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The H/PC Pro

Microsoft and its partners introduce a hardware/software combo that makes Windows CE more attractive than ever

(December 1998 issue)


Just to put the cards on the table right up front: the H/PC Pro is not a new computer or a new operating system. Instead, it is a combination of enhancements and additions to the Windows CE operating environment that supports many new hardware and software features. As a result, Windows CE for handheld devices works better in almost every respect, and the additional hardware support means that there is a greater variety and selection of Windows CE computers than ever.

There is a lot to like, and there are some great new H/PC devices, but before we get into details, please commit the following to memory, no matter how odd it may sound: "H/PC Pro consists of version 2.2 of the Windows CE services on the PC, version 2.11 of the Windows CE operating system, and version 3.0 of the Pocket Office application suite." Groan. Yes, it would have been so much nicer had Microsoft simply called the whole thing something catchy like "Windows CE 99."

The H/PC Pro platform, which had been code named "Jupiter," is Microsoft's response to customer requests for larger screens, better email and server synchronization, on-device document conversion, better web browsing, better management tools, and the addition of a database. In addition there are a myriad of tweaks and enhancements that make H/PC Pro--introduced on October 8, 1998—a much more pleasant operating environment.

While many of the H/PC Pro enhancements and additions are under the hood, there are some very visible changes in the hardware and some significant improvements in the applications.

The biggest and most immediately noticeable change is that Windows CE now supports a full 640 x 480 VGA, or even an 800 x 600 SVGA screen! Depending on your needs in a handheld, the difference this makes is incredible; it's as if a blindfold had been removed. The 640 x 240 format predominant in the second generation of H/PC devices was certainly an improvement over the initial 480 x 240, but it was still nowhere near a substitute for the standard VGA screen that we all know and love. Granted, the VGA and SVGA screen format takes a lot more real estate and many users may continue to prefer the space efficient "traditional" H/PC screen format, but—alas—seeing CE run on a "real" screen makes it all worth it.

The second major change is that the H/PC Pro's suite of pocket office applications now includes Pocket Access, a surprisingly powerful and useful application even when used in standalone mode. Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between the H/PC and the new H/PC Pro is to look at the difference between Microsoft Office and Microsoft Office Pro. Office Pro adds the Access database and a bunch of utilities and power tools. That said, let's take a detailed tour through through all the changes and differences.

Control Panels

There is a new Network control panel. Its Identification section shows entries for user name, password, and domain. The Adapters section shows installed network adapters. Under Properties you set the IP address and primary and secondary name servers. The Display panel now has an Appearance tab that lets you set one of 13 color schemes and selectively change the color of standard Windows items. You can't, however, change the width of items like in Windows 98. Dialing now is a separate control panel instead of a tab in the Communications Properties.

Pocket Office

The H/PC Pro gets version 3.0 of the Windows CE Pocket Office suite of applications.

This is a surprisingly powerful pocket version of Microsoft's desktop Access database. It can be used to store desktop Access and also Microsoft SQL Server databases on a mobile device. When you synchronize, desktop Access databases (.mdb extension) are converted into Pocket Access files (.cdb extension). These databases can then be accessed and queried. It is also possible to create new databases in Pocket Excel. Customized database solutions can be developed using MS Active X Data Objects for Windows CE and Visual Basic or C++. Fields can be in one of nine formats (text (up to 255 characters), integer, date/time, boolean, float, memo, small integer, binary, or OLE object). Once determined, fields cannot be changed. Fields can be indexed and sorted. There are also icons for sorting and filtering of data. There are a number of ways to locate and organize data in Pocket Access, using the Find, Sort, and Filter commands. For searches including more than one field, you can create a SQL (Structured Query Language) query. A special SQL view lets you create new SQL procedures, or use one of the last 15 procedures that were run. Pocket Access also converts find, sort, and filter commands into SQL statements that you can use. SQL procedures can be saved. There are some limitations when synchronizing with a desktop database. Images and OLE objects can't be interpreted by Pocket Access. Table names are limited to 31 characters. Longer ones are truncated. Access system tables cannot be synchronized. And tables larger than 64KB will be truncated when synchronized. Similarly, there are some limitations when synchronizing indices. Anything created on the mobile device synchronizes fine back up to the desktop. However, for databases created on the desktop, only four indices will be synchronized, and there are a number of other limitations that may or may not be important to your application. Be sure to carefully read this section before synchronizing to a mobile device. As for viewing data, there is the Datasheet View, the Design View, and the SQL View. In datasheet view, you can see data one record as at a time as a form, or in tabular view, or both combined. At first sight, Pocket Access seems to be a more complete subset of the desktop version than are Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, and certainly Pocket PowerPoint.

Pocket Word

Pocket Word remains virtually unchanged with a few exceptions. The Tools menu now has an Insert Symbol selection which brings up a 32 x 8 grid of symbols similar to the Apple Keycaps function. Symbols can be viewed in any font installed, and in a large number of different subsets starting with the basic Latin-1; going to Latin Extended for just about any foreign language character; to mathematical operators, box drawings and block elements, geometric shapes, and dingbats; to exotic ones such as Gurmukhi, Oriya, and Tamil. The availability of these characters no doubt adds a lot of flexibility to Pocket Word and makes internationalization easier. Pocket Word Help has been rearranged and some topics have been added. Perhaps most importantly, Pocket Word documents can now be saved in several additional formats: Unicode Text (.txt); Word 97 and Word 6.0/95, both as documents and templates; and as Inkwriter/Note Taker files (.pwi).

Pocket Excel

Pocket Excel also remains almost unchanged. The edit menu now has undo/redo instead of just undo. The Tools menu has an Insert Symbol selection identical to Pocket Word. The maximum spreadsheet size remains the same (IV to 16384). Files can now be saved directly as Excel 97 or Excel 5.0/95 workbooks or templates with .xls or .xlt extensions in addition to the standard Pocket Excel format.

Pocket Power Point

Not much new here. Help has been rearranged and expanded. You can edit speaker notes, the title slide, and reorder slides. A lot of people had hoped for more, like the ability to at least change the text of slides on the HPC. More than once we heard, "What if I am on the road and find this stupid typo in my presentation?"

Pocket Internet Explorer

Pocket Internet Explorer is a much nicer application than its predecessor. HTML 3.1 support, JScript, and better forms handling and frame navigation mean that a much larger percentage of all web sites display correctly. The View menu now has Language selection for better adaptation to foreign language use. There is also NTLM authentication support and 128-bit encryption (where allowed).

Pocket Inbox

Though it might not immediately seem that way, there are substantial improvements to the Inbox which is now the Pocket Inbox. Microsoft's goals were to speed up the way you get your email, to add functionality, and to generally offer a more full-featured email client. Perhaps the biggest news is that the inbox now has an IMAP4 email client. There is now multithreading, which means you can view mail while still downloading other messages. Attachment size can be limited, and you can specify retrieval of messages for certain time periods. Mail boxes are shown in standard Windows nested, collapsible format (i.e. subfolders, trees). There is a Find Message command in the File menu. It lets you seek for text not only in mail messages, but also in all Outlook data, all appointments, recurring appointments only, contacts, all tasks, or just recurring tasks. The Compose/Options and Service/Properties selections have been merged into one Options selection under Services. The Read tab now lets you select between closing a message or leaving it open once it's been read. There is a new Address tab that includes the former Services tab options plus lets you select where in Contacts to get addresses from, with choices being all email fields; Email 1, 2, or 3; or None. There is also a new Storage tab that lets you select storing mail either in internal RAM or on a storage card. Help has been expanded significantly and completely rearranged. There are now help topics for setting up POP3 and IMAP4 mail service.

Calendar

The Print Options selection in the File menu has been included into the general Print command. You can now select a net path. Instead of being able to view the calendar in just Day, Week, and Agenda layout, Month and Year options have been added. Though a small enhancement, it will surely make a lot of people happy. Columns can now be customized. Under Options you can now click Show Icons on or off. At first sight, Tasks and Contacts haven't changed much. The filter on Category tool has been moved to the Filter pulldown menu. In both applications, InkWriter has now much more functionality. There is now a Typing, Writing, and Drawing view. A Format menu has been added where you can select font properties, as well as pen weight, line color, and fill color. Under Tools, you can select capitalization of the first character of a sentence, smoothing of handwriting input, scrolling at the last line, and starting new notes in Write view. Those familiar with the old aha! InkWriter will recognize almost that entire application here. InkWriter now also shows up as a separate application in the Accessories menu.

Help Features

All help sections have been significantly expanded, and they are much more logically arranged. Help is usually behind the scene, but we appreciate the significant improvements in this area. All help files are now stored in a Help folder in the Windows folder.