Casio E-125

Incremental, but substantial, improvements (January 2001 issue)

There are two distinctly different ways of looking at Casio's new Cassiopeia E-125 Windows Powered Pocket PC.

If you are new to the Pocket PC scene, the E-125 will surely strike you as an amazingly powerful and entertaining multimedia device, one that lets you listen to stereo music, view images and video clips in brilliant color, and carry all but the most elaborate of your important Word and Excel with you wherever you go. It can do all that and much more. It is stunning how much power you can carry in the palm of your hand these days.

Owners of older E-100 series palm-size and Pocket PC devices will likely have mixed feelings about Casio's new flagship Pocket PC. A worst case scenario is an early adopter who bought the original E-100, forked over extra money to get the multimedia software (that should have been included in the first place) to get up to E-105 status, then was offered a rather small trade-in allowance to replace the still almost new E-100 for the physically almost identical E-115 with the new Pocket PC software, just to see the E-115 replaced with the new E-125. And this time there is no upgrade path at all.

To be fair, that is not entirely unprecedented. The rate of progress in the handheld computer industry being what is, devices are replaced all the time, but usually the new models look different. That's not the case with the E-100 series. Only insiders can tell apart the "old" E-100 palm-size PC, the E-115 first generation Pocket PC, and the new E-125. The E-100/105 was matte silver front and back and had gray sides and a gray screen bezel; the E-115 had much darker silver front and sides with sort of a brownish anthracite bezel and back; the new E-125 looks more like the E-100 with a silver front and side, and a purplish-gray bezel and back (the same color as the "gray" EM-500). Another small, but telling, difference is the Windows logo. The E-100 carried a "Powered by Windows CE Palm-size PC" that was then changed to "Windows Powered Pocket PC" on the E-115. The E-125 simply says "Pocket PC" and the "Windows Powered" logo has been banished to the back. In terms of size and weight, the three models are identical, and the same goes for all of the controls and ports, and their placement. The included cradle is now light gray, not as elegant as the darker old cradle, but—big news here—with a USB connector for much faster synchronizing and downloading.

The biggest difference between the E-125 and its E-series predecessors is the use of NEC's 64-bit 0.18-micron VR4122 RISC processor, the same chip used in the Cassiopeia EM-500. This chip, in conjunction with its VRC4173 companion controller, provides significantly better performance than the 131MHz 0.25-micron VR4121/4171 processor/controller combo in the older models. The 4122 uses 32kb instruction and 16kb data caches whereas the 4121 had to do with 16 and 8kb. There was initial confusion among techies as to the 4122's speed as literature shows the VR4122 to be a 180MHz chip and some foreign model EM-500s were actually labeled 180MHz devices. However, a 150MHz version is also available, and that's the one in all of Casio's new Pocket PCs, from the EM-500 to the more rugged EG-80/800, the industrial IT70/700, and the E-125.

It is not immediately clear why Casio chose the 150MHz version as it "only" provides benchmark performance comparable to the also available 168MHz version of the VR4121 whereas the 180MHz processor would have gone a long way to closing the performance gap between Compaq's speedy iPAQ and the rest of the class. My best guess is that the decision was made because of power consumption. Pocket PCs are already under fire for lackluster battery life, especially compared to Palm devices, and any new model should provide better rather than worse battery life. The E-115's VR4121 consumed less than 250 mW of power whereas the 180MHz demands about 270 mW. The150MHz chip consumes considerably less and that, in conjunction with some additional savings achieved through a lower chip count, let the E-125 run significantly longer on a charge than the E-115. Casio's own estimates are now eight hours of typical use compared to just six for the older model.

An additional benefit from the new chipset is the integration of many more peripheral functions than the 4171 could. The new companion chip, for example, features a touch panel controller and it's immediately obvious that Casio's engineers made good use of it. The digitizer was easily one of the weakest features in earlier100-series devices, suffering from a severe case of digitizer lag that impacted Transcriber handwriting recognition accuracy. On the E-125, the rubbery feeling is completely gone and writing pours on like liquid ink without any delay at all. The difference is huge. Further examination of the 4173's specs, however, raise a question: given the bulkiness of CF card modems and the downright unavailability of any modem for the EM-500, why didn't Casio make use of the 4173's softmodem capability? The controller does need a Codec for it, but that's been done before in much lesser machines.

While real-world, perceived speediness does not always correlate to benchmark performance, the E-125 is clearly faster than any E-series device before it. Using bSQUARE's bUSEFUL Analyzer, the E-125 averaged 39.48 squaremark compared to the E-115's 26.28, a 50% increase. The E-125 is also slightly ahead of the EM-500 in all seven benchmarks. We attribute that primarily to the E-125's 32MB of RAM compared to the EM-500's 16MB. The most significant benchmark increases came in the Whetstone (numerical performance) and Memstone (memory reads and writes) tests and are directly attributable to the design changes in the 4122 chip. I should point out that the 168MHz version of the VR4121—found in such Windows CE devices as the NEC MobilePro 780 and 880, and the Clio 1050—slightly outperforms the 150MHz VR4122 in most benchmarks, but at significantly higher power consumption. While a number of Windows CE websites reported little practical performance difference between the E-115 and the E-125, we beg to differ. The E-125 opened a 400k Word file almost twice as fast as the E-115. Internet Explorer also opened at least twice as fast, as did most other applications.

Apart from the above, the Cassiopeia E-125 remains unchanged from its predecessors. Though small compared to Newton-era PDAs, the E-125 is a veritable brick compared to most Palm OS devices. It is also larger and heavier than its major competitors, the formidable Compaq iPAQ and its own stablemate, the EM-500. I've never been crazy about Casio's placement of the major controls along the left side of the device where I constantly confuse the power, Windows, and audio recorder buttons. The CF Card slot cover remains the same flimsy piece of plastic that will either break or get lost. In the same respect, the E-125, like its predecessors, has the best and brightest screen of any Pocket PC, as long as you stay indoors, that is. Outdoors, no standard TFT is a match for the Compaq iPAQ's reflective color screen. However, Casio managed to give its screen a bit of outdoor readability as well. It doesn't wash out completely as so many TFTs do.

The E-125 uses the exact same version of Windows CE as the E-125 but there are some small differences. The Power control panel, for example, now shows power bars for both the main and the backup battery as opposed to simply indicating "good" or "very low." The E-125 also comes with a CD that contains an updated version of the Windows Media Player, and there is a Cassiopeia Update File Version 2.50 that comes on the main Casio CD.

Why choose a E-125 over the sleeker, lighter EM-500 that offers the same performance (and USB connectivity) for $100 less? There are two reasons.

First, the Cassiopeia E-125 can accommodate Type II CF cards which means that you can add hundreds of megabytes of storage through Type II memory cards, or even IBM microdrives with capacities up to a gigabyte. A word of caution here: since Type II cards fit pretty snugly into the Casio's slot and some cards are almost impossible to extract once they're inserted, the E-125 package comes with two clear plastic puller tabs that you can stick on Type II cards. Definitely recommended. The CF card slot also lets you use any number of peripheral cards with the E-125. The EM-500, on the other hand, uses the much smaller MMC (MultiMediaCard) standard. MMC cards are still limited to 64MB or so, and MMC slots cannot accommodate anything but memory cards at this time.

Second, the E-125 comes with 32MB of RAM as compared to the EM-500's 16MB. The extra 16MB mean that you won't run out of onboard storage for a long time whereas that's always an issue on the EM-500.

Deciding between the E-125 and the EM-500 is a bit like deciding between a Volkswagen Golf and the new Beetle. Both share the same excellent underpinnings, but the Beetle is stylish whereas the Golf is utilitarian. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Processor NEC VR4122 150MHz
OS Windows CE 3.0
Memory 32MB RAM, 16MB ROM
Display 240 x 320 65k-color TFT
Digitizer Pressure-sensitive panel
Storage Internal RAM or via PC Card or CF card slots
Size 3.3 x 5.2 x 0.8 inches
Power Li-Ion (8 hours)
Interface USB, audio, IrDA, AC/DC, serial
Options CF Card modem, cases, camera, car adapter, GPS
Price US$599
Contact Casio

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