The dream of every mobile employee is to turn wasted travel time into productive work sessions. Who hasn't sat in an airport waiting for a late flight while thinking about everything they could be doing if they just had access to their datebook, address book, and e-mail account? But for many users, trucking around with a heavy notebook computer is simply not an option. For those who only need to track appointments and contacts, and create simple documents, true happiness can be found in the latest incarnation of handheld devices.
These comparatively inexpensive devices carry your most important personal information such as addresses, appointments, and notes, yet they fit into a shirt pocket or purse. And, increasingly, they can connect to the Internet.
And so it is that many mobile employees are investigating the world of handhelds. Several form factors have emerged over the years, but only one, the palm-size handheld, has endured. Soon after the initial release of the Palm Pilot, slightly larger devices based on Microsoft's Windows CE with larger screens and tiny keyboards became available. But with prices approaching $1,000, these devices proved to have little appeal and have all but disappeared. Some vendors then marketed an even larger device, about half the size of a laptop computer, also based on Windows CE. These devices had comparatively large color screens and touch-type keyboards, but were almost as big and as expensive as laptops. They too faded from public view.
Palm may be the most well-known handheld, but it is hardly alone. Although, initially, palm-size devices based on Windows CE bombed in the marketplace, the new generation of Windows CE, dubbed Pocket PC, is taking a run at Palm. In addition, a veteran player in the handheld market, the U.K.'s Psion, has released a palm-size version of its larger handhelds, called the Revo. All handhelds enable users to view data, use a tiny keyboard or handwriting recognition system for basic input, and synchronize information with their desktop computers. Plus, with a wireless modem, these devices can connect to the Internet for basic Web browsing and e-mail.
HOW WE TESTED
The devices most people know about (and purchase) are the Palm handhelds. We cover two of them here: the Palm IIIxe, which is the latest upgrade to one of the low-cost staples of the handheld world (the Palm IIIx), and the Palm VII, which connects wirelessly to the Internet through a built-in modem.
We also discuss two of Palm's leading competitors, the Casio Cassiopeia E-115 Pocket PC, and the Psion Revo, which is based on the EPOC operating system by Symbian. We talked with users and lived with the devices for a period of time. We also closely examined documentation to make sure it covered all of the features and capabilities.
The Palm IIIxe was the one device we didn't get our hands on so we actually looked at the older Palm IIIx and talked with Palm to fill us in on the differences.
We won't dwell on under-the-hood issues like the amount of RAM and processing speed, because in the handheld realm it's like comparing apples with oranges. Pocket PC devices have far more RAM and processing power than Palm devices, but that's because their operating systems and applications are more complex and require the extra power. As a result, despite the additional power, they're not appreciably faster than Palm devices.
Neither as stylish as the thinner Palm V, nor as easy to connect to the Internet as the Palm VII, the Palm IIIxe nonetheless is the low-cost workhorse of the Palm handheld line. It has the same functionality of the of the Palm V series, the only difference being the size and styling.
The key to the Palm IIIxe is simplicity. Absent are flashy features like a color screen or extensive support for multimedia, which are found in the Pocket PC devices. By contrast, the IIIxe is purely gray-scale and text oriented. And you are unlikely to spend as much time learning how to use it.
The only aspect that involves a learning curve is the handwriting recognition system called Graffiti, used for inputting information. This requires you to "write" each letter using shorthand-like characters on the bottom of the screen. While you also can use an on-screen keyboard and tap letters with the stylus pen, users who input a lot of information invariably gravitate to the efficiency of Graffiti.
As with the other devices, you synchronize data with your desktop PC by putting the Palm in a cradle, plugging into your computer, and pressing a button. The only downside to that process is that it doesn't synchronize with Microsoft Outlook as quickly as older Windows CE devices did.
You can also use the Palm IIIxe's infrared capabilities to "beam" information to other users. For instance, it is becoming common, when meeting someone new, to exchange business cards wirelessly by pressing a button on the front of the device.
Wireless connections are now available for the Palm IIIxe using wireless modems. Palm also recently released the Mobile Internet Kit, which allows users to access the Internet through the Palm IIIxe device when connected to a cellular phone.
If all you need is a simple, low-cost way to manage your contacts, appointments, e-mails, and other essential data, without the sleekness of the Palm V form factor, than the Palm IIIxe is an excellent choice.
The Palm VII is a slightly larger version of the Palm III with a built-in, wireless modem and a fold-up antenna. It connects to the Internet via the Palm.net wireless network, which is available in more than 260 metropolitan areas in the U.S.
The number of wireless applications that are available for the Palm VII is astounding, and most are free for the download at the Palm.net site (www.palm.net). The programs enable you to perform tasks ranging from checking your regular e-mail account to ordering books from Amazon.com to receiving personalized news and information. You install these applications the same way that you install other Palm applications, via the synchronization cradle.
Although it is a technologically-advanced handheld, there are several downsides to the Palm VII. For example, its $449 list price is about $200 more than a low-end Palm III.
In addition, you must purchase a wireless access plan, which costs from $10 a month to as much as $45 per month, depending on how much access you need.
Also, Internet access can be a bit slow. First, it takes between 10 and 20 seconds to log on. (Transactions take between 8 to 10 seconds according to Palm.) Once you are logged on, the connection is over a Mobitex network that provides access at only 9600Kbps, which is one-third of the slowest speed commonly accessible via modem. Plus, as with wireless phones, connections are subject to being broken.
The bottom line: The Palm VII is a good tool if you absolutely must stay in touch but don't want to carry an expensive laptop. Plus, it's fun to use. However, its online crawl and expense might mean that, for many, the novelty will wear off fast.
This handheld from British vendor Psion takes a decidedly different approach than its palm-size competitors. Roughly the same size as the Palm VII, it has a horizontal, instead of a vertical, orientation. When you flip open the lid, a little keyboard swings out. Unlike its competitors, it doesn't come with handwriting recognition built in, although there are after-market handwriting products available. Like the other devices, however, it features a pen-like stylus to tap on-screen items.
The Revo's horizontal orientation has the advantage of allowing you to see more of an application on-screen. It also enables the use of menus in a way that more closely resembles those used in Windows than in Palm or Pocket PC devices.
On the downside, however, only munchkins can use the keyboard for touch typing, although we found it comfortable for two-fingered typing. That method of input was at least as fast as using Graffiti and, of course, it requires less training.
A disadvantage of the horizontal design is that the device doesn't fit as easily in the palm of your hand. That makes it harder to use if, for example, you're trying to read information while speaking on the phone.
The gray-scale screen creates an image that is pleasingly crisp. In addition, while Palm devices have buttons you press only for the most basic capabilities, such as viewing the address book, Revo has on-screen icons for virtually all built-in applications. We found this easier than Palm's approach.
The device synchronizes easily with your desktop applications and is simple to use, although not many third-party applications are available. Its form factor is a matter of taste, but if the Revo's horizontal orientation is comfortable for you, then this well-engineered, easy-to-use handheld will do the job.
Casio Cassiopeia E-115
Microsoft has had little luck in the handheld OS market, a problem it is trying to rectify with the new generation of Pocket PC handhelds such as the Casio Cassiopeia E-115.
The Cassiopeia E-115 that we looked at came with 32MB of RAM, compared to the standard 4MB to 8MB in Palm devices. While the Windows operating system requires more computing resources than Palm's operating system, the amount of memory on the E-115 enables it to perform tasks like playing digital audio and video, which Palm devices can't do.
The Cassiopeia E-115 is undeniably prettier to look at with 65,536 on-screen colors, compared to gray-scale for the two Palm devices we discuss here. The Psion Revo doesn't support color at all. In addition, the handheld unit can be used as a dictation machine for recorded messages. It also has ClearType technology for displaying digital publications and books.
The E-115 also handles the meat-and-potato applications better, with pocket versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and Internet Explorer. Having these applications onboard makes it possible to open up Word or Excel e-mail attachments, something the Palm and Revo machines can't handle.
All this power does come at a price. At $599, the E-115 is $350 more expensive than the Palm IIIxe and about $50 more expensive than the Palm VII, which has the benefit of connecting to the Internet.
Another downside is that it's noticeably heavier and about half an inch longer than the Palm III. You'll also need to recharge the unit frequently. The Cassiopeia E-115 comes with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that's rated for just six hours of battery life.
Finally, we didn't find the E-115 as simple to use as the Palm devices. For instance, it has a Windows-like start menu at the top of the screen (it's at the bottom in desktop Windows), and the menus at the bottom (they're on the top in the desktop).
If you are willing to pay the price, the Cassiopeia E-115 is a powerful, multimedia-savvy handheld. It may, however, be a bit pricey for those who simply need to manage their personal information.
Handheld access to the Internet is in a constant state of change. Currently, Internet-connected mobile phones are starting to become popular, but so are wireless ISPs such as GoAmerica and OmniSky, which use wireless modems to connect handhelds to the Internet. Both Microsoft and Palm have announced that all future handhelds will be built from the ground up to connect to the Internet.
Also, expect handheld and phone functionality to merge. Currently, those functions require you to carry separate handhelds and phones. However, mobile phone vendor Ericsson is showing off its device called Communicator, to be released next year, which resembles a handheld but also supports standard wireless voice capabilities.
E-book functions are also likely to become common on handhelds, so you can download books and periodicals from the Web and take them with you as you travel. Pocket PCs already have ClearType technology built in for such applications, and Palm is in the process of incorporating similar technology.
In addition, handheld screens are evolving to handle these publications. One vendor, who asked to remain anonymous, says it's working on foldable handheld displays that will provide more viewing area for reading publications and doing other types of work.