Compaq Computer Corp. has repaired substantial flaws in the Microsoft Windows CE operating system to make its Aero handheld computers more useful and usable.

Although the monochrome Aero 1500 can compete ounce for ounce against the Palm handheld from Palm Computing Inc., I never had a problem with the 1500's size. I did, however, intensely dislike its OS.

In comparison reviews conducted by the Government Computer News lab, devices running WinCE have lost points compared with those running Palm OS. Compaq's engineers now have leveled the playing field via free software called QUtilities. The software can be downloaded from the Web for old and new Compaq handheld devices.

WinCE's main flaw--like that of the mythical Ouroboros snake--is that it eats its own tail. Programs stay open when the user switches to other programs. Closing them becomes a fairly difficult process.

After a time, CE devices run out of available memory and either crash or refuse to open new programs. You can't rely on a handheld's limited memory to drive multiple programs, and the problem gets worse when you have no idea what's still running.

I charged the batteries of an Aero 2130--with a color display--and synchronized it with one of the lab's test computers. Setup of the new OS download was a breeze, and the software comes standard on newer models.

To get the QUtilities program, point your browser to www.compaq.com and find the handheld devices section. The program downloads to a PC hard drive. When you connect an Aero and run the program, it downloads the new software to the handheld in about five minutes, depending on the speed of the serial port. Then you press the Aero's reset key to enable the new software.

I twice saw a message telling me to press the reset button to continue and thought the download was not completed properly. A message stating that the program has downloaded successfully but that the Aero had to be reset before the new features would take effect would have been less confusing.

Once I reset the Aero, I was treated to a surprise: The backlighted display had increased from 256 colors to 16 million. This would not be a huge boost for most business applications, but I can now look at photographs on the Aero, whereas before they were washed out.

The most noticeable difference in the OS is a giant red "Q" that appears on the task bar. When you tap the Q, the QUtilities program menu activates.

At the top of the menu bar is the most useful component, and it is, appropriately, the easiest to find. When you click on the choice marked "Close All Tasks," the utility shuts down every program running and takes you to the main CE menu. At last there's no more need to worry about a crash from too many open programs.

In addition to closing programs, QUtilities has an option called File Explorer. It brings up a menu that looks like the Windows 98 file menu, complete with a directory tree and folders. You can move files from folder to folder by dragging them along, just as on a desktop system.

There's even an option to look at network files, assuming the Aero is synchronized with a networked PC. I transferred a large file from a network drive to the Aero by clicking and dragging. Although it took some time, the file successfully transferred, and I could carry it along with me.

QUtilities has a few other nice features, such as changing the Aero's backlighting and volume settings, though they were never much of a problem.

With QUtilities, Compaq has done what Microsoft Corp. didn't: It has made CE functional. I believe the new system is even easier to use than the Palm OS, and Compaq is giving it away to all Aero users.

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QUTILITIES

Compaq Computer Corp.

Houston

Grade: A -

Phone number: 1-800-652-6672

(tech support)

Web address: www.compaq.com

Price: Free download

Purpose: Free software upgrade for Compaq handhelds

PROS:

+ Closes programs to keep Windows CE from crashing

+ Adds fully functional file utility

CONS:

- Works only with Compaq handhelds

Real-life requirements: PC and Web connection for download