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Book 3

My third book is released! Learn what you'll need to know in order to become an embedded engineer.


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Book 1

My first book gives you all the intro you need on developing 32-bit embedded systems on a hobbyist budget.

Review: Windows CE on the Cassiopeia A-11A

(This review was originally written in 1999. Windows CE has had some cosmetic improvements since then, and CE-based PDAs have abandoned the micro-notebook style illustrated below in favor of a Palm-type keyboardless look. This document is still of some historical interest).

Cassiopeia A-11A photo

At the time of writing, I am evaluating Windows CE because I need to find an off-the-shelf handheld computer to do some development work; I would have preferred to use the Apple Newton MessagePad 2100, but technical and commercial reasons prevented me. This review applies to the Casio Cassiopeia A-11A specifically, but the general comments apply to all the CE machines I examined in the store, even the fancy color units with ridiculous price tags.

Opening the A-11A's box reveals a ream of promotional literature (17 separate flyers), a WinCE manual and CD-ROM from Microsoft, a CD from Casio with bonus software, warning and warranty leaflets, a serial cable, batteries, and the unit itself.

The fun starts even before power-up. The A-11A is shipped with four discardable shipping tabs on the back, and the procedure for getting it up and running is: Slide a switch. Remove one sticker. Hold a second switch while pulling out the battery case. Insert two AA cells in the case and slide the case back in. Slide switch back. Pull off a second sticker. Pull out two insulator tabs in the correct order. The information detailing this process is included more than once, and it has dire warnings on it not to deviate from the procedure above, so presumably Bad Things will happen if you don't obey.

Anyway, after some wrestling with this unusual battery mechanism, I powered it up. My congratulations go to Microsoft - they have managed to transfer all the user-unfriendliness of Win95 to a handheld platform. If anyone ever bothers to release updated versions of any shared DLLs or anything of the sort, I can't wait to inherit DLL version problems and other conflicts on this "new" platform.

The machine is amazingly slow, too - even my mom's unaccelerated (20MHz) MP120 feels much friskier. Heck, even my workmate's Mac LC II feels friskier! Every time you open or close a window, icons slowly trickle onto the screen one by one. Scrolling Excel or Word windows is frustratingly slow. It's like running Windows 95 on a slow 486 with 4Mb RAM.

Using a touch screen on a clamshell machine like the A-11A is really difficult - the whisker-thin stylus that comes with the A-11A doesn't sit comfortably in a pencil grip to begin with (unless you happen to be three years old), and poking about on the dim screen at odd angles is likely to lead to appalling finger strain.

I guess I've been spoiled by my PowerBook's screen and the LCD on my Newton devices, because the screen on the A-11A seems tiny and hard to read - even with the backlight turned on. And on the subject of backlights, I was using two demo models in the store, with about three months age difference, and the backlight on the older unit was significantly dimmer than that on the newer unit.

After two hours of struggling, I gave up with trying to get the PC connectivity software to work in Windows NT Server 4.0+SP3 - it just doesn't work. On the same PC, dual-booted to Win95, the connectivity software does work, and allowed me to install Pocket Internet Explorer. For reasons I can't fathom, and which probably don't merit explanation, you can't simultaneously use a dialup Internet connection and the HPC Explorer connection utility on your Win95 PC - even if they are on different COM ports, as in my case.

Internet? Internet? Ah, Internet. Bitter chuckle. The dial-up networking service doesn't support ISPs which require login scripts. Fortunately, one of my ISPs (IBM Internet) supports PAP connections. Unfortunately, I've tried four different PCMCIA modems thus far, and none of them work. The machine dials, connects, then hangs (still saying "dialing ..."). Great. I can use a modem in the dumb terminal applet by manually typing ATDT5551234, but I can't use the modem for anything which requires automatic dialing, including Internet and fax use.

The OS ROM and the SRAM (the A-11A doesn't use flash) are on a user-removable proprietary SIMM, which is handy - I've ordered the CE 2.0 upgrade card, which I am sure will not fix any of the usability problems, but it includes an extra 2Mb RAM as well.

It's also a bit of a mystery as to just what kinds of PCMCIA cards are supported by this machine. It certainly doesn't seem to work with any of the linear flash cards I have - possibly because they are formatted for Newton. However, there isn't a format utility included with WinCE - so how are you expected to use these cards? Curious.

Pros:

  • Cheap
  • Software development is easy (although the tools are expensive)
  • Lighter than a MessagePad, and JUST small enough to fit in a shirt pocket
  • Uses static RAM for data storage (as opposed to flash), so it will theoretically last forever
  • The keyboard, though tiny and hard to use, is better suited to accurate entry of numeric or coded data (e.g. in stock control applications) than handwriting recognition. For experimental purposes, I am using Pocket Excel to keep track of my stocks of various components, and it's a workable solution.

Cons:

  • Miserably slow
  • Limited and dysfunctional Internet connectivity
  • Ridiculous calculator keyboard is poorly suited to being the primary input method; Casio should either improve the keyboard, or include HWR as part of the OS.
  • Touch-sensitive screen is small, dim and uncomfortable to use
  • Short battery life (quoted: 20 hours with no modem use, actual: 7.5 hours with no modem use)
  • Construction feels flimsy and cheap compared with an Apple Newton device or a Toshiba Libretto
  • Apparently doesn't work out-of-box with Windows NT, despite what the packaging claims

Summary:

Existing Newton users should pray (and I mean that literally) that something better comes along, because WinCE in its present form is unusable. After using these machines for an extended period of time, I have reached the conclusion that the touch screen and the integral keyboard are mutually exclusive features - either you have a Newton device with no integral keyboard, or you have a little digital diary with all functions driven from the keyboard and no touch screen.

Microsoft can produce as many carefully manufactured survey results as they like - the fact is that familiarity issues or no familiarity issues, the Win95 user interface is fundamentally unsuited for use on a handheld machine. Maybe first-time users will be reassured for the first few minutes of use - though I doubt it - but to gain a reasonable degree of usability, Microsoft will have to face reality and ditch the Windows user interface.

If you *need* to buy a new handheld computer and it can't be an end-of-line MP2100, the best advice I can give you is to go with one of the Pentium PC-compatible pocket machines like the Toshiba Libretto, because at least you'll have access to a good software base. Windows CE has all of the disadvantages of Win95, plus a microscopic software base, and usability problems that you just won't believe.


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