|Contents|| The Casio Cassiopeia E-10 Palm-sized PC
Some First Impressions
by Peter N. Glaskowsky
Monday, December 12, 2005
With our thanks.
Peter N. Glaskowsky
The Casio Cassiopeia E-10 Palm-sized PC
Ive spent the last couple of weeks working with the new Casio Cassiopeia E-10 palm-sized PC (PPC). Ive had a Newton MessagePad 2000 (upgraded to a 2100) for over a year now, and while the Newton has become an essential part of my life, I wanted to see if these new PPCs could replace it. I considered the Palm Pilot but decided it simply doesnt have a good enough screen, and isnt powerful enough or expandable enough to meet my needs. The E-10 and other PPCs seem, at first glance, to have the potential to replace the Newton, so I decided to take a closer look.
My first impression was that the PPC form factor is very nice. It's almost exactly the same size and shape of a Palm Pilot, a third the size of the Newton. This makes it much easier to carry around. The E-10 fits my hand well, though it really only works in the left hand. The unit has three controls on the left edge designed to be operated with the left thumb while the right hand wields the stylus. It wouldnt be so convenient for a left-handed user. The left-edge controls are very difficult to operate with the fingertips of the right hand, as a left-handed user would have to do. Perhaps Casio (and Microsoft) just didn't anticipate the problem.
The E-10 and other PPC's represent a new class of system. The earlier HPCs and other PDAs like the Pilot and Newton are basically ambidextrous; they don't have important controls on their edges. On the other hand, the E-10 just can't be used by "the other hand." There are so many left-handed people in the world that it seems strange they're being ignored. Casio would need some new molds to make plastic parts for left-handed models, but surely this would be a good investment to reach all those left-handed potential customers.
For right-handers like me, however, the E-10's left-edge controls are extremely useful. One of them activates the E-10's voice-memo system. Just hold it down, and whether the unit is awake or not, it starts recording whatever the small built-in microphone can hear. For best results, talk right into the microphone in a quiet room. Recordings made in the car while drivingin addition to creating a safety hazardare even more difficult to understand than a cellphone call under the same circumstances.
Once youve made a few recordings, you can use the Action dial, another of those thumb-operated controls, to select one for playback. Just rock the control, which is shaped like the tuning dial on a transistor radio, up and down. The dial doesn't spin, but the selection scrolls continuously while you hold the dial in either direction.
Once a recording is selected, just push in on the same control to play it. Using one control to emulate three keyboard keys (up-arrow, down-arrow, and Enter) is pretty clever, I think. The third control on the left edge of the E-10, marked Exit but equivalent to the Escape key, will stop playback.
These controls make the stylus almost completely unnecessary while working in the voice-memo application. The controls also work well for selecting and opening documents in other applications.
There's one annoying bug in this regard, however. Turn off the unit while you're in the voice-memo application (or any other), then turn it back on again and it looks like you're right back where you left offbut youre not, quite. For some reason, cycling power shifts the focus from the running application to the Start button, and to get the focus back to the application you have to tap in its window. While it may seem convenient to use the Action dial to activate the Start menu, I think most users will use the stylus for that. A PDA really shouldn't change its software state just because you turn it off and on again.
The calendar, tasks, and contacts programs are fairly easy to use. The E-10's 240x320-pixel screen really helps here. The screen is what makes the E-10 physically superior to the Palm Pilot. It's about as large as it can be for this form factor, and the relatively high resolution (three times that of a Pilot) shows more information than you can get on a Pilot's screen. The Windows CE fonts are quite legible, too.
The same features help the notepad program, but not enough, I think. The E-10 is equipped with the Jot character recognition system, which is easier to use than the Graffiti recognizer used on the Pilot. Theres also a soft keyboard with a variety of key layouts, including an ingenious arrangement that sacrifices numbers and symbols for larger alpha characters, making it especially easy to enter text. Either way, however, entering text notes of any length is much more difficult on the E-10 than on the HPCs with their real (though real small) keyboards, or on a Newton with its excellent handwriting recognition.
In hopes of solving this problem and making the E-10 more useful to me, I tried the trial version of Paragraph's Calligrapher. It certainly works, at least on neat printing, but its very slow. It wont start recognizing until you stop writing, so I found myself writing ten or fifteen words to fill up the screen, then waiting for Calligrapher, then making any necessary corrections, then writing again. Editing isnt very easy, since Calligrapher lacks the Newtons convenient editing features, such as double-tap word correction. I found myself having to bring up the soft keyboard to make most changes. As the screen fills with recognized text, theres less space for handwriting, and I had to pause more often, slowing down the whole process. Its also necessary to scroll frequently, and Calligrapher is so eager to find things to recognize that it gets in the way here. If you drag the scroll bar too quickly, Calligrapher thinks youre drawing an "I". At least with Calligrapher, I think the E-10s screen just isnt big enough to make handwriting recognition pay off.
With or without Calligrapher installed, I never got comfortable with editing note text. Using the stylus to select and edit text is very inconvenient, and stray taps on the screen leave little specks of ink behind that can be hard to erase.
Use the E-10 for more than a few hours and you run into another significant limitationthe battery life is nowhere near as good as the claimed 25 hours, at least not if you're using the unit in less-than-ideal lighting, or taking advantage of that nice voice-memo feature.
After putting in a fresh pair of Duracell AAA batteries, using even relatively undemanding applications like Solitaire with the backlight on youll run into the first sign of low power within about 15 minutes. The backlight on the E-10 isn't really optional; without it, the unit's display provides poor contrast in most lighting conditions. Its okay in a brightly-lit office, but outdoors or in typical home lighting its difficult to read. The backlight isn't great, but it's good enoughat least until it automatically shuts off to save the batteries. Unfortunately, this happens when the batteries are only slightly depletedstill putting out about 1.45V by my measurementsbut once the E-10 disables the backlight it refuses to let you turn it back on again. The unit will still operate for many more hours, but the display won't be very readable.
You can cheat, however. Just turn off the E-10 and turn it right back on again. It'll forget about the low-battery condition and let you use the backlight for a while longer, though the interval grows shorter each time.
In my opinion, this shows that the power supply in the E-10 was poorly designed. It ought to be able to run the unit with all functions active until the batteries are almost depleted, as other PDAs do. At that point, it might make sense to disable non-critical features like the backlight to ensure enough power remains to protect the memory, but taking this step after just 15 minutes of operation is just unacceptable.
Whatever you do, don't try to record to a Compact Flash card while the batteries are low. My E-10 shuts down without warning if I attempt this, or (less often) if I try to play back a voice memo from the Compact Flash card under these conditions. Sometimes I have to use the reset button to wake it up again when it crashes like this. All it takes is an accidental tap on that voice-memo button, turning an avoidable nuisance into a potential catastrophe. Recording to the internal RAM works fine down to somewhat lower battery voltages. More evidence of substandard power-supply design, of course, but if the OS knows the batteries are low it shouldn't allow an application to activate the Compact Flash card.
Casio must have been aware of the E-10's poor power-management skills, but they neglected the most obvious battery life extender: the unit has no way to connect to its (optional) AC adapter unless it's in its desktop cradle (making it useless for most purposes except file synchronization) or connected to Casio's $130 snap-on optional modem.
The Casio modem is currently the only way to send or receive email with the E-10. The unit has a proprietary I/O connector, and no cables exist to connect it to a standard modem. This has kept me from trying out my Metricom Ricochet wireless modem, which I have found very useful for email and Web browsing while attending conferences here in Silicon Valley.
Even the Ricochet wouldn't enable Web browsing on the E-10, however. It doesn't have a Web browser, and can't run Microsoft's Pocket Internet Explorer as found on Windows CE HPCs. Instead, it includes a rather weak Channels application that allows offline browsing of Web pages previously downloaded to a desktop computer then transferred to the E-10. The process is just as cumbersome as it sounds.
This awkwardness is just as conspicuous with the other PPC applications. There's no Pocket Word, just the limited Note Taker program. There's no Pocket Excel, nor anything to replace it unless you buy third-party software. The absence of Pocket PowerPoint is at least understandable with no practical way to view slides on such a small screen (which, by the way, can only be used in portrait orientation). Theres also no file manager on the E-10. You can see the file system on the E-10 from the Windows Explorer on your desktop PC while the unit is docked, but this is rather inconvenient and there are some potential problems. For example, if you use Windows Explorer to move an application from the internal store to a Compact Flash card it wont work any more, and if you use Windows Explorer to move a document anywhere outside of the "My Documents" folder, this will make the document invisible to applications. Its still on the PPC, you just cant open it.
This brings me to perhaps the most critical problem with the E-10, which it shares with the other PPCs. There's no way to quit any of the standard applications! Each active application uses up some RAM, and once you've used it all up, you can't start any new applications or create any new documents until you reset the unit and start over. This must be the first PDA Ive seen where the reset button is necessary for normal operation. Make sure you've saved all your work before you reset the unit, however. Unlike the Newton, open documents in Windows CE applications aren't continuously saved; instead, it's like your desktop PC. Unsaved work just disappears if the power goes out or you have to hit reset. At least one program I've installed, the otherwise quite useful Microsoft's Pocket Streets, seems to lack any way to save your work. In this program, any annotations (called pushpins) you make on its maps are apparently lost forever when the E-10 crashes or must be reset to recover some memory space.
In summary, the Cassiopeia E-10 comes in a good package and has good controls for right-handed users butunlike previous PDAsneeds a mirror-image version for the left-handed population.
While the display has the right size and resolution, its low contrast makes the backlight necessary under common lighting conditions. Unfortunately, poorly designed power supply circuitry and power-management software make it difficulteven riskyto use the backlight except on fresh batteries.
Probably the best feature of the E-10 is its voice-memo feature, much more useful in a palm-sized PC than in a larger HPC like the Philips Velo, but power problems limit the value of this too.
It looks like I'll be using my Newton for at least another year... in fact, I used it to write this article. It took me a few hours, but I was able to leave the backlight on the whole time, and the screentwice the size of the E-10's and much clearerjustifies every one of the Newton's 17 extra ounces. On top of that, my Newton is equipped with 32M of memory, and I have both modem and Ethernet PC cards to provide convenient connectivity no matter where I am. Yes, it cost about $2,000 for the hardware and software I use, five times the price of an E-10, but for me, the Newton is ten times more useful. If not for the fact that the Newton is out of production, I wouldnt consider switching, but unless someone comes forward with a plan to rescue the Newton from its undeserved fate, Ill have to keep looking for alternatives.
Peter N. Glaskowsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior analyst at MicroDesign Resources (http://www.MDRonline.com). Peter covers 3D and PC multimedia technology for MDR, and writes a monthly column on computer graphics for Multimedia Systems Design magazine (http://www.msdmag.com). Peters personal Web site may be found at http://www.ideaphile.com.
Power consumption on the Casio Cassiopeia E-10 Palm-sized PC
The following current measurements were taken using a Tektronix DMM914 digital multimeter in series with fresh Duracell AAA alkaline batteries.
Unit off: 0.70 mA
Unit on, idle: 16 mA
Idle, backlight on: 137 mA
Heavy stylus and CPU activity, backlight on: 337 mA (over 1 W!)
Recording to Compact Flash card: 90-196 mA (varying rapidly)
Playing audio from Compact Flash card: 81 mA