Wireless wave hits PC Expo

Wireless communication is getting simpler, cheaper and better. It’s being built into more and more devices. And at least in some places, wireless is becoming available enough that it’s likely to change the way we work and play.

That was the message from a special press-only event held late last month in conjunction with PC Expo in New York that showcased new digital and mobile products and technologies.

One important signal of the coming dominance of wireless technology was given by the major PC vendors that were present. Compaq Computer Corp., NEC Corp., Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Fujitsu Ltd. and IBM Corp. were all showing new versions of their laptops equipped with wireless networking, mainly 802.11b wireless Ethernet, also known as WiFi.

WinBook Computer Corp., a Hillard, Ohio-based subsidiary of Micro Electronics Inc., was showing its new X1, a 5-lb., ultra-thin notebook equipped with a 1GHz processor, a combination DVD/CD-RW drive, a 13.3-inch display and wireless networking.

If you believe the hype coming out of Microsoft Corp., the Next Big Thing will be the tablet PC for wireless Internet access. A year and a half ago, I reviewed the intriguing but overweight Qbe tablet computer from Aqcess Technologies Inc. in Irvine, Calif. It was interesting but not really usable. The subsequent and smaller Vivo is more practical, but still not good or light enough to make me a believer.

Fujitsu PC Corp. has been quietly making this sort of computer for several years, and frankly, it has a better handle on it than anyone else. The company’s newest model, the PenCentra 200, is an interesting 2-lb. device running Windows CE H/PC 2000. (A Microsoft spokesman said that Windows CE development efforts are now going almost entirely into the Pocket PC platform, while the company is basically in maintenance mode for the “handheld PC.”) The PenCentra has an 8-inch, 640- by 480-pixel screen. No price was given.

The best of the Fujitsu tablets is the Stylistic 3500. With its 10.4-inch, 1024-by-768 screen, 500-MHz low-voltage Intel Celeron CPU, 256MB of RAM, 15GB hard drive and several options (including a wall-mounted cradle), this is the most workable tablet PC I’ve seen.

Significantly, the display model was running a demo of a medical data-entry application, which even had a block designed to capture the signature of a doctor or nurse. The signature would be wirelessly transmitted to a central network. The 3500 starts at US$3,899 and is sold through systems integrators and value-added resellers.

Wireless also means battery-powered. I once had my cell phone battery run down in the middle of a medical emergency. That was a distressing experience. New York-based Electric Fuel Corp. has an intriguing answer: Instant Power, a zinc cell that produces electricity upon exposure to air and can recharge the batter of a cell phone or personal digital assistant in two hours.

The disposable unit comes with a re-sealable airtight pouch that allows it to be used up to three times before it’s dead. A handy emergency item, it costs US$20 for the cord and battery, with replacement batteries at US$10 each. Another option is a US$17 completely disposable cell phone battery using the same technology.

Logitech Inc. has introduced an interesting new wireless keyboard, the Navigator, which has numerous added controls for Internet access and audio control. This is hardly a new idea – I use a two-year-old Microsoft keyboard with an imposing line of specialized buttons arrayed across the top, but the Fremont, Calif.-based firm seems to have thought more carefully about the practicality of these buttons.

Logitech has grouped the buttons in several related areas and made them different sizes and shapes that enhance usability. Also, the keyboard is much flatter than most -there’s less rise from one row of keys to the next with the intent of reducing stress on users’ wrists. With a wireless optical mouse, the package sells for a reasonable US$99.95.