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Hands-on experience

Every so often, a new product comes along and turns an industry upside down. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held in Las Vegas earlier this month, a handful of new devices looked set to change the face of the portable computer market. The new computers are called Handheld PCs (HPCs),and are a new generation of computers designed to work with PCs running Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system.

The past few years have seen the rise of the palmtop or hand-held computer, a device which fits snugly in the hand and can easily be carried around in a bag or pocket.

Palmtops allow owners to use facilities such as a spreadsheet, word processor or address book, while away from their desktop computer. The British company Psion has had great success in the palmtop market, selling over half a million of its Psion 3 series machines. And Xemplar has sold around 20, 000 Pocket Books (made by Psion) to schools.

Almost anyone who owns a Psion will tell you that the machines are great to use, but with one caveat - transferring files or data to or from a desktop computer can be a clumsy business.

This is where the HPC comes into its own. The format has been specially designed to make it very easy to exchange files between a desktop PC and a palmtop, either by connecting the two machines with a cable or using an infra-red link.

All HPC computers use a cut-down version of Windows 95 called Windows CE (some say this stands for "Compact Edition", but Microsoft says the initials don't mean anything).

When you switch on an HPC, you see the familiar Windows 95 screen, although in grey and white rather than full colour. Windows CE also lacks many features found on desktop PCs, such as the ability to adjust the size of the windows. These changes mean that Windows CE requires little computer memory, so a Handheld PC can run for many hours on a pair of AA-sized alkaline batteries (most HPCs will work for around 20 to 70 hours before needing new batteries).

HPCs come with several built-in programs, including Pocket Microsoft Word (for word processing), Pocket Microsoft Excel (spreadsheet) and Pocket Internet Explorer (a web browser used for exploring the Internet).

Not surprisingly, these are simpler versions than those found on a desktop PC (Pocket Microsoft Word for example, lacks a ruler or footnote facility), but this is no problem, as most people tend to use only a fraction of the features offered by today's software. Many other CE programs are also being developed.

HPCs are designed to be operated by a keyboard with a pointing device (for the touch-screen), and not with a mouse or handwriting recognition software, such as Apple's Newton (although some third party companies are developing handwriting software for HPCs).

There were a number of HPCs on show at CES, including Philips's Velo 1, a sleek, black machine, which weighs less than 400 grams. The Velo 1 comes in two versions, offering 2 or 4 megabytes of memory (RAM), which is stored on a new format, called Miniature Card. Miniature Card has been developed by Intel, and uses postage-stamp-sized memory cards.

Velo 1 also has a built-in modem (which runs at 19,200 bits per second - it's not fast, but what you lose in speed, you gain in convenience and battery life), and it even has a facility to make voice recordings.

The keyboard is small, neat and tidy, and while you wouldn't want to type War and Peace on it, it's fine for general use. To transfer data between the Velo 1 and a PC, you slip the device into a small docking station, and away you go.

Other HPCs on show included Hewlett Packard's Palmtop PC, which has a wide, 80-column display, Casio's elegantly-named Cassiopeia, and LG Electronics's GP40M. The first HPCs should reach the UK around summer. The Handheld PC is a great concept and is the ideal machine for computing on the move.

If I worked for Psion, I'd be sleeping less soundly.

CES also gave many their first sight of DVD-Rom (Digital Video Disc), the high-capacity CD disc, which holds between seven and 30 times more data than CD-Rom. Sony was showing its new DVD-Rom drive, and plans to launch PCs with the new drives later this year.

There were also home telephones that make accessing the Internet as easy as making a phone call. The new phones have a built-in processor, modem, web browser, keyboard and large screen. The phone simply plugs into a telephone socket, and you press a button to connect to the net.

Akai, Sony and Philips were showing boxes that linked up to a TV and allowed viewers to surf the net on their set. Sharp, Philips and Mitsubishi even had TVs with built-in modems and Web browsers.

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