Compaq's Aero palmtops give helping hand to Windows CE

If Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE operating system earns a much bigger share of the palmtop computing market, then Bill Gates better thank Compaq Computer Corp. for the help. Compaq's two new entries in this red-hot market raise the bar for ease of use for Windows CE-based palmtops.

The Compaq Aero 1530 is a slim and affordable unit with a monochrome display, and the bigger Aero 2150 sports a nifty color display that makes on-screen icons and images easy to see.

3Com Corp.'s PalmPilot has a lock on industry mindshare in this product class, so palmtops like the Aero must win customers on the strength of their hardware features and also get them to accept a different operating system—Microsoft's Windows CE 2.11. To overcome some of Windows CE's shortcomings, Compaq bundles these machines with utilities that make them easier to use. The add-ons also help Compaq differentiate the Aero from other Windows CE products on the market.

Compaq's QMenu, for example, is an add-on that makes basic Aero file- and system-management tasks much easier to perform than the standard Windows CE tools do. QMenu lets you close applications, whereas with just Windows CE you would have to shut the device down to close applications.

QMenu also gives a user quick access to QUtilities, which contain the system management controls similar to the ones PC users find in Windows 98 under the Control Panel menu. QUtilities provides controls to adjust speaker volume, power settings and the display contrast. There also are tools for diagnosing system problems and managing files.

A user can configure QMenu to choose which, if any, QUtilities functions appear in the QMenu. This includes an option to convert the application buttons into buttons for playing computer games. Compaq expects many games to become available for Windows CE, so the Aero can become a substitute for a Nintendo's GameBoy (for use only during coffee breaks and lunch hour, of course).

Enabling another Compaq add-on called Auto Run lets applications stored on CompactFlash plug-in cards run automatically when the card is inserted in the Aero. With this feature, for example, the U.S. Census Bureau could develop an application on a plug-in card that helps field workers outfitted with Aeros gather data.

A less successful extra feature that both Aero models include is AudiblePlayer, which purports to turn Compaq's palmtop into a digital Walkman for playing music and books on tape. Unfortunately, the reality falls short of the promise.

AudiblePlayer lets a users connect to Audible.com to download sample music files and five free hours of books or news for later playback on the Aero. Unfortunately, downloading the files on a 56K dial-up connection was excruciatingly slow. We also found the software for managing the downloaded files was difficult to use. The Audible.com World Wide Web site incorrectly thought that we had already downloaded our complimentary books. To make matters worse, Audible.com technical support did not respond to our e-mails or phone calls for several days.

Compaq's technical support, as always, was first rate, but the vendor isn't supporting Audible.com's service and could not help us with the problems. Until Audible.com can provide a better product and support, Compaq should reconsider bundling it with the Aero. Meanwhile, users should expect to experiment with Audible Player, but do not count on it meeting even moderate expectations.

The Aero has another audio feature that does work as advertised: the voice recorder. For people who dictate notes to themselves, the recorder feature works just like a pocket tape recorder.

The handwriting recognition of Windows CE continues to improve (or maybe our handwriting is getting better), so we were happy with the Aero's ability to read our writing. We still find that pecking out letters on the on-screen keyboard is faster, however. The Aero's display is larger compared with the ones on most other palmtops, which means the tiny keys on the virtual keyboard are a little bigger. The difference is small, but it helps.

Compaq likes to point out that both Aero displays are among the best in their respective classes for number of colors and resolution. Both devices display images at a resolution of 240 pixels by 320 pixels, with 16 shades of gray for the Aero 1530 and 256 colors for the Aero 2150.

The Pocket Outlook PIM, or personal information manager, built into Windows CE works well and synchronizes automatically with Microsoft Outlook on a PC. The synchronization software installs quickly, and a Windows 98 version of Outlook 2000 is included for users who don't have it. The Aero has a synchronization cradle that plugs into a PC's serial port, which makes transferring large files—such as Audible.com audio files or color photos of the kids—slow when moving from the PC to the Aero.

Both models have cradles that dock the Aeros securely without being hard to plug into, but the company doesn't use the same cradle for both devices. The Aero also has an infrared port for sharing files with other devices. However, the port's IRDA transfer rate of 115 kilobits/sec is slow enough to make a user appreciate the comparative speed of the cradle's serial cable connection.

Compaq located all of the navigation controls on the side of the Aeros, so one-handed operation is easy. The 1530's ultra-slim half-inch-thick design may make one-handed use easier for those with small hands.

Both Aero models have the same size display (4 inches measured diagonally), and the features are nearly identical. Both devices come standard with a 70 MHz NEC MIPS processor and 16M of RAM. The lithium-ion batteries let the 1530 run for up to 14 hours and the 2150 for up to 10 hours. In a logical analysis, the Aero 1530 is the better buy, but if you have a soft spot for good looks (as in a color display), the Aero 2150 may muddle that logic.

—Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

REPORT CARDS

Compaq Aero 1530

Score: B+

Compaq Computer Corp.

(800) 282-6672

www.compaq.com

Price and Availability: Available on the GSA schedule through CDW-G for $243.

Remarks: The Aero 1530 is a full-featured palmtop in a small package. It has a large, high-resolution monochrome display that works fine for its primary use as a personal information manager.

Compaq Aero 2150

Grade: B+

Compaq Computer Corp.

(800) 282-6672

www.compaq.com

Price and Availability: Available on GSA schedule through CDW-G for $342.

Remarks: The Aero 2150 is a bit bigger and heavier than its counterpart, the Aero 1530. Most of the extra bulk comes from its 256-color display. This is the model to have to manage images. And, well, yeah, it would be great for games too, but you don't need to tell the boss.

BY Dan Carney
Dec. 13, 1999

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