Pen Computing Issue #8

January/February 1996

Pen Lab Review

Epson EHT-400

Electronics giant Seiko-Epson unveils a very polished series of light and handy pen tablets.

It used to be that all pen computers were slates designed in the ubiquitous pen and paper clipboard metaphor. Recently, however, new pen computer designs have become more varied and flexible. Since Windows for Pen Computing runs either in portrait or landscape orientation, new mobile units are usually designed so that they can be comfortably held either way. Pen and mobile systems also seem to become increasingly miniaturized and efficient, condensing substantial processing power and ingenuity into ever smaller and lighter packages. This is not an easy task. To do it right takes considerable skills and experience.
Enter Epson's new EHT-400 series of handheld computers, a trio of exceptionally handy and versatile handheld pen computers. The low-end EHT-400S has an SL enhanced Intel 486SX processor running at 25MHz. It doesn't come with any RAM installed and also doesn't have a hard drive (MSDOS version 6.22 is in ROM) and is meant to be a cost-efficient OEM platform that can be customized to clients' needs.
The two more interesting models are the monochrome 400E and the color 400C, both powered by an SL enhanced Intel i486DX2/50 processor. Both have Windows for Pen Computing installed and come in a base configuration of 4MB RAM and an internal 170MB HD.
All three EHT-400 models are delightfully compact and handy. The anthracite plastic case is almost square (8.9 by 8.3 inches), and the two monochrome units are just an inch thick (the color version is about a quarter of an inch thicker). The mono units weigh just 2.2 pounds, batteries included), less than almost all of their competitors. The housing, though made of plastic, feels tight and solid. There is no creaking or twisting and every detail exudes quality. As we'd expect from a consumer market expert like Seiko Epson, design and fit are excellent .

The two monochrome models have transflective sidelit DSTN screens that are very readable both indoors and outdoors. The transparent, sidelit DSTN color screen of the 400C is a bit larger-7.7 inch diagonal instead of the monochrome units' 7.2-which actually makes quite a difference. The color screen is bright and readable indoors, but, like all transparent LCDs, cannot be used outdoors. All three units have handy mechanical brightness and contrast controls.
The EHT-400 series uses a resistive film touch digitizer with a 640 x 480 detection resolution. You don't need an expensive electromagnetic pen to operate the computer, and even if you loose the light and nicely shaped black pen that comes with the unit, you can use any piece of plastic or even your fingers. In general, touch digitizers don't have the same resolution or accuracy as electromagnetic ones, but the Epson's is so responsive and crisp that I actually prefer it over most electromagnetic varieties. There is none of the optical distortion at the point of touch often seen in other touchscreen systems. The EHT-400s also shine with a seemingly complete absence of electrical LCD "noise." One drawback common to all pressure sensitive digitizers: the cursor won't track after your pen without the pen actually touching the screen. That's fine with me, but some people prefer a tracking cursor.

Our lab ran a full set of Ziff-Davis PCBench and WinBench performance benchmarks on both the monochrome and the color 486DX2/50 models. There were no surprises. Both units performed as we'd expect from 486DX2/50-class systems. The video circuitry of the monochrome model was about 10% faster than the color model, but overall performance is virtually identical. If you have had experience with other popular pen computers, you'll find performance of the Epson 400 about on par with that of the IBM ThinkPad 730TE or the (long departed)Compaq Concerto, and slightly better than that of its main competitor, the Fujitsu Stylistic 500.

All Epson 400 models use two standard Sony NP-500 removable Li-Ion batteries. The batteries are hot-swappable and have a mechanical charge indicator. In our benchmarks, battery operation time, with backlight on and all power management disabled, was 2:52 hours for the color unit and 3:11 hours for the monochrome model. With power management enabled and the backlight off, you can expect a full workday of intermittent use from the monochrome unit and somewhat less from the color unit.

Ports and expansion
All three 400 units are equipped with a total of four Type II PC Card slots. However, the internal Epson 340MB Type III drive takes up two of those slots, leaving only two Type II or one Type III slots. Ports and bays are located on all four sides of the unit (see photos). The latches, though plastic, feel reasonably sturdy. The serial port is a standard 9-pin, the parallel port uses a miniature connector. There is also a PS/2-style keyboard/mouse connector and a recessed compartment for the pen. The integrated IrDA infrared port supports speeds up to 115,200 bps.
The two DX2/50 models come with MSDOS 6.22 and Windows 3.1 with Microsoft's pen extensions. Like any 486 pen unit with a reasonably sized hard disk, Epson's EHT-400 units are powerful enough to run Windows 95, and Epson says the drivers will be available later this year. An exact date hasn't been set..

The 400 Series comes with a large variety of options. There is an external communications/docking unit, a magnetic card reader, a pen bar code scanner, a touch scanner, numeric keyboard units with either a 58 mm or an 80mm integrated printer. There are also several wireless PC Card options, and even a sound card to beef up and customize the unit.

Epson targets the 400 Series for use in warehouses factory, and hospital applications. Therefore, the units are sturdy and well built, but I wouldn't call them rugged. There is a hard carrying case that supposedly allows the unit to survive a 4-foot drop, but I wouldn't want that unit to be mine.

All Epson EHT-400 are sold through OEMs and VARs. Suggested retail prices are $2,519 for the basic 400S unit, $2,999 for the monochrome 400E, and $3,799 for the color 400C.

The bottom line
In our opinion, Epson has a winner in the new EHT-400 line.