A crash course in Windows CE

Brien Posey introduces the Windows CE operating system, which is increasing in popularity. He also explains the differences in the hardware that's used to run Windows CE, and he answers common questions about the operating system.

With Windows CE devices steadily becoming smaller and more powerful, it's no wonder that Windows CE is increasing in popularity. If you've never used Windows CE, you might be surprised to discover that there are a variety of devices that run Windows CE and that each of these devices has its own unique purpose. In this Daily Drill Down, we'll introduce you to the Windows CE operating system. We'll explain the differences in the hardware that’s used to run Windows CE, and we’ll answer several common Windows CE questions.

What is Windows CE?
Windows CE stands for a number of different things, depending on whom you ask. It's generally accepted that CE stands for Compact Edition. Windows CE is a full-featured Windows operating system that’s designed to run on low powered devices, such as electronic organizers. Windows CE allows these otherwise different devices to share a Windows 95-style desktop and to run a common set of applications.

Hardware platforms
Windows CE is designed to run on a variety of devices. These devices may include PDA devices (electronic organizers), palm top computers, and other devices, such as specific types of telephones and stereos.

PDA devices
Of the various Windows CE devices, PDAs may be the most popular. PDA devices have only a few buttons and no keyboard. This lack of buttons makes them more durable and easier to use than traditional computers. Typically, a user interacts with a PDA with an ink pen-like device called a stylus. The stylus allows the user to select options from the touch screen in a manner similar to that of using a mouse. If text input is required, a user can access an on-screen keyboard and select the keys with the stylus.

PDA devices are intended for users who don't require all of the power that a desktop or laptop computer has. PDA devices are little more than electronic calendars that have the ability to send and receive e-mail and browse the Web in text mode. PDAs also contain task managers and contact lists. PDA devices enable you to exchange data, such as contact lists, dates, and tasks, with your computer by using a docking cradle that’s usually included with the device.

Palmtop devices
Palmtop computers, such as the Hewlett Packard Jornada, are much more similar to traditional desktop and laptop computers. Palmtops are intended for users who need the power of a computer but who don't want to carry around a laptop. Unfortunately, a palmtop won't fit in your shirt pocket the way most PDAs do, but it's still very small. The Jornada tips the scale at a whopping one pound.

Palmtops typically come pre-loaded with more software than PDAs do. For example, the Jornada comes preloaded with pocket versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, Power Point, and Access. These programs contain most of the popular features of Microsoft Office and are capable of working with Office 2000 documents. Another difference between the software on the two devices is that the palmtop comes with a full-featured Web browser that allows you to view graphics instead of just text.

From a hardware perspective, the differences are obvious. The palmtop contains a keyboard, while the PDA doesn't. (You'll still use a stylus for mouse control, though.) Second, the palmtop contains a high-resolution color screen. Most PDAs use a monochrome screen, though Compaq does make a color model. Finally, there are differences in expandability. The palmtop enables you to attach a VGA monitor through the use of an expansion card. You also can use an NE2000 compatible network card to attach to your network. Palmtops usually have more memory than PDAs, which is to be expected, given the difference in purpose of the two machines. The Jornada contains 32 MB of RAM. It’s not uncommon to find PDAs with 8 MB of memory, and some high-end PDAs contain up to 24 MB of memory.

Both types of machines contain standard features. Sound support and touch screens are common features of PDAs and palmtops. From a connectivity standpoint, the machines are very similar. Both contain an integrated analog modem and support connections to a desktop PC via a docking cradle or wireless infrared link. An important difference is that the palmtop not only allows you to use a network card (the PDA doesn't), but its infrared port is also more powerful. You can download programs from the Internet that allow you to use your palmtop to control various remote control devices, such as TVs and stereos, via the device's infrared port.

Of course, the difference in purpose and power means a difference in price. While PDA style devices typically cost between $200 and $400, palmtops can cost anywhere from $650 to $1000.

Imbedded devices
Other types of devices also use the Windows CE operating system. For example, Clarion and Microsoft have created a car stereo called the AutoPC. Although this stereo doesn't use the familiar Windows 95 interface, it's very powerful. The voice-controlled stereo can perform such tasks as reading your e-mail to you while you’re driving, dialing your cellular phone, and providing you with directions to your destination.

At the fall 1999 COMDEX in Las Vegas, other companies demonstrated new Windows CE devices, including telephones with organizers and Web browsers built in.

Windows CE basics
With the exception of the integrated devices that we’ve discussed, the Windows CE operating system is basically the same for any device. Therefore, it makes sense to spend a few minutes discussing the operating system itself.

Most Windows CE devices feature the standard Windows 95 interface. You can access the Start menu by clicking the Start button with the stylus. Upon doing so, you'll see the familiar Windows menu commands, such as Programs, Favorites, Documents, Settings, Help, and Run. One command that you may not find is the Shutdown command. On some Windows CE machines, this command has been replaced with the Suspend command.

On other machines, you simply turn the machine off without having to perform a shutdown because the devices that run Windows CE are different from other types of computers. On a desktop or laptop computer, if you turn the computer off without performing a shutdown, you risk corrupting the information on the hard disk. Windows CE devices don’t have hard disks because they store everything in RAM. A small battery ensures that all information is saved, even when the main power source is cut off. Windows CE allows you to control how the RAM is used by enabling you to set how much RAM is used for program and data storage and how much is set aside for the applications and the operating system.

As you'd expect with any other version of Windows, Windows CE also contains a Control Panel. The Windows CE Control Panel contains a wide variety of icons, but it isn't as extensive as the Control Panel found on Windows 9x or Windows NT. You can use the Windows CE Control Panel to control settings, such as communications settings, owner information, regional settings, sounds, and the way that the system uses its memory. You also can use Control Panel to add and remove programs, calibrate the stylus, and set backup options.

The fact that you can add and remove programs may lead you to the assumption that Windows CE can run any Windows program. However, it isn't the case. Windows CE is designed to run on a Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) system. RISC systems can't run the same programs that a standard PC does. However, there are plenty of programs written for Windows CE that you can download from the Internet. You also can recompile specific programs to work under Windows CE. Data files work fine with Windows CE; however some data files, such as Microsoft Office documents, BMP files, and WAV files, go through an automatic translation when they are sent to the Windows CE device.

Although Windows CE is designed to run on RISC-based systems, its functionality isn’t very different from other Windows platforms. Windows CE contains a Registry, just like Windows 9x and Windows NT. You can download a Registry editor from the Internet that will enable you to view and modify the Windows CE Registry. We'll be publishing a Daily Drill Down about the Windows CE Registry in the future.

Windows CE devices arrange directories and files in a manner that’s very similar to Windows 9x (although most of the file names are different). You can view this arrangement by browsing the device with the My Handheld PC icon. If you'd prefer to browse from the command line, you can do so by downloading an MS-DOS shell for Windows CE from the Internet.

Brien M. Posey is an MCSE and works as a freelance technical writer and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you’d like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail . (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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