Think small (and smaller) and faster, too

Mobile means small, light, and--now--powerful, and there are plenty of products available today or on tap to fulfill those requirements. Rich Castagna looks at a couple that stood out at this year's Comdex.

Once upon a time, the high-tech theme was "bigger and faster"--as in you can cram more into our box than theirs and, by the way, it'll leave their machine in the dust. But with the ever-growing acknowledgement that more and more of our workforce requires some degree of mobile computing, the bigger part of the old equation has fallen by the way in many respects.

About five years ago, a 400MHz burner on your desktop was a status symbol and having one of those powerhouse processors tucked into your notebook put you in a class of serious with a capital "S" road warrior. Today it's the very attainable state of the art for handheld computing. Intel's XScale chips--clocking in at 300 and 400MHz--have helped turn the desktop-notebook-PDA paradigm on its ear. And, true to form, hardware is once again setting the pace, providing the muscle today but still waiting for the apps with the oomph to push it to the limit.

At Comdex, in Las Vegas, "small and fast" is the mantra, and as often as it's repeated, it's also achieved. Case in point: Samsung showed off its brand new Nexio PC--and I say "PC" rather than PDA because its specs and looks defy any other description.

The Nexio is slim--about 6 by 3.5 inches--but it packs the punch of notebook PCs from the not too distant past. With Intel's PXA250 pumping at 400MHz, it has plenty of heart, and a good dose of memory with 64MB of flash ROM and 128MB of SDRAM.

The device harkens memories of Microsoft's first forays into handheld computing with the HPCs--handheld PCs--from HP, Acer, and other vendors. Closed, the Nexio is a bit larger than most Palm or Pocket PC PDAs, but when you flip it open a 5-inch TFT screen is revealed--capable of displaying 64,000 colors at a resolution of 800 by 480. Toss in a small but very usable keyboard, built-in Wi-Fi, a USB port, and a CompactFlash II slot and you've essentially got a notebook computer that can fit firmly in the palm of your hand. And at less than 9 ounces, the Nexio isn't likely to put a crimp in your wrist.

Petite peripherals
Some aspects of miniaturizing computers to make them more mobile are simple--in theory, at least. We want 'em to be small and light, to have sufficient power, and to display the results of our work in brilliant color. But the input side of mobile computing has often lagged behind the other related technologies. A stylus is nice and touch screens work well for selecting menu options, but entering data has always been a bugaboo.

Handwriting recognition always seems to teeter at the precipice of promise--and usability--but few mobile users have had the patience to master the very specific nuances of recognition systems. While hope is still held that handwriting recognition will someday come of age, the reality of the day is that a good keyboard is always far superior to questionable recognition.

A number of companies, among them perhaps the most notable is Targus, have delivered small, folding keyboards that can connect to certain PDAs and thus offer a truly usable input system for composing e-mail and short documents.

These keyboards are great--small, light, eminently portable--they offer the best method of entering data into mobile devices. Besides issues related to their reduced-size keyboard layouts, these devices have struggled for acceptance because they are, in effect, proprietary in that one keyboard that works with a particular Palm model may not work with another and certainly won't work with a Pocket PC device.

Pocketop has overcome most of these hurdles with a keyboard that incorporates one ingenious design after another. The first neat thing it does is something it doesn't do--physically connect to the PDA. Pocketop's keyboard uses the ubiquitous IR port that is standard fare for PDAs to link its input device. The keyboard has a bunch of associated thingamajigs to ensure that virtually any PDA's IR port can be appropriately directed to the keyboard.

But that's just the beginning of the Pocketop's innovation. The keys on the diminutive but very usable keyboard are ergonomically sculpted to make the unit's small size more usable. And perhaps the best feature of this keyboard is its versatility--it'll work with a wide variety of Palm-based and Pocket PC PDAs--a far cry from its model-specific competitors.

What handheld devices do you use? TalkBack below or e-mail us with your thoughts.