Pocket PC 2003: Who needs it (and who doesn't)

commentary All in all, Pocket PC 2003 offers a useful set of enhancements, though even Microsoft would say it's far from earthshaking. Here's my buying advice.

commentary In its continuing quest for ever-longer product names, Microsoft this week introduced Windows Mobile 2003 Software for Pocket PC. I'm not sure what genius dreamed up the new name, but I promise I'll never subject you to it again--I'll refer to it hereafter as Pocket PC 2003.

This release is more for the hardware OEMs than for current users. On the other hand, for companies that have been considering the Pocket PC as a corporate handheld standard, this update might just be what it takes to push them onto the "buy" side of the ledger.

The big focus of the new release is on connectivity--specifically, on making it easier to connect to the Net or a PC using Bluetooth or 802.11b. If your company opts for the latter, note that you may well discover the joy of having hundreds of spam messages--including those filtered by your desktop system--sent unfiltered to your PDA.

I discovered this side effect of PDA connectivity while playing with a preview unit of the Toshiba e750 loaded with Pocket PC 2003. Toshiba is loading Pocket PC 2003 on its new e350 and e355. HP is releasing the iPaq H1940, the H2210, and the >H5550. Gateway and ViewSonic have also released new PDAs, all using the new OS.

Using the Microsoft Connection Wizard, I was able to get the Toshiba downloading e-mail pretty quickly. (For reasons I don't understand, I found it necessary to enter the IP addresses of the domain name servers that my Internet service provider uses.) I can now synchronize with Outlook when I'm at my desk and download my e-mail directly from the POP3 server when I'm away from the office.

Easy Wi-Fi
Also new with Pocket PC 2003 is a feature called Zero Configuration for Wi-Fi networks, which is similar to what's available on Windows XP desktops. When Pocket PC 2003 senses that a wireless network is available, it notifies you and gives you a chance to connect. If you move from one hotspot to another, or from one access point to another within your corporate campus, you'll find this very handy. Once you've entered your login information for a particular network, the Pocket PC saves it and logs on automatically when it sees that network in the future.

The new OS also features Connection Manager, an applet intended to smooth the setup of network connections, whether via modem, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth. This includes VPN support, which I was unable to test using the Toshiba prototype. Potential VPN users would be advised to test before you purchase, as your VPN may require settings unavailable on the Pocket PC VPN client.

Connection Manager is a significant improvement over trying to connect using Pocket PC 2002, giving the user an easy way to enter all the information necessary to connect and then improving the ease of managing multiple connections (Wi-Fi, VPN, modem, etc.) on a single handheld.

More media
While the focus of Pocket PC 2003 is improving connectivity, there are some improvements on the application front as well. Windows Media 9 is now supported, improving the quality of media playback and streaming supported by Pocket PC 2003 devices.

Using Microsoft's Plus! Digital Media Edition, a US$20 add-on, users can create slide shows and digital movies for viewing on their Pocket PCs. There is also a Sync & Go feature that makes it easy to sync desktop music playlists with the handheld, as well as download content from a handful of providers, including NBC News and NPR.

For people not willing to part with $20 for the Plus! pack (understandable, since previous versions of the add-on collection have generally been rip-offs), Pocket PC 2003 offers a Pictures application for managing and displaying photos on the handheld; among other things, it lets you select a photo to be the system wallpaper.

The bottom line
All in all, Pocket PC 2003 offers a useful set of enhancements, though even Microsoft would say it's far from earthshaking. Here's my buying advice:

I wouldn't junk my Pocket PC 2002 handheld just to get the new features of 2003. The Plus! sync feature works just fine with 2002, and there are photo viewers available for download.

If my handheld vendor makes Pocket PC 2003 available as an upgrade, and if I were using Wi-Fi on the device, I would probably pay a small amount for the additional wireless ease of use the 2003 release offers.

If I were a company or individual waiting for improvements before investing in wireless handhelds, I think Pocket PC 2003 has probably pushed aside the major roadblocks. A handheld with integrated Wi-Fi and Pocket PC 2003 may very easily be the device you've been waiting on.

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