Portable price breaks: You can take it with you

Remember when portable computers were only for slick-casual Silicon Valley types who couldn’t finish a Nicoise-salad-and-seltzer lunch without checking their eMail? No more. Technological advances and increased competition have combined to make these portables much more affordable.

Portable devices are now priced to make them real options for schools. The new “palmtop” computers fit into a briefcase, purse, or pocket, giving your professional staff powerful computing tools on the road. For students, the new “ruggedized” notebook computers that easily zip into a backpack might soon replace the old 2B pencil.

Prices on both are falling. Palmtop computers are getting more affordable because Microsoft has jumped into the game and upped pressure on 3Com to sell more of its popular “Palm” series machines. A handheld can be yours for under $1,000‹even under $500, if you’re not devoted to the Windows operating system (OS).

Palmtops are designed to give users an array of applications, mostly organizational tools, in one pocket-size, highly portable device. The tiny units have just enough “guts” to give you an address book, calculator, date book, to-do list, and memo pad in a machine about the size and weight of a deck of cards.

Microsoft enters Palm computing market

In March Microsoft unveiled a second version of its Windows CE operating system. This is the software that will operate the Palm PC computers that are almost ready for mass production and are targeted squarely at the popular 3Com PalmPilots. Days later, 3Com retaliated, trimming prices on its existing models and launching its newest version, the Palm III. 3Com also initiated and won legal action against Microsoft, charging that the name “Palm PC” infringes on its trademarked PalmPilot.

Why did Microsoft expend all that time and treasure? One reason might be to try to spike a potential rival of its Windows-brand operating systems. 3Com’s PalmPilot series does not run on Windows, although 3Com’s newest model is compatible with the Windows desktop and networking operating systems.

The sudden competition in the handheld market means new options for consumers, especially for teachers and administrators who must juggle loads of schedules, contacts, and assignments. Both the Palm III and the Palm PC use a pen-like stylus and handwriting recognition to dispense with the keyboard. Larger models, such as a new one just announced by Hitachi, keep the keyboard but still slip neatly into briefcase or purse.

Microsoft’s palmtop is likely to be popular with Windows users. The devices will run on a scaled-down version of Windows, called Windows CE 3.0. Standard Windows CE programs will include the Pocket Outlook program for managing contacts, calendars, tasks, and eMail; a voice recorder and note-taking application; and “mobile channels” so you can view web content offline.

Windows CE will also support “pocket” versions of Microsoft’s Excel, Word, and PowerPoint. The devices will be manufactured by Casio, Everex/FIC, Samsung, Palmax, LG Electronics, Uniden, and Philips Electronics.

Philips’ palmtop, the Nino 300, is expected to be released in mid-May, according to a company representative. For an estimated street price of $399.9, the Nino 300 includes a backlit monochrome screen, a 75 MHz processor, and a 19.2 Kbps modem in a 3.41-inch x 5.25-inch, 7.33-ounce shell. The 4 Mb unit will include the Nino dock, AC adapter, and a carrying case. For $499.99 you can get an 8 Mb unit with a rechargeable battery pack, Nino click-on modem, phone cable, dock, AC adapter, and a carrying case.

Palm III

3Com has recently made its 1000 and 5000 models more affordable. The Palm Personal sells for $199. For $299, you can get the Palm Professional. 3Com also introduced a new top-of-the-line series, the Palm III, that reportedly will be priced at $399 when it debuts at computer and home electronics stores in April.

One of the reasons palmtop computers are getting cheaper is due to some rethinking by manufacturers. Apple’s Newton, one of the first handheld computers, was notorious for its creative interpretations of your handwriting. Rather than pay for the sophisticated software to recognize your handwriting, industry reasoned, why not ask you to use handwriting the computer will recognize already? The Palm III runs on the idea that users can adapt their handwriting to use a simplified alphabet the computer already “knows.”

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development bought a dozen PalmPilots for its staff, said Melody Ridgeway, assistant executive director of information systems and services, and they “caught on like wildfire‹everyone wants one.”

In addition to improved handwriting recognition, the Palm III offers wireless capability for transfer of files and applications. It’s also compatible with Windows 95, Windows NT, and to a more limited extent, the Macintosh operating system. Company representatives say a software upgrade is expected this summer that will improve Palm III’s interoperability with Macs.

The biggest development is the machine’s networking capability. The new PalmPilot not only “hot synchs” (updates with your desktop computer), but it also can have data linked to files. During hot synching, the Palm III will check the files to see if they have been updated and, if so, update its own files.

The Palm III’s 2 Mb storage capacity doubles that of the previous PalmPilot Professional, with room for approximately 6,000 addresses, 3,000 appointments, 1,500 to-do items, 1,500 memos, and 200 eMail messages.

And, for slightly bigger palms . . .

You can get the Windows CE 3.0 operating system in the new Hitachi handheld models announced March 12.

The Hitachi models won’t fit in your palm‹unless you’ve got a really big palm. The HPW-20E8M is slightly bigger than a palmtop computer, weighing in at just one pound, with a 7.1″ diagonal monochrome screen and a 69-key keyboard.

The unit has an 80 MHz processor, 8 Mb of RAM, a 21.6 Kbps software modem, and a rechargeable battery. There’s also a built-in microphone, speaker, and a voice recorder. The model is priced at $599 and “will be available soon,” said company officials.

An even larger version, the HPW-200EC, will ship to computer stores in April. Hitachi is touting it as “the world’s first color unit with an oversized screen and near full-sized desktop keyboard.” This model weighs just under two pounds and comes with an 8.1-inch color screen and a nearly full-sized, 74-key keyboard. At $999 you’ll also get a 33.6 Kbps modem, 100 MHz of processing power, and 16 Mb of RAM (expandable to 48 Mb).

Another portable option for schools is Compaq’s PC Companion, a handheld model that weighs less than a pound and runs on the Windows CE platform. The PC Companion comes equipped with word processor, calculator, spreadsheet, internet browser, and email software.

Jake Schlumpf, Compaq’s director of education, likened the PC Companion to a shuttle craft that can dock with its mother ship‹the desktop PC‹either at home or at school. At $599 per unit, the PC Companion is an affordable communication and data mining tool that gives each student access to technology and the internet.

Notebooks & Laptops

Schlumpf said one important advantage of portable computers over desktops is they give students access to their work and information at any time and in any location. Also, Schlumpf said, students feel more of a sense of ownership when they use notebook computers‹so they tend to personalize the format of the machines. This pride of ownership often leads to more pride in their work.

The price drop for machines that run with larger screens‹notebook and laptop computers‹is mainly because liquid crystal display (LCD) screens are becoming less expensive to manufacture. LCD screens can account for one-third or more of a laptop’s total cost. Last month, Compaq Computer cut prices throughout its Armada notebook series. Price reductions included the Armada 7330T, a 150-MHz Pentium machine which dropped from $1,899 to $1,499, and the Armada 4131T, a 133-MHz unit which fell from $1,699 to just $999.

The technology of LCD screens has improved as well. The Compaq Armada models cited above all offer 12.1-inch active-matrix displays. Just last year, such screens were considered exotic and sold in the $3,000-$5,000 range, according to David Mently, vice president of display technology at Stanford Resources.

“Total solutions”

Compaq offers what it calls the “Notebook Network” solution, through which schools can choose from a variety of portable models. In addition to computers, the Notebook Network solution includes options like staff development training or backpacks for students to carry their computers. School districts can customize the program to fit their particular needs.

Compaq’s Presario 1220 ES, at $1,999, is a specially-designed 200-MHz model for schools. It comes equipped with CD-ROM, internal 56K modem, and a choice of LearningPaq educational software modules.

NetSchools Corp., a Calif.-based company, was founded last spring to provide mobile computing options to schools. The NetSchools solution includes one StudyPro portable computer for each student with infrared connection to the school’s network, laptops for each teacher, one printer per classroom, an internet server that allows schools to cache sites to protect students online, teacher training, and an academic information system (AIS) complete with integrated curriculum. (See Best Practices: Internet, page 26)

Toshiba and Microsoft have teamed up to offer a program called Notebooks for Schools. The program is in its second year in the U.S. and is expected to grow to about 500 schools and districts by the end of this year.

Schools who participate in the program receive Satellite Pro laptops bundled with Microsoft Office software, a carry bag, modem, ethernet card, and an orientation video for students. Caryl Collins, manager of Toshiba’s education programs, said that schools can choose from four different laptop options, which change each year to reflect current offerings.

Prices for the laptops range from $1,579 for a Satellite Pro 440 CDX with 133-MHz chip, 16 MB memory, and 33K modem to $2,149 for a Satellite Pro 315 CDS with 200-MHz chip, 32 MB memory, and 56K modem. Toshiba also offers schools the option of leasing the machines at $49 per month for each 440 CDX model and $65 per month for each 315 CDS.<

Custom-built machines

Todd Nelson, notebooks manager for Dell, described several features of Dell’s Latitude series, which come equipped with 12.1-inch active-matrix displays, 2.1-gigabyte hard drives, and start at $2299 for schools.

Gateway’s 2300 series notebooks start at $1899 for a 200-MHz machine with 16 MB of memory, a 12.1-inch dual-scan screen, and a 20X CD-ROM. You can choose from nearly 2,000 different configurations to put together the exact machines that fit your students’ needs. All of Gateway’s models come with anti-virus software pre-loaded.

Gateway offers several leasing plans, including buy-back and “refresh” options, as well as training options through the company’s country stores.

Meanwhile, Apple is continuing to sell its current inventory of eMates. By law, Apple is required to support the machines for seven years. Rugged and affordable, the eMate features a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing application, graphing calculator, calendar, address book, and internet enabler, and it can be networked to a PC. But is it worth investing in a soon-to-be-defunct technology?

Apple promises a new line of mobile computers for the education market by the end of next year. The new line will run on the proven Macintosh OS.

If you don’t want to wait until the new generation of mobile computers from Apple arrives next year, you can purchase from Apple’s remaining stock of eMates at $749 for a single unit, $549 per unit for packs of eight, and $449 per unit for packs of 100.

On the higher end of the market, Apple plans to introduce a notebook this spring powered by a high-performance 233-MHz G3 processor for $1,999. The new PowerBook G3/233 will come equipped with 12.1-inch dual-scan screen, 16 MB of memory, and a 20X CD-ROM and is expected to be available next month.

eSchool News Notebook Computer Roundup

eSchool News’ Handheld Computer Roundup:

3Com Palm III

Apple Computer

Compaq Computer

Dell Computer

Gateway 2000




Philips’ Nino 300


eSchool News Staff

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