Compaq's iPAQ PocketPC: The Multi-Purpose Multimedia Handheld

by Dale Dougherty

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As a Palm III user, the first thing I noticed about Compaq's iPAQ was the brightness of the color screen. I found it alluring and wanted to keep looking at it. I wanted to hold iPAQ and see how it felt in my hand. Just like that, I had a new interest in handhelds.

When the batteries died on my Palm III a month ago, I realized that I wasn't using it as much as I had been. My primary reason for using a Palm was to maintain a copy of my contact and calendar information; I used it as a PIM (personal information manager). I bought a modem for the Palm but I never found it useful for e-mail and Web browsing, largely because of the legibility of the screen. At the same time, my laptop was getting smaller and easier to carry around, so I found that I relied on it less as a PIM. Thus, I began allowing the Palm III to sit unused in my briefcase.

The Compaq iPAQ

The Compaq iPAQ.

I saw the iPAQ at BestBuy. I was looking to see if there were any new MP3 players on the market. (The original Diamond Rio I bought had died and I never replaced it.) The iPAQ was lightweight and slim and the chrome exterior was cool, almost slippery, in my hand. To begin using the iPAQ, I popped the stylus from its hole in the top by pressing a button. This relatively minor feature -- securing the stylus -- immediately appealed to me. I kept losing the pen on my Palm III. In a few seconds, I was able to launch the Windows Media Player and play a sample MP3 file. After a few minutes with the iPAQ, I was ready to buy it, purely on impulse, but they were out of stock at BestBuy. (I wondered if that was a good sign indicating unusual demand for the device or just unresponsiveness on the part of the store or the manufacturer.) Subsequently, I heard that the iPAQ was hard to find and that it was selling on eBay for twice the price.

So I was forced into doing a little online research. Having noticed the name "Pocket PC" on the chrome faceplate of the iPAQ, I typed in and found a Microsoft site with a list of resources. As Rob Baldwin at points out in A Review of the Pocket PC operating system, the Pocket PC is the name used for the operating system, which is also known as Windows CE 3.0, and a class of hardware devices that includes not only the Compaq iPAQ but Casio's Cassiopeia E-115 and Hewlett-Packard's Jornada. (Note: The marketing folks at Compaq have decided to use the iPAQ name for a desktop series of computers as well as this handheld, so it's a little confusing. Technically, I have the iPAQ H3600.)

Here is a summary of the specs for the iPAQ unit:

  • 32 MB of memory
  • 12-bit TFT 240 x 320 display that will adjust to different light conditions via an ambient light sensor
  • 206 MHz Intel StrongARM processor (the fastest of the current crop of Pocket PCs)
  • USB port that is used to connect via a cradle to a desktop PC
  • Infrared port that also can be used to connect to a desktop PC
  • A speaker on the front that lives underneath a five-way navigator button
  • Rechargeable lithium polymer battery that is supposed to offer twelve hours, but half that is probably more reasonable.
  • 5.1" H x 3.3" W. Weighs 6 oz.

I ordered mine online for $499 from It arrived the next day, and soon I had a new device to show to the other Palm users around the office. I found myself going through the following set of features when demonstrating the new device:

  • The Windows Media Player, which plays MP3 files. There's a small speaker on the front of the device in addition to an earphone jack.
  • A picture viewer that displays JPEG images, such as photographs.
  • Pocket Streets, a map viewer; I downloaded a map of San Francisco, and I can select any area and progressively zoom in to find a particular street address.
  • Pocket versions of Word, Excel, and Outlook that make it easier to move existing documents from your PC to the iPAQ.
  • A voice recorder that allows me to record notes with a push of a button.
  • Internet Explorer, which, like the Palm, works with AvantGo to provide the usual collection of headline news services. Unlike the Palm, however, Web pages are crisper and include color.
  • File Explorer, which provides a consistent Windows interface for locating files on the device, an interface which is also present from the PC when connected to the iPAQ -- the contents of the Pocket PC device are browsable using Windows Explorer when the device is connected, and I can drag and drop files from one to the other.
  • Microsoft Reader, a software "book reader" specifically designed to improve the quality of reading book-length information online.
  • Games, such as Solitaire, that interested my kids.

In short, the iPAQ is not just a PIM. It does everything that the Palm set out not to do, plus most of what it already does so well. Even so, with so much going on, the iPAQ retains its simplicity. Some of that can be attributed to how well the iPAQ integrates with the PC. There seems to be a close partnership between the PocketPC and the PC so that the handheld doesn't have to do so much work itself.

Why is it that the Compaq iPAQ can succeed today, unlike Apple's Newton, which many thought failed because it tried to do most of what a PC could do? The insight behind the Palm was to do a lot less: just focus on being a PIM. However, much has happened since the Newton and even the Palm were first introduced. While the PC has remained the same, we have seen a proliferation of small devices, including PDAs, but also cell phones, pagers, digital cameras, MP3 players, digital voice recorders, Gameboys, and specialty reading devices such as the Rocketbook. There seems to be an opportunity -- a new niche -- to begin combining some of these functions in a single device.

That is what makes the Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC a multi-purpose, multimedia device, taking it to a level of functionality above the Palm. This is not to say that the Palm is no longer viable. Undoubtedly, if you only wanted to manage your contacts, the Palm is a cheaper solution. The Palm's batteries last longer, and it is smaller. Similarly, if you want an MP3 player, there are better, cheaper options. But if managing your contacts and having a portable MP3 player are things that you want a handheld device to do, then the iPAQ makes a lot of sense, especially if you only have so many hands.

In the rest of this article, I'll take a deeper look into many of the features of the iPAQ and the PocketPC, pointing out differences between this device and the Palm.

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