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Palm Reading

Evaluating your needs will help you pick the perfect PDA
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

The Palm Readers, standing on street corners, train platforms and showroom floors staring into their mitts as if they held the Rosetta Stone. Can anything be that fascinating or is it all just hand jive?

If you're among the uninitiated, you may think PDAs (personal digital assistants) are just fancy Filofaxes. Think again. These high-powered handheld electronic devices have become pocket-size extensions of the personal computer. You can navigate, calculate, read books, play games, take pictures, listen to music and make Internet connections, all from the palm of your hand.

And, oh yeah, they're still organizers. All the absolutely vital, don't-leave-home-without-it information you've stored in your PC -- your address book, calendar, to-do list and notes -- gets squeezed into a device that's small enough to go anywhere you go. And you don't have to retype any information, since the PDA's contents are automatically synchronized with your computer files via a cable connection.

Besides all that, PDAs are just cool gadgets, fun to own, fun to use, fun to casually show off in front of friends and colleagues. Like so many tech status symbols, though, you can maximize the testosterone rush of ownership only if your gizmo at least equals, and preferably far surpasses, the other guy's. Here, then, a guide to acquiring PDA bragging rights, and maybe getting some work done, too.

Palm Versus Pocket PC

The Palm trademark is to PDAs what Kleenex is to facial tissues. People don't think, "I've got to get a PDA," they think, "I need a Palm Pilot." It's no wonder -- Palm developed the first practical touch-screen device, complete with automated data synchronization, and the company's operating system has captured an astonishing 80 percent market share. Not all of these "Palm" devices are made or sold by Palm Inc., however. For the past few years the company has licensed its operating system to several other companies, most notably Handspring and Sony, allowing them to create Palm workalikes with their own distinctive features. All devices running the Palm operating system are basically alike and can run the same programs, just as all computers running Windows, regardless of manufacturer, can operate the same software.

The greatest strength of the Palm operating system is its simplicity. You can use one of these PDAs right out of the box, with just a cursory glance at the manual. With simplicity, though, comes limitations. The software built into the Palm handles the basic personal information tasks nicely, but that's about it. No programs for surfing the Web or working with PC documents, and no audio capabilities.

Enter that titan of complexity, Microsoft, with its own handheld operating system. The current version, dubbed Pocket PC, is incorporated in handhelds made by Casio, Compaq and HP. In addition to basic record keeping, Pocket PC includes miniature but still powerful versions of Excel, Outlook, Money, Word and Internet Explorer, making virtually all of your computer work instantly portable. There's Microsoft Reader, an electronic book program that uses special techniques to provide sharp, clear text. Pocket PC also includes extensive multimedia capabilities, with stereo sound, voice note recording, music player software and, most important of all, a brightly lit color display. Even though two Palm-based models now have color screens, the Pocket PC display boasts significantly higher resolution (320 x 240 dots for Pocket PC, 160 x 160 for Palm) -- there's really no comparison.

Palm's drubbing of Microsoft in the battle for market share is only in part a matter of simplicity versus complexity. Price is also an issue. You can buy a Palm-based handheld with a monochrome screen and all the basic functions for just $150. Pocket PC models all come in color, which means a starting price of $500.

Then there's the snowball factor. As the Palm juggernaut has rolled along in the past few years, it has accrued literally thousands of add-on programs and a generous assortment of accessories. Support for the Pocket PC is perfectly adequate, but still trails the Palm platform by a substantial margin.

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