BOSTON — The portable computer has slimmed down relentlessly - from laptop to notebook to something called a palmtop. (See my Jan. 28 column on the PalmPilot.)
But even a computer that fits in a shirt pocket is pass. The latest advance is small enough to fit in a billfold. It's called the Rex. Made by Franklin Electronics, it's as compact as a credit card (only thicker). And while it has its limitations, it's an important step toward the kind of 21st-century computers that will pack loads of power into unimaginably small spaces.
Already, the Rex lets you see your calendar for the next decade and beyond, including month-by-month, day-by-day, and even hour-by-hour views. No printed product could do the same in such a compact size. The Rex also contains an electronic address book, a To Do list, memo section, and a world clock with alarms. For on-the-go people who want to carry the most computer data in the least amount of space, this is the gizmo to get.
The problem is its limited interaction. Sure, you can use the Rex to read computer data, but you can't edit it or delete it. Its five buttons only allow you to maneuver around. Except for checking off items on the To Do list, it can't change the data at all. That's why it's hard to call the Rex a real computer.
Instead, it's a data-viewer that comes with - surprise! - notepaper. So, when you're away from your computer and want to remember a new phone number or appointment, you still jot it down the old-fashioned way. Then, when you're back at your regular computer, you can type the new data in.
The data gets downloaded to the Rex using special Rex software that sits on your regular computer. (But only if it's an IBM-compatible. The Macintosh is not supported.) The software puts all of Rex's functions - including calendaring and To Do lists - on your main machine. And the program makes data transfers to the Rex really easy.
Even the shape of the Rex simplifies the process. Since it fits into a standard PC Card slot found on most any notebook computer, all you do is plug it in.
If your main computer is a desktop without a PC Card slot, the Rex has an optional $40 docking station that can be easily attached.
The software also interacts with a few other scheduling and contact-management programs.
So if you already work with a program such as Lotus Organizer or ACT!, you can easily synchronize with the Rex. If you use other software, it's still possible to download its data to the Rex. I transferred my personal contacts list from a Paradox database to the Rex without too much trouble. But I wouldn't recommend doing it on a regular basis.
The Rex's screen is small but sharp. It has no backlighting, so it's useless in very low-light situations.
My biggest complaint with the Rex is its construction, however. When I tried to slide the unit into its docking station, it didn't fit. The reason: the metal backing of the card had warped outward and was catching on the lip of the docking station.
Sliding in a piece of paper underneath the Rex easily solved the problem. And Franklin customer service readily agreed to replace the unit for free. Still, one hopes the company isn't devoting so much attention to the device's electronics that it's neglecting its physical construction.
One model of the Rex can hold about 750 records. But buy the $150 model that can hold 3,000 records. The Rex has been so popular that many stores are back-ordered, so be patient. The era of billfold computing is coming. Soon.
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