By BRIT HUME and T.R. REID

Windows CE is Microsoft's Windows 95 lookalike operating system for handheld and palmtop PCs. Rolled out with much ceremony at a big computer trade show in 1996, Windows CE is a sign that Microsoft is determined to compete in every market where a rival operating system might gain some traction, as has occurred with the proprietary systems built into such handheld devices as 3Com's highly popular PalmPilot.

Before you drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what "CE" stands for, here is what Microsoft itself says about that: "CE doesn't represent a single concept, but rather implies a number of Windows CE design precepts, including 'Compact, Connectable, Compatible, and Companion.' " In other words, nothing in particular.

While Windows CE, now in version 2.0, is designed to work with tiny palmtop devices with green monochrome displays, it seems more in its element in handheld PCs with color screens and keyboards, such as the Sharp Mobilon 4600, which is where we tested it.

You turn on the computer, and, presto, there is the Windows CE opening screen, which looks almost exactly like the Windows 95 "Desktop," complete with Taskbar, Start button, and icons representing the "Recycle Bin," "My Handheld PC" (like "My Computer") "Inbox," and "The Internet."

In addition, you will find icons representing a set of "Pocket" versions of major Microsoft Office applications, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Internet Explorer. All are bare-bones versions of their larger cousins, but have surprising power considering their size. Pocket Word, for example, now includes a spell checker.

Given the Justice Department's attitude toward the inclusion of Internet Explorer with Windows 95 and Windows 98, one can only imagine what it would say about the bundling of all these "pocket" versions of Windows applications with Windows CE. So far, though, no sign of any intention to sue.

Perhaps that's because Netscape has not yet developed a version of its Navigator Web browser for Windows CE, and the Justice Department seems to regard protecting Netscape's market share as one of its primary responsibilities.

Whatever else you do with your Windows CE device, you will surely want to do two things: connect to your desktop computer to share information and connect with the Internet to check your e-mail and browse the Web.

Connection to your desktop is relatively simple via a serial cable. You must load Windows CE "synchronization" software from an included CD to your desktop system. Once that's done, you will be able to exchange files between the "My Documents" folders on both computers.

You will also be able to transfer such things as e-mail messages from the "Inbox" or "Outlook" windows of your desktop to and from the "Inbox" program on your handheld. You can also exchange data between Microsoft's SchedulePlus on your desktop and the "Calendar" program on your handheld. The same for information in your handheld's "Contacts" application and your desktop's "Outlook" program.

Reaching the Web by a dial-up connection is a more complex matter.

You must use the "Remote Networking" utility in the "Communications" folder found in the programs menu. It is similar to the dial-up networking procedure in Windows 95, but different enough that it may take you awhile to get it right, especially since there are some arcane commands that you may need to enter under a tab called "Dialing Patterns" found under the "Communications" icon in the Windows CE Control Panel.

Once you get this right and get your modem to dial and log onto your network or Internet Service Provider, you may be sorely disappointed in the speed of Pocket Internet Explorer. Even with a 33.6 modem, pages load at a glacial pace, and you may be wondering if you are even achieving a 28.8 connection, let alone anything higher.

Unfortunately, Windows CE, unlike Windows 95, does not tell you how fast your connection is, so you are left to wonder. The good news is that when you are first dialing in, Windows CE seems to get you through the log-on process much faster than Windows 95.

You are likely to be much happier with your e-mail performance. Most messages come through quickly, and while Windows CE's "Inbox" is not the most full-featured of programs, it is easy to use and does the job well enough. Given the size of most handheld keyboards, you are not likely to be sending many long outgoing messages anyway.

Printing can be a nuisance, since you can only print directly from Pocket Word or Excel. You must use a serial cable or infrared connection to your printer. Most printers do not have such a connection, so you must fall back on transferring your file to your desktop and printing from there. Ouch.

T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@twp.com and Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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