User Review: NEC MobilePro 900/ 900C

by Monica Erdody
(der Anwenderbericht in deutscher ‹bersetzung ist hier zu finden)


Introduction

Who has at least a little knowledge about HPCís should know how Microsoft and most OEMís abandoned HPCís a while ago. It is really very sad though thereís always hoping they and their popularity can be revived/restored some time in the (near?) future. 
As far as Microsoft is concerned, they have never released a new edition of the Handheld PC operating system since the second half of 2000. Theyíre still actively developing Windows CE first in the form of so called CE.NET which simply means the 4.x versions of CE (.NET was just a new MS fashion at that time), and now CE 5. As for the OEMís: very few of them manufacture now HPCís but fortunately there are definitely some of them. Of course as thereís no longer a HPC platform, OEMís have to choose between the last incarnation of HPC platform, HPC2000, or CE.NET (and now CE 5.0). This is a rather ambiguous question to many and thereís no definite agreement whether HPC2000 or CE.NET is "better". 

My opinion about these arguments is that everyone has to choose for themselves. I will try and compare these two OSíes on the same model, and finally tell about my opinion, but this will only be my personal view of things.

So, the above introduction explains why iím reviewing now the NEC MobilePro 900 and 900C. Obviously this is not the only one reason. The other is that i believe both the MP900 and 900C (as theyíre completely the same hardware), are excellent devices and many people is going to like them immediately if they ever have a chance to get hold of one of these elusive HPCís. :) Yes, Iím saying elusive because theyíve been discontinued this year and were sold only in the US officially. Even though Iím not a US resident I do own one... so donít give up on finding one for yourself yet!

First impressions and the hardware

Before i was lucky enough to see a MP900 in the flesh, I never had any real idea about the size of the machine. Iíd had only Jornada 72x HPCís before and thought the difference is less in size. I was genuinely surprised to see the MP900 for the first time next to my Jornada 728... Size and portability always mattered to me greatly as a Jornada user, but the 900 convinced me a larger HPC still makes sense compared to subnotebooks. The MP900 is still only half or less of the size of a really small, older Toshiba Portege subnotebook, and it feels much more comfortable. Yes even more comfortable than my beloved Jornadaís. This is somehow just the perfect size for handling an HPC. The weight which is around 820 grams is acceptable as well, I donít feel it in my bag at all.


Comparing Jornada 728 (left) to NEC MobilePro 900 in size

The size and design allows for a gorgeous keyboard. MobileProís have always been famous for this and the 900 is no exception! You can bet Iím writing this whole review on this keyboard. Thereís no compromises for typing and even though i donít know how to touch type I can type as fast on it as on a PC keyboard. Maybe even faster sometimes because it is a bit smaller so I donít have to move my hands so much. The only glitch is of course the layout of the arrow keys. NEC have never been convinced to change their layout so theyíre all still in the same row which requires a little time to get used to it. No worries though, it only took one or two days for me to get completely accustomed to the keys. Only a problem specific to me arises when Iím using another HPC keyboard for a few days and then I need to get used to the MP again...
The design itself also deserves some words. MobileProís always had a nice design but I especially like the 900ís design! The silver on the top cover and the battery which serves as a hinge as well is really nice along with the gray shades of the casing and keyboard. The build quality is excellent as well, something NEC finally learned from previous experiences. This HPC is really sturdy and comfortable to hold and use it in your lap or on a table, not with one hand though.

The screen has a HVGA (640x240) resolution even though it measures 8.1" diagonally. Some think it is a waste of screen real estate not to use a higher resolution, others think it is just the perfect balance between resolution and pixel count. As for me, I donít mind HVGA, Iíve always liked it and it is suitable for most tasks and anyway probably Windows CE donít support a strange resolution like 960x360 so NEC didnít have many options to choose from without completely redesigning the hardware.
The MP900 and 900C still have a DSTN display, and many will find it disappointing that a device RTMíed in 2003, still canít have a decent TFT screen. So you will not be able to see the screen very well in sunlight outside on a sunny day or watch videos at 24 or more fps. Thereís one advantage though: I do like the longer battery life which is ensured this way.

If you inspect the sides closely, you will find plenty of options for expansion. Starting with the right side, besides the usual PCMCIA Type II slot, it is a real pleasure for most of the users to discover a full sized USB host along with a USB client port. One of the important differences between HPC2000 and CE.NET is to do with the capabilities of the USB host. I will discuss this issue later.
The CF Type II slot is located in the front with a headphone jack and the microphone. The infrared port is to be found at the back. Finally, the left side has the serial, VGA out and standard modem ports. The VGA out port is obviously not full sized, as thereís not much room for that, but you can get a VGA adapter cable for it optionally.

All in all, I must say the hardware is impressive. But what about the software side of things?

Software and CE.NET

A large proportion of users have used HPC2000 and are well aware of its possibilities and limitations. But CE.NET is still relatively unknown even though lately Iím seeing increased numbers of CE.NET users, thanks to for example a large dump of Siemens Simpad and Bsquare PHH devices on ebay. Now, it is well worth mentioning that there is or was a CE.NET upgrade path for MP900 users so they could have a chance to get to know CE.NET as an alternative to HPC2000. The real problem besides that the upgrade is now hard to find after the decision to discontinue it, that it is an one way upgrade really. Thereís no going back to HPC2000. I repeat, none whatsoever, unless someone finds a reliable way to dump the rom contents out of a HPC2000 MP900 and another way to get the NEC bootloader to accept that ROM image. I am aware of two different rom dump utilities existing but I found none of those are reliable enough at the time of writing, to make images available for others even if they were willing to run some risk of rendering their machines unusable. Theyíre simply very far from a quality where one would even be thinking of it.

So if youíre still stuck at a purchase or upgrade decision, I can try and help to make this easier for you.

To begin with, you will immediately notice the similarity and the differences in the the user interface at the same time. Even though CE.NET is only a CE core operating system, and not a real platform, it still feels the same in handling it as HPC2000. Apparently, the looks are relatively different, as CE.NET has a newer more modern design. But the real differences arenít to be found there.

As CE.NET is not an HPC platform, youíre going to have some issues if PIM use is important for you. CE.NET doesnít provide any PIM capabilities by default which shows Microsoft is no longer devoted to our HPC devices. Fortunately there are still options for the heavy PIM users. Most of the OEMís do include some custom made or third party PIM software, all the contacts, calendar and tasks software. Furthermore, you can also install very good quality third party applications for yourself, such as CE Agenda or Odysseyís Pocket On-Schedule of which the latter is a fully featured PIM software and should be able to satisfy most users. Only downside is that I heard some users have had problems with smooth synchronizing with the desktop PC.
NEC provide Bsquareís PIM suite for the MP900C.

The other software suite missing from CE.NET is Pocket Office. This can sound shocking at first, but if you look into things a little further youíll see it should not be a real issue in most cases. You still have the exact same Pocket Word renamed to WordPad and in addition a nice Word Viewer. The latter doesnít allow you to edit documents but you can finally see for example tables and pictures easly unlike in Pocket Word!

However, in the case of spreadsheet editors, you need to rely on the OEM whether they include a version of such an application. NEC does include Bsquare spreadsheet (and other Bsquare programs... seems like they had an exclusive contract with Bsquare - even the bootloader talks about Bsquare!) but if you feel this is not able to perform adequately for your needs (it is fine for me), you have many (at least three) options for third party spreadsheet applicatons. Most notable of those is Softmakerís Planmaker, and I should mention Textmaker here as well, as a worthwhile Pocket Word replacement equally for HPC Pro, HPC2000 and CE.NET users. 
You get a PowerPoint viewer as well, not any worse than the one in HPC2000. Finally, probably very few users care about Pocket Access, so its exclusion from CE.NET doesnít come as a big disappointment.
There are other file viewers natively included on most of the CE.NET devices (for example Sigmarion III does not have them by default), a PDF and an image viewer.
The Pdf viewer is worth a few words: it can scroll really fast after it has finished loading the document, much faster than the Adobe Acrobat reader, but unfortunately it is not compatible with many pdfís espacially those that contain accented characters.

There are many improvements in CE.NET regarding built in software I didnít mention so far. Of course everyone thinks of IE 6.0 now. Yes, indeed it is an excellent browser, one of the best available for any PDA platform today, especially if your OEM included Insigniaís Jeode Java JVM and/or Macromediaís Flashplayer 5.5 or 6.0. Unfortunately NEC did not choose any of these options so you only get plain IE 6.0 which is still capable of rendering most of the pages very well. Donít forget you can add Jeode or install Access Netfront 3.0, with a little tweaking, which has amazing Java capabilities - in many cases better than Jeode.
IE 6.0 is not always particularly faster than the older browsers but it is not slow either and it is quite stable in my experience! Interestingly I did feel IE6 faster on some sites with a Netbook Pro than on my 900C, but that might have been a false impression as I did not have the chance to compare them side by side.

Among other important built in software is a client for Remote Desktop which looks and operates similar to XPís own RDP client, with many features that older TS clients were missing on HPC2000 and HPC Pro systems. Additionally the 900C has Media Player 9 Series like most of the new PocketPCís. NEC did not include MSN messenger and you cannot acquire an installable version of it apart from the old and not official MSN clients like MS Portrait and Imov messenger, but Iím working on this...

Last but not least you get a lot of advanced connection possibilities and security options with CE.NET 4.2 on the 900C. You can easily establish a PPPOE or VPN (PPTP or L2TP) connection and you can have WPA or WPA-PSK, etc. for wlan connections! Speaking of wlan, youíre going to like the native wlan zero config application, which solves many earlier problems with seeing and choosing from available wlan networks along with creating preferred networks, and even being able to see your own IP, or release/renew it without using any additional software. If youíre familiar with the dos like command prompt you can get extra useful information about the networks by using it, for example you can find out about all the IP addresses and transferred bytes. Another nice feature: when using a pcmcia or CF wlan card which is based on the "standard" prism chipset, you donít have to look at the cardís own driver at all after installation of it... CE.NET configuration application fully supports these cards.

All of the above and other little things I canít mention here due to space limitations, helps to enjoy an experience closer to a desktop PC or more like notebook with Windows CE.NET.

There are other very important issues we need to discuss here.

One of these is the amount of available software for CE.NET. Many inexperienced newbies arenít initially aware they can use almost all older HPC2000 or HPC Pro software provided it is compiled for an ARM processor. The Xscale PXA255 employed in the Mobilepro 900/900C is fully compatible with the older StrongARM used in older HPCís like the HP Jornada 72x series. Youíll need to note some things though. The 900C doesnít have essential files with a dll extension (those are a kind of executables) included by default (even the 900 is missing a couple of them) so you will need to add them manually. It is really easy, all you need to do is copy the files in your 900Cís \Windows folder: mfcce211, olece211, mfcce300, olece300 and toolhelp.dll. The first two allows almost full compatibilty with HPC Pro software and the third and fourth with HPC2000. Toolhelp.dll is also needed for a few programs like Itaskmanager or Nyditot Virtual Display! Yes you can definitely run Nyditotís famous software on your 900C, just make sure youíre using the latest version (4.23).


Nyditot Virtual Display allows amazing 1280x480 on your NEC!

Did you notice I only said "almost" full compatibility earlier? I said so intentionally - here are the bad news: many earlier hpc programs were written with the HPC2000 version of a certain dll file, namely htmlview.dll, in mind. The 900C does not have this file at all unlike some other CE.NET devices. Whatís more is that strangely several versions of this file exist for CE.NET, and none are fully compatible with the original HPC2000 file. So it is an inherent limitation in CE.NET but it applies even more substantially to the 900C. You might be able to acquire a copy of those CE.NET dllís but programs will only partially work with it. For example Pocket On-Schedule works fine, but Mdict will not. Interestingly Mdict does work on the Sigmarion III which has another version of htmlview.
Donít worry though, very few programs require htmlview and youíll be able to use some of them in any case.
I don't know of any other particular issue that would lead to incompatibilty with HPC2000 programs though that doesn't mean there couldn't be other things. Rarely, but it can and does happen.Still I can conclude that 95-99% of programs will work fine on CE.NET."

I guess many of you are aware that hpc2000 can run a certain partition of pocketpc programs (mainly ppc2000 and ppc2002, sometimes even wm2003!), but what is the case with CE.NET? Well the compatibility is about the same with older pocketpc programs if you're not afraid to do an extra hack concerning aygshell.dll. More bad news: in many cases you need to do additional hexediting for programs that will run fine on HPC2000 without any serious tweaking. This hack is however not a difficult task for the experienced user.
On the other hand, CE.NET 4.2 has a definitely greater compatibility with WM2003 stuff as long as you're willing to perform the hexedits.

The other issue is the general stability and speed of the operating system. I was a little frustrated sometimes with stability with HPC2000 though it is really acceptable most of the time and I have never had any data loss from it on HPC2000. So I really like that CE.NET 4.2 is quite stable and that it almost never required a reset due to system crashes or lockups. System slowdowns are more rare as well and CE.NET 4.2 seems to recover faster from such a slow down so it takes only a few seconds at most, and as I said I rarely encounter a serious instance of these even if Iím using Internet Explorer. It is not always the case with the 4.1 version of the OS but 4.2 is almost perfect in this respect. 4.1 also doesnít really require resets either though.
About speed: I did feel the MP900 a little sluggish on HPC2000 - the 900C on CE.NET might be a little speedier and thatís nice.

Finally Iíll mention a popular issue. In a certain sense, more expansion options are available with CE.NET, and this is mainly to do with the USB capabilities. Actually fewer drivers are found in terms of other hardware for CE.NET than for the older HPC2000 but it isnít true of usb. With the HPC2000 MP900 you canít use many usb devices, except for a few mice and keyboards maybe. The built in usb drivers in CE.NET enable you to use mass storage devices from some digital cameras and hard drives to usb pendrives. You can even read from a usb cd or dvd-rom or writer - though you canít write to these optical drives.
A note here: I heard general usb drivers can be installed on for example the Intermec 6651, and if they are available for the MP900 as well (I never found them), the above issue ceases to be.

Conclusion

So is it worth it for you to upgrade to CE.NET or buy a MP900C instead of your trusty MP900?

Personally I can definitely answer with a resounding Yes. Most people I heard of did not regret upgrading to the 900C but those that need Pocket Outlook and donít find the CE.NET options fully satisfying, might still prefer HPC2000. But all the others could find CE.NET has more potential and less limitations in many respects than the older HPC platforms.

07 October 2005
Monica Erdody (cmonex)

Namentlich gekennzeichnete Anwendertestberichte geben ausschlieŖlich die Erfahrungen und Meinungen des Autors wieder.


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