Test Drive: Casio Cassiopeia BE-300

Eric Grevstad

Palm OS handhelds are famous for their simplicity, while Microsoft’s Pocket PC 2002 platform is pushing powerful PDAs into the corporate enterprise. Casio is aiming to split the difference with what it calls not a Pocket PC but a “Pocket Manager” – and the lowest-priced color-screened, Web- and e-mail-capable PDA you can buy.

Like Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and NEC, Casio sells a super-deluxe Pocket PC 2002 handheld with a stratospheric $600 price (the Cassiopeia E-200). But the Cassiopeia BE-300, based not on Pocket PC but a variant of Microsoft’s older Windows CE 3.0, was introduced a couple of months ago at $300 — and now that Palm and Handspring have cut their color-screened Palm IIIc and Visor Prism to that level, Casio’s lowered the BE-300 to $200, and CompUSA is selling it for $170.

That’s an incredible value, and should make the Pocket Manager popular enough to reduce what we admit is its main risk: the possibility of being an orphaned, proprietary PDA like the Royal DaVinci, overlooked by hardware and software vendors’ focus on the Palm and Pocket PC markets. Casio’s Web site, along with banners urging and offering incentives for software developers to support it, currently offers some two dozen programs for the BE-300, from a few desirable applications like Z4Soft’s PTab spreadsheet ($30) and the PocketTV MPEG player ($10) to undistinguished games and to-do and birthday lists.

The PDA has a CompactFlash Type II slot for peripherals like wired and wireless modems and network cards as well as memory storage, but cards you buy off the shelf may not include drivers for it. Casio sells a 56Kbps dial-up modem for $130 and Z-Com 802.11b wireless network adapter for $150, as well as a $160 adapter for PC Cards and $200 digital camera.

But even without add-ons, the BE-300 makes it hard to consider buying a low-end, monochrome handheld. Its 3.2-inch, 320 by 240-pixel display is pleasantly bright and sharp, and shows 32,000-plus colors – half as many as fancier PDAs, but still plenty for the supplied image and video-clip viewers. It also plays MP3 music files through a stereo earphone jack.

It doesn’t have Pocket Word or Excel, but comes with Quick View Plus software to view (but not edit) document and spreadsheet as well as graphics files, and synchronizes address-book, calendar, task-list, and e-mail data with your desktop or laptop PC’s Microsoft Outlook. (Users of Outlook Express or other personal information managers are out of luck; the Casio doesn’t come with an equivalent to Palm Desktop.)

Its 166MHz NEC VR4131 processor loads and switches among applications quickly, though not instantly, and its handwriting-recognition input is surprisingly accurate, though not perfect. You can also scribble freehand notes or tap on an on-screen keyboard.

And while a bit bulky to ride in your shirt pocket (3 by 4.8 by 0.7 inches), the BE-300 fits neatly into a jacket pocket, and weighs just six ounces (5.9 on our postage scale, or 5.5 without its flip-up plastic screen cover). Add a nicely simple interface, with a full-screen main menu instead of the quasi-Windows Start menu of Pocket PC 2002, and you’ve got today’s best PDA bargain – not that there seems to be much competition for that title, with the handheld market racing after upscale execs instead of consumers.

The BE-300 relies more on its touch screen than the buttons on its front panel (i.e., you’ll hold it in one hand and the stylus with the other instead of comfortably using the device one-handed); we rarely bothered with the four-way arrow/navigation button or OK (Enter) and Esc keys.

A power button and “launcher” (return to main menu) key complete the front panel. Seven icons below the screen provide shortcut access to the primary applications – calendar, contacts, task list, notes, mail, Internet, and setup (the last icon can be configured to launch another program).

The CompactFlash slot and storage hole for the stylus are on the Cassiopeia’s top, with a recessed reset button on the left side and earphone and AC adapter jacks plus a serial-port connector (for its USB docking cradle) on the bottom. The connector is covered by a detachable plastic flap that will get lost within hours.

Casio says the Pocket Manager’s lithium-ion battery will give a week’s use between charges, which take three to four hours with the AC adapter connected either directly to the PDA or to the docking cradle. In our tests, that meant four to five hours of actual operation, though we confess we splurged on screen brightness (using only the top two of the five levels). The computer has 16MB of RAM and 16MB of flash ROM, which preserves loaded programs and data even if the battery runs out and lets you delete built-in programs — if you never use the alarm clock or calculator, say, or want to lose the ad for the www.MyCasio.com services Web site — to make room for downloaded ones.

An icon at the bottom of the screen lets you display, hide, and switch between the on-screen keyboard and handwriting-recognition input area. The latter (with tabs for entering letters, numbers, and punctuation symbols) uses Sweden’s Decama recognition software, which isn’t as fast or accurate as Palm’s Graffiti but doesn’t require you to learn a special alphabet – your regular printing works very well, although we had to break down and look at the manual to learn how to get our H’s and K’s recognized.

The built-in PIM applications let you enter and search contact information; keep a list of to-do tasks; write notes, using either text input or freehand (bitmapped) scrawls and doodles with several colors and thin, medium, or fat pen strokes; and manage your appointment calendar.

The task list is a skimpy, two-column affair – it lets you assign an item a high, middle, or low priority, but not specify a due date – but the address book and calendar squeeze plenty of detail into the PDA’s small screen. We were particularly pleased with the calendar, which deftly handles single or recurring appointments and reminder alarms and uses a variety of colors for good, at-a-glance viewing (and dragging and dropping) of your daily schedule, a week’s worth of appointments and busy time slots, or a three-month calendar.

And if you have a CompactFlash modem or LAN card (and correctly enter server names, passwords, and other data in a somewhat intimidating Connections configuration utility), you can enjoy the Cassiopeia’s Mail and Internet programs. The former is an e-mail client that supports multiple accounts and attachments, as well as a feature that lets you highlight and then save commonly used or boilerplate phrases to a menu for later reuse. The latter is a cute little Web browser that supports bookmarks and Javascript, as well as letting you select and view just one frame on a Web page; save a page or images to memory or a CompactFlash memory card for offline viewing; and switch between full-size (with both vertical and horizonal scrolling) and a mini thumbnail view of sites.

The BE-300’s link to Windows PCs – based on the supplied Pumatech Intellisync software, not Microsoft’s ActiveSync or Windows CE Services – isn’t as elegant as some PDAs’, but works adequately. Selecting synchronization links to any or all of Microsoft Outlook’s mail, calendar, task, and contact list is simple, as is installing third-party programs or the music and movie player, photo viewer, and Quick View Plus on the Casio CD (with the device in its docking cradle, double-clicking an icon on the PC starts the download-and-install process and restarts the PDA when necessary).

But when you want to use Quick View Plus with Word or Excel files or the music player with MP3 songs, moving files between your PC and the Cassiopeia isn’t as easy as dragging them from one folder to another in Windows Explorer. You must use Intellisync to specify a pair of folders to synchronize, such as the My Documents folder on each computer, and install and use a provided File Manager utility to navigate and cut and paste items amid a tree of directory folders that’s just as complex as desktop Windows, with names like Nand Disk and the opportunity for inexpert users to mess up the BE-300’s Windows or Program Files folders.

Still, rough edges like that are a tolerable tradeoff for such a standout value. The Cassiopeia BE-300 is a PDA, not a PC alternative like the uppermost Pocket PC 2002 models – but a PDA priced low enough for the most casual consumer, yet capable enough for almost any business traveler.

Casio Cassiopeia BE-300 Pocket Manager – $200
Casio, www.casio.com

Pros: Nice color screen and six-ounce shape; CompactFlash memory/expansion slot and e-mail/browser support; a steal – $100 to $400 less than other color PDAs.

Cons: Difficult to use one-handed; PC sync/file transfer could be easier; future third-party support is a question mark.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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