Mobile Computing: Handheld PC Redux, Part 2

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Last week, I reviewed two of the three Windows CE-based handheld PCs I bought on eBay: HP's Jornada 720 and NEC's MobilePro 880. Both were discontinued at least four years ago. So why review them now? Because many of you have written to say you're still using these compact devices (which are essentially a PDA in a subnotebook's body) as laptop alternatives, and because the devices are cheap: You can easily pick one up on eBay for under $200.

This week, I review my favorite of the handheld PCs I tested: IBM's WorkPad z50. Plus I've got information on some other handheld PCs that are still in demand, and tips on what to expect--and not expect--from these devices.

IBM's WorkPad z50

I picked up an IBM WorkPad z50 for only $102, from a seller with 100 percent positive feedback. It was a terrific deal, as the seller also threw in a nearly new extended-life battery that can last for up to 10 hours on a single charge, a carrying case, a wireless network adapter card, and more. The WorkPad z50 debuted in May 1999 and was discontinued by early 2000.

What I Like: The WorkPad z50 has a ThinkPad-like keyboard that measures 9.5 inches across by 4 inches down; it's nearly as comfortable for touch typing as a laptop keyboard. The 8.4-inch screen has a 640-by-480-pixel resolution and is big enough for comfortable document viewing. And the WorkPad z50 has the sturdy, rugged feel that has been a ThinkPad hallmark.

What I Dislike: The WorkPad uses a pointer instead of a touch screen or touchpad like some other handheld PCs. I've never been a fan of IBM's pointers, but after some trial and error, I've gotten used to it. And the "battery backup very low' warning pops up on my WorkPad a bit too often, sometimes even after I've installed a fresh set of AAA backups--the device thinks they're nearly drained, when in fact they are fresh or still have a charge. (Windows CE devices have a main battery that powers the unit and a backup set that keeps power flowing at all times. If a Windows CE device goes too long without battery or AC power, the contents of the internal memory are wiped clean and you lose your data.)

Bottom Line: The WorkPad z50 is the closest thing to an ideal laptop alternative I've seen yet, though it's not for everyone. WorkPads don't show up on eBay as often as MobilePro 800s or Jornada 720s do, however.

Other Contenders

Some other gone-but-not-forgotten laptop alternatives that are still available on eBay and worth considering are Apple's eMate 300, and Psion's Series 7 and NetBook subnotebooks.

Apple's eMate 300: Based on the defunct Newton OS, this green, translucent clamshell laptop was designed for and sold to the education market. It's rugged, and the screen is clearly legible in bright sunlight as well as indoors. I owned one several years ago and loved its ultra-cool look and the fact that it let me write articles outside on sunny days. Ultimately, I sold my eMate because transferring files between it and my Windows XP computer was too much of a hassle. Good-condition units often go for $100 or less on eBay. You can find specs at

Psion Series 7 and NetBook: These two subnotebooks, which use the EPOC operating system, were popular primarily in the They continue to have a loyal following in Europe and the U.S.--and they fetch some of the highest prices for handheld PC-type devices I've seen. For example, a Psion NetBook listed in excellent condition recently sold on eBay for about $593. The Series 7 and NetBook are similar, though the former was aimed at consumers and the latter at corporate users. There's an entire site devoted to the Series 7; PDAstreet has info on the NetBook.

The Final Bottom Line

So is a handheld PC that's at least four years old worth the $200 or less it costs?

For some people, the answer is probably not. Anyone who needs on-the-go access to applications such as Microsoft Act, Adobe Photoshop, Intuit QuickBooks, and such are out of luck, as handheld PCs don't support those applications. Though Windows CE-based handheld PCs come with a pocket version of Microsoft PowerPoint, you can only view presentations, not edit them. Plus, Web surfing on these devices can be painfully slow, and some sites--such as those with the latest security encryption for online banking or e-commerce--may not work properly on the device. Handheld PCs also don't offer any serious gaming or video support, though with a Windows CE-based handheld you can listen to MP3 files using a version of Windows Media Player.

But for students, educators, writers, consultants, or those with minimal mobile computing needs and concerns about carrying around expensive laptops, a handheld PC may be just the ticket. Handheld PCs, particularly an IBM WorkPad z50 in good condition, are best used for taking notes in meetings or classes; handling basic Excel or Microsoft Access entry (on Windows CE-based devices); keeping track of your calendar, contacts, and to-do lists; and handling e-mail, though you may not be able to open all attachments. And handheld PCs have no moving parts, so you don't have to worry about losing data from a failed hard drive, as you do with a notebook.

You can find inexpensive laptops for $200 or so on eBay. But often, the laptops don't include Microsoft Office applications. By comparison, Windows CE-based handheld PCs have pocket versions of Office apps built into ROM. Again, the handheld PC, because of its low cost, instant-on, compact size, light weight, durability, good battery life, and other benefits, may be a worthy laptop alternative--especially if you shop carefully and have realistic expectations.

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