How I survived the move from Palm to Windows CE

Quentin Stafford-Fraser
July 2001
Update - epilogue, May 2002


Having been an avid Palm V user for some time, and an equally enthusiastic Psion user before that, I had no real plans to change PDA again any time soon. I was familiar with the Compaq iPAQ because we had several of them in the lab - we would take them out of the box, immediately delete Windows CE, and replace it with Linux so that we could do interesting experiments. (We made an iPAQ with a Wi-Fi card into a cordless version of our Broadband Phone, for example.  Very cute.). I had glanced at CE and decided that the apps weren’t a patch on the Palm or Psion equivalents, the iPAQ battery life was a joke compared to the rivals, and I certainly didn’t want to run Outlook on my desktop machine in place of the pleasantly simple Palm Desktop. 

However, there was no denying that the iPAQ was a very pretty piece of hardware, with a great screen, and the ability to attach both PCMCIA and CF devices. The handwriting recognition was really very good now. And more importantly, the Palm’s underlying hardware and OS were starting to show their age, especially when you try to do things like running TCP/IP-based software. Windows CE 3.0, for all the failings of its other applications, had a web browser and an IMAP-capable mail reader which worked rather well and talked reliably to my mobile phone.

And then the day came when my Palm died.  It simply would no longer switch on.  It had had a hard life, was already missing a couple of buttons, and I knew the end couldn’t be far away. Fortunately it died peacefully in its sleep after a recent hotsync, so I had my data and could easily have plugged in a new Palm and carried on.  But I decided, in the interests of research, to walk on the wild side and give the iPAQ a try.

Transferring data

The first thing was to get my diary, memo, and address book data out of the Palm and into the iPAQ.   A web search revealed various ways to do this, but the simplest is to install PocketMirror.  This is a piece of software which allows the Palm to hotsync its data with Outlook instead of the Palm Desktop, and a version of PocketMirror can be found tucked away in a folder on the CD that comes with many Palms and Handsprings. Once my data was in Outlook, it would automatically appear on the iPAQ.  But there was a problem: my Palm was dead, so I couldn’t hotsync it, and that was the only way to initiate the transfer.  Fortunately, a friend had an old spare Palm III.  I did a hard reset to clear its memory, synched it with my Palm desktop to load it with my data, installed PocketMirror and synched again. Sure enough, my data was available in Outlook, and shortly afterwards on the iPAQ. My numerous memos had appeared as Outlook notes, but had lost their categorisation, so I put them back into categories by hand on the iPAQ.  This would have been much quicker to do in Outlook, but it has a different system of categories from the handheld, so I had to do it there. Eventually, though, all was in place.

Taming Windows CE complexities

After the simplicity of the Palm, finding your way around Windows CE is a disorientating experience. If you want to run an application on the Palm, you click on its icon or press its button.  Here are some of the ways you can do it on an iPAQ. See if you agree with me that whoever designed this user interface should be shot.

  • You can press the ‘Q’ button. You’ll probably do this first because it’s the most obvious. This runs Compaq’s QMenu app, which allows you to select from a few apps and configuration utilities. The list seemed to look different every time. It took me a while to realise that while some of the things on the list were apps which were there permanently, others were listed because they were currently running (a distinction which isn’t important on the Palm), others were configuration items, and others allowed you to close down things which are running. So this menu is partly a launcher, partly a task manager, and partly a shortcut to parts of the control panel. Yuck.  Let’s move on.
  • The Start Menu.  This is at the top left of the screen and lists some of the programs you have installed.  It also has a link to ‘Programs’. Eh?  I eventually discovered that this should really be called ‘Other Programs’; it lists applications which aren’t directly displayed on the Start Menu.  You choose which things appear where by going to the Control Panel and selecting ‘Menus’, unlike QMenu which you configure by running an app called QUtilities.  QUtilities doesn’t appear under the Start Menu or under Programs.
  • QStart is yet another way of starting things. It is the fourth button on the iPAQ and has a totally non-intuitive icon depicting a little upwards pointing arrow, which looks as if it probably means ‘Back’ or ‘Undo’.  (The icon labelled ‘Q’, remember, stands for QMenu, not QStart. Are you following this?)  QStart is an attempt to duplicate the Palm application launcher.  It shows you screenfuls of icons and you can switch between the different categories of application using a pull-down list.  Some of the apps you install will appear here, but the categories bear no resemblance to the organisation of apps under the Start Menu/Programs.
  • The File Explorer. If you can’t find that application any other way you may find it here.  If you can find the File Explorer, that is.

If this sounds bad, remember that I’ve explained it to you.  The new user doesn’t have that advantage and has to try and work out what’s happening.  And this chaotic lack of design is evident throughout the system, though this area is perhaps the worst example.

To be fair to Microsoft, if Compaq hadn’t decided to add the Q stuff, it wouldn’t be nearly so bad. Once I realised this, I realised I could do without it. The only thing QMenu gives you which isn’t available from the Start Menu is the task-switching facilities, so I installed PocketNav, which does a better job. And QStart’s only advantage is that it organises the applications into categories, but you can do most of that by going to the \Windows\Start Menu folder and creating sub-folders into which you put the links to your apps. You can use File Explorer on the iPAQ, but it’s easier to do this from the desktop machine while the two are connected - click the Explore button on the ActiveSync window. 

When that’s done, you can just use the Start Menu, and you can remap those two buttons to do something more useful, like taking you to Tasks or your Inbox. Go to the ‘Buttons’ applet under Settings and make the changes.  Whew, now that’s sorted.

But what are we going to do with those Applications?

Improving the Windows CE apps

Pocket Word is not as good as the Word processor that comes with the Psion, and if memory serves, the Psion spreadsheet is also better than Pocket Excel.  But, to be honest, these apps don’t really concern me so much on a machine that doesn’t have a keyboard.  I may want to read documents, but I won’t want to spend much time writing them.

The main reason I carry one of these things around is as a diary and address book, and the Windows CE offerings are notably inferior to the competition. Particularly if, like me, you used DateBk3/DateBk4 on the Palms, you will be disappointed with the CE Calendar.  How can a machine with such a nice screen have a completely useless ‘Week view’?

Fortunately, help is at hand here, too. I would strongly recommend all PocketPC owners to go straight off and get a copy of PocketInformant - a replacement Contacts/Calendar/Tasks manager.  This is a really nice upgrade, well documented, a bargain at $19.95, and you can try an evaluation version before buying.  As far as I can see, it is better in every way than the built in apps, it makes good use of the screen resolution and colour, and is wonderfully customisable.  For example, I have my Week View set to show 7 days starting from today (as opposed to starting from Monday). It shows today slightly larger than the following days, and today’s view includes tasks from my to-do list which either have no due date set or are due in the next 6 days. All of this stuff can be changed to suit you. The author is, by all accounts, also very responsive to bug reports and feature requests.

It also has a facility called AlarmNotes, which is similar to that provided by packages such as BugMe. Press a button (one of those ones you freed up earlier, perhaps), and you’re presented with a blank note on which you can scribble a reminder in your own handwriting and with just a couple of clicks set it to pop up at some point in the future.

The story so far…

Well, I now have a machine which I think I can live with.  It’s bigger than my Palm, and it doesn’t have a very good battery life, but the applications are now OK. And I’ve already used it to listen to an hour-long MP3 file of a talk which I downloaded from TechnetCast onto a CompactFlash card. I certainly couldn’t have done that on my Palm. And browsing the web, which was something I only did in extremis on the Palm, is now a reasonable thing to attempt.

It’ll be interesting to see whether this is a long-term relationship, or just a brief fling….

Update - May 2002

I stuck with the iPAQ for nearly a year, and it worked OK, but I never browsed the web or viewed movies on it often enough to compensate for the poor battery life, the extra bulk and the less-friendly applications, both on the device and on the desktop. The last straw came when I changed over to using a Macintosh. Microsoft do not support PocketPC connectivity on Mac OS X at all. PocketMac are trying valiantly to fill the gap, but it seems to be hard work. Microsoft make a rather nice desktop organiser in Entourage - nicer than Outlook, I think - but even they are developing a conduit to hotsync it to a Palm rather than a PocketPC.

A friend had an old Palm Vx that he wasn’t using. It had a dodgy power button that I managed to fix, and a cheap Palm USBConnect kit bought on eBay allowed me to connect it to my Mac. The new Palm Desktop works very nicely on OS X and I find that after a year’s break I can still enter text using Graffiti at least as fast as I used to be able to enter it on the iPaq’s recognisers. Best of all, I can carry it in my shirt pocket without too much lopsidedness!

I’m happy to be back.