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A look at PDAs
Report from COMDEX

A native Texan, Tim has lives in San Antonio where he pastors Faith Presbyterian Church. He first began using a personal computer in the early eighties, and is an avid fan of handhelds. Tim has served on the Alamo PC board of directors of for many years and is a past president. Currently he is the director of product reviews for PC Alamode.

Not surprisingly, handheld computing was really big at Fall COMDEX.  This does not suggest that you should rush out and sell your laptop or desk computer, but the industry is very bullish on these little computing devices that fit into your hand and can be stored in a pocket or small book-like case.  About five years ago, when US Robotics hit the world with its Palm Pilot, I sort of raised my eyebrows and thought, “What will they think of next?  Who would want one of these?”  Well, today, as my fingers peck away at my keyboard, my Palm Vx sits before me, but more about that later!

What PDAs did I see at COMDEX?  Well, there are, I think, four major players at the moment: Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, HandSpring, and Palm.  Each company offers excellent products.  Palm leads the industry, but Handspring wants to catch up and gain market share.  Microsoft, a Johnny-Come-Lately in this area, is aching to dominate the world.  But what else is new?   We will look at these in reverse order.

First, consider Microsoft.  While they do not manufacture the hardware, the software giant has joined forces with Hewlett-Packard, Casio, and Compaq to offer different versions of the Pocket PC.  Microsoft, by writing the software for the Pocket PCs, is hoping to do with handheld computing what it has done with desktop PCs.  Hewlett-Packard offers the HP Jornada Pocket PC in three styles: 540, 548, and 720.  I’m not sure how the 720 actually qualifies for this category as it is the size of a small keyboard and, while it can be held with one hand, will not fit in one’s palm.  It only weighs one pound, boasts 32 MB of RAM, has a 56K modem and pocket versions of Microsoft Word and Excel.  At about $1,000, it seems awfully pricey to me, when for a little more you can get a notebook computer that is not much bigger.  However, I should note that a PC Magazine review gave it 5 out of 5 stars!  Jornada 548 also includes pocket versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, has 32 MB of RAM and boasts a color display.  It weighs in at 9 ounces and sells for about $550.  The 540 only has 16 MB of RAM, a color display, Microsoft Windows for Pocket PC, Audible Player and Image Expert CE software.  It also features the HP Voice Contacts software that retrieves contact information by voice commands.  This is rather intriguing, but my experience with voice computing has left me speechless.  The best of them is only 90% accurate and, for me, worthless.

Casio offers two models that caught my eye, the E-125 ($600) and EM-500 ($500).  They both run the same software as the Hewlett-Packard models, but the EM-500 has only 16 MB of RAM. Unlike the HP models, both Casio offerings feature 65, 536 colors and stereo sound!  They both do video playback, but only the E-125 does video record.  They must both be kept on a short leash, as the battery must be charged after six hours of use.

Compaq has a comparable model, the iPAQ ($499), that is the lightest of the pack, at 6.3 ounces.  Tiny thought it may be, this model includes the features just mentioned, except that it has only 4,096 colors.  However, its battery use goes for 6 hours and the display is clearly visible in direct sunlight. It also has the fastest processor at 206.  The Casio and Hewlett-Packard models are 150 and 133, respectively.  Its game pad even has a center press for mouse click.

Enter Handspring, whose president, Donna Dubinsky, spoke to the APCUG (Association of PC User Groups), giving us insights into the history and intended future of Handspring.  Branching off from Palm Computing in 1998, this upstart of a company has not taken the industry by storm, but is making a sizable dent in market share led by the folks at Palm.  Handspring is, as they say, “a real comer.”  They have produced the Visor, and it is giving the Palm PC and Palm serious competition.

HandspringInterestingly, Handspring was co-founded by Jeff Hawkins who invented the original PalmPilot, along with Donna Dubinsky, who built the company that sold the Palm.  They, along with the Palm’s head marketing executive, Ed Colligen, are trying to be the leading provider of handheld computing products.  They aim to do so by inventing solutions that enable truly simple organization and that provide easy access to the Web so people can really communicate with each other––from their shirt pockets rather than from their desktops.  Their daily mantra is: “Keep it small, simple, affordable and connected. Those are the principles that inspired the creation of the Visor, and they will continue to drive every future Handspring product innovation.” 

How successful they will be only time will tell.  But for now this is the company to keep an eye on.  They offer several models, which I will highlight, but the real story may be the add-ons that will make the Visor a virtual “do it all in one” handheld computer.  The Visor handheld comes in four models: Visor, Visor Deluxe, Visor Platinum, and Visor Prisom.

The Visor (only $149) may do all most people need, making handheld computing very affordable.  While it only has 2 MB of RAM, the Visor runs all the software as the other models (they all run on the Palm OS), being only limited to the number of programs you can install.  It does feature the expansion slot for the add-ons.  It even has a USB connection, allowing you to update your data faster.  In addition to the Palm OS software, it comes with an enhanced date book, address book, to do list, memo pad, mail, expense, advanced calculator, world clock, and HotSync manager.

A step up from the Visor is the Visor Deluxe ($249).  It features 8 MB of RAM allowing for much more data: 12,000 addresses, 10 years of appointments, 6,000 to do items!  I’m tired just thinking about all the stuff I could put in there.  It’s also quite stylish, as it comes in five colors: ice, graphite, blue, orange, and green. 

Next is Visor Platinum, selling for $299.  What do you get for the extra $50?  Well, for one thing, it is 50% faster than the Deluxe model.  For another, the screen is a little sharper because it steps up from a 2 to a 4-bit image.  Of course, it comes with 8 MB RAM and the standard software. 

Last in the Handspring offering is the Visor Prism for $449.  This is their color version featuring 65,536 colors.  Unlike the other models, it has a lithium ion battery, rather than AAA batteries.  This means that under normal usage it can go for 2 weeks without charging. Text is easier to read with its active-matrix backlit display. It also allows you to view picture-quality graphics like photos, videos, games, and maps.

What makes Handspring so appealing, however, is the ability to add on other components, called Springboard modules.  Would you believe that there will soon be a VisorPhone you can snap into the external expansion slot, and suddenly your handheld device is a mobile phone!  I suspect that this will be the wave of the future.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, cell phones and PDAs have married, so that most cell phones are also PDAs.  If this happens,  PDAs will be ubiquitous. Probably there is no other way to get a PDA in almost everyone’s hand (or pocket). When available, the VisorPhone with service activation will be a cool $300.

Handspring also offers a 33.6K modem ($129.95) so you can stay connected while on the road.  Just by plugging into a standard phone line, you can HotSync your data from a remote location. With 3rd party software, you can also check POP e-mail, surf the web and send faxes.  Pretty cool, huh?

There is also an 8 MB flash module for $79.95 that lets you store your applications and back up your data in a format that's a snap to add. It comes with a built-in File Mover application that lets you copy, move and delete applications on both the module and the handheld.  It even stores over 200 typical Palm OS applications! Developers can also use the 8MB Flash Module to prototype and test applications designed for Springboard ROM modules.

The saying goes that the three key words to real estate are location, location, location.  In the computer world, the key words are backup, backup, backup.  One of my great concerns when traveling is that I’ll lose my data before I can get home to HotSync it into my desktop computer.  Apparently I am not atypical.  Handspring offers a Backup Module that takes the worry out of mobile computing. If you lose the data in your handheld (due to battery failure, etc.), you can easily restore the backup copy stored in the Backup Module. There is also a Digital Camera module.  While not a 3 or 4 megapixel model, it does 640X480 just fine in black and white or color.  Then, when you get home, you can HotSync them to your computer.

I could mention many more products, such as electronic books, but the last module I’ll mention is Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf for $29.95.  It features high resolution, full-motion graphics, and a highly realistic simulation of golf physics that allows you to play a round at TPC at Summerlin, TPC at Sawgrass, and Badlands Golf Club while sitting in the mall waiting for your wife to finish shopping.  Such a deal!

By far the most successful handheld device is the Palm.  They were first in the field and are still very much in the lead.  This is not to say that the Palm is the only way to go.  It is not.  But most consumers will want to check out what Palm has to offer before taking the plunge.  Endeavoring to compete on the lower levels, Palm has introduced a new kid on the block, the m100 Handheld.  It is only 4.5 ounces and has color snap-on face plates, to compete, no doubt with Handspring.  It has 2 MB of RAM and sells for $150.  This is their new entry level device.  Its only downside is that it takes AAA batteries.  It includes TCP/IP software to enable Internet based applications. Numerous e-mail are available including: AOL Mail, Eudora Pro, Lotus Notes, Microsoft, Outlook & Outlook Express, MultiMail Pro, Netscape Communicator, Yahoo! Messenger & Yahoo! Mail, and other POP3 and IMAP e-mail systems.  Of course, you must have a separate Internet account.

Next is the Palm III series (IIIc, IIIxe, and IIIe), the most affordable of which is the IIIe.

Palm VFollowing Palm III series is the Palm V and Vx.  This is my personal favorite for the simple reason that its sleek design fits unobtrusively in your pocket.  To me the whole point of having a palm device is to be able to conceal it on your person like you would a billfold.  The V does the trick!  Its screen is clear and easy to read.  I personally bought the Vx, which has 8 MB of RAM (rather than 2 MB for the V).  Believe it or not, I have the whole Bible (all 66 books) on my Palm Vx with almost 4 MB to spare.  Of course, it is a little pricey.  The Palm V is $299 and the Vx is $399.

Last is the Palm VII and VIIx that are designed to instantly access the Internet and sell for $399 and $449 respectively.  Integrated wireless access and web clippings are the main features and the additional cost is because the VIIx has 8 MB of RAM rather than 2 MB.  The screen has a sharp image.  Think of it!  You can access the internet with a wireless device that weighs only 6.7 ounces.

What I like about the Palm is that there is an abundance of software (commercial, shareware, and freeware) that is very good.  As I said earlier, I have the whole Bible on my Palm Vx.  It is the New American Standard Version and cost me only $20.  I think the King James Version is freeware!  One hardware add-on that costs only $99 is a full sized (but small) keyboard that fold up into a small package that is easy to carry.  When you are in the field and want to type something into your Palm, you just unfold your keyboard and let your fingers do the pecking!  The emphasis on handheld computing this year at COMDEX suggests that we have only seen the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding these devices.

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