Gray Area

Choosing between the first two-color, palm-size PCs is not a black-and-white decision

Thanks to Microsoft's new Windows CE operating system version 2.11, released in February, palm-size PCs (P/PCs) now have color screens and are easier to read in low light. The first such P/PCs, the Compaq Aero 2110 and the Hewlett-Packard Jornada 420, are in many ways identical. They have the same screen resolution (256 colors, 240 x 320), rechargeable lithium-ion battery, built-in voice recorder, touch-sensitive screen, stowable stylus, infrared port, and CompactFlash card slot. (The addition of a modem or a FLEX pager card allows you to access e-mail and the Internet or receive paged messages.) Both machines recognize handwriting and come with programs to organize appointments, contacts, and memos. Nevertheless, the slick-looking Aero 2110 runs 40 percent longer than the Jornada 420 before it needs recharging and can carry up to 16 more megabytes of RAM. But power isn't everything, and overall I prefer the Jornada 420. Here are the reasons why.

Compaq Aero 2110 ($449)

Size A bit too wide, making it slightly awkward to hold and the side buttons harder to operate. (5.27 x 3.34 x 0.78 in.)
Screen size 2.4 x 3.2 in.
Weight 10.92 oz.
Battery Lasts 10 hours before it needs recharging, which requires attaching a single cable. (Additional batteries cost $46.)
Processor 32-bit, 70 MHz.
RAM 8MB. (Can be upgraded to 24MB for an extra $129.)
Image quality Very crisp, thanks to the active matrix. But the proprietary "reflective technology" sometimes makes the screen as reflective as a mirror, which is distracting.
Indoor screen illumination Unsatisfactory. I found all three settings—ambient, low, and high light—too dark, and the lack of options for fine-tuning contrast and brightness puzzling. (In the photo above, the screen is set to "high light," the brightest setting possible.)
Outdoor screen illumination Much better than the Jornada 420 in direct sunlight, although there's still a lot of reflective glare.
Perks The Audible Content Player allows you to download text in the form of audio files from the Web site and play them through the Aero 2110 speaker. PictureViewer enables you to download and view color photos, although the images are far from sharp. The CompactFlash card slot is shielded, which means you can use a wireless modem card without risking processor disruption or display distortion—a problem with some palm-size PCs.
Ergonomics The touch buttons on the bottom are conveniently placed, but the crescent-shaped power button below them is not. I inadvertently turned off the device a few times while picking it up.
I wish The manual were not only on CD-ROM but printed.
Information 800-345-1518;

HP Jornada 420 ($519)

Size Just right—it really fits in the palm of your hand. (5.1 x 3.2 x 0.9 in.)
Screen size 2.25 x 3.9 in.
Weight 8.81 oz.
Battery Lasts six hours before it needs recharging, which involves inserting it into a docking cradle and attaching two cables—cumbersome at best. (Additional batteries cost $34.)
Processor 32-bit, 100 MHz.
Image quality Fine, but not as crisp as the Aero 2110's screen, owing to the passive matrix.
Indoor screen illumination Excellent—if you custom-adjust contrast and brightness using the "special" setting from the HP Settings menu (the option we chose for the photo above). I found the three standard settings—indoors, outdoors, and low power—unsatisfactory.
Outdoor screen illumination Poor in direct sunlight, which really washes out the display.
Perks OmniSolve, an advanced calculator, does interest conversion and amortization. EzExplorer displays a folder icon at the bottom of the screen, which makes accessing files especially convenient.
Ergonomics The transparent flip cover, which protects the screen from getting scratched (and allows you to prop up the Jornada 420 on a flat surface), also covers the on-screen icon buttons when closed. That means you have to keep flipping the cover back to use them or use the touch buttons on the left side, which I found awkward. Plus the cover gets scratched through such frequent use.
I wish The stylus would pop out, as it does on the Aero 2110, rather than slide out, as it does here.
Information 800-443-1254;