natural progression for the Pocket PC line to fold into the modern smartphone, but it’s a darn shame that we don’t have more compact keyboarded devices on the market. A tablet with a flimsy removable keyboard is a poor substitute for a proper typing experience.

2 thoughts on “mobile computing’s past, revisited

  1. My answer is unequivocally “are you that far from a computer? get out of that recliner, use a real keyboard, and thank me later”

  2. Well see, that’s the beauty of it. On this little guy, it’s possible to access games and the Internet and other distractions, but it’s so frustrating and slow that it’s really not practical. So all you have left is the possibility of working on your text document or your spreadsheet, making you more focused and increasing productivity.

    Or something like that. Well besides, the Jornada is a tiny computer, man. They don’t make devices with full keyboard travel that are so compact these days. I guess you can find a decent Bluetooth keyboard to pair with a tablet or big phone, but it lacks the Windows CE “awesomeness” factor and it doesn’t have a true clamshell shape.

    I can’t think of a practical use for the Pocket PCs though.

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