Ever since the arrival of Windows CE on palm-sized devices, we at PC Authority have voiced concerns over its suitability and performance on this platform.
Ever since the arrival of Windows CE on palm-sized devices, we at PC Authority have voiced concerns over its suitability and performance on this platform. No matter how hard manufacturers try, CE's large footprint always seems to affect performance and the devices never seem to match those of 3Com for sleek, chic design. Even the recent arrival of colour screens to the genre has failed to impress.
Finally, however, Philips has been able to bestow what we call a USP (unique selling point) on a palm-sized CE device. On the outside, the Nino 500 looks much the same as its predecessor, the 300 (Labs tested issue 15, p78). It's attractively designed and detailed, although a little too bulky and heavy for comfort. There are four configurable application launch buttons around the edges as well as the familiar Up, Down and Action buttons. Along the top edge is ranged a 115Kbits/sec infrared transceiver, a 3.5mm headphone socket and a CompactFlash slot that's compatible with Type I and II Cards.
However, turn it on and try to enter some text and you'll immediately notice an extra option. On the input select menu, instead of just the standard Jot character recognition and virtual keyboard choices found on most palm-sized devices, the Nino also sports Paragraph Software's Calligrapher handwriting recognition software. This allows you to use a mix of printed characters and/or cursive handwriting (joined up writing to you and me) written anywhere on the screen instead of scrawling hieroglyphics one character at a time in a small window at the bottom of the screen. As long as you're careful with your handwriting it actually works remarkably well, recognising the majority of even my spidery scrawl quite comfortably and without any training. Of course it's not perfect and, disappointingly, it doesn't allow you to teach it new letter patterns, but beyond a keyboard it's still the best palm-sized input method we've seen to date.
The other key selling point as far as Philips and Microsoft are concerned is the Nino 500's colour screen. The theory is that people find colour screens more comfortable to work with, because it presents a more familiar working environment to Windows users. To be honest, though, there seems to be little advantage to this since very few apps actually make use of it. Colour screens such as the Nino's 256-colour transmissive unit are also extremely difficult to read outdoors. They need to be backlit all the time and consequently are a drain on precious battery life. In fact, on a palm-sized device I'd prefer a decent monochrome LCD, such as the one found on 3Com's Palm V (reviewed issue 18, p90) or Palm IIIx (reviewed issue 20, p88 ).
The Nino 500 also sports the intriguing but utterly pointless NinoVoice software, which allows you to launch applications or search for contacts by issuing single-word commands'. You have to train in entry for entry, which gets a bit tedious, but once you've trained it the technology seems to work well. Sadly, shouting loudly at your PDA in the office, or in a crowded train carriage for that matter, is more likely to bring the men in white coats running than increase your productivity.
The remaining differences between new and old Ninos are strictly under the hood. There's a new processor in place a 75MHz MIPS-based RISC processor from Toshiba and a whopping 20Mb more memory as standard (16Mb of Ram and 16Mb of ROM). Performance, however, still feels a little sluggish compared to any of the Palm series devices as well as, surprisingly, the Compaq Aero 2130 (reviewed p89) despitea specification that, on paper at least, looks very similar.
The Nino's big strength, as with all other Windows CE-based devices, is its slick desktop synchronisation. I use these devices on a regular basis in conjunction with Microsoft Outlook, and the business of transferring files, contacts, synchronising calendar entries and email folders using the ActiveSync software is as flexible and intuitive as you could possibly hope for. You can set it to synchronise continuously in the background only when you plug the thingin or simply whenever you see fit.
Physical connection to your desktop is achieved using the supplied mini docking cradle, which can also be connected to the mains to recharge the replaceable NiMH battery. Unfortunately, I found this to be a little shorter-lived than the claimed eight hours, so if you're going to be away from a mains supply for a long period of time it will pay to take a supply of standard AA alkaline batteries with you, which the Nino 500 will comfortably accommodate.
Overall though, Philips' new Nino isn't a bad package at all and it's certainly a great deal more impressive than HP's ill-conceived Jornada 420 (reviewed issue 20, p89). Its curved lines and generally attractive looks will appeal to the image-conscious, and the inclusion of the extremely impressive Calligrapher handwriting recognition software almost makes up for the cramped conditions and slow performance that Windows CE imposes on it. Make it a little smaller, lighter and quicker and it would get an unreserved thumbs-up, but as it stands we still prefer the smaller, snappier and cheaper Palm V.