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April 2000

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Compare & Contrast

PDAs Add Features, Color, Complexity

by Anthony Paonita


Palm IIIx (Circle no. 210)

PRICE: $225 (approximate street price)

FEATURES: 6 oz. weight; 4 MB memory, backlit screen, HotSync cradle, infrared "beaming" capacity allow data exchange between Palms, Outlook synching

Palm VII (Circle no. 211)

PRICE: $450

FEATURES (in addition or different from above): 6.7 oz. weight; 2 MB memory; Wireless Internet access (via Palm.Net service for $10-$40 per month)

Palm IIIc (Circle no. 212)

PRICE: $450

FEATURES: 8MB of RAM; color screen; photo viewing software; rechargeable lithium-ion battery


Visor Deluxe (Circle no. 213)

PRICE: $249

FEATURES: 8MB memory; USB sync cradle, choice of color, various expansion modules including "Quick Backup" for non-PC/Mac backup of Visor data

Visor (Circle no. 214)

PRICE: $170

FEATURES: All of Deluxe's except 2 MB of memory and no color choice


Psion 5MX (Circle no. 215)

PRICE: $550

FEATURES: RISC ARM710T chip; keyboard; 16 MB memory, flash storage capacity; grayscale screen; microphone for digital sound recording; serial and infrared ports; 12.5 oz. weight


Jornada 690 Palmtop PC (Circle no. 216)

PRICE: $900

FEATURES: 133 MHz Hitachi processor; color screen; 56K internal modem; Internet e-mail support; 8 hours battery life; 1.1 pounds; Software includes Pocket Word, Excel and PowerPoint


Cassiopeia E-100 (Circle no. 217)

PRICE: $450

FEATURES: 32 MB memory; 131 MHz processor, display with thousands of colors; Sync cradle with serial port connection; built-in microphone; multimedia capabilities to play sound and movies; productivity suite

TOWARD THE END of each project meeting, talk would get around to the next meeting. Everyone would whip out his or her Palm. Well, everyone except one guy who had a Psion -- he was the odd man out.

That just about sums up the market these days in handheld computers: There's Palm, and there's the other stuff.

For the uninitiated -- have you been in cryogenic suspension? -- handheld computers, or personal digital assistants are those little objects you see fellow diners scribbling or typing on at lunch time. They're replacing the Filofaxes and little black books most of us relied upon to bring order to our lives.

The best of them, or at least the most ubiquitous -- the Palms -- are designed to be an adjunct to your desktop computer, not a substitute. The idea is that you carry this little thing around, jot down important appointments, contacts and notes and then back that up to your grown-up computer when you return to the office.

That's how I use my Palm. If I'm in a meeting, I'll make that appointment for the next one. I'll take some notes down, if I've forgotten pen and paper. And if no one's looking, I might doodle (or even play solitaire) on one of the multitude of programs available for what's now called the Palm Computing Platform.

More Elaborate

Palms are getting more elaborate now; the most expensive version (the Palm VII) allows wireless access to the Internet. The less-expensive (yet sleeker) Palm V now offers that as a third-party option.

Palm, as if to celebrate its IPO as a separate company, has now committed what some say amounts to heresy, and has introduced the IIIc, which features a (gasp) color LCD screen.

Why is it heresy? Palm's creators previous dismissed the idea as a frippery. Besides, they said, a color screen would sap battery power -- and extended battery life was one of Palm's many charms.

Well, Palm's over that; the new model, which still doesn't offer many features that takes advantages of color, recharges while on its cradle. Battery life is said to be a couple of weeks.

The Others

3Com, Palm's former parent, has licensed its system to others, hoping that it can pull off a Microsoft in the PDA world.

The Palm Pilot's original team of creators jumped ship and started a new company in the summer of 1998. Now, we have the result: The Handspring Visor, which resembles a Palm III but has a dock into which optional modules, for, say, modems, digital cameras and game devices. But a caveat: many promised modules are still in the "promised" mode for the time being.

Not every PDA aficionado carries a Palm -- although three in four handhelds carry that brand, and nine out of 10 are based on the Palm platform. The fellow with the Psion carries around what, in effect, is a real computer that looks as though it got shrunk in the dryer.

The Psion, unlike the Palm and its offspring, even comes with a little keyboard. My former meeting mate cited this feature as a selling point; he said he couldn't be bothered to learn the "Graffiti" characters with which you can hand-write data into the Palm. (But note: Palm not only also has a tap-able virtual keyboard, but you can buy plug-in lightweight but full-sized keyboards if you want to enter data directly into the unit, rather than "synchronize" from homebase computers).

The Psion also has bigger ambitions. It comes equipped with a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing program and an e-mail program, among others. So it can perform many of the basic tasks you do on your regular computer. You can also "sync" data on the Psion with your computer, be it a Windows PC or a Mac. Just keep in mind that the keyboard is a fiddly little device; it helps to have long, thin fingers. That said, there also is a stylus where you can enter data and draw, Palm-style.

Do You Do Windows (CE)?

Microsoft has been butting its head against a (palm-sized) wall, trying to get an entry into the PDA market. Its effort used to be called Windows CE, but is in the process of being rebranded--not a sign of unqualified success. Many of CE's problems can be attributed to the operating system's attempt to do too much in too little space, in this case the typical LCD panel of a handheld computer.

But there are those who believe that the Palm and its siblings do too little. So the Windows-based PDAs can do things like show pictures (a feature now matched by the color Palm) or short movies, take dictation and play MP3 music files.

The main Windows CE handhelds left standing after last year's shakeout are the H-P Jornada and Casio's Cassiopeia. They do more than the Palm and possibly the Psion, but again, their small screens and limited battery life make them a proposition mainly for those who simply must have a "Start" button on every computer they use.

It's a transitory time for these devices. I have a feeling we're only at the start of an era, and PDAs will become more ubiquitous, perhaps even supplanting some of the desktop computers that now lie unused by people on the go. We're beginning to see strange hybrids, like Kyocera Wireless Corp.'s pdQ smartphone, a Palm/cell phone combo. The real challenge for their makers is to mate portability with enough features to be useful, but not so much to weigh them down and betray their initial appeal.

Anthony Paonita is a senior editor of The American Lawyer and a contributing editor to Law Technology News.

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