Handheld computers are one of the "happening" areas of IT. They have been waiting in the wings for a long time, having been around in various guises for more than 10 years, but it wasn't until Microsoft came on the scene last year that they started to take off. With the launch of Windows CE, essentially a cut-down version of the Windows 95 operating system licensed to third parties, Microsoft in effect kick-started what could be one of the key technologies of the decade.
Hewlett-Packard is at the vanguard of this development in the UK. Last summer it launched the first handheld computer in Britain to carry Windows CE version 1.0, and before Christmas was first with the upgraded and much- improved version 2.0.
Hot on the heels of these achievements, HP is about to cock a snook at those who merely follow with their 620LX, the first handheld computer in the UK to come with a colour screen. It can provide 256 colours on its tiny 15.5 x 6cm display with a brightness and clarity that seems almost unreal, and, as is the norm with handheld computers, it is touch sensitive.
It is not only on screen that the 620LX impresses. CE 2.0 uses a technique called dynamic paging to ensure that you only load the parts of an application that are needed, making operations seem fast and resource-efficient. Add to that the fact that the 620LX comes with 16Mb of RAM (more than many people have in their desktop PCs), and you begin to realise what a marvel this machine is.
The 620LX will cost around pounds 799, which is a lot of cash even for a committed early adopter. But you get a lot for your money. All CE 2.0 computers are supplied ready to use with cut-down versions of Microsoft's Word, Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint and Internet Explorer. Documents can be exchanged with a PC using infrared data transfer or the supplied software and cable connector.
Data can be shared between the diary and address books of PC and handheld. If you are using compatible software at both ends (the default is obviously Microsoft's own suite), you can set data-sharing to occur automatically as soon as the two machines are connected. Watching synchronisation in action is sheer bliss: it is fast and efficient and leaves you wondering why all such operations aren't as easy to achieve.
Anyone prepared to splash out a little more cash on the 620LX can expand its possibilities further. A VGA adaptor (around pounds 100) can be used to send Pocket PowerPoint presentations directly to a projector. A PC Card modem or GSM-ready mobile phone lets you surf the Web and send e-mails and faxes. The software for this is again supplied as standard.
The obvious area in which such a feature-rich machine might suffer is battery life. The 620LX is powered by a lithium ion cell that Hewlett- Packard claims can provide up to 11 hours of juice, though it admits that this may be halved if you use power-hungry equipment such as a modem regularly. This is a far cry from the 60 hours that users of Psion's Series 3c can obtain, but for some the trade-off will be worth it.
The 620LX should appear in the shops at the end of February. It will be followed by other handheld PCs sporting colour displays, notably from the likes of Sharp and Compaq, but Hewlett-Packard will have again been ahead of the field, and this just might be enough to ensure that it stays ahead in the marketplace.