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PC World

PDAs for the holidays


December 20, 1999
Web posted at: 2:13 p.m. EST (1913 GMT)

by Cameron Crouch

(IDG) -- If all you want for Christmas is a personal digital assistant, you may have some trouble. PDAs make a great gift, but many of them, especially some of the newer devices, are not easy to find.

For example, just try getting your hands on a Handspring.

The Palm spinoff is experiencing inventory shortages of its new Visor devices. Handspring says you'll have to wait 4 weeks for your Visor to ship, and right now you can't buy Visors anywhere but Handspring's Web site. (That should change next year, when Visors are expected to hit the retail shelves.)

Running on the Palm operating system, the Visor offers much of what you'd expect from a Palm, and also offers expandability through its Springboard module. The 2MB Visor sells with a Universal Serial Bus cradle for $179, or without the cradle for $149. The 8MB Visor Deluxe is $249 and comes in your choice of colors: graphite, green, orange, blue, and ice. Current Springboard modules are the $39.95 backup module, the $29.95 Tiger Woods PGA golf module, and a $79.95 8MB Flash module.

Palms set the pace

By contrast, Palm devices are generally easy to get. You can find most models in electronics stores or Web retailers, and orders placed at the Palm site will get free ground shipping through January 9th.

At a local CompUSA, I was able to find all models of the Palm. IBM's branded version, the Workpad, is available on the Web, but is less prevalent in stores.

Current Palm devices include the Palm IIIe, the 4MB IIIx, the V, the Vx, and the VII. At $179, the Palm IIIe has 2MB of memory and comes in a clear special edition version; the Palm IIIx is $299. Palm Vs are sporting a new price of $369, but for $449, you can have four times the memory with the 8MB Palm Vx.

But even Palm is finding that its inventory is not problem-free. The price of the wireless Palm VII was reduced to $499, and the device is now on back order at Palm's Web site.

Bigger devices, brighter displays

Sporting fast processors and color displays (and the high price tags that go along with those features), Microsoft Windows CE-based devices are wrestling to get into your homes this holiday.

The most-popular models -- from Casio, Compaq, and Hewlett Packard -- are easy to find on retailers' shelves and online. At CompUSA, I caught a glimpse of the Casio E-101 and E-105, as well as the HP Jornada 430se, and the Compaq Aero 2150.

The price of the color Palm-size Aeros reflects the higher cost of color LCD displays. The 8MB 2110 is $369 and the 16MB 2150 is $399. Compaq also has a new 24MB 2180 model for $449.

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HP's 16MB Jornada 430se is easy to find and offers multimedia functionality, thanks to its plentiful memory and color display. At $499, the 430se compares to the Compaq 2150, but it can also play MP3 files and display images.

Casio's Cassiopeia E105 comes bundled with a Multimedia Pack CD, which includes an audio player, video player, audio file converter, and image viewer. Casio has sold out of the 32MB device on its Web site, but I found it and the 16MB E100 version on hand at CompUSA.

With keyboards and flip-up displays, handheld PCs from Compaq and Hewlett Packard have the look and feel of a mini-notebook with the battery life of a Palm-size device. Priced close to $1000, these devices are more often found on the Web.

The late, great handhelds

But buyers should beware: Some of the handheld devices you may still find on shelves have been discontinued.

For example, Philips no longer makes or sells its Nino Palm-size PCs, but you can still find new ones. At one Web site, I found the 8MB Nino 210 for $299.95 and the more sleek 312 for $399.

Jeff Lapin, an owner of the monochrome Nino 310, says he's always had support problems with Philips. "When I initially got [the Nino], it didn't even come with the battery," he says. "I sent several e-mails with technical questions and got no responses."

More built-in wireless technologies are planned for the new CE devices, and you can expect these devices to get cheaper and slimmer. Many now come in grayscale models, although these are less ubiquitous in stores than color ones.

The thinnest CE device, Compaq's Aero 1530, has 16MB of memory and costs $299. Casio's grayscale Cassiopeia PDA, the E-11, is available from the Casio site for $199, but may be harder to find in stores.

Searching for Psion

Psion PDAs are popular in Europe and do well in PC World reviews, but you can only find them on at Psion's Web site (see link below).

Psion devices are palmtops with a keyboard for writing e-mail, faxes, and even spreadsheets. They run on the EPOC operating system, which was spun off from Psion and is licensed by Symbian for use in mobile phones and other handheld devices, says Patricia Miller, a spokesperson for Psion.

The smallest Psion, the $399 Revo, has 8MB of memory and weighs just 7 ounces. Currently there is a 2-week delay on orders of the Revo.

With 16MB of memory expandable to 96MB, the Psion 5 series are slightly larger than the Revo, to enable fuller functionality of the keyboard.

"People have written novels [on the Psion 5]; it's big enough to at least write documents," says Miller.

Don't expect to find the new Psion series 7 under your Christmas tree. "The Psion 7 is a limited edition machine," Miller says. "Psion took massive backorders, as it only began shipping in the last couple weeks."

Like Handspring, Psion hopes to get its devices in U.S. stores sometime next year.

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