Phatware's HPC Notes Professional 4.3d

It was always a contentious issue. Why Microsoft never included the ability to natively synchronise Notes to the Handheld PC.
What was Microsoft's loss however is PhatWare's gain!

Digital Notes are either a feature you will use religiously, or simply not 'get'. Wanting to leave yourself a virtual "post-it" note is perhaps something that stems from each of our individual personalities rather than a universal technological desire.

If you are one such person, then you are in luck. PhatWare's HPC Notes Professional is quite simply the cream of the PDA organisational crop.
PhatWare are one of the Handheld PC communities' oldest commercial developers, having started developing back in the days of the original Windows CE 1, with their inaugural product being… HPC Notes.

Seven years later, the Handheld PC version is still very much alive and kicking, at version 4.3d. HPC Notes is available in three different flavours. 'Lite', Standard and Professional.
All are based around the same PhatWare notes engine, the three versions offer a different feature set to PDA users based on their own needs.

'Lite' simply provides the Handheld PC application, with no synchronisation module. Step up to the Standard edition and the ability to synchronise your Handheld PC with Microsoft Outlook's Notes is added to the package.
The Professional version is a considerable step on from its sisters. Professional far surpasses the abilities of Microsoft Outlook's notes by providing a robust, highly customisable and highly expandable platform for note and content management. This is done not only on your Handheld PC, but on your desktop as well.

HPC Notes Professional is available as a web download directly from the PhatWare FTP server, the 13MB installer containing a hybridised licensed and trial version of the product. Installation is very straight forward using the host side installer.

While the install footprint on the host may seem rather high, with a full-feature installation weighing in at roughly 25MB. You are getting a lot for your money.
Not only does the installer contain host and Windows CE version of HPC Notes, but also full versions of another PhatWare program - HPC Spell (r.r.p. $17.95) for both Windows and Windows CE. On top of the Handheld PC version the installer also includes Pocket PC and, surprisingly (Exclusive to the Professional edition) a Palm OS version of the programs, with full Palm Desk HotSync support included should you also be a Palm user.
If that wasn't enough a comprehensive PDF Users Guide is included with the installation in addition to the integrated application help files.

The install is customisable, should you wish to exclude various optional components from the package. Notes immediately integrates into the ActiveSync client during the final stage of the setup, circumventing the need to reboot the computer. One thing to note is that if you are not a Palm user the installer will display an error message "Unable to restart HotSync error message on install" as the setup program attempts to integrate into any Palm Desk installation. While this error is rather odd for users to find in a Handheld PC install, it is safe to ignore the message and continue the installation.

The HPC Notes Professional mobile client weighs in at a respectable 700 KB. You can install the application safely onto a storage card if required, which I would personally recommend given that the applications default installation in Main Memory is "\Program Files\Accessories". Which doesn't leave for a very tidy directory once you mix in various other applications that use this folder.

A most notable feature of the entire installation process for HPC Notes is that you do not need to reboot or soft reset. Once installed you can simply begin using the program. A small but most welcome touch that just adds to the over all experience.

The default view - reminiscent of an e-mail client

Load up HPC Notes on the host or on the Handheld and any Microsoft Outlook user should already start to feel comfortable. PhatWare have taken their approach to the interface, much like that of an email client with familiar navigation, preview and note lists on the default view.
Steps involved in the creation and management of note items are identical on both client and host versions with little learning curve required to get right in there and tentatively tap out your first note on the keyboard.

For any Outlook user, looking to migrate away from the Microsoft notes system, a full set of import and export converters is provided. Allowing you to pull and push information between you Outlook PST files. Interestingly the import filters aren't limited to just the Outlook notes system, but can also import email message bodies as well as associated notes from Calendar, Contact, Task and Journal fields.
Additionally the host client has the ability to export notes or a series of notes to HTML, useful for project work.

The default application view on the H/PC displays the notes list along with a document preview pane, in which HPC Notes will proudly display your license key to the world. Luckily help is readily at hand in the Professional release with the ability to password protect this - or indeed any note that you keep in a HPC Notes database. Just use the'Protect Note…' feature from the edit menu.

…Specify a password…

 

…and your license code is locked away from prying eyes

Creating a new note is very straightforward. Just tap the new note icon in the tool bar or use the Ctrl + N keyboard shortcut to bring up the new note window. This operates just like creating a new email message in Outlook.

New Note view

The date and time fields are automatic, although can be modified from the view menu if a custom date is required for filing.
The type field allows you to specify a 'category' if you will for the note. PhatWare provide a predefined list of the most commonly encountered types. If required you can type your own categories into the list which are synchronised across with the note and will populate the 'Type' list so long as there is an active example in one of your databases.
Like in Microsoft Outlook you can specify your own note colour. This is useful to differentiate between various notes in the list, or say if you develop your own colour code schema. The chosen colour is displayed as an icon next to your note in the notes list.
Unlike Outlook, HPC Notes allows you to customise the layout and formatting of any given note in your database. Text formatting facilities similar to those found in Pocket Word are present. Allowing you to specify the font, size, alignment, colour, bullets, tabs and paragraph / line indentation.
When organising personal reminders this is a crucially important function. Most people can work through information much more efficiently if it is displayed using a structure - even more prevalent if it is presented using colour coding. Having the ability to move things around in an entirely personal way will of course appeal to different users in a different ways. Though anyone comparing the system offered in Microsoft Outlook it becomes apparent that PhatWare clearly have the edge.

Some of the formatting options are left to be found on the tools menu, notably the font typeface and colour settings. This can slow down the process of customising your notes. It is the age-old problem of how to best allocate the screen space of low footprint PDA devices. Phatware have pulled off the navigation perfectly, however some improvement and creativity would be welcome on speeding up the task of note formatting.
The toolbar contains buttons to navigate between previous and next notes in the database as well as an option to hide the header information (date, colour, subject etc.). Lastly along with the basic formatting functions is a find function shortcuts. In which you can search through and also replace text in the current note.

The only thing that caused problems in formatting notes was that despite system level settings. The Paragraph formatting options displayed in Inches. For metric Europe, this is something of a problem where as you head further East, Inches simply don't feature.

If you installed the HPC Spell module of HPC Notes Pro then the added feature of being able to spell check the note body is available from the tools menu.
Another useful feature as HPC Notes allows you to send note messages out to the Pocket Office Inbox application, to an infrared recipient who is also using Notes or directly to a printer.

Further along the toolbar in the insert menu an array of features are revealed. The ability to automatically insert the current date and time, using an array of formats is provided - all based around the system regional settings configuration.
System notifications can be set to automatically display a reminder on both the host and Handheld at a specified date and time. Allowing HPC Notes to act as an integral part of your PIM system.

Automatic event notification

Continuing on this theme, Notes has the ability to interact with the Pocket Outlook databases. You can use the appointment and task functions on the Insert menu to drop a reminder about an associated note directly into your Outlook task list or calendar, along with suitable prompts on how to find the note again in your databases.
Insert contact enables you to automatically fill in correspondence information. Should an individual in your contacts list be related to a specific note - say you needed to include a prompt to phone a certain person at a certain time - you can automatically retrieve their name and information from Pocket Outlook and place it into your note.

Insert contact information using the fields from Microsoft Outlook

If you are a user of PhatWare's Calligrapher. An Ink option will be displayed in the Insert menu, allowing you to attach a handwritten note into the document.
Note's also provides you with the option to attach files to a note. However PhatWare actively dissuades from this process in the documentation. Unfortunately it is not an easy process.
With databases there are always compromises to make. The choice is to either include attachment directly in the database - This has a significant performance trade off, and can rapidly bloat the database size to an untenable level. On a RAM limited device such as a Handheld PC, this is simply not an option.
So the only other choice is to directly link to the files in the local filing system of the device or host.

This is where the system of synchronising files between device and host becomes a problem. The two filing systems are largely different. ActiveSync will only auto sync a very specific area. Between handhelds there are problems with synchronisation speeds, and if you wish to synchronise a notes attachment between several PDA's, forget it.

Despite these difficulties. Once you have gone through the motions it does work, but is far from ideal and very easy to break.
Even without synchronisation enabled. Attach a file to a note, then move the file on the local filing system and the Note encounters problems, the defunct link becomes stuck in the database, and although I was able to remove it eventually. It was tricky to remove.

There is no ideal solution to the attachment problem on the PDA. However perhaps a less detailed approach would entail the user specifying an "on host" and "on H/PC" file cache into which HPC Notes copies all attached information, managing the data as notes come and go from the databases. The HPC Notes sync engine itself moving the files to the cache at the opposite end, instead of relying on ActiveSync.

The last feature on the Insert menu is unique to HPC Notes. The Link feature. With it you can interlink related notes that exist within the same database. This facility is another of Note's well thought about organisational methods. Allowing you to create your own organisational structure within the application, combined with the various other sorting, display and organisational tools that are provided.

Linking notes is as simple as tapping the notes you wish to associate and tapping the link button

Creating a link is as easy as highlighting the notes you wish to associate with and tapping the create link button. Filtering and searching are at hand to simplify the process, just as they are in the main note view. Completed links will be immediately available back and fourth between all associated notes at the tap of the stylus.

This leads nicely into perhaps the crowning glory of HPC Notes Professional. If as a notes user you have reached the point where you find you need to search and filter through a lot of data to find what you want. There is one more level of management provided exclusively in the Professional release.

Hierarchical Database Management
With the applications default view it is easy to overlook this feature. However a trip into the programs main options to enable the 'Show database list' option rapidly changes the functionality and scope of HPC Notes.

HPC Notes Options menu

The new pane displayed on the left hand side of the screen - looking distinctly like an email application - displays a list of active Notes databases. There are no imposed limits on the number of databases that can be used by the program, except the obvious hardware ones.

Enabling the database list changes the application entirely

As far as efficiency goes, being able to completely separate out different note groupings into stand-alone databases is very useful. This is stepped up another notch by being able to effectively assign master categories to a number of databases by using Database grouping.

Take my example, where I imported data from my Outlook PST file on the host into HPC Notes. Using two databases I was able import my general inbox data into one, and my HPC:Factor email into another. I then collectively grouped these two under the name 'E-Mail Folders'.

The advantage of this is clear. For the likes of project management, or handling very large quantities of data, having this top level ability to organise your specific note data could very well be the difference between digital notes being a functional solution and a nice toy.

In the database list, groupings can be expanded and collapsed as required with navigation between groups and individual databases can be carried out from the File menu if you would prefer to maintain the screen space.

With the Professional editions expanded database capabilities. Come extended database management tools. The facility to navigate around the databases is joined with inter-database copy / move actions, purging of unwanted records and the ability to completely removed databases from the system.
From a project management point of view databases can be backed up as a collective unit or individually, allowing you to completely remove a database or group from the program for archiving elsewhere.

Creating new databases and database groups couldn't be simpler. It's just a matter of a few quick taps in the file menu. New databases are synchronised down to the host on the next connection, or up to the H/PC after insertion.
An incredibly well thought feature of this is that ordinarily such a function requires ActiveSync to be reset. With HPC Notes Professional the host client will prompt you to reset ActiveSync ad-hoc. This even works if the device is already connected.

Deleting notes databases however isn't quite as straight forward as creating them. If you attempt to delete a database while it is open in the notes list area, it will refuse to allow the action.
To further complicate matters, once you have selected a different database and gone through the process of deleting it from the host side of the sync partnership. If you happen to miss the reminder prompt that appears and resynchronise the device before going to the Handheld PC and manually deleting the database. Then database chaos will rein supreme.

In my experiment I wound up with 3 copies of everything (Over 800 objects from an original number of 250) being synchronised back to the host, including my deleted database reappearing before I got it under control.
Control was restored when I once again deleted the host database and then correctly deleted the missing database on the Handheld PC. After which everything magically returned to normal.

Reverse the process and delete the database from the CE side, and this doesn't happen, although you do have to manually delete the database from the host.

The moral of this story is the first rule of databases. Always make a backup before making structural changes.

Along with some of the points I've made already. In any new formal release for the Handheld PC I would like to see the addition of a global level application protection as well as database level protection rather than just the current note level protection. If you have a communal computer at home and wanted to password protect say your work data while allowing family members to still add the weekly shopping or to-do list to the program. Or, even prevent anyone accessing HPC Notes without locking down your Windows user account. These features would be most welcome.

Overall HPC Notes is a fabulous application. If you are an Outlook Notes user then be warned. Giving the 30-day trial of HPC Notes Professional a spin may well leave you wondering in disbelief how you ever managed to get along with the basic facilities provided by Microsoft.
From the perspective of the Handheld PC community PhatWare have provided us with an application that further extends the capabilities of the trusty and timeless H/PC. It is easy to see why HPC Notes (Now PhatNotes on the P/PC) continues to win the adulation of end users and PDA watchers alike.

While some users may simply require the Outlook synchronisation offered in HPC Notes Standard, the Professional version is well worth a look before you make that purchasing decision.

HPC Notes 4.3d is distributed with Windows CE logo certification and Windows XP logo compatible installed specifications. The host client depends on Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 for some Internet functions as well as Microsoft Office for full use of the import / export filters.

 

Obtaining HPC Notes Professional

Rather confusingly, you may think that HPC Notes is no longer available. However as we reported here on HPC:Factor back in July this is incorrect.
PhatWare have formally replaced HPC Notes with PhatNotes for the Pocket PC. However both applications use the same registration engine. This allows you to purchase a fully working and supported license of HPC Notes for as long as the program remains at version 4.
PhatWare customer services are happy to answer any questions on this that you may have.

Fully featured trial versions can be downloaded from the following locations and activated to the full version with a license key for PhatNotes:
HPC Notes Lite 4.3 - ftp://ftp.phatware.com/download/hpcnotes430lite.exe
HPC Notes Standard 4.3 - ftp://ftp.phatware.com/download/hpcnotes430std.exe
HPC Notes Professional 4.3 - ftp://ftp.phatware.com/download/hpcnotespro.exe

HPC Notes 4.3d Professional costs $39.95 USD (£22.20 GBP, €31.75 EUD, ¥4450 JPY est)


System Requirements:

Handheld PC Pro and HPC2000
SH3, SH4, StrongArm, MIPS, Xscale

ActiveSync 3.5 (3.7 recommended)
Windows 98, Millennium, NT4 SP6a, 2000, XP

Rating  
Cost: 3 Star Rating: Average
Usability: 4 Star Rating: Recommended
Built-In helps: 5 Star Rating: Exceptional
Customer Service: 5 Star Rating: Exceptional
Overall: 4 Star Rating: Recommended

HPC Notes Professional can be found at the following URL.
http://www.phatware.com/

Discuss this Review in the Forums

Chris Tilley
Editor-in-Chief