Product Central Fall preview: what to look for in computers, handhelds, and peripherals.
By John Morris; Josh Taylor

(FORTUNE Small Business) – HANDHELDS

PALM M505; $449

Pros: Slim PDA with energy-efficient color screen and expansion slot; uses new Palm OS 4.0, which supports USB; includes two extra CDs with business-friendly software.

Cons: Display could be brighter and sharper in normal indoor light; Rudolph Valentino alert: plays video without sound.

The Deal: Palm's most desirable PDA in terms of speed, performance, expandability, and design.

www.palm.com

HANDSPRING VISOR NEO; $199

Pros: Blissfully inexpensive handheld among pricey PDAs; updates the earlier Visor Deluxe to Palm OS 3.5.2 with faster processor; hip, colorful cases.

Cons: Neo is just as good as earlier Visors but breaks little new ground; cheap feel to the translucent plastic.

The Deal: If your needs don't stretch beyond the basics, save your cash and go Neo.

www.handspring.com

RIM BLACKBERRY 957; $499

Pros: Executive types will revel in constant nationwide access to work e-mail; highly compatible with Microsoft Outlook; large, crisp LCD; simple setup.

Cons: Expensive price doesn't include additional $40-per-month service charge; just e-mail; thumb wrestling good practice for teeny keyboard.

The Deal: If you can swallow the price tag, the 957 is perfect for staying connected to work. Period.

www.rim.com

MOTOROLA TIMEPORT 270C; $349

Pros: Phone is comfortable on the ear; large, sharp display, built-in speakerphone, and scads of optional accessories, such as a Bluetooth or PC-sync kits; long battery life.

Cons: Slightly bulky; some accessories--$299 for the Bluetooth card!--are pricey.

The Deal: For users who can claim their cell phone as a dependent on their 1040, this is your workhorse.

www.motorola.com

NEC MOBILEPRO 790; $899

Pros: Runs miniversions of Microsoft Office apps; easy to synchronize with desktop PC; many expansion options.

Cons: Screen and keyboard small--as if you had put your laptop in the dryer; pudgy at 1.8 pounds; peek at the price.

The Deal: Neither palmtop nor notebook, that middle ground in functionality may be a no man's land.

www.necus.com

HP JORNADA 565; $599

Pros: Pocket PC with rakish silver looks and a flip cover to protect the color display; runs on the new Microsoft Pocket PC 2002 operating system; light and speedy.

Cons: Long battery life means dim backlighting; Casio and Compaq are hot on HP's heels with their own Pocket PC 2002 products.

The Deal: Solid handheld that overcomes the flaws of the previous Jornada.

www.hp.com

Sony CLIE; $399.99

In those certain circles where PDAs can be described as "sexy," the Sony CLIE PEG-N610C is considered a real head-turner. Metallic case, chrome trim, 65,000-color display with twice the resolution of the top Palm and Handspring. CLIE runs on Palm OS 4.0 and has the same speedy processor used in the Palm m505. Its Jog Dial Navigator on the side makes for easier scrolling through long documents or lists. Address book, calendar, to-do list--all of the usual PDA apps are present and accounted for, plus the CLIE bundles software to view still images and short videos. Unfortunately, it does not come with a Memory Stick (64MB for $79.95) to fully use those RAM-hogging extras. It also lacks a breadth of add-ons. At $399.99, the PEG-N610C is comparable to similar PDAs but has a better design and display. Do looks matter? We won't go there, except to say that Palm and Handspring should watch out: There's a new girl in town. (www.sonystyle.com)

LOOKING AHEAD

Convergence is the watchword in mobile devices, and that's a good thing, because we were running out of pockets--and hands. The buzz award goes to Danger Inc.'s Hiptop, a combo phone, organizer, and Web browser. Hip it is, resembling a BlackBerry two-way pager, but jazzier, featuring a thumb board that can be covered by a rotating screen. It should be available sometime in 2002. (How's that for narrowing it down?) Danger will face tough competition from new devices running Microsoft Stinger that add PDA functionality to phones, and from the next batch of Handsprings and Palms, which put voice and data into PDAs. They all sound good, but carrying one of each probably defeats the purpose, right?...All of these devices will need a reliable wireless network. One of the more promising is GPRS, an always-on voice-and-data service at speeds up to 33 Kbps--not exactly fasten-your-seat-belt speed, but with the way things are going (RIP, Ricochet), we'll take it. GPRS is live in Seattle, will hit Las Vegas and Portland, Ore., before New Year's, and reach the rest of the U.S. by the end of 2002. Can't wait? Westward, ho! --John Morris and Josh Taylor

COMPUTERS

DESKTOPS

MICRO EXPRESS MICROFLEX 1200B; $1,099

Pros: Fully configured with a 1.2GHz Athlon chip and Windows 2000 to produce screamingly fast performance; illustrated user manual a plus.

Cons: Minimal Website resources (no software updates!); average sound quality.

The Deal: Its solid performance and round-the-clock tech support (plus a four-year warranty) come at a great price, as long as you're not hung up on brand.

www.microexpress.net

ABS DURON SPECIAL; $849

Pros: Excellent expandability; 30GB hard drive and 17-inch monitor; great performance for a budget PC.

Cons: Phone support limited to weekday business hours; Corel WordPerfect Office 2002, not Microsoft, is the bundled productivity suite.

The Deal: With the PC price war, you might find a cheaper one that's faster, but this bargain-basement model is ideal for basic office needs.

www.buyabs.com

APPLE POWER MAC G4-733; $3,495

Pros: Fastest Mac on the planet; incredible graphics capabilities; built-in CD- and DVD-burner (the super Pioneer DVR-103 SuperDrive) great for storage or making demo disks; high marks for tech support.

Cons: No audio inputs; G4-733 processor isn't much faster than the last generation of chips; that great phone tech support expires after 90 days.

The Deal: If your firm is full of Mac fans and graphic designers (yep, there's some overlap in those groups), this is the ultimate, high-end multimedia machine.

www.apple.com

GATEWAY PERFORMANCE 2000XL; $2,999

Pros: Speed demon! With the works: 16X DVD-ROM, Ethernet, MS Works 2001 with Word, an optical mouse and four USB ports.

Cons: Expensive; best display (15-inch LCD) adds $200 to the price tag; limited expansion capabilities.

The Deal: Too many multimedia extras to be practical for a small office unless you have specialized needs.

www.gateway.com

COMPAQ PRESARIO 7000; $2,987

Pros: Fast, with 256MB memory and 75GB hard drive; neatness counts: Upfront USB ports and easy access to expansion slots win user-friendly points.

Cons: Only a one-year warranty included; multimedia features too advanced for many of the apps out there.

The Deal: Backed by free phone support and e-mail tech assistance, it's best suited for an up-and-coming design firm that requires lots of graphics capability.

www.compaq.com

LAPTOPS

IBM Thinkpad A22P; $3,341

Pros: Runs superfast and superlong (218 minutes in battery-life tests); includes built-in floppy and everything else you might need.

Cons: Pricey; oddball 15-inch screen has very high resolution that's hard on the eyes.

The Deal: Great as a desktop replacement and for well-outfitted travelers, but check with your optometrist first.

www.ibm.com

MICRO EXPRESS NP1000A; $2,699

Pros: Bright 15.1-in. screen; lifetime tech support via phone; sturdy case with room for additions; like the bunny, it keeps going and going--its 244-minute battery life on our drain tests was awesome.

Cons: So big (9.5 pounds and 14-in. wide) that it's not just a desktop replacement but could also be your desk; awkward mouse setup means your pinkie is always hitting the cursor pad; no quick-launch buttons.

The Deal: Hire a Sherpa if you plan on lugging this around, but it's powerful enough to replace your desktop.

www.microexpress.net

PROSTAR 2253; $1,585

Pros: Sleek looks; crisp 14.1-in. display; comfortable keyboard; quick-launch buttons; and stellar, unlimited toll-free tech-support save time.

Cons: SiS graphics chip and Windows Me sap speed; mediocre speakers, poorly placed in wrist-rest area.

The Deal: A full-featured bargain laptop that's a decent alternative to stripped-down models from A-list vendors.

www.pro-star.com

TOSHIBA LIBRETTO L1; $2,499

Pros: Glittery appearance; just three pounds; solid TrackPoint makes Web navigation painless.

Cons: Small, crowded ten-inch screen; dismal 98-minute battery life; no built-in drives or ports; limited tech-support hours.

The Deal: Small size means big costs, but it's not the price, it's the sacrifices that are ultimately too much.

www.dynamism.com

DELL LATITUDE L400; $2,356

Pros: A light 3.6 pounds with 12.1-in. screen; incredible service and support; buy once, use everywhere: can share external drives with C-Series Dell laptops.

Cons: Lacks that ooh-and-aah factor; bulky external drives; keyboard a bit noisy.

The Deal: Solid performance, a good price, and a three-year warranty make this a great pick for remote workers.

www.dell.com

NEC VERSA TXI; $3,399

Pros: Packed with extra expansion ports; quick performance in a slim, 4.1-pound body; nice scroll button.

Cons: Battery blues: a mere 81 minutes of life in our tests; tech support is tough--they have to see it (carry it in or mail it); only a one-year warranty.

The Deal: Nice balance between size and features, but poor battery life means you bring a book on the plane.

www.neccomp.com

DELL DIMENSION 8100 If you had the chance to outfit your whole office with state-of-the-art dream computers, what would you want included in the package? How about a Pentium 4 processor? Naturally. A 100GB hard drive and 256MB RAM? Check. You gotta have a slick flat-panel monitor and wrap it all up in a gunmetal-gray, easy-to-open-and-inspect chassis? Better buy the Dell Dimension 8100 ($2,729), which includes all of the above, and clocks in as the fastest desktop we've ever tested. It can do anything you need it to, except keep you online when the network's down. An Ethernet card is built in, but our test unit came without a dial-up modem. The Dimension is backed by Dell's 24-hour, toll-free tech support, and the one-year warranty included boasts onsite service. The 8100 might be too much for standard office use, both in its goodie-app load and its price, but if your tech budget is expandable, it's worth it. (www.dell.com)

FUJITSU LIFEBOOK B SERIES Road warriors in your company who have a soft spot for handhelds may find the ultralight in Fujitsu's LifeBook B Series, with its PDA-like flourishes, to be their kind of laptop. Weighing in at just under three pounds and featuring a slim profile that's less than ten inches long and 1.3-inches thick, the LifeBook ($2,299) has an extra-small keyboard but makes up for it with a stylus if you'd rather command by tapping the screen. This sucker flies well, both in performance and for travel, but the keyboard limits you to simple tasks, and the battery lasts only about 90 minutes (Fujitsu does throw in an extra one). Security features are notable: The LifeBook's two PC Card slots are smart-card capable to protect access to your data, and four programmable application buttons let you set more than 800,000 different passwords. If you want to use it at work, the included port replicator adds Ethernet, a floppy drive, and serial and parallel inputs. (www.fujitsu.com)

LOOKING AHEAD

Michael Dell and Crazy Eddie: Separated at birth? Dell's "We will not be undersold" proclamation has produced an insane PC price war, which will continue into 2002 and seems to mean Hyundai prices for BMW quality. But the dirty secret is that PC manufacturers, working with razor-thin margins, are treating onetime throw-ins as extras so they can show a lower sticker price. First to go? Service and support. The once-standard three-year parts-and-labor warranty--a boon for businesses with no in-house IT department--is now an additional $99-$119, although it usually includes on-site coverage too. It's cheaper than even one techie site visit, but be ready to pay. ... That favorite techie may soon become a pen pal, as Windows XP's new Remote Assistance feature means she'll be able to stay in her office and use the diagnostics and support tools to take control of your PC via the Net to fix your problems. Let's hope she drops that $125-an-hour travel time. ...In the laptop realm, you thought Goldilocks had tough choices? With all the emerging portable PC options, even harder decisions await. Look for more subsized notebooks, such as Casio's FIVA, that offer a 600MHz processor and 20GB hard drive, weighing just two pounds, and less than an inch thick. Unlike previous supersubs, the latest generation has keyboards friendly for all hand sizes and speed that can be measured in megahertz instead of candlepower. ...Want to supersize it? Desktop replacement laptops now offer amazing 15.7-inch screens. Easy on the eyes, but not on the shoulders. ...If you want to tap into wireless networks wherever you go, Apple, Compaq, and Dell are making it easier than ever with integrated hardware. Be careful: In some cases, all you get is the antenna--network card not included. ... Can't get through a cross-country trip on one battery? Notebooks using Transmeta's Crusoe processor will deliver up to eight hours of battery life. ...Us? Split the difference and opt for a full-featured five- to six-pound system, such as the IBM ThinkPad T-Series. Just right. --J.M. and J.T.

PERIPHERALS

Minolta Dimage 7; $1,500

Bejeweled with buttons, knobs, and dials, the 5.2-megapixel Minolta Dimage 7 boasts the highest optical resolution of all consumer digital cameras. That distinction would make any camera shutter with pride, but, alas, the power doesn't come in a perfect $1,500 package. While the camera is easy to operate, and the bevy of buttons offers up features like 7x zoom and shutter speeds from four seconds to 1/2,000 of a second, photo mavens looking for something that will deliver great pictures for catalogs, brochures, or presentations will be distracted by a grainy LCD viewfinder, a short battery life, and a handle that becomes hot after a dozen continual shots. Pictures also looked dull unless they were first run through Minolta's Image Viewer software, a time-consuming extra step. Practically speaking, if enlarging photos with megaresolution isn't your focus, other digicams cost half as much for a nearly identical shot. (www.minolta.com)

HP SCANJET 2200C; $79.99

Pros: Speedy scanner produces high-quality images; installation a snap; two idiot-proof buttons: Scan and Copy.

Cons: Included Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software can't handle text columns; bulky power adapter hogs outlet space; warranty and free phone support last only 90 days.

The Deal: Better for a home office than for a graphic-design firm, but if your needs aren't too complex, solid scanning doesn't come much cheaper.

www.hp.com

BROTHER HL-1440; $299.99

Pros: The only 15-page-per-minute laser printer that's less than $300; crisp, clean text, graphics, and photo output; easy to use; PC and Mac compatible.

Cons: Outdated two-piece toner/drum assembly also a tad pricey; separate USB driver installation confusing.

The Deal: SOHO friendly, but for offices printing in high volume, toner costs mount.

www.brother.com

NEC MULTISYNC LCD1530V; $479

Pros: Flat-panel monitor has crisp, stable images; energy-efficient; cheap but not cheaply made; eight adjustment buttons set your display and prevent others from monkeying with it.

Cons: Not so teleconference- friendly: slight ghosting and streaking on video playback.

The Deal: If it's a low-cost flat panel you seek, the 1530v is a good bet for most office applications.

www.necus.com

TOSHIBA SD-W2002 DVD-RAM DRIVE; $439

Pros: Its speed will have your PC backed up posthaste, particularly important if you have many gigabytes of data; simple installation.

Cons: Some incompatibility with other DVD formats, making it better for archiving than for toting files around town.

The Deal: You're going to pay a lot for this muffler, but this is the heavyweight of desktop optical storage.

www.toshiba.com

LOGITECH CORDLESS MOUSEMAN OPTICAL; $69.95

Pros: First mouse to combine 800dpi optical precision with cordless roaming up to six feet; no moving parts.

Cons: Keep batteries handy.

The Deal: It's just a toy to your average e-mailer, but the Mouseman's accuracy will make quite a difference in using Photoshop.

www.logitech.com

COMPEX WAVEPORT WP11; $340

Pros: This wireless access point lets you roam with a laptop in the office and stay connected, so you can e-mail while pretending to pay attention in meetings; comes with helpful documentation and toll-free support; uses the 802.11b wireless LAN standard, so it works with any other wireless devices you have.

Cons: Gave our testers only a 145-foot range at 11 mbps--less than half of its advertised 300 feet; may need to buy the WP11 its own IP address from your service provider; bring your own firewall.

The Deal: An inexpensive and solid, albeit limited, way to expand your office network.

www.cpx.com

LOOKING AHEAD

We were going to tell you about the many coming innovations in document handlers and network interface cards, but we'll spare you. Though there aren't loads of sexy new peripherals headed our way, what's hot is the way today's products will talk with one another on your desk and in the office. ... Infrared ports, common on laptops and popular for synchronizing contacts and appointments between your PC and PDA, are increasingly popping up in wireless keyboards and mice from companies like Logitech and Microsoft. Untethered mice have a tendency to stray, though: Check under the sofa cushion. ...Joining the long line of pundits to be wrong about Bluetooth, the star-crossed, short-distance wireless standard, we'll risk saying you can look for more than the current trickle of products using it. Early printers and cards are still plagued with interoperability woes, so until they reach critical mass, steer clear. ...Wireless networking using the 802.11b standard may go from novelty to staple, enabling easier sharing of devices like office printers. Expect prices to keep dropping. You'll still have to get up to go to the printer, but at least you won't trip over any cords.

--J.M. and J.T.