When the Palm Pilot arrived on the market two years ago, it became a smash hit.
Here was a little, handheld computer that tracked your appointments and contacts and kept everything in sync with your PC. Its secret was that it didn't try to do too much, but it did what it did very well.
Now Microsoft and a half-dozen hardware manufacturers have teamed up to produce a new generation of handheld gadgets to compete with the Pilot. They look a lot like the Pilot and work basically the same way, but they use a new "lite" version of Microsoft's operating system called Windows CE (or WinCE, as it's known to those who have struggled with it).
The question is whether these new machines can compete with the champ in terms of speed and usefulness, or whether Microsoft and the hardware makers have loaded them with so many features that they wear a hole in your pocket and patience.
I tried out the Philips Nino, and after giving it a workout, my reactions were decidedly mixed. While it was certainly competent at keeping track of the things I do and the people I do business with, synchronizing its data with my PC produced enough problems -- including a few honest-to-goodness system crashes -- to convince me that I'm looking at a work in progress.
Physically, the Nino is attractive and easy to hold, with a brushed steel case that has buttons on either side to control its operations. At 3.4 inches wide by 5 inches long by half of an inch deep, it fits easily in a jacket pocket or purse and weighs 8 ounces.
The Nino comes in two flavors, depending on built-in memory. The Model 301 (which lists for $399) comes with 4 megabytes of RAM, and the Model 312 ($459) comes with 8 megs. A third model with a built-in modem will be available soon -- about the same time that a snap-on modem for the existing models is released. You can add RAM by buying standard compact flash memory cards that fit into a compartment on the top of the unit.
All the Ninos run on a 75MHz, MIPS-based Philips 32-bit processor, which is a lot heftier than the Palm Pilot's chip -- but most of that horsepower is used up just getting Windows CE to run. The Nino will keep you waiting for a second or two while it switches from one application to another, but it's not enough delay to be annoying.
The unit comes with a docking cradle and cable that connect the Nino to your PC's serial port. Unlike the Pilot, the Nino can't be used with a Macintosh. It's designed strictly for communications with a Windows-based computer. The Nino is powered by two rechargeable AA batteries that are good for about 8 hours of use -- or you can use standard alkaline batteries in a pinch.
Like all handhelds, the Nino has a liquid crystal display screen and a plastic, pencil-like stylus that slips into a slot on the back of the case. You use the stylus to select items from on-screen menus or enter data. Four buttons on the right side provide instant access to the programs you'll use most -- the contact manager, appointment calendar, e-mail and voice recorder (something the Pilot doesn't have).
If you're familiar with Windows 95, you won't have much trouble getting the Nino going. There's a Start button in the lower left-hand corner of the screen that can be used to launch any program. But once I was working, I found the Windows CE interface too cluttered for my taste, with too many buttons and icons to keep track of. Sorry, Mr. Gates, the Pilot is still easier to use.
The Nino does offer an edge when it comes to entering information. Like the Pilot, you can tap on a "keyboard" that appears on your screen (a royal pain), or spend 45 minutes learning to write using Jot, a slightly modified English alphabet that is fine for entering contact information, appointments or short notes. It's comparable to the Pilot's Graffiti text entry system but a bit more tolerant.
If you don't like those choices, try Nino's "T9" system, which groups the letters of the alphabet in clusters of three -- like the letters on a telephone keypad. This simplifies your choices, and the system is pretty good at figuring out what you're trying to type. Finally, you can try smARTwriter, a handwriting recognition system that you can train to recognize standard printed characters -- sort of. I settled on Jot, which was fast and accurate enough to be useful.
Nino's major applications are based on Microsoft's Pocket Outlook, which combines a calendar, address book, to-do list, e-mail program and note taker. They're reasonably straightforward, particularly if you're using Outlook on your PC, as I do.
The neat thing about handheld computers is their ability to synchronize information with your desktop machine. When they link up, they compare notes, transferring appointments you've entered on your PC to the handheld and vice versa. If there are conflicts, you get a warning message and chance to resolve it.
The Palm Pilot (and the newer Palm III) come with a personal information manager that will run on your PC and duplicate the handheld computer's functions, feature for feature. It also will sync up with other PIMs such as Act or Sidekick.
Nino doesn't come with a personal information manager for your PC. Out of the box, it will exchange information only with Outlook or Microsoft Schedule(plus). If you're not using a PIM on your PC, you'll have to buy one, and if it's not a Microsoft product you'll need a third-party program for the Nino to synchronize the two.
Without going into gory detail, synchronizing data with my PC was a pain. It often required two or three tries and occasionally crashed my system. The Pilot is definitely a better choice here.
So what's the verdict? While the Nino technically offers more bang for the buck than the Palm handhelds, it's still a bit buggy and more complicated to use. But if the additional features of Windows CE appeal to you, it's certainly worth a look.