An Internet Survival Tool for Reporters
Many news reporters are reassessing their Internet tools in light of events since Sept. 11. Gear that once appeared to be solid technology now seems fragile and vulnerable. These days, we want rugged devices we can count on.
As for portable computers, we���ve learned that less is more. Reliability, long battery life, compact size and lightweight are in. Finicky, exotic, complex hardware is out. Flaky, crash-prone software is a no-no. The best is not necessarily the most expensive – it’s what works when it needs to work.
A new look at the tools of the reporting trade recall a product category that’s been overlooked in recent months. I suggest, however, it’s time to reconsider the benefits of that odd duck commonly called the handheld PC.
Using Microsoft’s Windows for Handheld PC 2000 operating system and a built-in basic application suite, the latest generation handheld PCs accomplish most basic computing tasks without the complexity, instability and technical challenges of a full-blown laptop.
Among the features that make the handheld PC attractive is "instant on" –no boot-up – that allows you to resume work just where you were when you switched the device off. Another benefit is enough battery life to allow use of the computer all day without connecting to an electrical outlet.
With the new hassles of airport security, handheld PCs gain added advantage by being compact enough to fit in the smallest carry-on bag. Gone are all the travel burdens of most traditional laptops, which often require a bag full of support accessories along with the PC itself.
As a writer, I was first attracted to NEC’s MobilePro 790 Handheld PC ($899) by its large 77-key QWERTY keyboard. Unlike the hunt and peck "data entry" keys on most pocketable computers, NEC’s new 1.5-pound portable has a nearly full-size keyboard spacious enough for true touch typing. This was achieved by extending the length of the device to 9.6 inches.
The keys of the MobilePro 790 have a 17.5 mm pitch, slightly smaller than the 19 mm pitch of a standard keyboard, but much larger than many subcompact portables running the standard Windows’ operating system.
Because the OS and applications of the MobilePro 790 are embedded in ROM, a fatal crash does not mean having to reload software components from a CD. If you’ve backed up your data to a compact flash card, it’s as simple as taking a few minutes to restore all files to the device. Not only does this lighten the accessory load, it also brings real peace of mind when working in tough field situations.
The MobilePro 790 is much smaller than even the most subcompact traditional laptop, but its half VGA 8.1-inch, 64k color touch screen makes it a very usable tool for working in the field. Included is a suite of Microsoft Office "pocket" applications for e-mail, word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and personal information management.
An integrated V90 modem means you simply plug the MobilePro into a live phone line, hit an icon on the touch screen and dial into an ISP or send a fax. There’s also one Type I and II PC card slot for a cellular/wireless modem or ATA flash card, another slot for a Type I and II Compact Flash card, an internal microphone and speaker, as well as a serial output and VGA-out for presentation displays.
In testing the MobilePro 790, we found it was vastly improved over earlier handheld PCs that we’ve used. Among the more significant improvements is the handling of Web pages. The 790 features a new browser – Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.01 for Handheld PC – that provides embedded support for HTML 4.0, Jscript and animated GIF images. In our experience, most Web pages displayed quickly and accurately.
NEC’s hardware features are also improved over earlier Windows CE models. The CPU, based on the manufacturer’s 168 MHz VR4121 processor, is snappy and responsive. The screen is bright, clear and quick to the touch. The keyboard is the best we’ve ever used on a non-PC device.
For field reporting, a major asset of all handheld PCs is long battery life.
The 790 runs nearly all day on a single charge to its lithium-ion battery. Even if you need to plug-in, however, NEC’s AC adapter is so unobtrusive you barely know you are carrying it. Essentially, it’s a fat AC power plug: no heavy wall warts or bricks here.
The MobilePro 790, as other handheld PC devices, is not for everybody. They are all made as companions to standard Windows PCs, for which they depend on for synchronization of data and file installation. Mac owners need PC emulation software such as Virtual PC, which we made work with the MobilePro. The 790 uses a dated serial port for connection to the PC, rather than the newer and faster USB port.
Even with these limitations, the MobilePro 790 – after initial set-up – can function well as a stand-alone Internet-centric computer. Files can easily be moved about through flash cards or via e-mail. When viewed as a field reporting tool and not a full-blown PC, the MobilePro offers a genuine alternative to fragile, power hungry laptops. It certainly would have been my machine of choice in the field on Sept. 11.
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.