Finding paradise in a miniature Win2K Pro desktop

As a techno-snob, I often bypass products or technologies that I believe will be quickly usurped by more robust and usable versions. But I wasn't always that way. Consider my experience with PDAs. When Palm devices first appeared on the scene, I quickly ran out and purchased a U.S. Robotics PalmPilot, complete with all the peripheral and accessory trappings. The new technology was irresistibly enticing and played to my visions of mobile-computing nirvana—a handheld device on which I could run all my crucial day-to-day applications.

Although the original PalmPilot was a nifty little device—and admittedly sparked an industry revolution—I quickly found that it was more of a toy than a computer, at least as far as my needs were concerned. At the time, the device offered a limited number of applications and its capability to synchronize with Windows NT and popular Windows applications was inadequate. (Third-party synchronization software was both mandatory and rife with bugs.) The device's limited capabilities simply weren't compelling enough to convince me to use it for my everyday tasks.

Then, in 1997, I picked up a Compaq Handheld PC (H/PC) at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference. This early Windows CE–based device sported a miniature keyboard and a black-and-white display. Although the H/PC offered more impressive compatibility and synchronization than the original PalmPilot did, it didn't provide usable equivalents of regular business-productivity applications—for example, remotecontrol and contact-management software.

As a consultant, I require continual access to my contact-management and customer-support database, as well as remote access and remote control software to support my clients. Although I could have bought special Windows CE–specific versions of applications such as Symantec's pcAnywhere and Interact Commerce's ACT!, these versions offered significantly reduced functionality when compared with their original Win32 versions. The H/PC's squat screen further limited the applications' usefulness.

Despite these shortcomings, the device's compatibility with Microsoft Outlook convinced me to start using the H/PC regularly—at least until one fateful day when I involuntarily tested whether the unit's display was shatterproof. (Note to self: Avoid placing PDA on top of magazine in one hand while feeding parking meter with other hand.)

Most people would have immediately replaced the broken H/PC with another, but I held off. Palm devices had gradually evolved from cool gizmo to force of nature in the PDA market, while Windows CE–based devices struggled to find acceptance (not to mention applications). However, I knew my ideal handheld device would be based on a Windows OS, so I decided to wait until Palm units evolved into more Windows-friendly devices or Windows CE matured into a more useful OS.

My wait stretched into years. Although the introduction of the Pocket PC resulted in a marked increase in the number of Windows CE devices and manufacturers, these devices—although improved—still weren't quite what I was looking for.

My idea of a usable PDA wasn't a glorified electronic planner with 2MB of RAM, no keyboard or hard disk, and expensive proprietary add-ons that provided "extra" functionality such as a modem or the ability to use CompactFlash (CF) add-on cards. I was looking for a device that was more "ultra-portable PC" than PDA—with decent I/O, RAM, and storage; a readable color display; a usable keyboard; and a full-strength OS (e.g., Windows 2000 Professional) that would let me run all my crucial applications. These requirements led me away from the current crop of PDAs and into the realm of subnotebooks.

My introduction to subnotebooks occurred at a Windows 2000 Magazine conference, at which a fellow contributing editor showed me his Sony VAIO C1 PictureBook. I was instantly fascinated with the system's impressive array of features, which included a variable-speed 600MHz Transmeta Crusoe CPU, a whopping 128MB of RAM, a 12GB hard disk, USB and FireWire ports, and a built-in miniature video camera. At 2.2 pounds, and with a 1" * 9.8" * 6" form factor, it certainly wasn't something you'd clip to your belt, but the unit struck a good balance between a PDA's convenience and a notebook's power. The built-in camera provided bonus features such as the capability to record conference presentations and participate in Internet videoconferencing. Best of all, the PictureBook supported Win2K—after some clever hacking.

Hoping that I'd finally found the object of my quest, I began researching the PictureBook and other subnotebook models. I eventually decided that the PictureBook's features best suited my needs. By the time I was ready to purchase one, Sony had released a newer unit—the C1VPK—that sported a faster 667MHz Crusoe CPU and a 15GB hard disk, and had Win2K preinstalled. After further research, I discovered that in Japan, Sony had released other PictureBook models—the C1VRX and C1VSX—with some important augmentations, such as a 30GB hard disk and a Bluetooth wireless adapter.

Techno-snob that I've become, I was determined to get one of the Japanese units. An Internet search yielded information about how to accomplish such a purchase. One route was through a company called Dynamism.com, a Japanese computer-equipment importer that converts the unit's OS to English and provides English documentation, a US war-ranty, and telephone support. Dynamism.com's price was $3000. Units from importer resellers that offered no conversion or support services were about $1000 less. I realized that I would be sinking more money into this device than I would into even a high-end PDA. However, if the unit could serve as both laptop and PDA, I considered the extra cost worthwhile.

I decided to attempt the Japanese-to-English conversion myself. I purchased the unit from a US-based importer and had it in my hands a few weeks later. The language conversion was fairly straightforward. With the help of users who posted invaluable information (e.g., English versions of the Sony Win2K drivers) on their Web and FTP servers, I spent the better part of a day configuring my PictureBook.

I eventually acquired all the drivers for full support for the built-in camera and Bluetooth wireless devices. The particularly useful Bluetooth support lets me use the PictureBook in conjunction with other Bluetooth-enabled devices so that I can, for example, use a Bluetooth cell phone (while it's clipped on my belt) to connect to the Internet or use Bluetooth-enabled headphones to listen to PC audio. In addition to IBM's ThinkPad-style mouse stick in the middle of the keyboard, the unit has a side thumbwheel that I can use to launch applications and configure system settings.

As I write these words on my new Win2K Pro PictureBook system, I'm happy to report that I've almost reached that elusive computing paradise. Because my PictureBook is a full-blown Win2K system, I can run almost any application. Better still, the PC Card slot lets me connect my 802.11b wireless adapter for LAN and Internet access when I'm at home or the office. I can also use the DVD drive to install applications or watch movies. (The PictureBook's display provides the perfect dimensions for watching widescreen films.) The unit's VGA output jack lets me use the system for conference presentations, as well as for managing my calendar, email, and contacts while I'm on the road. All I need is a good third generation (3G) or 2.5G wireless ISP that provides decent mobile Internet connectivity, and I'll have achieved mobile Win2K computing nirvana.