Windows CE Computers

Windows CE 1 and 2 palmtops reviewed and dismissed.

Microsoft have been attempting to make a usable system for handheld computers for a long time. Early adopters of palmtop computers may recall many (fairly useful) pocket sized IBM PC equivalent machines with MS-DOS 5 and MS Works in ROM. I've listed some in my palmlist file. These missed a good bet by not having any facility to execute ROM in place, so most of their very limited RAM ended up used by MS-DOS rather than for data storage.

Microsoft announced Pen Windows in 1992, probably to shoot down another neat pen centric system later used in EO. Then Microsoft basically dropped it without support. Microsoft also did WinPad in mid 1992, and this Windows attempt sank without a trace. Pulsar was a second attempt, in March 1993, and seemed to be aimed at the consumer maket for wireless pagers. The WinPad and Pulsar people were combined into Pegasus in late 1994, and this became the basis for Windows CE, out in November 1996.

By late 1997, Microsoft seemed to be looking at three palmtop areas. The Gryphon project was pocket sized, hardwriting recognition devices, aimed at the 3Com Palm Pilot market. These started appearing in 1998. Mercury II is a more powerful HPC product, which I'd guess will become CE 3. There also seems to be a larger form factor project known as Jupiter. Windows CE 2.0 shipped in October or November 1997.

Eventually Microsoft seemed to pull most of the upgrades into the Pocket PC range, competing against Palm. They are the equivalent of Windows CE 3. Some very powerful hardware available in the palm form factor.

Windows CE Version 1

Please note this section describes the November 1996 version, which was generally seen as not ready for prime time, and was released late in any case (where have we heard that tune before from Microsoft?) Windows CE 2.0 came out November 1997, and fixes many problems. It is briefly described in a later section.

Microsoft provide a processor independent subset (about 500 out of about 2000) of the MS Windows application program interface (API), and a set of minimum specifications for a handheld computer. At least a half dozen manufacturers demonstrated prototypes at Comdex, November 1996. Casio had their Cassiopeia model on sale at that date.

More about the software and peripherals available and the software development kit (SDK) could formerly be found at CE Resource Guide. The operating system is said to be 32 bit multitasking and multithreaded. Neither the CPU nor the OS is MS-DOS or Windows compatible.

The HPC is a clamshell design, palmtop sized, with (mostly) a 480 x 240 LCD 4 grayscale display with switchable backlight. They have a touch sensitive display, with stylus, and you select icons (very similar in appearance to Windows 95) to run applications. They run a claimed 20 hours off two AA batteries. They have a CR-2032 lithium backup battery.

Most have a Type II PCMCIA card slot for modems and ATA flash, an IrDA port, speaker, and provision for changing the main rom. Most have 4 MB of rom (upgradable), and either 2 MB or 4 MB ram. All have a 115k serial port, complete with cable, and communications support for TCP/IP and PPP. They have software to synchronise applications with the equivalent Microsoft application on a desktop PC. Naturally all have "instant on" operation, as do pretty much all handheld computers.

Most use a Hitachi SH-3 risc CPU, although some use a MIPS risc CPU. The CPUs normally run on 3 to 3.6 volts. Information on the Hitachi SH-3 series was available from

All come with Microsoft's Pocket Word, and Pocket Excel. These are very cut down applications (as you will see if you need tables, equations, spelling checking, printing, or fancy spreadsheets). Their personal information manager (PIM) is often called Pocket Schedule+, it has a contacts list, calendar and tasks list, plus there is a calculator and a world clock. They usually have a copy of Pocket Internet Explorer on disk. Most manufacturers provide additional programs on disk.

All models are expected to provide Internet, email and fax access (using an optional PCMCIA modem, and external program).

Handwriting recognition is not provided, however some third party HWR products have already appeared. For example, SmARTwriter's arttouch.dll will replace the Microsoft touch.dll driver, and let you toggle between mouse mode and writing, including Graffiti character recognition.

Is Windows CE really Windows? Not even close. It has about 500 Win32 APIs, out of maybe 2000. There is no serial port mouse support, so navigation is by pen or keyboard. There is no way to resize or move windows - they are either minimised or maximized. There are no overlapping or cascaded windows (except for some help screens). While you can have multiple applications open, you can only show one document at once (the display size would probably prevent this anyway). The Pocket Word and Pocket Excel are not compatible with the desktop equivalents. All file conversion is done by utilities when you transfer files to the desktop machine (you can prove this by saving a file to PC-Card, putting it in a PC-Card equiped desktop or notebook PC, and trying to read the Pocket Word or Pocket Excel files using Word or Excel).

Windows CE takes all available memory as a single storage device, however you can set unused memory aside for system use. For reasons unclear to me, program objects in storage memory must be moved (automatically) into system memory before being executed, so it appears that execute in place is not supported. However programs in ROM will execute in place (with only parts that change moved into system space). Seems strange to lack support for this. Storage memory is compressed transparently. The system looks at both rom and ram directories for certain dll and exe files, with ram files taking precedence. This means you can update applications, but you do need to take care with names given your applications.

Microsoft decreed that applications running on Palm-size PCs and Pocket PCs (new name for Palm-size PCs) cannot reveal the file system to users. That means users are only allowed to see files in "My Documents". Although applications can find files anywhere, and can reveal the file system, Microsoft enforces their policy in two ways:

If you create a My Documents folder on the storage card, apps are allowed to show you that folder and only one level down.

There is supposed to be a lot of database support in Windows CE, however it has been shipped without any sort of heavy duty data base facility.

Pocket Word allows control of typesize and typeface, with bold, italic and underline fonts. It provides left, right and centre justification. It has bullets, and online help. It has cutting and pasting, and find and replace. You can have an outline and a normal view. No ruler, no setting of tabs, no spelling checker. The file format is not compatible with MS Word; conversions are done while files are transferred to your desktop system. Headers, footers, footnotes, stylesheets, borders and shading are not supported. Tables display as tab delimited, and may break. Equations are not supported. There is no printer support, and the HPC can not print.

Pocket Excel isn't bad. Takes fair sized spreadsheets, however many Excel shortcuts are missing, and macros are not available. You can't split the window to see headings and a non-contiguous area of the spreadsheet. No database or charting. I don't think a power user would like it, but it seemed fine to me.

The web browser is an add-on program of about 150k. Seemed fine, given that graphics can never work real well on a 4 level grey display. Note that there are many reports of problems using PCMCIA modems with battery power alone.

There is no command line available, and no language included in the HPC. Software development is done using C++ on a Windows PC (check the Microsoft site for details). A prototype SDK can be downloaded, however it will only target the desktop Intel system, and does not cross compile for the HPC. The HPC is not MS-Dos or Windows compatible, and can not use COM, MAPI, OLE or ActiveX. There is considerable (but not complete) data compatibility with some standard Microsoft applications, and automatic data synchronisation via the serial ports using the included Windows PC software.

As a later addition, Windows CE 2 is much improved, with many of the sillier things fixed. I'm not willing to buy one of the machines (because they still don't do what I want, namely run totally independent of a desktop PC for months at a time) so I can't contribute a detailed review.

New hardware with Palm Pilot and similar form factors and no keyboard is now available. I'd suggest a Franklin Roladex Rex would be a cheaper alternative if you are willing to be tied to a Windows PC each day.

Casio Cassiopeia

6.8 by 3.6 x 1 inch (175mm x 92mm x 26.5mm volume 425 cc), weight 13.4 ounces (380 grams including batteries). Several glossy Casio pamphlets state incorrectly that the machine is 3/4 inch thick. The display is a 4 5/8 x 2 3/8 (117mm x 60mm) FTSN. This provides pixels about 0.25mm each. Keyboard has 61 keys. Two models, A-10 with 2 MB ram, A-11 with 4 MB ram. CPU clock for the Hitachi SH-3 CPU is claimed (by NEC) to be 40 MHz internal (10 MHz external).

Comes with a CD-Rom of additional programs. There is a connector for a Casio QV digital camera. Optional well thought out docking station, utility set and rechargeable batteries will be available. There is an optional AC adaptor. One nice touch (for right handed users) is a thumb hold to the left of the display. The serial port is a non-standard 16 pin combined serial and power connector. There is a blinking LED to indicate an alarm or incoming email waiting.

US price for the 2 MB model was $499, falling to $99 as overstocks were sold off. Casio claim upgrades to the Windows CE rom will be available.

The display was terrible. Very hard to read once away from office lighting, despite adjusting the contrast wheel. The backlight was terrible, and goes off after about 15 seconds. I'm not sure you can alter the timing. Give it a miss and wait for a better display. There was a web site at

Casio eventually gave up on keyboard WinCE systems.

Compaq PC Companion

Rebadged Casio Cassiopeia. Compaq offer a $99 2 MB memory upgrade, a $299 10 MB flash card, an optional AC adaptor, a $95 rechargeable battery and adaptor pack, and a $6 set of 3 spare stylus (looks like someone has figured out what will happen). The display looked a little better on the version I saw. Formerly at No longer made. Compaq were selling several much nicer models at the end of 2000, although I doubt any are made by them. I think HTC in Taiwan make their iPAQ, and also the Toshiba PDA.

Compaq eventually gave up on keyboard WinCE systems.

Hewlett Packard HPC HP300LX and HP320LX

Started shipping mid 1997. The model displayed at Comdex had a really nice 640 x 240 display with a great backlight. Provides two Type II PCMCIA card slots. Uses the Hitachi SH-3 CPU. Additional application for translating HP200LX data. Has a built in slot of Compact Flash storage cards. once had a great site on the merits of HP handheld computers. HP were still making several models at the end of 2000, but were down to a single model in 2001.

Hitachi HPC

6.6 by 3.8 x 1 inch (168mm x 98mm x 25.8mm volume 424 cc), weight 12.3 ounces (350 grams including batteries). Keyboard has 63 keys. Includes two AA rechargeable NiMH batteries and a 5 volt DC universal input adaptor. Demonstrated at Comdex, to be realeased early 1997. Uses the Hitachi SH-3 CPU (naturally). Check out The Hitachi HPC is a rebadged LG.

LG Electronics HPC GP40M

Formerly Lucky Goldstar, this is the only Korean Windows CE maker. Dimensions are 6.45 x 1 x 3.76 inches, weight 0.71 pounds without battery. They use the Hitachi SH-3 CPU. They mention 2 MB and 4 MB ram models, but also say expansion to 16 MB is possible. Their digitiser is a 10 bit ADC. CPU clock claimed (by NEC) to be 60 MHz internal (16 MHz external). It feels a little quicker than most of the SH-3 CPU powered HPC models.

Display dot pitch is 0.26mm, dot size is 0.23mm. The extra half inch provides a 20% larger display, with larger pixels than most makes. They mention using 32 KB of SRAM for the display. Contrast ratio is said to be 5.9:1 and transparancy 80%. No mention of a backlight.

A 14.4k modem is available, and this avoids occupying the PCCard slot.

As usual, there is a dedicated upgrade port for the Windows CE in rom. Two rechargeable NiMH AA batteries can be used. Their IrDA module is capable of 1200 bps to 115.2 Kbps. They have an optional fax modem module which does not appear to require the PCMCIA space. Keyboard is 63 key carbon coating rubber style. They don't announce it, however they had a web site at LG no longer make the machines.

NEC Mobile Pro HPC

Size is 6.89 x 3.74 x 1.03 inches, weight 0.8 pound. Two models, with 2 MB ram and a serial cable or 4 MB ram with AC adaptor and a serial cradle. The upgradable rom on this model is 8 MB, possibly due to the larger code size of the MIPS based NEC V4101 CPU. Can use rechargeable AA batteries or alkaline, like all the others. Packard Bell NEC mention a one year warranty. The NiMH rechargeable adaptor may be different to the AC adaptor. They claim a 30 hour battery life.

The five stage pipelined V4101 CPU uses MIPS-III instruction set with multiply and add instructions added (but no FPU, LL or SC instructions). On board 2 KB direct mapped instruction cache and 1 KB data cache, plus 32 byte translation lookaside buffer (TLB), with 1 KB to 256 KB page sizes for memory management. There is a single cycle multiply accumulate instruction for DSP use. The processor includes support for 5 channel DMA, used for serial, touch panel, keyboard and audio. The CPU clock is generated by phase locked loop with a frequency multiplcation of up to 2024, from a standard 32 kHz watch crystal. NEC claim 40 Dhrystone MIPS performance (note the 160 MHz StrongArm CPU in the new Apple Message Pad 2000 is probably four times as quick). CPU clock said to be 40 MHz internal (20 MHz external).

Serial support including DCD and IrDA interface to 115 kbps. While the chip is capable of running a software modem, this was not included. Real time clock with watchdog timer. Keyboard and touch panel interface, lcd interface with direct connections to the row and column drivers.

Power management includes standby, suspend and hibernate. The CPU can support 8 MB of DRAM and 16 MB of rom. CPU power consumption is said to be 200 mW typical, 30 mW in standby, 10mW on suspend, and 240uW on hibernate.

Suggested retail prices $499 and $649. Does not appear to have a backlight. Seemed slightly faster than the Casio, however given the power of the 64 bit CPU, display performance was very disappointing in the prototype I saw.

By 2001 only HP and NEC still made keyboard WinCE models.

Philips Velo 1 HPC

A distinctly upmarket HPC which includes a software only built in 19.2 Kbps modem, fax sending capability, and an RJ-11 jack. There is also a voice memo feature, using compression to store about a second per kilobyte, until you run out of memory. Instead of PCMCIA cards, the Velo incorporates two Miniature Card slots, a more recent (and much smaller) version of PC Card technology. There is an optional module to connect standard PCMCIA cards to the Minitaure Card slots.

The Velo includes a backlight for the display. It uses "TwoChipPIC" is a 40 MHz MIPS 3910 CPU core in a Philips PR35100, providing 1 KB data cache and 4 KB instruction cache, TLB, timers and real time clock, PCMCIA interface, memory interface, LCD interface, infrared, UARTs, serial interface, SPI bus. The other chip is a UCB1100 DAC and ADC support chip, which includes a 14 bit telecom and 12 bit audio CODEC, 4 wire resitive touchscreen interface, 10 programable digital IOs, 3 channel analog multiplexer. The chips run off 3.3 volts.

Available in 1997, at US$599 for the 2 MB version, $699 with an extra 2 MB, and with a rechargeable NiMH battery at US$739. Battery life is nowhere near what they initially claimed. Expect 15 hours on NiCd, 21 on Alkaline, and a maximum of 33 hours on Li-ion. Miniature Card 2 MB and 4 MB flash and DRAM cards will be available. It is expected to include Pocket Quicken.

The Velo is the best performing of the CE models, scrolling twice as fast as the next fastest (the LG). Note however that Philips withdrew from the market and no longer make CE palmtops.

Check for details of the chips.

Windows CE Version 2

Came out in November 1997, about a year after the deeply flawed original version. It also allows hardware designers more freedom in their form factor, screen resolution, and input devices, as well as supporting colour displays. Partly as a result, hardware makers who had avoided the first version (like Sharp) produced machines.

There are a couple of color models, from HP and Sharp, using rechargeable batteries, but check how much the battery life is reduced. I'd guess 4 to 10 hours. NEC and others are waiting for better color screen technology. A Powerpoint compatible presentation applicationhas been added, with some models having a VGA output, and others using a PCMCIA card graphics adaptor. Pocket Word finally has a spelling checker. The Pocket Outlook can now capture handwriting. CE2 finally has cascading menus, unlike the idiot full screen junk from CE1. ROM has increased to a minimum of 8 MByte, and recommended RAM is 8 Mbyte (although it is claimed to work in 2 Mbyte). CPU speeds are up, with the Philips PIC up from 38 MHz to 75 MHz.

File synchronising software is supplied, but only for Windows 95, and specifically Microsoft Office products. There are no plans for Macintosh, DOS or Unix versions.

Texas Instruments Avigo

Palm imitation using CE. The Intellisync and cradle are not as foolproof as the Palm Pilot, and the screen less clear but the backlight is better. Has IrDA but no applications use it.

Cassiopeia A-11A Super

Upgraded to Windows CE 2, and 6 MB ram, but it still has the same lousy keyboard and dull screen, and it still doesn't have a DC power connection. A$600 from Mobex, Australia (early 1998)

Ericsson MC-12

Rebadged HP 320LX, with added GSM modem and software. Still uses CE1. A$900 in early 1998. Check the MC-16 instead. Ericsson have dropped it in favour of the MC218, a rebadged Psion 5mx.

Hewlett Packard 360LX

A better (white) screen than the 320LX, now with 8 MB ram, but rom and ram come on the slot in memory card (so you get to throw that away if you upgrade). Has Type II PCCard, and a Compact Flash slot. A$1260 in early 1998.

Hewlett Packard 620LX

75 MHz Hitachi CPU, 16v MB ram, 10 MB ROM, and a colour display. But it is a big, expensive unit, and it runs through power so hard that it is supplied with a 12 V custom lithium ion battery. You have to carry your power supply with you everywhere to recharge it, since it only runs about 4 hours. It is fast compared to most of the 75 MHz Hitachi based models. Include voice recording facilities. A$1900 in early 1998. My advice is buy a Hitachi Libretto instead.

LG Phenom H-120

Nice looking case, although a little large. Has VGA out from its serial port (but needs a special cable). Backlighting is a little weak but screen is otherwise fine. 8 MB of ram standard, but the 75 MHz Hitachi CPU seems a little slower than the HP. A$1400 in early 1998. Formerly

Sharp Mobilon HC-4100

Sharp have been making handheld machines for ages, so they tend to do a good job. This uses the MIPS chipset, has 8 MB ram. Has a power socket, and PCCard. Has a good keyboard (always something Sharp had right). Has voice recording. About A$1000 in early 1998. Try searching

Pocket PC

Microsoft rebadged their Windows CE version 3 product as Pocket PC in mid 2000. A number of new Palm form factor hand held machines appeared around that time from Casio (E-115), Compaq (iPAQ 3650) and Hewlett Packard (Jornada 545). These have considerably upgraded hardware, such as 131 MHz NEC VR4121 CPU from Casio, 133 MHz Hitachi SH3 from HP, and a 206 MHz Strong ARM 1110 from Compaq. All have Li-ion rechargeable batteries, and excellent 240 x 320 colour displays.

The larger mini-notebook form factor continues to survive as second generation products (use CE2.11 and 2.12 Pro), but are getting almost no attention in the popular computer press. HP720, Sharp, Vadem, Hitachi, Compaq and NEC in 2000. NEC make a clamshell and a subnotebook, Hitachi makes subnotebook and pen tablet, while Sharp and Vadem (which went bankrupt) have hybrids. NEC MobilePro 780 and 880 are said to be best sellers, but to companies doing enterprise products, not to the general public. Many have 133 MHz MIPs and SH4 CPUs, USB, 64k colour displays, VGA video out in all except HP.

Market Decisions

It seems that Microsoft carefully control the availability of their Windows CE operating system, and restrict entry into the field. I suspect that there is some arrangement with Compaq such that Compaq have a free go at the market for a period. Most of the Taiwanese makers (Asus, Compal, Mitac) can't get CE application licences, although Compal are able to sell into vertical niches. HTC have the licence (they build the Compaq iPAQ and Toshiba PDA). Check article starting MS scratches at

In late 2002 Microsoft was giving Embedded Visual Studio away free and selling WinCE itself so cheaply that the "Mobile Computing" division was operating at a loss of $33M on revenues of $16M.

On Nov. 12, 2002, IDC released their worldwide handheld quarterly summary for 2002 Q3. The results are NOT for a whole year, but put things into perspective.

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