Windows CE and the Palm
Windows CE for palmtops reviewed and compared to the Palm
By Tim Richardson Last updated: December 3, 2000
(This page is being updated over December 2000 with information about the latest Palms and CE/Pocket PC devices)
New: Discuss this page here (a good place for answers to FAQs and updates from readers: this page gets thousands of hits)
This page explains my criteria for choosing a PDA, and why in 1998 I chose a Windows CE palmtop (the Philips Nino), instead of the market leader, the Palm Pilot. Now, as of November 2000 I have a Palm Pilot Vx (actually an IBM Workpad 3c), given to me by my employer (which funnily enough is Philips). Why is my opinion possibly interesting? Because I am not a new user of PDAs. My 1998 decision was heavily influenced by the two years I used an HP OmniGo PDA, and I used the Nino heavily over the next two years. The contents of this page will also help you work out if you need a keyboard-based PDA or a pen-based PDA.
Windows CE is the old name for Microsoft Pocket PC operating system. The name change was made in April 2000.
After reading PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) reviews all over the internet, I had decided upon a 3Com Palm (Pilot) III, but at Changi airport (Singapore) I saw a Windows CE unit (the Nino) and Palm III side by side. The Nino had a very nice design. The Palm III was smaller, just as the Palm Vx is smaller than today's CE or PocketPC devices are, and the Microsoft device was clearly more powerful; this also is true in 2000. In fact, the buying choice we face in 2000 is much the same as it was two years ago. Both platforms offer smaller and more powerful options than them, but the essential philosophies of the two camps remain as far about now as they were in 1998.
NINO NO LONGER AVAILABLE: In early October 1999, Philips announced it was withdrawing from the CE palmtop market, citing the small size of the market and poor sales. The Nino 500 series will be the last Nino. Philips will concentrate on smart mobile devices. The IBM Workpad, which is a rebadaged Palm Pilot Vx, was announced in 2000 as the standard PDA for Philips worldwide, the first time Philips has standardised on a PDA platform.
My recommendations for CE hardware
I often receive email about what other CE devices I like. The Casio units are excellent; they are usually regarded as the best models. If I was buying now, I'd give them a long hard look. Whatever I bought, it would have a stereo headphone jack, hopefully a 3.5mm standard jack, so I could use it as an MP3 player. The latest CPUs in Windows CE palmtops easily have enough power to play MP3. I've listed to it on a Compaq Aero unit, that also has a very bright color screen, and it's quite thin. Your criteria will be physical size, new features such as headphone jacks, and software bundled with the machine. After the Nino, nearly all contemporary models come with rechargeable batteries. Color screens will give you short battery life; you will need to recharge often.
Even though this review was first written towards the end of 1998, it is surprising in 2000, how little the situation has changed. The Palm hardware has not made any significant advances, and is still dominating the market. Windows CE has seen incremental 'improvements', such as color screens and headphone output, but nothing radical has happened on that front either. The Palm's continuing strength is a victory for simplicity (and price). I feel that PocketPC is designed to look good in the shop where the purchase is made, but I marvel at the impracticality of color screens, which gives the PocketPC devices an extremely short battery life.
x My Profile
- Some travel
- Many projects
I have a role with at the Asia Pacific headquarters of Philips, in Singapore, so I spend a lot of my time with management and teams of different divisions. I attend lots of meetings, and coordinate many projects, and I am frequently away from my desk. I also field many 15 minute mini-meetings and follow ups. I travel internationally every month or so, and need to call colleagues in different time zones. I am not of my nature a very linear person, and organising myself is very important to my effectiveness. Things I carry in my hand I tend to leave behind.
My use of a PDAFor me in 1998, the Pilot or Nino was to be my second PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), after using an HP OmniGo for two years. I learnt from the OmniGo that I depended upon a PDA for
The OmniGo has a very nice spreadsheet and a simple word processor, but I hardly used them. I realised that there were very few tasks I carried out on both my PDA and my notebook PC.
- appointments and meetings,
- to do management
- contacts / phone list
- world time.
Because I am usually not far from my notebook, even when I travel for work, I have little interest in web surfing, email, word processing, spread sheets or presentation software on my PDA. In any case, the limitations of palmtop PDA devices make this type of software virtually useless to me: a PDA trying to emulate a PC is going to look and feel like a toy. In two years, I used the OmniGo spreadsheet only once "under fire".
Two years later, this profile of the way I want to use a PDA has not changed much, although I would add that it would be nice to syncronise some websites, such as my.yahoo.com. Of course, this is possible on both platforms thanks to avantgo.com.
x My Wish List
- Basic Apps
- Voice record
- Easy synch
- Flat-file db
- Memory expand
- HTML browsing
- Educated calculator
- Good calendar program with smart repeating event functionality, ToDo list, world-time as good as the OmniGo's, fast contact manager. Must be small: no keyboard (hence hand writing recognition). Must be fast enough to swap applications or do page updates in around a second, and it must turn on instantly.
- Backlight, rechargeable batteries (otherwise I get very conscious about leaving the device turned on), voice recording of memos, easy synchronisation options, flat file database.
- Memory expandability (I learnt from the OmniGo that the apparently small amount of RAM in these devices can go a very long way, so adding memory isn't that important to the average user).
- Basic HTML browsing, equivalent to early versions of Netscape (no frames, but tables).
- Sound loud enough to work as an alarm clock (The OmniGo with its simple piezo beeper is not loud enough for this).
- Shareware addressing missing software functionality in the area of conversions and financial calculator functionality.
- Should have chess available.
- Decent calculator (one that obeys basic operation priority since I completed a few years of school here and there).
How do the Pilot and Windows CE compare?
My first impressions were: The Nino looks great. It is bigger and heavier than the Pilot, at the limit of what I would accept (the OmniGo weighs 330g (with AA batteries), the Nino 240g (with AA battery pack) and the Palm III 170g (with AAA batteries)). Compared to the Palm III, I find the Nino's screen visually superior, and it is larger with a higher resolution. The backlighting is very good. The supplied battery is recharged simply by docking the Nino (like a mobile phone), and should you not be able to recharge, the lifetime on ordinary alkalines is good (much better than the OmniGo, better than the other CE devices which usually run on AAA cells, but not as good as the Palm III).
Feature Nino Palm III MUST HAVE Calendar yes yes To Do yes yes Contacts / Phone Book yes yes World Time yes no (but shareware) Speed good good Size ok good Should Have
(table refers to built-in functionality)
Backlight yes yes Rechargeable battery yes no Voice recording yes no Flat file database no (but shareware) no (but shareware) Easy backup/transfer yes yes Nice to Have Memory expandability yes no (but 3rd party) Basic HTML browsing (built in) yes no (but shareware) Loud enough to wake me yes no Shareware for financial calculator yes yes Freeware for conversion calculator yes yes Chess shareware yes yes Infrared port yes yes Integration with Lotus groupware 3rd party 3rd party Vendor modem yes (software) yes (hardware) Calculator has basic numeracy no (get freeware) no (get freeware)
Based on my Wish List (above), it was the Should Haves that clinched the deal in favour of the Nino. The backlighting is excellent, and the voice recording is very, very useful. The handwriting options are better than the Pilot (see below). The ergonomic design and visual appeal of the Nino are great. It looks very good on the table of a meeting.
Note that the Nino has built-in recharging, unlike competing products, and it takes AA-size batteries, which gives it longer battery life than other CE devices.
For me, these advantages outweigh the size difference, which for me is the most significant negative of the comparison.
Windows CEWhat else do I think of CE? Well, it's a pretty average operating system interface for a PDA. If Bill Gate's approach to building his mansion was the same as his approach to software, it's clear why he needed a big place. Microsoft competes not on the grounds of elegance, but with quantity of features. CE is clumsy. You must use the Start menu to launch applications: there is no icon-based screen to click at -- so how this falls into the Windows family is a little baffling.
UPDATE: See http://www.thumbsupsoft.com for Star Tap. This is really how CE should have been. It's $10 shareware, and it works very well if you don't register (although I have). It crashes CE a fair bit, but more recent versions are getting more stable.
CE takes a lot of RAM and I don't see what you get for that: memory management doesn't appear to be very sophisticated, and applications are fairly large. CE is supposed to automatically close applications to make room for newly launching ones, but this often requires user intervention.
Stability: Windows CE crashes a lot on the Nino if you haven't applied the Microsoft "Find Fix". Apparently, Outlook on the PC causes a data error in the Outlook database. This fix program runs on your PC and fixes up the database. Your next synchronisation transfers the corrected data to your Nino. Microsoft claim that you only need to do this only once, but that's not the case. Run it every month or so. Apart from that problem, I have found CE to be acceptable, but I'm glad I carry a toothpick in the battery case. It crashes less than Windows NT. After 18 months, I have never had any data loss.
The desktop synchronising can be frustrating if you have only one COM port (notebook computer users, for example) and you use that port for a modem. After reinstalling Windows 98 it works fairly smoothly, but it was giving me an awful time initially.
However, as nearly all the Nino and CE reviews say, the synchronisation software works very well. Putting the Nino in the dock activates the process; no action on the PC is required. I strongly recommend that on the PC side you use Outlook (not Outlook Express). The Win CE CD-ROM comes with a version of Schedule, but the fields are not the same as the Wince database fields. In particular, with Schedule, you don't have the ability to manage the powerful Category field in the Contacts database.
Nino usage: notes
A keyboard is nice, but takes up space and doesn't work so well if you need to hold the unit. For my next PDA purchase, I had decided to ditch the keyboard, so handwriting recognition became crucial. The OmniGo and the Pilot use Graffiti, and Windows CE has something nearly the same, Jot. These systems work best when you learn the special strokes for each letter. Usually, while constrained to be a single-stroke per letter, these are intuitive; but for more obscure characters, such as # or $ or %, I could never remember what to do. The characters are written in an area at the bottom of the screen, regardless of the screen position of the cursor. Graffiti is a complete rejection of the (failed) Apple Newton approach -- under Graffiti, the user meets the computer more than half way. It works, and requires little CPU power. But, fortunately, the world has moved on.
The Nino comes with the third-party SmartWriter software in ROM. This is a Philips value-add; other CE users need to buy it. This package, once trained, is great; I was initially annoyed with it, but now that I've set it up properly (and read the manual) I'm on my way to being very happy with it. This method is miles and miles ahead of Graffiti/Jot. It accepts normal printed characters, including those you normally write with two or more strokes. It works well with special characters. And you write into the field you are filling it. Please note:
1) Read the manual. 2) Start with the gesture-only library, and train from scratch 3) persevere for a few days.
If you buy a CE device, make sure it comes with more than the basic CE handwriting recognition.
Review of Windows CE key applications
x Key Apps Contacts *****
Task List *****
Note taker *****
Contacts: A solid contact application. Fast, and with many fields (3 email addresses, a mobile phone AND a car phone, ...). Synchronisation with Outlook on the PC is painless. Multiple address books are not supported, but Categories can be used to similar effect: every address can be given a category, and then filtered by category. The category filter is additive (you can choose more than filter to view). Sort order is highly customisable. As mentioned above: enter a birthday, and a repeating event is created in the Calendar program. I currently have 250 records, and had around 400 at the highest (I poured in many entries from an internal directory). Scrolling, changing the sort order and filtering with the categories field is fast; only a few seconds. An exhaustive, non-indexed search of all fields is possible. Such a search over 250 records takes around 15 seconds. A phone dial command is a feature I wish was there. *****
Calendar: I'm very happy with it. The monthly view is very useful: a clock face colors in to show your appointments. The larger Nino screen is advantageous here, compared with the Pilot. I also like the agenda view: One screen showing today's outstanding appointments and the current task list. Reminders and repeating events are powerful enough for me. Repeating events use a lot of memory. Key wish-to-have: the ability to add people to a meeting entry, with a one click link to their Contact entry. *****
Task List: Basic. No percentage completed field. Has a priority field, but not an urgency field. Does support categories though. Without sub-tasks, managing a large number of tasks is not east with the tool. *****
Note taker: A text editor; also allows very basic formatting and sketched diagrams, if required (files are then stored in a different format, using more memory). Not very impressive, and slow. Sketchings translate to MS Word nicely. *****
Calculator: I am very unimpressed with Microsoft's ridiculous CE calculator. Not enough digits, and no operations priority! -- it thinks 2 + 5 * 2 = 14, not 12. Unlike the Windows' calculator, which gains basic numeracy skills once you put it in scientific mode (try the above in both modes), the CE calculator only comes in one flavour: stupid. The Palm's calculator is equally inadequate. In my hand I hold more computer power than a major world power could dream of not that long ago, and the most basic application of a computational device is DUMBED DOWN! Here, the OmniGo showed its HP breeding: the standard calculator was excellent, and for good measure HP added a programmable RPN calculator. When I find a good shareware calculator, I'll gleefully add it to my Nino.***** (and lucky to get that)
[Update: Found a reasonably decent free one, PalmSciCalc]
Channels and Email: I don't use Channels and I don't use the mail editor/reader. I don't think the Nino, missing a keyboard and with a small memory, is designed for email and surfing. I use Netscape as my email client, but if you use Outlook, you can exchange mail when you dock the Nino. This might be a nice way to read email if you had enough time at your desk to dock but not enough time to read (rather unlikely, but there you are).
Voice recording was something that sounded attractive, but with which I had no experience. The OmniGo didn't have it, and I'd never used a dictaphone. After seeing it on the Philips Velo, I put it on my wish-list as a "should have".
Now, a few months into Nino ownership, what do I think?
Voice recording is excellent. A quick voice memo is the best way of recording ideas on the run. Another way I use it frequently is for recording phone numbers people give me while I'm on the phone: as they read the number to me, I activate the voice recorder and repeat the numbers given to me. No more hassling with pens and paper in phone booths or trying to enter phone numbers on my mobile phone while talking to someone. The side-mounted buttons of the Nino prove their worth when it is used as a recorder: one-handed use is very comfortable. For Nino owners: There is a software update available from http://www.nino.philips.com that makes voice recording easier to use in the dark (the Nino beeps just before it begins recording).
The Nino also has a voice recognition program, "Pocket Commander", that you can train to open documents, read phone numbers and launch applications. Philips has a thing for this: some of their mobile phones also have voice recognition. On the Nino, it is very cool for showing friends your new toy: after training, you speak: "Read" "Tris" and the Nino will "speak" her phone number, digit by digit (or say "Dial" "Tris" and it will sound the tones of the number). Practically, I don't use it much. Technically, it works very well, in the office, but high background noise confuses it . If you don't mind talking to your PDA, you can easily use this feature to open documents hands free. This is useful. Sometimes I want to read a document with information like bank accounts, and without the voice command I'd have to get the stylus out, only to use it for opening a document I don't want to modify.
Most Wanted: What's missing the most
The application I miss the most from the OmniGo is a simple, flat-file database program. Philips provide one with the Velo, but the little palmtops are deemed unworthy (or their uses are deemed too simple). How this got through the market research I don't know. I loved having various catalogs on my OmniGo: I never accidentally bought the same concerto twice.
Update: On the Netscape/CNET shareware site (link below) I found a small, simple, undocumented flat-file database program. I've been in touch with the author, from Hong Kong, who is aiming to replace the simple database he used on the Psion. He plans to add text file import/export functionality, and to keep it freeware.
*** Further update: I now use ListPro, from IliumSoft . Many people have raved about this program, and indeed it is excellent. The program work with databases, which you load like a file. Each database consists of multiple lists. Lists can be hierarchical, and you define which fields you want per list. Each list item can have many fields, which you define, and each list item can be easily edited and viewed in card form. In other words, it's a flat file database. It does not use standard CE databases, which means that the list databases can be stored on your flash ram card, thereby getting around the memory limitation problem for those of us with small ram machines. It imports and exports from text files, including hierarchical lists. This software is expensive, but like most people who have given it a trial, I find it excellent.
x Memory Mileage On a 4MB Nino, you should be able to handle this
(see text for more info)
- 1000 addresses
- 3 extra apps
- 300 seconds of voice
- 200 K text and email
How much mileage do you get?
For the core application data (contacts, appointments, text notes), CE memory usage seems to be about the same as the OmniGo; certainly not more (is this really Microsoft?). CE uses background file compression.
The contact database has a huge number of fields, yet the database I imported from the OmniGo took up no more space than it did on the OmniGo. 250 records use about 50K (after running Microsoft's Find bugfix program, which increased the size by 20%). My contact entries are quite full. The database is more space efficient than I expected (from Microsoft). As an exported text file, the contact database takes up 60K.
The appointment database can chew up space if you use repeating events, such as birthdays. If you enter a birthday for someone in the Contact database, a repeating event is automatically created in the Calendar, which is cute, but can zap memory quickly. Using Outlook on the PC is the easiest way of removing the repeating events.
The 4MB Nino model makes around 1.1MB available for application data in the factory configuration (easily changed with a control panel). The rest of the memory is used by the operating system and the running programs. You control how much of the onboard RAM is "disk" space, and how much is "processor" space. The default configuration works well; the standard allocation of memory runs all the standard applications simultaneously. However, running large programs, such as the street atlas program Pocket Streets, will probably prompt you to close other programs down (this is a matter of clicking "yes" to a dialog box).
The typical CE application designed for palm tops seems to take around 50 - 150 KB (I have a nice chess program that uses about 160KB, an expense management program weighing in at 134KB, a scientific calculator at 35K and a utility program at 10K).
This means that a 4MB Nino, without a memory card, should handle, for example, a 1000 name contact database (200 KB), three extra applications (350KB), ten 30 second voice memos (200KB), OS patches (100K), 50K for a full calendar, leaving around 100 KB for text documents and 100K for other data. My notes average about 500 bytes each, which is enough for about two screenfulls (it is easy to forget how much can be stored in a small file using plain text). Based on my OmniGo usage, the 4MB configuration is more than enough for me (I doubt I will get to 1000 records in my contact database any time soon, for example, and the average voice note I make is around 10 seconds long, enough for quick reminders or an address and phone number). However, there are already some great CE applications out there, and since with the rechargeable batteries I no longer feel guilty about leaving the machine on, I have bought a card and I have download e-books and games to make long flights more enjoyable. Note: you will need to apply a software patch to use most flash ram cards. See the links below for where to download it.
I would have bought the 8MB model if it was available, but it wasn't (in Singapore, where it is now).
What I don't know is how quickly the performance of the CE databases degrades. A large contact database may be unmanageably slow, even if the memory was available.
Flash Memory Cards (storage cards): My memory configuration, after buying an 8MB Compact Flash card, is 700K for data (55% used after five months of use) and the rest for the OS. My voice recordings and all of my additional programs are on the storage card, saving me enough room for many hundreds of extra addresses, compared to the 4MB configuration listed above. I've left my notes in main memory, but I can move them to the card it I need to. Additionally, I only rarely get asked to shut down programs.
The operating system and software is designed to accommodate Compact Flash memory, called "storage cards" in the CE world, but not all programs will store their data on the storage card. The voice recording software and the small word processor will store either in main memory or on the card, and programs can be installed on the card, but the contact database (and the small task and calendar databases) must be stored in the main memory. This is a Windows CE "feature"; there are no good workarounds. Flash RAM is much slower than the main RAM; another reason to get as much RAM as you can afford (which is standard advice when buying computers). However, the Nino's application launch speed and Pocket Streets speed is hardly affected by using Compact Flash, whereas on the OmniGo there was a very noticeable difference -- from slow (main memory) to comatose (card).
Some add-on applications will allow you to store data on the card, but not those that use the underlying Windows CE database functionality. So, you can store maps, books and HTML content on the card, but a hypothetical CD catalog program would not let you store its databases on the card, since a third-party catalog program would almost certainly use the built-in Windows CE database software. Releases of Windows CE after 2.0 won't have this limitation. Upgrading the OS is easy on the Nino, but whether future versions will be practical with the 4MB model is questionable.
With a storage card handling extra programs, voice data and text data, there should be enough room on the 4MB model for a two thousand names and a very decent amount of documents and email. So, if you do buy the 4MB model, buying a storage card is a good upgrade path.
It is certainly true that the average user will be satisfied by the 4MB model, but always get as much RAM as you can afford.
The 4MB model is not upgradeable to the 8MB model. .
Breakage TestsWell, I didn't mean to do this, but my Nino has been twice dropped hard. The first time it was dropped it from chest height, onto a tile floor. Ouch. The battery cover flew open, the battery flew out, the compact flash memory card was completely dislodged. The Nino still works. No data loss. The second time was less dramatic, but the batteries half came out. Still ok.
- Mike's Palm-Sized PC page
(the best collection of software designed for the CE Palmtop, and a lot of it is free)
- Netscape/CNET Downloads for Windows 98: This has become very nice, with small but useful descriptions of each program.
(good professional site; the travel feature is very useful, also good FAQ)
The site for StarTap: turns CE into Windows CE (you have icon-based launch screens, a file explorer and more. Outstanding value).
- A source of links, including other CE Palmtop reviews, from DMoz, the Open Directory Project. I am an editor of this category.
- Downloading patches: Please go here for the FindFix and Software Update 1 patch needed to use most Flash Ram cards
Contrariwise: People who compared and bought a PalmI have had some email from people who were choosing between a Palm and a Nino, and chose the Palm. These people went to the trouble of sending me very clear and friendly email about why they decided this way, and to help you make the right choice I have summarised their reasons. Perhaps more people in this category will send me mail, so I can make this section more comprehensive.
Reasons people prefer the Palm
Size: A PDA should be portable, and the Palm is lighter, thinner and shorter than any of the Windows CE devices. The Nino is the largest of the CE PDAs, so the size difference is even more noticeable.
My thoughts on this: The Nino and Palm are the same width, so the Nino slips into most pockets that fit a Palm. Weight is probably the most important difference, rather than volume. But watch this one: if you are not going to take the PDA most places you go, you are not going to be using it effectively. Size is a very important criterion. The Nino is quite heavy and ruins the look of a business shirt when it sits in the pocket. The carrying case, unfortunately, does not have a belt clip.
Battery issues: The rechargeability of the Nino, which I think is really great, was not of such importance to some Palm purchasers, who find that the battery life of the Palm (which is much better than any of the CE devices) is good enough not to worry them. They also pointed out that there is always the workaround of using rechargeable batteries.
My thoughts on this: This means when travelling you need to bring spare sets of batteries and/or the recharger. If you travel a lot, the Nino's approach will probably be more appealing. Ask a Palm user what their battery life is. They know. Ask a Nino user. They probably don't know, because the typical Nino user never changes batteries. When I bought my Nino, the guy next to me was doing exactly the same thing because he was sick of replacing his Palm Pilot batteries.
Software availability: The Palm Pilot series of PDAs were the first really successful PDAs on the market. With a large user-base, there is a large body of software, much larger than for the Windows CE devices. This advantage will be maintained for at least through 1999.
My thoughts on this: This is true. The amount of shareware and freeware for the CE devices is still small.
Ergonomics: The Nino's side-mounted buttons: If you are left handed, make sure you are comfortable with these. Some right handers don't like them either. As I say above, they make one-handed operation convenient sometimes, but not always.
Operating System: Most Palm users are not going to like Windows CE. CE is almost universally described as "clumsy" compared to the Palm OS.
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