Just how helpful are handhelds?
September 9, 1998
by Michael S. Lasky, Harry McCracken and Vince Bielski
(IDG) -- For a decade, palmtop PCs have been derided as toys for gadget heads. And why not? These very small computers (also called personal digital assistants, or PDAs) have struggled to break into the mainstream, but their notorious flaws -- tiny screens, unusable keyboards, and poor handwriting recognition -- have led to their ignoble end as drawerware. So much so that folks are still surprised to see one. In the small wooded town of Bothell, Washington, residents stare in disbelief when Microsoft engineer David Wecker takes his two Afghan hounds on a brisk stroll -- and checks his e-mail at the same time. While his eager dogs tug the leashes he grips in one hand, Wecker reads and deletes messages on a palm-size PDA he holds in the other. His neighbors think he's nuts.
On the other coast in Boston, Harry McCracken, one of the authors of this story, draws similar stares from onlookers. As he rides the subway each day, McCracken types furiously into his handheld PDA, which is no bigger than a thick checkbook. Passengers wonder how he does it.
But soon, they may consider using a PDA themselves. With the release of the latest models, PDAs are finally leaving the province of geeks. Even the average consumer may have reason to give them a second look.
We tested ten PDAs, ranging in price from $180 to $899, and found some improvements that could change your mind about purchasing one of these devices. If you want a wide range of applications on your PDA, prefer keyboard input over a stylus, and don't mind carrying a device with dimensions somewhere between those of a thick checkbook and a hardback book, you should consider a handheld model. In PDAs of this class (which generally measure about 7 by 5 by 1.5 inches and weigh 1 to 2 pounds), larger, more usable keyboards and color screens are the big news this year. After some practice, we were able to touch-type -- a first -- on our Best Buy handheld, NEC's $799 MobilePro 750C, an almost-10-inch-wide Windows CE 2.0 unit. Like other handhelds, the MobilePro also comes with an internal modem and word processing, spreadsheet, and personal information management applications. It's also suitable for doing light Web browsing on the road. (See " PDAs Online: A Web of Restrictions," link below).
As for most of the other handhelds here, we'd advise avoiding them if you're buying mainly for the keyboard. Among those with color screens, only the LG Electronics Phenom Ultra could match the MobilePro for ease of typing. The Compaq C-Series Model 810 and Philips Velo 500 cost hundreds of dollars less, but you won't be happy with their hunt-and-peck keyboards. The HP 620LX has a more bearable keyboard. Among the compact handhelds, the Psion Series 5 offers the best keyboard for typing input. Its keyboard is a smaller version of the NEC's (see " Input Speed Test: PDAs Versus a Desktop PC," link below).
Palm III: A breeze to use
If you'd rather relinquish a keyboard in favor of a simpler, less expensive PDA that can fit into your pocket, then a palm-size PDA is for you. These monochrome-screen devices go through fewer batteries than handhelds. On the downside, inputting data into these tape cassettesize PDAs can be a more painstaking task, since these devices have smaller displays and rely on character recognition or diminutive on-screen keyboards. The $399 3Com Palm III, the successor to last year's popular PalmPilot, is our favorite in this category. Despite Microsoft's big push to compete with the Palm III by arming vendors with the Windows CE 2.0 operating system for PDAs, the Palm wins out with its simpler, faster operation.
The smallest PDA of them all is the Rex, a credit-card-size device with a calendar, contact list, and to-do list. Input is its big drawback: Syncing the Rex with your PC is your only option for now. The next version, the Rex Pro, is expected to ship soon but wasn't ready in time for us to review.
Windows on PDAs
It's a familiar scenario by now: A breakthrough product catches Microsoft's eye, and before you know it, the software giant is swamping the smaller company by making its own version of the program and using its market presence to help sell more of it. In the case of PDAs, last year's PalmPilot (with sales of 1 million units it's considered a wild success by PDA standards) undoubtedly spurred Microsoft to get more serious about this market.
In addition to wheeling deals with numerous PDA hardware manufacturers to install its CE operating system on their machines, Microsoft is using its dominance in the desktop and notebook arenas to convert consumers. Its marketers have been pushing Windows CE devices as "PC companions" and offered a certificate for a free copy of Windows 98 to people who bought a palm-size device by mid-1998. Seven of the ten new PDAs in this roundup use CE 2.0. So is buying a Windows CE PDA a no-brainer? Not yet.
In our tests, we looked at each PDA's operating system, plus hardware design, battery life, input, e-mail, Internet access, screen, sound, price, and PC connectivity. We came away liking many things about Windows CE 2.0. If you already use Windows on your PC, you'll recognize the Start button, desktop icons, and toolbar. Ultimately, however, we found Windows CE a bit more cumbersome and frustrating to use than the proprietary PDA operating systems that come on the Palm III, Sharp SE-300 Mobile Organizer, and Psion Series 5.
With ten flavors of Windows CE devices shipping only 430,000 units in 1997, a Microsoft takeover of the PDA operating system market won't happen anytime soon. But the new and improved PDAs, as a class, have finally achieved some staying power. "The PalmPilot played the largest role in [making PDAs more popular], but Windows CE helped legitimize the market as well," observes Mike McGuire, a senior analyst for Dataquest. "We now have a firmly established handheld space [in the PC market], and people are starting to create some interesting applications," he adds.
Such apps include consumer-oriented programs to track gas mileage and the like. For now, Windows CE machines come with stripped-down versions of a word processor, spreadsheet, personal information manager, e-mail, Web browser, fax software, and a presentation player. Except for the last item, the Psion (a Windows CE alternative) also has all of these.
Ease of input
Windows CE 2.0equipped PDAs generally offer easier input than the proprietary systems do. For instance, CE 2.0 devices without keyboards have slightly better character-recognition software than the Palm III. Jot, the software bundled with the Casio Cassiopeia E-10 and the Everex Freestyle Manager A-15, rarely misinterpreted our pen strokes and made writing with a stylus almost as easy (though not nearly as fast) as writing on paper. In contrast, the Palm III's Graffiti is somewhat more exacting. Slight variations in pen strokes can produce different letters, and some punctuation marks (such as commas) are difficult to make. The Palm III, though, is the only device that keeps the writing panel on screen at all times, so you don't have to reopen it every time you want to jot something down. The stripped-down Sharp SE-300 Mobile Organizer doesn't come with any character-recognition software, an omission that forces you to grapple with a tiny on-screen keyboard as your main input device.
The latest big keyboards and screens are available only on Windows CE 2.0 handhelds. We were impressed with the nearly-10-inch-wide keyboards on the MobilePro 750C and Phenom Ultra. Both mimic the feel of standard notebook keyboards--after a little practice, a touch typist can reach high speeds on them.
But when it comes to general navigation, non-CE PDAs are easier to use. For one thing, their simpler proprietary operating systems, built from the ground up for a small computer, make them faster. If you find the Windows hourglass annoying on your desktop PC, you'll hate waiting for it on a PDA. Although the hourglass disappears in a second or two, the screen transitions on nonWindows CE PDAs occur nearly instantaneously. Some operations on a Windows CE 2.0 PDA are needlessly complex, too. Certain tasks, such as adding a new contact or bringing up the calculator, take several more steps on the Casio Cassiopeia E-10 and the Everex Freestyle Manager A-15 than on the Palm III or the Sharp SE-300.
Seeing is believing
PDAs, especially handhelds, are gradually converting to color screens. Available on half of the keyboard-equipped PDAs we reviewed, these great-looking, bright dual-scan screens approach notebook quality and represent a significant improvement over monochromes for reading small type. Nonetheless, our favorite display on a keyboardless PDA belongs to the monochrome Palm III--our Best Buy. Because of the device's permanent writing panel, the Palm III has less screen space than its Windows CE competitors, but its fonts are the largest and thus the easiest to read.
The monochrome Psion Series 5, the only non-CE handheld we tested, saves precious screen real estate by displaying the menu bar only when you touch the screen. With a single click, you can magnify the display for better viewing.
All PDAs give you a backlighting option, which makes for easier reading. (Backlighting also consumes a lot of battery power.) All have similar problems with glare, however: Sometimes you have to twist the device to see the screen better.
The battery-life gap
Rapidly draining batteries can make even the best PDA a useless chunk of plastic that holds your phone numbers and addresses, so always remember to take along extra batteries, especially if you're using a Windows CE palmtop or color PDA. In our informal tests, the Palm III was the long-distance winner by a huge margin. It lasted for 30-plus hours, while the power-hungry CE palm-size devices pooped out after 5 to 10 hours--pretty dismal for a miniature PC designed to go on the road.
Among handhelds, monochrome PDAs had the best battery life. The Compaq and Philips averaged a respectable 8 to 10 hours and the Psion an even better 10 to 12 hours in our tests. The NEC and LG handhelds dealt with the huge energy consumption of their large color screens by using big lithium ion batteries. Still, these handhelds ran for between 5 and 9 hours in our tests. The color screen on the HP handheld, meanwhile, taxed that unit's tiny batteries severely, depleting them in only 2 to 4 hours.
Despite the latest advances in PDAs, many likely users will probably hold off: Why spend hundreds of dollars on a PDA when a $20 paper scheduler works just fine? So we gave PDAs to three professionals to use for one month in place of their paper organizers. Then we asked each of them the same question: Would you buy one for yourself? One user answered with an enthusiastic yes, saying the PDA gave her chaotic life more order. But the two others said no, partly because of the high cost of a PDA compared to a paper planner. For many potential converts, a PDA simply isn't worth the extra money.
Down the road, Microsoft hopes to attract new users by adding functionality without hiking the price. "We're going for a richer experience. Basically, more for the same price," says Windows CE product manager Phil Holden. The company is reportedly preparing to release a new version of Windows CE, which is expected to spur production of more powerful PDAs.
3Com says it will move in the opposition direction. "We will keep our products simple and fast. We see opportunity below $299," explains Greg Shirai, a 3Com product marketing manager.
PDAs may become better and cheaper, but the process will take years. "I don't see much volume till the year 2001 or 2002," concludes McGuire of Dataquest.
Would Nicole Diller buy a PDA?
To help Nicole Diller, a litigation attorney in San Francisco, California, answer that question, we gave her a 3Com Palm III, a screen-input PDA. We told her she had to use it in place of her paper planner for one month.
What she liked most:
Having all her to-dos on hand
What she liked least
Took too long to input information
With my busy schedule as a litigation attorney, I could definitely use more order. Particularly when I leave the office to meet a client or go to court, I often find myself needing a number but not having it with me. So I wind up phoning my secretary and having her flip through my Rolodex or search my PC's contact manager. Suddenly, with the Palm III (I put all my necessary contacts into it), I had instant access to all my numbers.
My favorite feature turned out to be the to-do list. My former "organizational tool" consisted of leaving myself voice-mail messages or writing notes on the back of a bill. With the PDA, I enter everything I need to remember and then sync it to my desktop PC. This feature was surprisingly easy to use.
I found myself becoming addicted. Once when leaving for a short vacation, I became paranoid about leaving my security blanket (a.k.a. my Palm III) at home. But I came to my senses. Who really needs a computer in the middle of the Death Valley desert? The point is, with a PDA in hand, I felt like I had my act together: I knew I wouldn't miss an appointment, and I always had my address book and grocery list at the ready.
Then problems began to emerge, starting with the calendar. Since the calendar was so small, it was easy to input information on the wrong day. And entering data via the tiny on-screen keyboard takes ten times longer than on a regular computer. Finally, even if you learn the Graffiti program, you can't write in cursive: You have to print, which is laborious for me. Ultimately, too much is sacrificed for size.
My verdict? The Palm III was really helpful, and a kick to use -- but not indispensable. It's more convenient than leaving myself voice-mail messages, but not $399 more convenient. I'd rather spend the money on a vacation -- but not in Death Valley again.
Would Liz Stevens buy a PDA?
To help Liz Stevens, a real estate manager and broker in Berkeley, California, answer that question, we gave her a handheld HP 360LX monochrome PDA with a keyboard. We told her she had to use it in place of her paper planner for one month.
What she liked most
It helped organize her hectic life
What she liked least
Hard to read the monochrome screen
I'm not the most organized person in the world. How could I be? Not only do I manage a staff of 45, but I'm out all day selling properties, running from one appointment to another. It doesn't help that I've been relying on a bulky Day-Timer and multiple Post-it notes to myself. Not the height of efficiency.
I'd been thinking of buying a PDA. I loved the idea of having electronic input so I could edit entries without crossing things out. What's more, I could have everything in one compact place. No doubt about it: I was a prime guinea pig for this experiment.
Within a few days, my PDA proved to be a lifesaver. I was driving to an appointment and needed to call my client to tell her to bring a document. So I just checked my PDA (after pulling over first, of course!). In the past, I might have found myself in a bind without the client's number, since my address book doesn't hold each and every contact name. But now that I sync my information from my PC to my PDA, I have all the numbers I need.
What a great feeling to have all my datebook and phonebook information together in a small, transportable computer. Next, I plan to get a wireless modem so I can fax things to people right from my handheld, without waiting to get back to the office.
I do have some gripes. I don't like the small keyboard, but I guess that's the price I have to pay for the sweet size of this device. Another annoyance: When I send the addresses from my computer to my PDA, they drop out of alphabetical order, so I have to do a "Find" or scroll down. This is frustratingly slow, especially since I have an enormous database of names and addresses. And I wish I had gotten a device with color and a bigger screen; the monochrome one is hard to read.
Overall, I can't imagine life without this little devil. I'm far more organized because of it. Would I spend $541 for one of these PDAs? In a heartbeat.
Would Scott Kraft buy a PDA?
To help Scott Kraft, a purchasing manager in Warren, Michigan, answer that question, we gave him a Casio Cassiopeia E-10, a palm-size PDA without a keyboard. We told him he had to use it in place of his paper planner for one month.
What he liked most
It's much smaller than his paper organizer
What he liked least
Trying to get contact information to sync perfectly
I'm practically married to my Franklin Planner. It's a binder that has a contact organizer, a task list, a note holder, and a scheduler. So I knew converting to digital would be a real challenge. Still, I wanted to see whether a PDA could do a better job of keeping me organized.
I immediately liked the Cassiopeia's small size and light weight. Setting up the synchronization to transfer my appointments and contact information to my desktop PC was a cinch. I was off and running. Well, sort of.
On my main PC, Microsoft Outlook holds my extensive contact list. But I kept running into problems trying to sync the list with my Casio. Though contacts' last and first names transferred successfully, company names were often lost. Despite my efforts, I couldn't figure out how to transfer all the data to the Casio perfectly -- a big problem.
My other big beef? Entering anything other than brief notes on the on-screen keyboard using the stylus was a clunky, time-consuming process. The Cassiopeia's charm really fizzled the day I tried to take notes in a fast-paced meeting with my boss. It was pretty embarrassing to sit there punching in letters in front of him, unable to keep up.
Would I ever spend $399 on a Cassiopeia? No way. It's an overpriced organizer that adds too many steps to my work routine. I have to turn it on and search to get to the right place. With my Franklin Planner, I open it up and boom, the information is right there.
Michael S. Lasky and Vince Bielski are senior associate editors for PC World, and Harry McCracken is a senior writer. Also contributing were Senior Associate Editor Yardena Arar and freelance writers Leslie Crawford and Mike Hogan.
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