Philadelphia Area HP Handheld Club Meeting | Tuesday, January 20, 1998

Drexel University

Educalc is No More

After a two-week extension into January to get final equipment cleaned up, Educalc finally shut down in Laguna Niguel, California. Jim Carter runs another small business called Interfab in a rental unit in the same row as Educalc, and is currently hanging onto some renaming stock there. There is a chance that Sparcom/DaVinci's Megha Shayam will be taking over the Educalc name and selling HP equipment from his Corvallis site, but that still is not certain. If he does, Megha will be given first crack at the remaining Educalc stock. If Megha doesn't want it (since it allegedly is mostly old HP41/71/75/HP-IL stuff), the gear may be available for pennies on the dollar to whomever wants to pay to have it hauled away. Late in December, Wlodek Mier-Jedrzejowicz spearheaded a group attempting to "rescue" this equipment from the dumpster, but found out that it was premature to make the effort. If Megha passes on the stuff, we can be sure that significant efforts will be made to insure it doesn't simply get thrown away. Meanwhile, Richard Nelson is shopping himself around and has apparently put his condo up for sale in order to be able to meet his other expenses during his job search.

The 1998 Winter Consumer Electronics Show

The Winter CES in Las Vegas (held 1/8 through 1/12) was interesting as ever; as this show never manages to disappoint the attendees. A good crowd was on hand to see over fifteen hundred exhibits spread predominantly over two huge sites (the L.V. Convention Center and the two-level Sands Convention Center a mile down the road). Despite the fact that Hewlett-Packard chose to sit this one out, there were plenty of handheld-related products and introductions to keep one busy.

Microsoft Palm PCs

The primary news from the handheld front was the introduction of the new Windows CE version 2.0 handheld platform, originally codenamed "Gryphon" by Microsoft. This platform, which is very close in size to the PalmPilot, was formally released by seven manufacturers: Casio, Philips, Samsung, Everex, LG Electronics, Uniden and Palmax. There are a handful of differences between the models, but several features (besides WinCE) are common to all:

Beyond this are the items which the various manufacturers have used to differentiate themselves, such as AA cells in some (Samsung) versus AAA in others, larger speaker (Samsung) versus smaller speaker, vibrating alarms (Everex) in addition to audible ones, build-in software modem (Philips) and 16 shades of gray (Philips) versus four in others. These units do not have MS Pocket Excel, but seem to have just about everything else that their larger clamshell brethren have. Cost will range from $299. To $499. HP has not chosen to initially support this platform, but that doesn't mean that they won't do it in the future. To me, the fact that it is shirt-pocketable and vertical-format makes it very tempting. Check out the additional Palm PC materials in this handout for more information.

Other Handhelds

Both Casio and Sharp continue to supply models in their respective clamshell-configuration proprietary organizer lines, despite the fact that they both support Windows CE in either one (Sharp Mobilon clamshell) or both (Casio Cassiopeia) platforms. Time will tell as to whether this is continued. Also, TI showed a new line of vertical-format touch-screen organizers dubbed Avigo. These are not compatible with MS products, but they've chosen to go it alone and see what happens. Sharp has also got a similar product which continues to be sold.

On the calculator front, Texas Instruments' TI-92 Plus Module was not at the show, but literature describing it was there. This $80.-module will hold 2-meg of flash memory plus 128K of RAM. It plugs in place of the resident ROM and increased RAM space to 256K, with 188K available to the user. In addition, 384K of the flash memory is available to the user for archiving favorite programs and data. This memory may also be shuttled back and forth between the calculator and the PC via the GraphLink connectivity product. The remaining 1.7meg of flash is operating system, including various math enhancements (which were mentioned last month). This flash memory will be user-upgradeable, and TI intends from time to time to make ROM upgrades available as a free download from their Internet web site. Perhaps the HP folks in Melbourne, Australia should sit up and take note of this clever capability when they design their new calculator platforms. The Plus Module is expected to be available in the Summer.

Sharp also showed their new EL-9600 touchscreen graphing calculator, which takes the place of the EL-9300 as the top of the line. It appears to be good competition for the TI-86 and Casio's FX-series graphic machines. Along with the usual gamut of math and plotting functions, the user may now choose selections from menus by tapping on the LCD with a stylus. The unit also can be mated with a PC-link device and also a rather large overhead-display LCD module for classroom applications.

Video News

The big story on the video front is the imminent introduction of high-definition digital television to the U.S. market. On November 1st, stations in the top ten markets will begin rolling out HDTV terrestrial broadcasts which will be able to be received by the new receivers going on the market this fall. Our introductory station to HDTV will be channel 10 (NBC), according to recent reports. Prototypes of the new digital receivers were all over the show floor in three forms: direct-view CRT, direct-view flat plasma panels and LCD projection models. All have an aspect ratio of 16:9 (as opposed to the current NTSC 4:3) and will be capable of receiving broadcasts in all eighteen (yes, eighteen!) different digital TV formats which have been mandated by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). The top two formats are 1920 by 1080 interlaced (meaning every odd frame contains the odd-numbered lines and every even frame contains the even-numbered lines) and 1280 by 720 progressive (non-interlaced, with all data shown in all frames). The projection models will start around 5 to 6 thousand dollars, the CRT models will probably cost a bit less and the plasma flat panels will probably cost a bit more. Although the flat panels were allegedly demonstrating HDTV programs, none shown had the full HDTV resolution. The one with the best specs was Pioneer's 50-inch model which sported 1280 by 768 pixels. (The plasma panels seem far superior to LCDs in that they show full brightness from a much wider viewing angle - almost a full 180 degrees.) The projection models shown looked significantly better than their NTSC counterparts, but still exhibited the classic fuzziness which is apparent from close viewing. The full brightness of projection models also still requires viewing in a darkened room, which is not always possible. The only company showing direct-view HDTV CRT models was Sony, with their newly-introduced "FD (flat-display) Trinitron" models. These are plateglass flat (finally!) and exhibit zero image distortion out to the corners, like a flat panel, but are as physically deep as traditional CRT tubes. (On the other hand, the plasma panels were no thicker than four inches.) The videotape samples shown on the Sony monitors were mindboggling. Once you've seen these things, it's hard to look back.

As expected, DVD players were everywhere at the CES, with the format finally taking off for movie viewing. Fewer DVD-ROM drives were shown, but they're out there. A couple of companies showed DVD-R (write-once recordable) and DVD-RAM (read/write/eraseable) drives, which are several months off yet. Also, Pioneer showed off the first DVD-based car navigation system which incorporates GPS positioning, LCD map display and DVD map data reader. Sanyo even showed a 60-disk changer which could handle both CD and DVD disks. Also Panasonic introduced its LD-10 portable DVD player with 5.8-inch wide-screen color LCD and 2-hour battery.

The 18-inch direct-broadcast satellite receivers have become ubiquitous, and several accessories are gathering attention now. JVC sells a "D-VHS" VCR which records the digital bitstream from the small dish and crams 7 hours of digital-quality video and audio on a standard-sized VHS tape. (Of course, in order to avoid the usual contraversy, they have left off the digital outputs from this recorder, so users are prevented from making digital [i.e. perfect] copies of tapes off the air.) They also showed a combo DSS video receiver and D-VHS recorder in one box. Another company showed an active phased-array flat antenna for receiving satellite broadcasts. This was touted for use on vans or RVs, but could be used anywhere. This antenna is about the size of a cafeteria tray.

The recently-introduced digital video cassette format is still expanding into the consumer arena, with Sony, JVC, Panasonic, Sharp and now Canon showing models. Sony upgraded their palm-sized DCR-PC7 with the DCR-PC10 which increases the zoom capability and improves the on-board LCD viewer. Canon showed their new "Optura" camcorder which looks and feels like a 35mm SLR still camera and doubles as a digital still camera, recording both still and moving images onto the mini-DV tape. Sharp introduced a new digital unit in their line whose 4-inch side-mounted LCD includes a touchscreen for adjusting picture parameters. While these units are gaining in popularity slowly, the prices are falling even slower, with the list price on the cheapest models still being well over two thousand dollars. In addition, the only digital-tape VCR is from Sony and costs $4199. One wonders the fate of this format once the HDTV format becomes popular. (Nobody at the show seemed to address the issue of off-the-air taping or camcorder/VCR products for HDTV.)

Digital Still Cameras

The digital still cameras continue to gain popularity, with just about every electronics company joining the group. Picture resolutions are creeping upward and prices are falling toward respectability, but there still seem to be three main categories of these beasts: (1) Fixed-memory, non-expandable units; (2) expandable-memory units with solid-state memory cards; and (3) expandable-memory units with rotating memory. Those of the first category seem to be dying out (as they should!) due to their requiring one to download to a computer, printer or display on TV when memory is full. Cameras in the second (memory-card) category are increasing in popularity, with the various card formats being used. While SanDisk's Compact Flash (CF) seems to be the most popular card format, the Toshiba-invented Solid State Floppy Disk Card (SSFDC) and Intel's Miniature Card endure as well. In addition, Siemens' new Multi Media Card format was shown off as the new, smallest alternative to PCMCIA cards. This card is just about the same length and width as the old HP41 memory modules.

Meanwhile, the rotating-memory units in the U.S. are restricted to two: Hitachi's MPEG camera which stores onto a type-3 PC card hard drive and Sony's two Digital Mavica models which store images onto standard floppy disks. (When I saw the Sony unit, I had to have one, and received it on 9/15, just in time for the trip to London for the HPCC Handheld Conference.) Hitachi's unit costs $2500., and obviously won't reach the main stream. Sony's two models at $499. And $699., have become the best-selling digital still cameras in the U.S. and should spur other companies to release competing floppy-disk-based cameras some time soon. In Japan, Sharp has had a minidisc-based camera on the market for about a year and Sony recently announced one. An eight-dollar disk which may store hundreds or possibly thousands of images has obvious appeal. Stay tuned to see if these models make it here some time soon. It is my sincere hope that they do.

Audio Gear

The big news in the audio front is the recently-released recordable CD (CD-R) devices. Philips showed off its newly-announced $599. model (CDR-870BK) which sports coaxial digital, optical digital and analog inputs for creating CDs from other CDs, minidiscs, cassettes, LPs or any analog or digital external source. The Philips blank recordable CDs include a small royalty paid to the music industry. They said that coming this fall is planned a dual-deck CD playback/recorder model to ease in the copying process. In addition, the recent controversy over an audio-only DVD format may have been finally settled, with the committee formed to tackle this issue releasing their recommendations to the music industry. This includes super-high-fidelity music recorded with 96 kilohertz sampling rates and 24-bit word widths (compared to current CDs done at 44.1 KHz and 16 bit words). On the Minidisc (MD) front, Sony, Sharp and others have renewed their attempts to make the U.S. a viable market for its use. Sony showed a portable unit barely larger than the disk itself, with all the controls on the headphone cable. Others showed CD/MD dual decks for easy digital dubbing.

Computers, Digital Watches, Telephones

Taiwanese company Palmax (who introduced one of the seven Palm PCs) also showed a handheld computer which might just get Toshiba's attention if not many others' as well. This was a "clone" of the Toshiba Libretto, with Cyrix 120 MHz chip instead of the Intel Pentium. The physical size is the same, with similar LCD, keyboard and I/O devices, except the thumb-driven pointing device is replaced by a full LCD touchscreen. Also, the price at introduction (which is slated for Spring) will be $995., which is half Toshiba's current Libretto Model 70 price. Should this one take off at a thousand dollars, many others might just follow suit.

Casio continues to introduce digital watches with an assortment of features. This year, they showed off one with a 30-second digital audio recorder for reminders, plus another one which can receive information from a PC via infrared receiver. The still are pushing a line of devices with altimeter, barometer, thermometer and digital compass sensors as well. (So, when will we see GPS or cellular in a wrist instrument?)

In the telephone world, Motorola finally showed off prototypes of its phones to work on the Iridium satellite system, which is only a year or so away from its start. Already more than half of the 66 low-earth-orbiting satellites are in place for this network to be in place. They also displayed Iridium pagers as well. It will be interesting to see these devices compete with the Teledesic satellite system backed by Microsoft and others, soon to be providing satellite-based digital services such as Internet to wireless receivers all over the planet.

Vtech has finally rolled out the cordless telephone for which I have been waiting for several years now: The model VT2960ci is a 900 MHz 2-line cordless which not only has a caller ID/ call-waiting ID multi-line display in the handset, but contains a 2-line digital answering machine in the base. The price was estimated to be around $369. Upon its introduction in the Spring.

No Handheld Users' Gathering

There was no HP handheld users' gathering this year, as Educalc's demise has really taken a toll on the morale of the usual gang. Perhaps with an upcoming HP handheld conference in the Seattle area next August, we'll have more enthusiasm.

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