Friday 10 April 2020

Compaq iPAQ H3600 (2000)

Compaq iPAQ H3630
Launched April 2000

PDAs had been developing rapidly in the around the turn of the millennium. Popularised by the iconic Palm Pilot of 1996, the market had grown and evolved considerably over the next few years – and these little gadgets had a particular appeal to business decision makers.

While Microsoft owed the desktop, they had very little penetration in the handheld market. Attempts to push Windows CE in this market segment had not been very successful, but version 3.0 of the OS (launched in 2000) was a vast improvement. Alongside this new version of Windows, Compaq launched the iPAQ H3600 series on handheld computers running the Windows CE 3.0-based Pocket PC 2000 platform.

Compaq had some form in the handheld market, with devices such as the Aero 1500 and Aero 2100 preceding it. But the development story behind the iPAQ actually begins with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) who had developed the StrongARM CPU in the late 1990s along with two reference boards (“Assebet” and “Neponset”) which became the hardware basis for the iPAQ. This was developed into a development system called “Itsy”. DEC was in its dying days however, and while StrongARM ended up with Intel, the rest of DEC was bought out by Compaq in 1998 who continued to develop the Itsy platform.

The iPAQ wasn’t much like the Itsy – for a start it ran Windows CE and not Linux – but it did show all the experience that Compaq had acquired in the previous few years. Although today we might remember “iPAQ” as referring exclusively to handheld devices, this sub-brand included legacy-free PCs, MP3 players, projectors, web appliances and even Compaq-branded BlackBerry smartphones. The H3600 range slotted into this range of next-gen futuristic products quite nicely.

So much for the history – the hardware itself was what buyers were interested in. One immediately obvious feature was the large 3.8” 240 x 320 pixel TFT touchscreen display. Although you could do pretty much anything just on the touchscreen alone, a large navigation pad and other control buttons also took up quite a lot of space. The resistive technologies in the display combined with a general fiddlyness of the OS design meant that a stylus was required, and this simply slid out of a slot in the back.
HP branded iPAQ

Inside was a 206MHz StrongARM CPU with 32MB of RAM, and the iPAQ could connect to a desktop computer via a serial or USB cable. There was also an infrared port (common in those days) but no built-in Bluetooth, WiFi, Ethernet, cellular or any other connectivity at all. You could add WiFi, a modem, memory cards, expansion slots or a larger battery with a series of elegant but bulky sleeves that slid into place around the main housing.

Out-of-the-box the iPAQ was rather limited. If you wanted to read emails on the move you would have to sync them with your PC first, type a reply on the go and then sync them again later. Web access was possible through the connected PC only which was a bit pointless, unless you had an expansion sleeve. But it was far better than previous generations and the lack of mobile connectivity didn’t seem as bad in those days.

The iPAQ was a success, but it Compaq itself was struggling and just four years after acquiring DEC, Compaq itself was acquired by Hewlett-Packard (HP). The iPAQ survived the inevitable product rationalisation that followed and it continued to evolve, adding built-in WiFi and a number of other features missing from the original.

We know now that the standalone PDA was a dead end, but in the early noughties sales were still strong. A change was coming with the introduction of the “wireless PDA” (what we would call a smartphone today), with the 2002 HTC Wallaby being a direct competitor for the iPAQ, but with an integrated cellular radio. HTC had been one of the main contractors in helping to build and design the iPAQ, and eventually they became pioneers in smartphones… the product that really killed the iPAQ off.

Despite losing sales to smartphones, the iPAQ name hung on until 2009 with the unpleasant sounding iPAQ Glisten being the last of the line. Not too long after that HP’s entire mobile strategy imploded dramatically, effectively leading to them pulling out of the market completely.

As a collectable the original iPAQs are kind of interesting, prices do seem to vary a lot
From about £70 to a couple of hundred depending on condition and accessories.

Image credits:
Andreas Steinhoff via Wikimedia Commons
Konrad Andrews via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.0

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