PDA Nation

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted August 01, 2001

Until recently, even confirmed gadget lovers have been able to resist personal digital assistants (PDAs or handheld PCs). After all, paper-based planners are cheap, easy to use, and always ready to collect contact information, organize your schedule, and take notes. None of the high-tech personal information products available came close to the simplicity and value of a trusty Daytimer.

Today the picture for PDAs is changing. Not only are the devices cheaper, faster, and more diverse, but now they're necessary.

Unlike paper planners, PDAs power up instantly and let you find and use anything you've entered quickly. And because PDAs interface directly with PCs, you can easily back up critical data, transfer files back and forth, and never lose a bit of information. PDAs can even be equipped with modems to give you the ability to access e-mail and Web data from anywhere.

We found six PDAs for serious business, then created a test set of contact and schedule data in Microsoft Outlook 2000 that we loaded into each PDA. Then we simply set about using each unit as we would in daily life, keeping track of our schedule and to-do list, adding and updating contact information, taking notes, synchronizing with our PC, and exploring unique features.

Compaq iPAQ 3650
Rating 83

In a package just slightly larger than the average Palm-based PDA, Compaq has packed the most features and performance of any PDA to date. One push of the power switch, and we fell in love with the big, bright, sharp color screen and five-way scroll/selection button. We even liked the click-lock port that held its stylus.

Steve Rubel, manager of client services for New York PR firm CooperKatz & Co. Inc., echoed our findings. "Since I primarily use my PDA to download Web information for offline reading, the crisp display is a huge advantage. I also like the way the [Compaq] Pocket PC links up with our office Outlook system," Rubel said.

The iPAQ is 5.11 by 3.2 by .62 inches and weighs 6.3 ounces. The screen has the standard 240 by 320 resolution. The slightly bulky unit comes with 32MB of memory and a 206MHz processor. You must purchase a Compact Flash or PC Card expansion pack in order to use expansion devices.

Anyone familiar with Windows should have little problem getting familiar with Pocket PC. As advertised, Pocket PC is compatible with Word and Excel files, making it possible to load a file from your desktop for review and even editing on your PDA. We copied some frequently used files into the iPAQ, and it had no problem handling the extra demands.

Pocket PCs are particularly good at handling multimedia tasks, and the iPAQ is up to that challenge. The unit has a built-in MP3 player, a voice recorder, a headphone jack, a microphone, and the software to support it. The multimedia virtues are many, but come at the expense of battery life. The built-in rechargeable battery lasted us about four hours, though it is rated for twelve hours. That means the included AC recharger is a must, even on the road.

There is sufficient memory for typical business applications. The iPAQ's processor makes it a great choice for those who will run several applications simultaneously, and the screen is so great that it might even be worth the scant battery life. Businesses and users who require the highest level of multimedia performance will want this model. If your business criteria include value or extended mobile operation, however, you might look elsewhere.

Handspring Visor Platinum
Rating 93

In many respects, Visor handhelds operate identically to Palm models. They are slightly larger (the Platinum is 4.8 by 3 by .7 inches), have a slightly larger screen, and feature expansion slots that accommodate optional peripherals.

Our Platinum was equipped with the older Palm 3.5 OS, but it did have an IR port, a built-in microphone, and some starter software. The processor is slower than the other models we tested, but its 8MB of memory had plenty of oomph for all the tasks we set before it. The Platinum uses standard batteries, so you don't have to worry about losing your charger or running out of juice on the road, but you will have to worry about packing an extra set. Battery time is stellar (we got over 14 hours on one charge).

All Visors have the advantage of expandability, and the Platinum is no exception. On the downside, we missed the Palm m500's Notepad, and we thought we'd probably end up losing the included clip-on screen. As with the Palm, the Visor's backlighting is nearly invisible until you are working in near-darkness.

Handspring has announced the Visor Edge, a slimmer, faster, rechargeable handheld. So the Platinum isn't the latest Handspring, but it is an excellent example of how to balance cost and performance.

Hewlett-Packard Jornada 548
Rating 80

The rugged clamshell design of the Jornada's compact metal case is yet another example of HP's tradition of elegant design and high quality. For example, the Jornada's stylus clips securely inside the spring-loaded cover, so users are less likely to lose a stylus in transit.

Quality of design was the deciding factor in Dennis O'Connor's choice of the Jornada 548. O'Connor is a vice president with Peter Arnold Associates, a public relations firm in Wellesley, Mass. "I wanted the Windows compatibility of Pocket PC, and a color screen was important to me," he told us. "I had read good things about the Jornada's design, and I've been pleased with its performance."

We liked the Jornada's compact size (5.2 by 3.1 by .6 inches), its Flash memory expansion slot, and the built-in handwriting recognition feature that lets you take notes right on the screen. We were definitely less thrilled with the unit's short battery life (a maximum of eight hours), its weight (at almost 8 ounces, twice as much as the m500), and the screen's tendency to wash out and become invisible in bright outdoor light.

Pocket PCs need a lot more memory to contain the more complex operating system, applications, and data. We found the 32MB and 133MHz processor in the Jornada large enough to handle our test data, as well as several evenings' worth of Word and Excel files. Should you run short, you can plug a Flash memory card into the built-in slot and keep on going. Like all Pocket PCs, the Jornada comes with plenty of multimedia enhancements (a microphone, a voice recorder, etc.) and the software to support them.

The extra computing capability of the Pocket PC will appeal strongly to those who want a PDA to do more than store contact and schedule information, but for just a few dollars more, the iPAQ offers noticeably better performance and a bigger, brighter screen. Therefore, the Jornada has appeal for applications where its ruggedness and built-in expansion slot are most important.

Palm m500
Rating 90

The m500 is the smallest unit we tested by a nose (4.5 by 3.1 by .4 inches and 4 ounces), nestling neatly in pocket or hand. Similar in size and shape to the Palm Vx, the m500 embodies a number of changes from the earlier model, including native USB support, plug-and-play expansion, and a faster processor. Also new is an expansion port that accepts Secure Digital (SD) memory cards and MultiMediaCard media, and a Universal Connector that will enable commonality of add-on hardware between future Palm PDAs.

In use, the faster processor made little noticeable difference compared with a Palm V. We did, however, enjoy the Notepad function, which enabled us to write or draw on the m500 screen as if it were a pad. We also liked being able to set the unit to blink or vibrate to notify us of important events.

We weren't as fond of the internal rechargeable battery. Though it lasted two weeks with heavy use on one charge, we'd rather carry a fresh pair of triple-A batteries than an AC adapter. We also dislike the white-on-black backlighting technique used by all Palm OS handhelds. Unlike the true backlighting used by the Pocket PCs, it actually makes the screen harder to see in dim light.

Because many users employ add-in programs (like AOL mail readers and expense trackers), Palm isn't specific about data capacity, but one rule of thumb is that 1MB can hold about 4,000 addresses and 100 e-mails. Certainly our test set of data presented no problems to the m500. Since accessory modules for the new SD slot can hold both applications and extra memory, the m500 can easily be expanded beyond basic organizer functions. The unit comes with the standard 8MB of memory and many useful, but basic, software titles.

The m500 is slicker and faster than its predecessor, and it is equally small and easy to use. On the other hand, it's also the most expensive Palm model we tested. If the small size and extra features of the Palm m500 appeal to you, then the extra $100 is worth spending.

Research In Motion BlackBerry 957
Rating 87

Forget phones and faxes; e-mail rules, and the RIM BlackBerry delivers.

The BlackBerry merges pager and PDA technology to create an e-mail station. You can buy an enterprise version that links your employees to your corporate e-mail server, or an Internet version that works with select ISPs nationwide. The BlackBerry e-mail network covers major metropolitan areas in the U.S. and Canada (check out www.blackberry.net for current coverage information).

Tearing ourselves away from e-mail, we checked out the other PDA functions. They all worked smoothly, with options to customize the functions to your preferences. We found using the keyboard to enter data faster and more natural than the stylus.

We were impressed by a number of factors. The BlackBerry display screen is noticeably crisper than those of the other monochrome PDAs, and like a pager, the unit will stay on until you turn it off. Because the menu system is navigated using a thumbwheel and escape button, you can operate the BlackBerry with one hand. The PDA has 5MB of memory.

Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM Public Relations, a New York-based firm with 25 employees, had a similar experience. "The BlackBerry changed my life, letting me get away from my desk and off my cell phone almost completely," Laermer says. "I can both read and send e-mail at my convenience, and many times I can make direct contact with people who vigilantly screen telephone and personal contact." As a result, he has equipped a number of his employees with BlackBerries.

We found a few thorns among the roses. The tiny letters and numbers on the keys required the boomers among us to break out the reading glasses, and some symbols and punctuation marks require an awkward menu sequence to enter. There are no accessory devices available, and the memory complement is fixed.

The BlackBerry costs more than the wireless Palm VIIx, but its greater efficiency of data entry will quickly pay back the difference. While some of the other PDAs offer a wireless enterprise e-mail solution, we thought the BlackBerry was remarkably unfussy and easy to use.

Sony CLIÉ PEG-S300
Rating 80

Sony is known for its cutting edge technology and sleek designs, but oddly, the CLIÉ is an austere, serious PDA. Marginally the largest of the Palm OS models, the CLIÉ features a thumbwheel that makes it possible to complete many operations with one hand. It also features a crisp display in spite of its paltry 160 by 160 resolution. The monochrome display was more readable in less than ideal situations. It doesn't, however, knock your socks off with multimedia support, color, or expandability (though the newer, more expensive CLIÉ N710C might).

Sony states that the CLIÉ can hold 10,000 addresses, 3,000 to-do items, 3,000 memos, 400 e-mails, and five years of appointments. Our tests certainly presented no problem for the unit: There was plenty of room for several applications and, with 8MB of RAM, enough memory to run them. Should you run short on room, plugging in the included Memory Stick adds another 8MB of space. The Memory Stick expansion was also handy for listening to stored music or accessing files created on other Sony machines, but we missed the more flexible expansion of the m500 and Platinum.

As an organizer, the CLIÉ is easier to use than the other Palm models, especially in mobile applications. It's also a relatively inexpensive solution and a real plus for those who want Memory Stick support. On the other hand, you'll find little in terms of extras or expandability. Even Sony's famous connectivity is missing. What you will find is reliability, some cost savings, and a good set of basic PDA features.

Wireless Internet
In addition to BlackBerry, we looked at two other wireless solutions that provide e-mail and Web access: OmniSky and PalmNet. OmniSky uses a NovaTel wireless modem to connect with its network; we tested it with the Jornada 548 and the Visor Platinum. We used a Palm VIIx to connect to PalmNet.

Both services enable you to send and receive e-mail, and both permit you to browse the Web. The latter is accomplished by using icons to connect to Web partners offering pages and service tailored to the tight confines of a PDA screen. We eagerly set about getting connected.

PalmNet proved to be as simple to use as BlackBerry. Our PDA already had several useful icons loaded, including MapQuest, WSJ.com, AskJeeves, and USAToday. We never had a problem with lost messages, but it was a bit awkward reading e-mail on small screens and composing it with our styli.

Using OmniSky was more problematic. Despite our best efforts, we were never able to locate a signal strong enough in the Philadelphia metro area to receive or send e-mail, and Web access was inconsistent. We spent well over an hour with various support technicians trying to find a solution before giving up in frustration.

This is more a reflection of how inconsistent wireless coverage is than how good OmniSky is (in fact, we were impressed with the skill and determination of their technicians). As with any wireless service, we definitely advise that you have a full return privilege if you can't get the service working within a reasonable time.

Overall, we found wireless e-mail to be a real boon if you can find reliable service. If, on the other hand, wireless data coverage in your area is poor or even non-existent, you can get regular dial-up modems for PDAs that will enable you to get and send e-mail whenever you are near a phone.

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