Mobile Computing: Handheld PC Redux, Part 1

In the past months, a number of readers have written me to sing the praises of handheld PCs. Rather than spend more than a thousand bucks on an Ultra Mobile PC like Samsung's Q1, these readers are still happily using Windows CE-based handheld PCs that were discontinued years ago. These devices are larger than a PDA but smaller than most notebooks and feature instant-on capability, easy portability, long battery life, and other benefits.

Intrigued by these e-mails, and always in search of the ideal notebook alternative, I went hunting on eBay for a handheld PC. My objective: Find a device with a good-sized screen of at least 6.5 inches in diagonal and a comfortable touch-type keyboard, plus a light weight of under 3 pounds. I also needed the device to be able to exchange files with my Microsoft Windows XP notebook, give me easy access to e-mail, and let me browse the Web. Oh, and it had to cost less than $200.

I've got some good news: You can find plenty of handheld PCs that fit most, if not all, of these criteria for sale on eBay. I bought and tested three different models. This week, I'll review Hewlett-Packard's Jornada 720 and NEC's MobilePro 880. Next week, I'll review IBM's WorkPad z50, plus offer advice on who should--and who should not--consider buying one of these devices.

HP Jornada 720

I picked up an HP Jornada 720 on eBay for $170, the most I paid for any handheld PC. It was listed in excellent condition by a seller with 100 percent positive feedback. The 720 is the youngest of HP's three Jornadas, which were introduced in 2000 and discontinued in 2002.

What I Like: Unlike some handheld PCs, you can sync the Jornada 720 directly to your computer via its USB port. (Older handheld PCs require a serial port connection, and most computers have only USB ports these days. But you can buy serial-to-USB adapters for about $30.) And when paired with a compatible wireless networking PC Card that I purchased for $50 on eBay, Web browsing was by far the fastest of the three devices I tested.

What I Dislike: The keyboard measures 7 inches across by 2.5 inches down--too small for continuous typing. (By comparison, my HP Pavilion dv1000 laptop's keyboard measures 12 inches by 4.25 inches.) And the 6.5-inch color touch screen with 640-by-240 pixel resolution is too small for spending more than a few minutes with a Word document or Excel spreadsheet.

Bottom Line: The Jornada 720 still has loyal fans. You can read what one has to say about the 720 in my August 2006 Mobile Computing.

For those who have difficult typing on a Palm Treo, RIM BlackBerry, or similar device, a Jornada 720 may be a good alternative. But in my opinion, the Jornada 720 is too big to use as a PDA and not big enough for prolonged typing.

NEC MobilePro 800

I paid $118 for an NEC MobilePro 800 listed in "nice shape" by a seller with 99.6 percent positive feedback. The MobilePro 800 was introduced in late 1998 and was phased out in mid 2000.

What I Like: The MobilePro 800 has one of the largest displays of any handheld PC. Its 9.4-inch color touch screen has a 800-by-600 pixel resolution. Only one Windows CE device I'm aware of, the Compaq Aero 8000, has a larger display (10 inches)--but it's relatively scarce on eBay.

The MobilePro 800's keyboard is larger than the Jornada 720 itself, measuring 9 inches across by 3.5 inches down, which is relatively comfortable for touch typing. I love the convenience of the touch screen and six programmable buttons for launching applications or functions.

What I Dislike: Buying outdated, used technology is not without its risks. The MobilePro 800 auction listing clearly stated "battery not tested," so I figured that I'd need a new battery--and rightly so. I found one for $48 on eBay. The lithium ion battery only gives me about two hours on a charge, which is much less than I hoped. Also, this MobilePro 800's screen isn't as sharp or bright as I'd like, probably due to its age.

Bottom Line: Today's truly ultraportable notebooks can be pricey. Sony's Vaio TX series, for example, starts at $2050. So if you like the ultraportable form factor but don't want to worry about carrying around such an expensive device, the MobilePro 800 may be a good option. Just be sure to find one with a fully functioning battery and a bright screen.

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