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by Bob Brooke

There are gadgets and there are gadgets, but handheld organizers, also known as PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) actually offer a worthwhile service.

Jupiter Communications predicts that 54.6 million handheld organizers with Internet access will be in use by 2003. That's up from the 490,000 currently accessing the Net. The maker of the Palm Pilot, Palm, Inc., has sold more than a million of their six-ounce PDAs.

Of all the ones on the market, Palm Pilots lead in portability, most of which are no larger than a pocket-size spiral-bound note pad. Portability counts, but many handheld users want to connect to larger devices and networks.

While PCs are for information creation, PDAs let users carry and access information. People are comfortable with the clarity of the Palm screen, and some even use their Palm as a reader for electronic books.

Though Palm Pilots may seem like a business user's tool now, Palm plans to offer a handheld device tailored for almost anyone in the near future.

According to Michael Mace, chief competitive officer of the platform group at Palm, Inc. there are more than 3000 applications for the Palm and roughly 5 million Palm users. More than 1000 commercial and shareware programs for Palm Pilots reside online. And the Palm Pilot offers simple one-button synchronization--of a user's schedule, contact information, to-do items, and memos--with his or her desktop PC. Synchronization can be easily accomplished using a cradle that connects to the desktop PC's serial port or through an optional Palm modem.

Just who's using PDAs? Traditional Palm customers are businesspeople looking for a small, portable organizer that performs various functions without eating excessive memory or battery life. Basic Palm tasks include managing contacts, schedules, a to-do list, a memo pad, and access to E-mail from some desktop programs.

PDAs are fast replacing paper organizers. Some people want Palm Pilots to digitally keep track of their lives and schedules. Others want to easily retrieve or share business data. To accommodate everyone's needs, Palm produces three distinct products--the Palm III, V, and VII series, each with several models.

Most Popular Models
The most popular handhelds are Palms IIIs. They're monochrome and reasonably priced. For consumers looking for an organizer, the low-priced Palm III series focuses on personal information management functions. The entry-level IIIe has add-ons like color lids that appeal to students, and the upgradible IIIx adds memory and network syncing for business users.

The Palm III's infrared beaming capability lets users share data and applications with other Palm users at the touch of a button. Placing two units about one foot apart, users can send a contact entry, an appointment, and an entire application in seconds. And the Palm III will run for six to eight weeks on two AAA batteries a lot longer than most toys.

Recently, Palm rolled out its newest model, the Palm IIIc "c" stands for color. The Palm IIIc resembles the Palm III with a color screen. It runs on a 20-MHz Motorola Dragonball processor with 8MB of memory. Its bright display lets users view images, play games, and read text easily.

With 8-bit color and 160-by-160 pixel resolution, the Palm IIIc isn't great for photos. The IIIc's color range is limited by the unit's small size and long battery life.

"The Palm IIIc is a baby step towards color," said Diana Hwang, research director of handheld devices at IDC. "Palm's color implementation doesn't use the full range." In contrast, Windows CE-based devices, like Casio's Cassiopeia and Hewlett-Packard's Jornada 430se, support 65,000 colors and high-resolution images, but have shorter battery lives. The Palm IIIc runs continuously for 10 hours, or for about two weeks with intermittent use. Its lithium-ion battery recharges in the Hotsync cradle. Competitive color devices running Windows CE claim around five hours of use and don't charge in the syncing cradle.

And Palm IIIc is only as useful as its applications. It comes with Album to Go, a photo-sharing application from Club Photo, a backgammon game, a color calculator, and a color version of AvantGo's Web content service, supporting only a dozen or so of its 350 Web sites. Many of the its other functions are similar to those of the monochrome models.

The slim Palm V series, featuring a snap-on modem plus an add-on to attach a cell phone and send E-mail wirelessly, focuses on size and data functionality. The V series is intended for business customers who want a trim scheduling and communications device.

The wireless Palm VII is all about connectivity. Larger in size, this newest Palm series is designed for people who want constant access to the Internet and other networks. Palm-watchers expect many additions to the VII series as wireless networks improve and adds services.

It lets users make trades, shop and check flights. Like earlier Palm units, the Palm VII is a well-designed pocket organizer with pen input, a calendar, an address book, and other PIM features, plus slick data synchronization with a desktop computer. But this Palm also has a radio modem and pop-up antenna. Step through a quick sign-up wizard for 3Com's Palm.Net Internet service, designed for this device, and users are ready for unplugged E-mail and Web access.

These features, however, scarcely resemble those of their PC counterparts. Though the VII's IMessenger E-mail handles short messages well, it works only with a Palm.Net account, not with corporate or ISP E-mail. Users must download incoming messages exceeding 500 characters (roughly 75 words) in chunks. IMessenger doesn't handle file attachments at all. The 11-line screen can only display 40 to 50 words of a message.

Another limitation: Users cannot browse the Web at large. Instead, 3Com has partnered with dozens of big Web brand names such as ABC News, the Wall Street Journal, and Yahoo to provide bite-size chunks of information tailored to the Palm VII's small screen and its slow (8-kilobits-per-second) wireless connection. News, stock quotes, and travel information are all available now, with more content on the way.

Handspring Visor
The Palm's direct competitor is the Handspring's Visor, the best PDA to come along since the Palm, itself--not much of a surprise since the team behind the original PalmPilot created this sleek, new device.

Not only does the Visor mimic the Palm's size and shape, but it's based on the Palm operating system, so right out of the box it can run hundreds of Palm applications. Where the Visor differs from the Palm is that it almost always outdoes its predecessor. The datebook offers three views the Palm doesn't provide (weekly, annual, and appointment list), the calculator adds several advanced functions, and the HotSync cradle's Universal Serial Bus connection moves data approximately four times faster than the Palm's serial hookup.

But the Visor's approach to expandability is elegant: The back of the device comes off easily, exposing a small bay that accepts plug-in modules about two-thirds the size of a PC Card. In contrast, installing expansion cards on a Palm III or IIIx means fiddling with tiny screws.

Current Handspring modules include EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Golf module, a Quick Backup module for removable storage ($39.95), and an 8MB Flash module ($79.95) for added memory. Various third-party modules, including a music player, a wireless modem, and a Global Positioning System unit, will be available through Handspring's Web site later.

Another Visor module, from Peanut Press, brings electronic books to handhelds. Peanut Press offers 500 titles on its site now and plans to offer more than 2000 by the end of the year. Titles cost anywhere from $2 to $18. Books are currently only offered by download, but modules will be available in a couple of months. Each themed module will have a collection of books and cost about $30 per card. Peanut Press also offers Peanut Reader, available as a free download. This software tool lets users dog-ear a page, invert the screen, change the font size, make notes, or search.

On the other side of the PDA coin is the Windows CE-based unit available from Casio and Hewlett Packard. These are essentially mini-PCs running a mini-version of Windows. But they fill a different need than Palms for their users. Similarly priced color Windows CE devices offer more multimedia support, including digital music players and more sophisticated imaging software.

Price Appeal
One of the biggest appeals of PDAs, especially the Palm III, is their price. Like its Palm ancestors, the Palm VII is elegant, innovative, and useful. But at $599, it costs nearly twice as much as the more mundane Palm IIIx.. At $449, are Palm IIIc's 256 colors enough to make the jump to color.

Handspring's Visor Solo starts at $149. With 2MB of memory, it doesn't come with a USB cradle, so users can't hot sync their data or install applications--unless they're sharing a cradle with somebody else, or have a friend who has the patience to beam you applications and data from another Visor or Palm with an infrared port.

Much better for most entry-level users is the $179 Visor the same as the Solo but including the USB cradle. In contrast, the basic Palm IIIe, also with 2MB of memory, goes for $229 but doesn't accept expansion cards. The $249 Visor Deluxe has 8MB of memory (like the slightly more expensive Palm IIIx). Its case comes in several iMac-inspired, translucent plastic colors in addition to the basic charcoal gray.

Also in development are a wireless LAN module and a HomeRF wireless module that will interact with appliances. Users can already take their PDA to the supermarket using a program called Shopping List. Soon they'll be able to link their PDA directly to their refrigerator inventory to generate a list of groceries they need. After all, this is the 21st Century.

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