By John Higgins
February 2, 2000
I have come close to tears over a computer twice in my life. The first timewas the joy I felt when realizing
IBM's sub-three-poundWinCE-based WorkPad Z50was my dream machine I had been seeking for years. The second time
was from frustration when, just six months after I popped $800 for one, IBM discontinued the line and prices dropped
Web merchants including eCOST.com, MicroWarehouse , and PC Mall are now flooded with Z50s and several are clearing them out for $250-$300 (Insight quickly sold out at $189. They're restocking, but are expecting the price for subsequent lots to go to $320.)
Z50s have been up on auction sites like eBay for several months at a good discount to retail. However, unwary shoppers have in the past week been bidding them up to $350ish, more than the street blow-out price. The question is whether even that bargain street price is worth a plunge.
To most people -- virtually everyone, as the fire sale proves -- the Z50 is too dumb for a laptop and too big to surrender to the limitations of Windows CE 2.11. To me, the Z50 is a perfectly functional 2.7 pound laptop that can operate for eight hours on a battery and, unlike other handhelds, has a real keyboard. It's great for heavy writing and e-mail, sufficient for Web surfing.
This machine is an orphan. An IBM product manager confirms that no more Z50s are being made and no next generation is in the works. That means there will never be any way to upgrade the operating system or core applications, which are burned into a custom chip
(Other applications, however, can be loaded into the internal -- but expandable/upgradable memory or stored on a compact flash (CF) or, if you don't mind taking up the sole PC card slot, onto a Type II PC card.)
Similarly, expect Z50-specific accessories from IBM will become scarce. Meanwhile, the price of Z50 accessories has not yet dropped.
For the support-needy it is certainly more comforting to see, for example, NEC to stay in the game by replacing the similar MobilePro 750 handheld with a faster-processor, brighter-screen version, NEC's MobilePro 780 (around $750). But the 750s (which a smaller keyboard than the marvelous Z50's) aren't on fire sale, at least not this week.
To me, it simply took 16 years or so for someone to update a wonderfulmachine: the Radio Shack Model 100, perhaps
the first great portable. Sure,the screen displayed a mere eight short lines of text, just 4k of memory and no
drives of any kinds. Software was limited to what came burned onto ROM chips. But it was an just an inch or so
thick, had a built-in modem and could run on AA batteries. Without sensitive drive heads to fret over, the thing
was close to indestructible.
The Radio Shack Model 100 still has a cult following today, but these things were for years still used by roaming journalists. In electricity-scarce Third World countries or at disaster scenes, you couldn't recharge your Toshiba Portege, but you could still find AAs.
What distinguishes the Z50 -- and the old Model 100 -- from the swarm of today's other handhelds is the keyboard. IBM Thinkpads come with arguably the best keyboards among laptop PCs, and the Z50 doesn't deviate. The 17mm key pitch makes it about as comfortable for typing as a conventional laptop. A Palm Pilot is swell for jotting notes and you can tap out e-mail on the teeny keyboards on a Hewlett-Packard Journada 420, but serious writing requires something close to a full-sized keyboard.
And I much prefer the Z50's IBM Trackpoint mouse over a touchpad used by the similar HP Jornada 820 or Compag Aero 8000, or even a touchscreen. Trackpoint haters can hook up an external mouse. The Z50's 8.2-inch screen is small, but as bright as other passive matrix screens.
In contrast to the exaggerated power consumption claims of most laptop manufacturers, the Z50 lives up to its
claim of eight-hours of operation. I've never run out of juice even after a day of serious interviews, writing,
and Web surfing. I haven't stretched to the outer limits of the extended 16-hour battery (a $200 extra).
One caution that crimps my dreams: IBM includes a carrier shell that along with the extended battery holds eight AA batteries, but I have been unable to get it to work. Also, since most of the storage is RAM, the Z50 consumes some juice even when out of use. I left mine in a drawer for a month at one point and the eight-hour battery and AA backup were dead.
The big downside is the Z50 is slow. Even the dumbed-down Win CE operating system seems to overwhelm the 131
MHz MIPS processor and 16 Mbytes of internal memory. Taking the Z50 to the max by adding a $65-80 32-Mbyte memory
board helps, but not enough to describe the machine as fast. That's partly because no matter how much memory you
load into any Jupiter-class machine, Win CE 2.11 can only take advantage of 16 Mbytes. The rest is just file storage.
Unfortunately, Z50 accessory prices have not yet dropped, so the extra longer-life battery now costs almost as much as the base machine. Memory prices have not changed much since the Z50 was introduced last April. A docking kit still comes in at $100, but you can live without it.
So, a fully loaded Z50 even at the fire-sale prices for the machine proper would run more than $600, not quite an impulse buy. But you can easily get by on just extra memory and a $50 16-Mbyte CF storage card.
The internal modem is a 33.6 kilobits per second "software" modem, meaning it pulls from the machine's processing power for certain tasks. (That's a Winmodem in PC land.) Better modems have their own chip. What makes for slow surfing is the machines ability to process the Web page more than the slow speed of the modem. I haven't tried using a 56-kbps hardware modem in the Type II PCMCIA slot. But those are power hungry will suck any Win CE machines battery dry in minutes, so use it only on AC power.
Also, the WinCE versions of Microsoft applications that come with the machine have limitations, but it's perfectly adequate for a lot of users. The Z50 comes with Microsoft's Pocket versions of Word, Excel, Access, Powerpoint, Internet Explorer and Outlook, plus some communications and backup software. I've had no significant problems. The terminal communications software included has no file transfer capabilities. I bought the best shareware replacement I saw, Cambridge Software's $30 vxHpc.
The most annoying software snag is absence of Windows' "find' function. There's no ready way to quickly search the machine for a particular file name or search inside files for certain text . Fortunately, freeware utility TascalSoft's Tascal Search will do that.
As with any diskless machine, you're nuts not to get a CF flash card, and back up the entire machine frequently,
at least daily, because if there's a major vapor lock or power problem the Z50 will "forget" absolutely
everything. This has happened to me a few times. My backup files take up about 500k of space. I double-store everything
as I'm writing, once to the flash card, once to internal memory. bUseful's serviceable backup software is included.
There are several ways of moving files back and forth. The Z50 comes with IBM Mobile Connect plus a companion CD
to load onto a desktop or laptop. That readily keeps files plus Outlook calendars and address book information
synchronized on both machines. IBM includes a special serial cable to directly connect the machines. Also, an $8
PCMCIA adapter that will let a laptop read off an optional flash card. (Readily available, e.g. $7.65 at buy.com.
Several companies including Accurite and Addonics make LS-120 megafloppy drives with WinCE drivers letting you use common floppy discs on the Z50. Accurite includes the drivers in its base $269 unit (direct sales only). Addonics annoyingly sells the WinCE drivers as a $40 extra to its $249 unit. So a floppy is hard to justify. I e-mail a lot of files back and forth.
There are plenty of smaller handhelds with great battery life and lightweight laptops with great keyboards. But the Z50 is a great combination of both. The bottom line is if you need a real keyboard, fantastic battery life, and have fairly simple computing needs, the fire sale makes the Z50 a great deal. Just don't expect to upgrade it.
Update: AA Shells Available Cheap from IBM
The caddy to enable the Workpad Z50 to run off eight AAs is indeed available separately from IBM itself for a measly $6--free shipping.
Contact IBM's parts and warranty department at 800-388-7080 or 888-411-1932 Ask for FRU P/N 02K6142, a dry cell caddy for a Workpad Z50. Fulfillment takes two or weeks. Two-day service is an additional $13 (Ground shipping is free!).
This is not, as far as I can tell, available through IBM's accessories web site.
This seems a great addition, if you can get it to work. When I tried to use this caddy, it translated into a hard reset and completely trashed my software setups and data, forcing me to restore from a backup. I suspect operator error, but proceed at your own risk.
John M. Higgins is deputy editor of Broadcasting & Cable Magazine
Copyright 2001 CMP Media Inc.