Wedged somewhere between palm-size personal digital assistants and full-size laptop computers is an odd little category of devices known as hand-held PCs.
They look like laptops with the usual clamshell design, but they're nowhere near as large--only about 25% bigger than a videotape cassette.
There aren't many of these devices on the market, but NEC Computers has just introduced the $899 MobilePro 790--a 1.8-pound wonder that runs Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. Its keyboard is large enough to touch-type, even for ham-handed writers like me.
External connections include a headphone jack, a serial port (for which a special cable is supplied) and a 56-kilobit-per-second dial-up modem. The device has slots for a CompactFlash card and a PC card when expansion is in order. There's a built-in speaker that can play sounds for various "system events" such as keyboard clicks, though these can be disabled.
The software package loaded on the device's 16 megabytes of flash ROM, or read-only memory, includes pocket-size versions of Microsoft's Outlook, Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, PowerPoint and Windows Media Player.
Having a version of PowerPoint on a portable device is a real plus. You can't edit a presentation, but you can edit speaker's notes and create a new title slide. Add a video cable for $39 and the MobilePro 790 can display slides on an external monitor or projector.
There's 32 MB of RAM for data storage, which should be enough for most mobile needs. Power is supplied by a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack. You also can use AA batteries with an optional adapter.
In operation, the MobilePro 790 is an interesting beast. The first thing any new user will want to do is set up a link between the MobilePro and a desktop computer running Microsoft Windows.
This is done with Microsoft's ActiveSync software, which links up with Microsoft Outlook on the desktop and creates a file folder into which desktop documents--Word or Excel files, for example--can be dropped to transfer into the MobilePro.
Though the usual PC function keys are missing from the MobilePro, a top row of buttons with icons offers one-touch access to a Web browser, calculator and other built-in programs. Access to each function is quick, and even opening several at once does not seem to tax the unit's memory or performance.
Some of the applications could be a bit beefier. For example, not having a word count feature in the word processor is a hassle, and not being able to edit PowerPoint slides seems ridiculous. But overall, the MobilePro could easily supplant an ultralight notebook computer for most road-warrior tasks.
Mark A. Kellner is editor at large for Government Computer News and hosts "Mark Kellner on Computers" at http://www.adrenalineradio.com from 5 to 6 p.m. Thursdays.