User Review: FutureCom Global NETA 980

by Gary Oke
(der Anwenderbericht in deutscher ‹bersetzung ist hier zu finden)


Consumers in search of a bargain Windows CE.NET device need look no further than the FutureCom Global NETA 980. NETA stands for "Network Enabled Tablet Assistant". The "Network Enabled" part alludes to the fact that it has several wireless drivers already built-in (but no included wireless card), and a handful of network (Internet) enabled applications. The "Tablet Assistant" part should be obvious, given its Tablet PC form factor. The design on which the NETA 980 is based has been seen before from other companies, including Abocom and Viewsonic. However, this design has never been seen with the current price point and bundle at which FutureCom is selling it. For just $250 USD / 205 EUR (not including shipping) you get a rather complete bundle.

THE BUNDLE

Whatís in the Box:
NETA 980 Windows CE.NET Tablet
AC Adapter with Power Cord (US)
2 x Stylus Pens (most OEMs charge for extra pens)
VGA-out Adapter
2 x USB Sync Cables (one for the base, one for the main unit)
Removable Lithium-Ion Battery; Standard Capacity
User Manual and Warranty Information
Portfolio-Style Carrying Case (most OEMs charge for a case)
Docking Base (this can be a $200 option with most OEMs)

Whatís Missing from the Box:
A Wireless Card (FutureCom Global recommends the Cisco Aironet 350)
Additional Software / ActiveSync

As you can see, the bundle is pretty complete. Add your own wireless card and download the latest version of ActiveSync from Microsoft and you will be ready to work. If you compare this Tablet to similar models, such as Viewsonicís AirPanel 100, you will see the value. The included docking station adds two front Type-A USB ports, two rear Type-A USB ports, one rear Type-B USB port, and two standard PS/2 ports for a mouse and keyboard. It will also charge the NETA 980 whenever docked. Added to the bundleís value are the case and extra stylus. The included manual is a little light in terms of detail, but if you are a seasoned Windows CE user you should have no problems figuring all the features out.

THE HARDWARE

Processor     Intel StrongARM 1110 206MHz and Companion Chip SA1111
RAM     128MB SDRAM Onboard Memory
ROM     64MB Flash Onboard ROM
Video     10.4" TFT Touch Screen Display with SVGA (800x600) Resolution (note: not meant for outdoor viewing), supports both Portrait & Landscape Display Modes
VGA-out port (adapter included)
Audio     Built-in Speaker, Microphone, and Headphone Jack
Ports     USB
DC-IN (Power Adapter included)
Headphones (standard 3.5mm)
Cradle Connector (Docking Cradle included)
Mini-VGA Connector (VGA-out adapter included)
PCMCIA Type II
Compact Flash Type II
IrDA (non-advertised feature)
Controls     Touch Screen w/Stylus
One four-ways button support cursor-mode & page-mode, "ENTER" key can launch application
One toggle button to switch four-way button between cursor-mode & page-mode
One AP Launch Button (launches Internet Explorer)
One pivot button (actually this launches the input panel, or keyboard)
One power button, Control Dial (forward, back, select)
Battery     Standard 4-cell Li-Ion Battery (included) ~ 3+ Hours, An Extended 8-cell Li-Ion Battery is available ~ 6+ Hours
Wireless     WLAN optional, supports 802.11b
Docking Station     1 USB Type B connector for synchronization with PC
4 USB Type A ports (two front, two rear)
2 PS/2 connectors (keyboard, mouse)
DC-IN (for AC Adapter)
Dimensions & Weight     Height .85 in (22 mm)
Width 9.3 in (236 mm)
Depth 11 in (279 mm)
Weight 2.4 lbs (1088 g)

The hardware specifications are a little on the conservative side for todayís Handheld PC market. The NETA 980 has a StrongARM instead of the faster XScale processor. Battery life is not all that great, although I have found the 3 hour estimate to be accurate (I keep the brightness level on medium-high). The screen is bright and clear, even with a screen-protector installed and the 10.4" 800x600 resolution gives plenty of detail for almost any task - very little scrolling needed and perfect for reading eBooks, DOC, or PDF files. PowerPoint and Excel files are also easy on the eyes.

THE SOFTWARE

The NETA 980 comes loaded with Window CE.NET 4.1. If you have been following the transformation of the Handheld PC over years you can see that - from Handheld PC 2000 (CE 3.0 core) through the current CE. NET 4.x offering - Microsoft has turned the Handheld version of CE into more of a document viewer than a document editor. HPC 2000 came with an entire suite of basic office applications: Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Pocket PowerPoint, and Pocket Access. HPC 2000 also was equipped with a Microsoft Outlook compatible Inbox and PIM (Personal Information Manager - Contacts, Calendar, and Tasks). HPC CE.NET 4.x dropped most of this software in favor of document viewers and left PIM software and editors up to the discretion of OEMs. The NETA 980 does not disappoint in its application suite and a simple PIM along with a couple of basic editors are included to replace HPC 2000s Pocket Office suite.


Screenshot 1: The Default "Out-of-the-Box" Desktop on the NETA 980

Included Software: Windows CE.NET 4.1 Operating System, Internet Explorer 5.5, Macromedia Flash Player 6.0, Remote Desktop Client (RDI 5.1), XML.NET, Citrix ICA 6.3, Insignia JVM 1.10.4, Microsoft Windows Media Player, Pocket WordPad (DOC editor), PTab Spreadsheet (Excel editor), MS File Viewers (for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF, and Images) , Messenger.NET, Inbox, Pocket On-Schedule (Address Book, Calendar, Task Manager, Notes), Handwriting Recognition (Transcriber), Ink Writer, Voice Recorder, and Active Sync.

What Runs on CE.NET 4.1: While the WordPad and PTab editors are nice additions, they are quite limited. Iíd recommend SoftMakerís excellent TextMaker and PlanMaker products for documents and spreadsheets. Both run fine on the NETA 980. MobiPocket is a nice little eBook reader (see Screenshot 2 below). Also, WinCESoftís GAPI module is said to be compatible with the NETA 980 and allows you to run some Pocket PC games on the Tablet - and take advantage of the 800x600 resolution (see the links at the bottom of this article to the WinCESoft site to see what the Pocket PC game "Warfare Incorporated" looks like at 800x600). Other then these few programs I have not loaded much software. My suggestions for finding compatible titles are to try to find HPC Pro (CE 2.1x), HPC 2000 (CE 3.0), or CE.NET 4.0 and 4.1 titles written for the ARM processor. Websites dedicated to similar devices, such as the Viewsonic AirPanel, Siemens SimPAD or the Samsung NEXiO are good places to start. Note: software written specifically for CE.NET 4.2 (which I have heard uses the same core as Windows Mobile 2003SE) is not compatible with the NETA 980 (at least not out of the box).


Screenshot 2: MobiPocket displaying "Aesopís Fables" with Maximum Font Size

Is It Upgradeable? FutureCom Global states that the NETA 980 is not upgradeable to Windows CE.NET 4.2 or Windows Mobile 5.0. This statement means that FutureCom will not support such an upgrade. Certainly the hardware should be compatible with at least 4.2. It has a 64mb Flash ROM and plenty of memory (128mb). If Viewsonic or Abacom release a ROM upgrade it might be possible to use it with the NETA 980. However, it is not likely that such an upgrade would ever be released. The only way I could see an upgrade such as this happening is if someone were to write one - similar to what happened with the Siemens SimPAD, which only came in HPC 2000, .NET 4.0, or .NET 4.1 flavors before someone made a ROM update available. Internet Explorer 6.0 and Remote Desktop 5.2 may be worth the upgrade for some.

CONCLUSION

Considering that Windows Mobile 5.0 devices are right around the corner, I have been asked if the FutureCom Global NETA 980 is worth picking up. For $250 USD / 205 EUR I would say definitely. Itís extremely difficult to find a good CE.NET device for under $500 USD / 410 EUR, so at this price itís a steal. The NETA 980 bundle is excellent. If you are a keyboard user (like me), you can add a foldable USB keyboard to the NETA for travel. The included portfolio case can prop the unit up just like a laptop screen making it easy to work on the road. If you are looking for a large screen document reader and do not need to add tons of additional software, then the NETA 980 can fill your needs quite nicely. Clamshell HPC fans and keyboard lovers may want to wait for the next generation of HPCs to arrive.

POSITIVES:

  • Price, Price, Price (get them while they last)
  • 10.4" 800x600 Screen (great for document viewing and editing; great for web pages)
  • Dual Expansion (CF and PCMCIA)
  • USB support (although limited to peripherals)
  • Parts and accessories still available (through FutureCom or Viewsonic)

NEGATIVES:

  • Wireless Card not included (but for $250, you may have money left to buy one)
  • Inserting peripherals (keyboards, mice, etc.) may require a few soft resets
  • Remote Desktop is a little tricky to set up
  • Portrait Mode tends to lock up every so often on my device (not sure why).
  • Poor Manual; covers just the basics (experienced HPC users only)
  • Limited Support from FutureCom Global (again, experienced HPC users only)
  • Office viewers are limited (for example, Adobe 7.0 PDFs do not display)

PRICING / WHERE TO BUY (pricing as of September 2005)
$250 Buy New from FutureCom Globalís eBay store (they typically list 5 each week)
$500 Buy Direct from FutureComís WebSite; recently lowered from $900 to $500; Accessories for the NETA 980 have also been reduced in the past month buy up to 40%

LINKS (as referenced in the article - active as of September 2005)
FC eBay Store: http://stores.ebay.com/FutureCom-Global ("Web Tablet CE.NET 4.1 + Flash")
FutureCom Globalís Online Store: http://store.futurecomglobal.com/ 
SoftMaker: http://www.softmaker.de/ (German) or http://www.softmaker.com/english/ 
WinCESoft.de: www.wincesoft.de (Main Site)
Picture of Warfare Inc at 800x600: http://www.wincesoft.de/Warfare_Incorporated_800x600.jpg
MobilePocket eBook Reader: http://www.mobipocket.com

22 September 2005
Gary Oke
(HPC user since 2001; the NETA 980 is my current HPC. Previous devices owned: Jornadas 720 and 820; MobilePros 700, 750C, 780, and 790. Dream Device: a Windows Mobile 5.0 subnotebook with at least 800x600 resolution, Media Player 10 with music subscription support, and Microsoft Reader)

Namentlich gekennzeichnete Anwendertestberichte geben ausschlieŖlich die Erfahrungen und Meinungen des Autors wieder.


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