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.
The Envelopes, Please
Frankly, there's no single "best" PDA, any more than there's a "best" pet -- each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Surveying the ways people use their handhelds today and the state of the art in PDA technology, I broke the field into seven decision-point categories and chose the best example in each. None of these devices does anything the others absolutely can't handle: you can get wireless access or view an online photo album, for example, using any current Palm or Pocket PC device. However, each device has general capabilities and then some special strength. When it's time to make a selection and slap your credit card on the counter, your best bet is to determine the key feature that matters most to you and buy the PDA that best meets that criterion.
Best Wireless: PDA Palm VIIx
"Wireless" is more than a buzzword -- it's a genuine revolution in the way we deal with information. Say you need a stock price, the score of a ballgame, an address, a gift for your girlfriend, access to e-mail. Why head for the nearest computer when you can pull a wirelessly enabled handheld from your pocket, log on, and get the job done right now, from wherever you happen to be.
Frankly, this revolution hasn't been won just yet. Wireless information access is fairly slow, coverage varies widely from region to region, and it's a pricey proposition. Still, it's here, it works well enough to recommend, and the Palm VIIx delivers the best combination of convenience, price and practicality out there today. With a substantial screen size and easy text input, it certainly beats the hell out of those supposedly "Web-enabled" cell phones.
At first glance the VIIx ($449) looks like any run-of-the-mill Palm handheld. That's part of what makes it impressive: Palm added wireless information access without increasing the bulk of the device. Flip up the antenna and you can log on to more than 400 information providers and wireless retail stores, ranging from up-to-date travel information to The New York Times, Amazon.com and a Starbucks Coffee Store Finder. Understand that this is not wireless Internet access -- given current wireless speeds and the screen size on a pocket-size device, full Internet browsing on a handheld isn't really practical yet. What Palm has created are so-called "Web clipping" applications, wireless services specially formatted to work on a handheld. Most important for many users, you can now read e-mail from your standard Internet Service Provider account (including America Online) wirelessly on your Palm VIIx -- that capability alone is enough to justify the $45 a month charge for unlimited service.
Most Expandable PDA: Handspring Visor Platinum
The original designers of the Palm left the company to found Handspring, licensing the Palm operating system and creating a device with a single distinctive feature -- an expansion slot that accepts add-on devices called Springboard modules. It took well over a year before the promised modules hit the market, but now there's an impressive selection available, each with the power to transform your handheld into a radically different device. You'll find GPS (global positioning system) modules that track your location wherever you wander, landline and wireless modems, camera connections, snap-in pagers, MP3 player modules that turn the Handspring Visor into a portable jukebox -- there's even an add-on that turns your PDA into a cell phone!
These modules work with any late-model Handspring Visor unit, but I'd go with the Platinum ($299), with the fastest processor Handspring offers, 8 megabytes of memory, and convenient USB connection to a Windows or Macintosh computer for peripherals.
Best Multimedia PDA: Compaq iPaq H3650
Being a tech-obsessed power user, the iPaq is my favorite PDA overall. In addition to my preference for the Pocket PC software, which works beautifully with all the documents I create on my Windows machine, the iPaq offers the best PDA screen in the business, bar none. I like color for its own sake (with 4,000-plus colors displayed on-screen, my digital photo album looks great), but there's a business-serious case to be made for color screen technology that uses built-in illumination instead of reflected light. Above and beyond the colors involved, these screens are 10 times easier to read than a monochrome Palm device. The best of the breed is definitely the iPaq H3650 ($500). While other color PDAs may look fine in a dimly lit room, the iPaq is the only one that's still perfectly legible outdoors in the sunshine. Combine this unique capability with snappy processor performance, excellent audio reproduction and a sleekly curved case design, and you have a winner. The only major shortcoming: you'll need a separate expansion sleeve ($49-$149) to add expansion devices such as modems or memory cards to the iPaq.
Best Power-User Palm: Sony Clié
In some ways, the Clié is genuinely "the Sony of Palm PDAs," with elegant silver and gray styling that continues the company's tradition of first-rate industrial design and an elevated $399 price tag, another Sony tradition. Where Clié falls short is multimedia support. The lack of audio capabilities seems distinctly un-Sony. While the Clié comes with photo and even video display software, neither is very impressive on the run-of-the-mill monochrome screen.
What lifts the Clié above the competition among power-user Palms, though, is the combination of expansion capability and the unique Jog Dial controller. The unit comes with 8 megabytes of memory built-in plus an eight-megabyte add-on Memory Stick. The Memory Stick slot is a multifunction add-on port, accepting not only memory but also digital cameras, GPS devices and other peripherals. Few Memory-Stick-based gizmos are available yet, but an impressive selection is in development.
The Jog Dial controller, though, is what provides the real competitive edge for the Clié. By pushing the dial in (like clicking a mouse) and rotating it to move your on-screen highlight, you can work the handheld much more efficiently than tapping on the screen with a stylus. For power users who always have their Palm in their palm, this streamlined control system quickly becomes addictive.
Best Pocket-Size PDA: Palm Vx
The Palm Vx ($399) is one of the great modern designs, extraordinarily slim and curvaceous, comfortable in the hand, cozy in the pocket, and easy on the eye. In terms of pure function, the Palm Vx is nothing special -- it handles the basic Palm tasks, and the screen's a step above other monochrome devices, but that's about it. Where the Vx shines is form -- it's a design-fetish item that brings a smile much like the VW Beetle or Apple's iMac. At a waiflike 4 ounces and just 0.4 inches thick, this is a shirt-pocket PDA that's easy to take everywhere.
Best Ultraportable PDA: Xircom Rex 6000
This is the oddball device in our roundup, but its distinctive charms just beg to be included. Neither Palm nor Pocket PC, this credit-card-size device offers information portability with minimal bulk. It synchronizes with your PC's calendar, contacts, task list and memos, includes a clock and calculator, and can even download news, stock quotes and weather forecasts from the Net -- not too shabby for a device that weighs just 1.4 ounces. A nice bonus: with normal use the batteries should last up to six months.
If you live on your laptop, the $149 Rex slips right into the PC card slot for downloading information. To work with your desktop PC, go for the $189 version with a convenient docking station that connects to your USB port.
Best Value-Priced PDA: Palm m100
This one is a close call. For about $150 you could choose a two-megabyte Handspring Visor, complete with a Springboard expansion slot. It works fine, but you know what -- it has all the style and sizzle of a salt-free Saltine cracker. For the same $150, I'd go with the Palm m100, which combines basic PDA practicality with a rounded, friendly design that's fun to show off. The m100 has a slightly smaller screen than other Palms (with the same resolution, though) -- I didn't find this to be a problem. And the overall small device size is certainly a benefit -- the curved 4.4-ounce PDA is nearly as portable as the premium-priced Palm Vx. If basic black doesn't appeal to you, fork over an extra $20 and snap on a colorful faceplate in one of five metallic shades.
Steve Morgenstern writes regularly on technology for Cigar Aficionado.