Sizing up the PC

After several years of shrinking computers, industry vendors are thinking big. Handheld computers and personal digital assistants took the spotlight at last year's Comdex trade show, but the hot products this year in Las Vegas were tablet computers.

Tablets are like personal digital assistants in that they can be used anywhere, but the devices can incorporate more features thanks to their larger size. Some even offer full PC functionality but weigh far less than most notebook computers.

One device already generating buzz from government customers is the GeneSys Maximus rugged pen tablet from Xplore Technologies Corp.

This tablet is designed to eliminate the screen glare that frequently plagues people working outdoors, such as police officers or Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, said Rich Perley, senior vice president of the Austin, Texas-based company. The tablet's 12.1-inch transflective, active-matrix color LCD feeds off direct sunlight, so when sunlight hits it, it gets brighter.

The 5-pound tablet, equipped with wireless communications technology, has magnesium housing to withstand shock, rain, dust, humidity and temperature extremes. It also comes with a 500 MHz Intel Corp. processor, 128M of SDRAM, a 10G hard drive and up to 6 hours of battery life.

Other new tablets include:

* Fujitsu PC Corp.'s Stylistic LT P-600 tablet. The Stylistic, which weighs 2.65 pounds and measures 9.6 inches high by 6.3 inches wide by 1.1 inch deep, is powered by an Intel Pentium III 600 MHz processor and has 4.5 hours to 6.5 hours of battery life, according to Fujitsu. It comes with a software recovery tool that provides a secure area directly on the tablet's hard drive where data can be backed up and later used to restore the system in the event of a failure.

* ViewSonic Corp.'s ViewPad 100. This "super PDA," as ViewSonic describes it, expands the capabilities of a traditional PDA by supporting personal information management, wireless e-mail and Web access, and server-based enterprise applications. It weighs less than 2.5 pounds and features a 10-inch touch screen that works in both portrait and landscape orientations. The tablet meas.ures 8.4 inches high by 11.3 inches wide by 0.9 inch deep.

* AirSpeak Inc.'s Flair. This so-called PC access device is designed to provide a mirror image of a user's desktop computer, operating via a combination of wired and 802.11b wireless connectivity. Users receive document images much like a fax transmission, but the Flair does not actually download any files and instead makes all changes remotely to the desktop PC. The Flair, which measures 9.4 inches high by 11.7 inches wide by 1.2 inch deep, weighs 3 pounds and features a 12-inch touch screen.

"With the tablet PC, the industry is entering a new phase of mobile computing that will make the power of a fully functional PC more flexible and accessible than ever before," said Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp. chairman and chief software architect, speaking at Comdex. "Tablet PCs will greatly extend the capabilities of today's laptop computers...and within five years, I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."

PDAs Strike Back

Not to be outdone by their tablet counterparts, a number of PDA vendors demonstrated models that have more functionality than ever, along with increased flexibility and computing power. NEC Computers Inc. unveiled its first PDA available for purchase in the United States, the MobilePro P300, which is one of the first such devices to come with Microsoft's new Pocket PC 2002 operating system. It is also more expandable than previous generations of the PDA, offering CompactFlash and Secure Digital expansion slots, as well as a USB host interface. The SD slot enables users to add up to a total of 128M of memory.

Handspring Inc., meanwhile, is embracing multifunctionality with its introduction of a family of "compact communicators" called Treo. The Treo products combine the functionality of a mobile phone, pager and organizer into one device. Treo runs on the Palm Inc. OS and contains an integrated dual-band radio module for voice and data communications.

Treo also comes with Palm Desktop software to synchronize data between a desktop PC and the PDA, plus a software link for synchronizing data between the Treo and Microsoft Outlook.

The proliferation of PDAs sparked a trend for handheld security products, including PDA Defense from Inc. and PDASecure from Trust Digital LLC.

PDA Defense works on the Palm computing platform and comes in standard, professional and enterprise versions. All three use the Blowfish encryption algorithm.

PDA Defense Standard includes a "brute force" countermeasure that can be set to wipe all data if a user-specified number of failed password attempts is exceeded. When the handheld is locked, data transfer mechanisms such as HotSync and infrared are disabled.

The software also includes a decryption-on-demand feature so users can decrypt individual databases only when needed. PDA Defense also erases the encryption key after the handheld is locked, and it is impossible to recover an encryption key from the stored password hash.

The professional version adds an automatic data wipe if the handheld is not HotSynced within a user-specified time period, as well as an application lockout for securing individual programs.

PDA Defense Enterprise allows an administrator to distribute versions of the software through a company's network and change the optional features in the professional version to mandatory.

PDASecure works with both Palm and Microsoft's Pocket PC operating systems. It is available in standard, premium and enterprise versions, as well as a version called Policy Editor that can manage thousands of handhelds at once.

The product supports six user-selectable encryption algorithms, including RC4 (128-bit), Rijndael (128-bit) and Blowfish (up to 448-bit encryption).

The standard edition includes features such as application-based security; data encryption and password protection for both standard and third-party applications; and HotSync and Infrared Data Association password protection. It also supports automatic encryption of selected information after power-off or a user-defined time period, as well as virus protection.

PDASecure Premium adds on-demand encryption/decryption of database files, data encryption for private records or all records, and support for a data wipe if the handheld is not synced after a user-defined number of days.

The enterprise version, designed for small or large PDA networks, provides full control of data security, including comprehensive password protection for handwriting recognition software, soft keys and hardware buttons.

A Very Versatile Pen

Another innovative product that drew attention at the Comdex trade show was the E-Pen wireless digital pen from E-Pen InMotion Inc.

The E-Pen contains regular ink and enables you to write on paper while converting information to "digital ink" for use in multiple ways: You can send it as an e-mail or fax message, save it as a note file or translate it into text.

The pen works by using the same principle as digital whiteboard devices. A small receiver clips to the top of a sheet of paper and uses ultrasonic technology to transmit an image of the user's handwriting to a connected device.

The E-Pen is compatible with any Internet-enabled device, including desktop and notebook computers and PDAs. The company is developing compatibility for pagers and mobile phones as well.

The Latest in Wearable PCs

Xybernaut Corp., a maker of wearable computers, debuted it latest model, the Mobile Assistant V.

This full-featured computer contains a 500 MHz Intel Mobile Celeron processor and can run Microsoft Windows 98, 2000 and XP as well as Linux. The computer's standard 128M of SDRAM is expandable to 256M, and the unit contains a 5G hard drive that is expandable externally to 40G. In addition, a 1G removable hard drive can be added through the use of a 1G CompactFlash card.

The Mobile Assistant V offers integrated wireless communications as well as an integrated Digital Signal Processor for increased processing efficiency of such calculation-intensive applications as speech recognition.

An optional wearable holster provides additional dedicated FireWire, USB, PC Card and battery power. The VGA port in the holster allows it to be used as a docking station for a standard desktop setup.

Other features include built-in handwriting recognition; activation via voice, passive stylus or touch screen; and a magnesium alloy case.


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