Engineering:Pocket-sized computer

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Short description: Type of hardware devices

Pocket-sized computer describes the post-programmable calculator / pre-smartphone pocket-sized portable-office[1][2] hardware devices that included the earlier DOS-based palmtops and subsequent Windows-CE handhelds, as well as a few other terms, primarily covering the 1980s[3] through 2007.

Sometimes called Pocket-sized computing devices, they were a series of internally different devices, and included Handheld ("Pocket-sized handheld computing device"),[4][5][6] and the earlier-introduced Palmtop ("Pocket-sized palmtop computing device")[7][8] and "pocket-sized palmtop computer."[9][10] The New York Times used the term "palmtop/handheld."[11]

The media called "the first computer that fits in your palm and weighs less than a pound" and its early day competitors a palmtop.[12] Although the word "handheld" was used before Microsoft's 1996 introduction of Windows CE,[13] a lawsuit by Palm, Inc pushed Microsoft's use of the new term Handheld PC.[14]

By 2007, the iPhone began to replace prior portable office devices, and by a decade later there were indications that "SmartGlasses" might be their replacement.[15][16]

Timeline summary

  • 1973 - The first portable computer, the MCM/70, was introduced. It weighed about 9 kg.
  • 1975 - The second portable computer, the IBM 5100, was introduced. It weighed 50 pounds (24 kg).
  • 1977 - The original TRS-80 was introduced. It used an 8-bit Z-80 processor.
  • 1980 - The term Pocket computer began in 1980 with the popular acceptance of the oddly-named TRS-80/Tandy Pocket Computer. It was not a TRS-80, and was the first of 8 models named PC-1 through PC-8. The TRS-80 Pocket Computer PC-1[17] was a rebadged Sharp PC-1211.[18] that used two 4-bit processors.
  • 1981 - The first IBM Personal Computer
  • 1989 - The first Palmtop PC, using a 16-bit X86 processor
  • 1996 - The first Handheld PC

Neither the Palmtop PC nor the Handheld PC were pocket computers. As late as March 1981 a "computer small enough to fit in a coat pocket" had yet to be introduced.[19]

Market acceptance

The first hand-held device compatible with desktop IBM personal computers of the time was the DIP Pocket PC aka Atari Portfolio in 1989. The term "Handheld PC" described the product first introduced in 1989 by Atari as "the first computer that fits in your palm and weighs less than a pound."[20] The full version of the ad ran as eight pages and showed the device in actual size, including one page topped by a hand placing an Atari Portfolio(tm) into a suit inner lapel pocket.

Other early models were the Poqet PC of 1989 and the Hewlett Packard HP 95LX of 1991. Other DOS-compatible hand-held computers also existed. Some handheld PCs use Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, with the term also covering Windows CE devices released by the broader commercial market.

Despite the arrival in the early 2010s of devices lacking keyboards, demand for used pocket computers remained strong.[21] The PsiXpda Ultimate Pocket Computer from 2009;[22] the GPD Win from 2016; the Gemini from 2018 and the eponymous GPD Pocket commercial offerings continue to supply this market while the crowd-funded open source hardware Pandora and Pyra maintain small-scale production and ongoing development.

A combination of price and size makes them useful both for business and education;[23] they also target the "games" market.[24]


By the mid 1990s, the New York Times referred to these portable office devices as:[2]

  • Palmtop computer
  • Handheld computer
  • Pocket-size computer
  • Palmtop PC
  • Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)
  • Personal Intelligent Communicator (PIC)[25]

Pocket computer was another term used. Subsequently, another publisher's[26]"10 awesome handheld computers from yesteryear" included "1991 - HP 95LX pocket computer" even though HP called it a palmtop and HPmueum called it a handheld PC.[27] As recently as 2017, these terms were intermixed.[28]

Comparison among alternatives

Early Palmtops,[29] beginning with Atari's 1989 Portfolio, used Intel-compatible[30] x86 processors and a mostly IBM-compatible PC architecture and BIOS. Their operating system was DOS-like.

By the late-1990s, non-Intel processors and other operating systems were used for some devices, using Microsoft's Windows CE operating system,[31] even as the term Handheld was growing.

The term PC was helpful, since many Palmtop PCs and Handheld PCs came with some personal-computer, PDA and office applications pre-installed in ROM, and most of them could also run generic, off-the-shelf PC software with minimal if any modifications. Some could also run other operating systems such as GEOS, MINIX 2.0, Windows 1.0-3.0 (in Real mode only), or Linux[32]

Most palmtop PCs were based on a static hardware design for low power consumption and instant-on/off without a need to reboot. Depending on the model, the battery could power the device from several hours up to several days while running, or between a week and a year in standby mode. Combined with the instant-on/off feature, a battery would typically last from a week up to several months in practical use as PDA.

Handheld computer, Palm PC, Palmtop and Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) were used concurrently[2] and almost interchangeably.[33] to describe these pocket-sized computing devices. The acronym PIM referred to Personal Information Manager,[34] a similar type of device that often came with a stylus interface instead of a keyboard. None of these, at the time, were intended to replace the PC.[35]

Non-Wintel (Palm-top/Palm-size/Pocket computer)

Not all of the pocket-sized hardware was/is used for Windows/Intel systems.

At one point the Windows CE market share was less than 10%.[36] Terms used included:

Not all Windows-running devices had a keyboard. If they matched all of the hardware requirements except for lacking a keyboard they were known as:

  • Windows Tablet PCs
  • Windows CE Tablet PCs

A list of handheld/pocket Linux computers

Some of them ran/run Linux.[37]


Each term had a role:

Palmtop PC

Palmtop PCs from 1989 through 1996 included:

  • DIP Pocket PC (DIP DOS 2.11, 1989)
  • Atari Portfolio (DIP DOS 2.11, 1989)
  • Poqet PC Classic (MS-DOS 3.3, 80C88, 1989)
  • Poqet PC Prime (MS-DOS 3.3, 80C88)
  • Poqet PC Plus (MS-DOS 5.0, NEC V30)
  • ZEOS Pocket PC (MS-DOS 5.0, 1991)
  • Sharp PC-3000 (MS-DOS 3.3, 1991)
  • Sharp PC-3100 (MS-DOS 3.3, 1991)[38]
  • Hewlett-Packard:
    • 95LX (1991) - MS-DOS 3.22, NEC V20
    • MS-DOS 5.0, 80186-compatible HP Hornet:
      • 100LX (1993)
      • 200LX (1994)
      • 1000CX (1995)
      • 700LX (1996)

Handheld PC

The Handheld PC was a late 1990s hardware design for personal digital assistant (PDA) devices running Windows CE. It provided the appointment calendar functions usual for any PDA.

The intent of Windows CE was to provide an environment for applications compatible with the Microsoft Windows operating system, on processors better suited to low-power operation in a portable device.

Originally announced in 1996, the Handheld PC was distinct from the Palm-size, Pocket PC, or smartphone in that the specification provided for larger screen sizes as well as a keyboard.

Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)

Psion's 1984-introduced handheld palmtop device was the first Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).[39][40] Two years later the Psion Organizer[41] [42] was followed by the Psion Organizer II and other pocket-sized computers.

Other, less expensive devices of this type were Palm Inc's Palm Pilot and various Pocket PCs running Windows CE. Their main era was the 1990s,[43] and included the Apple Newton.[44][45]

Personal Information Manager (PIM)

Both by goal and by marketing, the audience for the "Personal Information Manager (PIM)" was the individual, not the corporation.[46] Market research showed that people "wanted a device that would straddle the telephone and computer."

Until the smartphones of the 2010s, the goal of what an AT&T study[47] called "an intelligent cellphone" was still pending.

See also

  • Sub-notebook, IBM- and x86- compatible, clamshell design, but larger than palmtop PCs
  • Psion netBook, ARM-based clamshell design
  • generic Netbook, IBM- and x86- compatible, legacy-free, clamshell design typically much larger than a pocket
  • Ultra-mobile PC, IBM- and x86- compatible, legacy-free, not necessarily clamshell design
  • Pen computing, using a pen/stylus rather than a keyboard, joystick or mouse
  • ActiveSync, Application for synchronizing hand-held devices and Windows PCs
  • Smartbook
  • EPOC, operating system of Psion's x86 and ARM -based palmtops and pocket computers.
  • Windows CE, one operating system of Palm-sized PCs.
  • Windows Mobile, one operating system of Pocket PCs.
  • HP Jornada, A line of Handheld, Palm-size and Pocket PCs.
  • Atari Portfolio, the first (1989)
  • Palm (PDA)


  1. "the ultimate portable office: the palmtop/handheld computer, otherwise known as the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)."
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Roger Collis (December 8, 1995). "The Palmtop, the Smallest of All". The New York Times. 
  3. "TOYS THE BIG KIDS ARE BUYING". The New York Times. December 1, 1985. 
  4. "Mobile phone: A pocket-sized handheld computing device (e.g. iPhone, HTC Tytan, Nokia N90, PDAs)." Georgios Tselentis; A. Galis (2010). "Towards the Future Internet: Emerging Trends from European Research. ISBN 978-1607505389. 
  5. "The invention relates, in another embodiment, to a pocket sized handheld computing device." "Patent US7348967". March 25, 2008. 
  6. "The rugged CETEON TXF1500 .. is .. pocket-sized Handheld Computing Device .." "ceteon-B1-1". 
  7. Professor Charles Onuwa Uwadia. "Software systems: The Driving force behind the e-Revolution". 
  8. The cited article adds "also known as a handheld device, handheld computer or simply handheld)"
  9. "The pocket-sized palmtop computer, such as the Casio Cassiopia ... The Personal Computer. McGraw-Hill Education. 
  10. "Yesterday's Financial Times reports on 'the first pocket-sized palmtop computer...'" "Fledgling American Reporter Finds a Corporate Suitor". 
  11. as have some ads: refurbished HP 95LX Palmtop Handheld"
  12. "HP's first palmtop PC thrilled the computing world by packing a complete IBM PC compatible machine in a tiny package that ran off two AA batteries. In fact, it was the first MS-DOS-based palmtop ever produced, and HP sweetened the deal by including the popular spQreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3 in ROM." "The Golden Age of HP Palmtop PCs". PC Magazine (Ziff Davis). August 18, 2016. 
  13. Times, The New York (2007). The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge, Second Edition. ISBN 978-0312376598. 
  14. "In 1996, Microsoft announced a new category, Handheld PCs, which were more or less equivalent to today's netbooks; hot on its heels were the Palm-sized PCs (originally called just 'Palm PCs' until the inevitable lawsuit from Palm Inc.). Both ran a version of the Windows CE OS." Josh Fruhlinger (March 24, 2010). "10 Ways Microsoft Tried and Failed to Rule Mobile". CIO. 
  15. Steve Ranger (April 23, 2017). "The death of the smartphone is closer than you think. Here's what comes next". 
  16. "Every technology rises, then falls: soon it will be the turn of the smartphone. But what will replace it?"
  17. REDIRECTS to Sharp PC-1211
  18. MyCalcDB - "A Big database for small calculators." "Sharp PC-1211". 
  19. vs. "an overgrown calculator" or a "briefcase-sized computer." Andrew Pollack (March 26, 1981). "The Portable Computer". 
  20. "Introducing the first computer that fits in your palm and weighs less than a pound". Asheville Citizen-Times (Asheville, North Carolina). May 20, 1990. 
  21. "Buy Used and Save: Buy a Used 'Hewlett Packard 200LX 2 MB Palmtop PC' and save 43% off the $499.00 list price. Buy with confidence as the condition of this item and its timely delivery are guaranteed under the 'Amazon A-to-z Guarantee'. " Hewlett Packard 200LX 2 MB Palmtop PC: Electronics". January 17, 2018. 
  22. "PsiXpda UMPC review". January 19, 2010. 
  23. "This paper reports how palmtop computers were used in an English secondary school over the course of a year. In particular, it concentrates on the perceived effectiveness of such computers in an educational setting." S Robertson (1997). "The use and effectiveness of palmtop computers". British Journal of Educational Technology 28 (3): 177–189. doi:10.1111/1467-8535.00024. 
  24. "A palmtop computer with integrated game controller". 
  25. "the ultimate portable office: the palmtop/handheld computer, otherwise known as the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or the chiliastic Personal Intelligent Communicator (PIC)."
  26. Ziff-Davis
  27. "HP's LX series was a successful example of a handheld computer that ran MS-DOS."
  28. per an ad for a refurbished "HP 95LX Palmtop Handheld Calculator 1 MB Memory"
  29. John Walkenbach (June 17, 1991). "HP 95LX Palmtop". Infoworld. 
  30. "Jaguar The HP Palmtop series". 
  31. "The History of Windows CE: Windows CE 1". 
  32. the latter when equipped with additional RAM/beyond-8088 hardware.
  33. "PDA". 
  34. "PIM". 
  35. "Palm Pilot". 
  36. "IDC releases Q2 tablet PC marketshare, Windows still trails iOS and Android". MSPoweruser. 2 August 2016. 
  37. "A list of handheld/pocket Linux computers". 
  38. a 2Mb version of the 3000
  39. sometimes identified as Personal Data Assistant
  40. "PDA - handheld computer". 
  41. with only a two-line display and a non-standard/Alphabetical/non-QWERTY keyboard
  42. "History of the Personal Data Assistant (PDA)". 
  43. "The Last Computer". June 26, 2007. 
  44. 1993-1998.
  45. which attempted handwriting recognition
  46. "all still hunger for the Holy Grail of the general consumer." "The Return of the PDA". February 1995. 
  47. Kevin Compton, AT&T

External links