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The Difference Engine

Dream machines

By David MacNeill
December 1999, issue 31

I had come to the conclusion that I simply lacked the gene that makes guys enjoy thinking about sports. My boss tells me that when he has insomnia, he lulls himself to sleep by thinking about sports statistics and by creating dream teams made up of his favorite athletes. He says he feels like he should pay more for the sports pages of the newspaper since they provide such a valuable service by helping him to sleep.

I cannot imagine what he finds so fascinating about a bunch of dry stats and a dozen sweaty jocks all wearing matching shirts, but he swears it works for him and I don't doubt him. I just chalk it up to chance that I didn't get this gene, even though my father was a tennis pro.

Then it hit me that, somewhere along the way, I had replaced that gene with another, equally silly one: the tech gene. For as far back as I can remember I have lulled myself to sleep poring over device specifications and building the perfect machine from all the best features and technologies from various products. Beginning with racing bicycles, then acoustic and electric guitars, followed by desktop then handheld computers, and more recently digital cameras, there has always been a continuously updated database of nerdy spec sheets in my brain, mixed in with my impressions about each feature and my emotions about how they felt in use. It never occurred to me until today that this is just as odd as a sports nut doing similar things in search of a little peace of mind.

If I were to compose the ideal handheld computing companion, it would go something like this:

Case Design: Compaq Aero 1530
Slimly elegant yet masculine at the same time, the Aero 1530 is just the right combination of screen size for elaborate apps and hi-res graphic display, combined with thinness for easy portability. The display would have to be 24-bit color, of course, in place of the grayscale screen on the Aero, so I could view my digital images rendered photorealistically. Build the whole thing of brushed magnesium and it would be perfect.

Display Technology: Sony Hybrid LCD
The display panel on Sony's latest digicam, the CyberShot F505, is the Holy Grail of mobile display technology. With all the crispness and saturation of the best active matrix TFT notebook screen you've ever seen, combined with the total outdoor readability without need of a backlight that you get with the Sharp HRTFT (high reflective thin film transistor) technology, Hybrid LCDs are the ideal display for my dream machine. All it needs is a touchscreen overlay.

Power System: Sony InfoLithium
Created for their analog and digital camcorder line and now used in their digital still cameras, Sony has the most advanced "smart batteries" around. These are small lithium-ion rechargeable packs with enmeshed circuitry that lets the communicate directly with the device they are powering for amazingly accurate forecasts on available time left on a charge. They also allow for some very advanced power management logic to squeeze out every available milliamp-hour before a recharge is needed. In my machine, Sony would have to flatten the design to become the entire clip-on backside of the device, like a Nokia PCS phone. Fatter battery equals longer life, thinner gives you less weight and bulk.

Operating System: EPOC32
Sorry, Microsoft. Regrets, Palm Computing. Apologies, Apple. Psion Software's EPOC32 operating system, now administered by the global Symbian consortium, is the best mobile OS and application suite for small devices. It is rock-solid, attractive, easily programmable, extremely scalable, and offers a richness and depth combined with ease of use no other OS offering can match since Newton was snuffed out.

Input: Graffiti/Newton Engine
This is a tough call, but I want both the speed and accuracy of Graffiti's special gestural method along with the option to switch to completely natural printed writing using the still-unbeaten reco engine from Newton. Yes, I know that Jot from CIC offers both a Graffiti-compatible mode as well as a natural character engine, but this is my dream and I don't want to have to learn a single new character or gesture.

Voice Recorder: Psion Series 5mx
I've used every audio recorder on every handheld computer and none of them beats the Psion. The reproduction is the truest I have heard. The software is slick and the three external control buttons are easy to operate without looking at them, which is quite important in a feature you will use while doing other things, like driving in San Francisco.

Wireless: RIM Interactive 950
Of all the wireless devices I've used, including the Palm VII, ARDIS and CDPD wireless modem cards, and AT&T nationwide TDMA short messaging service on my Nokia PCS, my RIM 950 is the only one that always works. Wherever I go, I can send and receive short email messages to other 950s or regular email clients using the BellSouth system. It just works, and the price is right, too.

PC Sync: Microsoft ActiveSync 3.0
After being beaten up by reviewers like me, Microsoft finally got their sync subsystem right. It is actually cooler than Palm's much-vaunted HotSync since you don't have to do a thing to make it happen. This is arguably the best feature of Windows CE so far, and perhaps the most overlooked. All it lacks is the ability to sync up with Macs and the ability to operate automatically via infrared simply by coming within range of your personal computer.

Removable Storage: IBM MicroDrive
My dream device would have a Compact Flash Type II (CF+II) slot so I can use the amazing MicroDrive, a 340MB ultra-miniature hard disk. I currently use one in my palm-sized Canon PowerShot S10 digicam, and the combination is simply unbeatable. The MicroDrive is even cost-effective compared to solid state flash memory cards, are as fast or faster, and draw only a little more power from the host device than flash cards to work its wonders.

I'm feeling quite relaxed now that I have this all worked out in my head. I'm going to save this file and get some sleep. I hope to dream about using my imaginary machine in a perfect world, a world where warring companies could cooperate to make such a wonderful machine just for me - and for a few hundred million friends who might like one as well.

David MacNeill can be reached via e-mail at

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