The Handheld Sweet Spot

By David Haskin | Posted February 28, 2003
Handheld computers have joined wireless phones and briefcases as essential tools for most small business travelers. That's a good-news, bad-news sort of thing.

The bad news is that there is a seemingly endless array of handheld devices from which to choose with prices ranging from $100 to $700. It can be hard to understand the differences between the expensive models and the low-cost ones. The good news is that, like so much in the technology world, handhelds have become more powerful even as prices have dropped.

Priced between $300 and $400, the three devices reviewed here don't have high-end capabilities such as the capacity to act as wireless phones. However, unlike low-end devices, they have enough power for tasks like editing word processing documents and spreadsheets. In addition, they sport a variety of expansion options for adding storage and communications tools such as modems, and they have highly attractive color screens that are a pleasure to view.

Not long ago, handhelds this capable would have demanded high-end prices. Now, they represent the sweet spot in the handheld market with prices pegged between the high and low ends. They provide an excellent balance between power and price.

The Axim X5 represents Dell's first time at bat in the handheld market and it has hit a home run.

Based on Microsoft's Pocket PC platform, the Axim X5 comes in two configurations — one priced at $349 and the other at $249. We reviewed the more expensive model, which has a 400MHz processor (compared to 300MHz for the lower-priced model) and 64MB of RAM (compared to 32MB).

The Axim is a big bruiser next to the Treo 90 and Tungsten T, also reviewed here. Its five-inch height is about twenty-five percent larger than the other devices. And, at almost seven ounces, it is noticeably heavier. However, it still should be small enough for most users, fitting comfortably in a shirt pocket.

While the Axim is relatively bulky, it also has a lot of finesse. Specifically, we found its 3.5-inch 65,000-color screen to be far superior to the Treo 90's and larger and subjectively crisper than the Tungsten's. Like all Pocket PCs, it has built-in applications for editing Word and Excel files and synchronizing information with Outlook on the desktop.

Another strength is Axim's support for both CompactFlash and Secure Digital add-on cards for added storage or items like modems. Tungsten T and Treo 90 support the Secure Digital format but not the widely used CompactFlash format. In addition, Dell solved a common criticism of Pocket PC devices — short battery life — by using removable batteries and including (in the higher-priced model) a second battery that recharges on the synchronization cradle. Each battery provides an estimated eight hours of usage.

Of course, the Axim X5 is still saddled with Pocket PC's Windows-like interface, which some users don't find immediately intuitive to use. Nor does it have built-in Bluetooth wireless connectivity like the Tungsten T. But Dell improved on the best elements of Pocket PCs and then lowered the price into Palm territory, which makes the Axim X5 a very attractive handheld.

The Treo 90 is based on Handspring's line of smart phones, which combine wireless telephony and handheld capabilities. This low-cost model has no built-in telephone but it still is worthy of consideration.

The Treo 90 has a built-in keyboard with tiny keys that are most easily pressed with your thumbs. While thumb-typing isn't to our liking, that is strictly a matter of personal comfort and few handhelds at the Treo 90's price offer a keyboard for those who prefer that method. Handspring also offers a free download of a third-party program that adds Palm's standard Graffiti handwriting recognition capability.

Like the Tungsten T, the Treo 90 is based on the Palm platform and is quite diminutive — its 4.2-inch height and weight of four ounces make it comfortable to carry in shirt or trouser pockets. However, its color screen is the least viewable in this group, supporting only 4,000 on-screen colors compared to 65,000 for the Tungsten T and Dell Axim.

Also like the Tungsten T, the Treo 90 supports two formats of expansion cards, Secure Digital and MultiMedia Card, and not the popular CompactFlash. Unlike the Tungsten T, the Treo 90 does not support high-speed wireless connections via the Bluetooth protocol. And, compared to the 16-hour capacity of Axim's two rechargeable batteries, the Treo 90's 10-hour battery life is somewhat skimpy.

The Treo 90 comes with a word processor, a Web browser, an e-mail client and text messaging application. However, it doesn't include the ability to read or edit files produced by widely-used desktop applications such as Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint. To do that, you'll need extra-cost software.

The Treo 90 is the least expensive handheld in this group and, while it also is the least powerful, it is an excellent choice if you want a basic color device and would rather thumb-type than use handwriting recognition.

Palm's Tungsten T initially appears to be aimed directly at those considering Pocket PC devices. For instance, a button on the side of the device launches a voice recording application, which has long been a distinguishing feature of Pocket PCs and absent on Palms.

Similarly, it has virtually the same buttons for navigating through applications as many Pocket PCs. And its 65,000-color display is one of the first in a Palm-powered device that is similar to the screen quality of its Pocket PC competitors.

However, Tungsten T also has features that Pocket PC handhelds can't match, such as a unique design that makes it easier to carry. In its smallest form, it is about four inches high. To enter data, you expand the device by sliding the bottom third down, which exposes the Graffiti text entry area.

Tungsten T comes with DataViz' Documents To Go, which in our tests did an excellent job of maintaining the formatting of desktop Word and Excel files and also can view PowerPoint presentations. It also comes with a generous bundle of applications, including an e-mail client, Web browser and a database product.

Most uniquely, Tungsten T has built-in Bluetooth short-range wireless connectivity, which is faster and has greater range than the infrared capabilities included with most handhelds. This means you could use a Bluetooth-enabled, Internet-capable wireless phone as a modem for the Tungsten T.

A final advantage is that Tungsten T's Palm operating system remains simpler and more intuitive to use than Pocket PC. On the downside, Palm copied the high price of Pocket PCs — at $399, the Tungsten T costs $50 more than the Dell Axim. However, it is smaller, more connective and easier to use, making it a solid choice for many business travelers.

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