Personal digital assistants

Introduction

When you're on the go, sometimes even the smallest laptop can weigh you down. Handheld computers, which offer more capabilities every year, might seem more appealing. We tried four of the latest Mac-compatible handhelds that run Palm OS: Handspring's Treo 270, Palm Computing's Tungsten T and Zire, and Sony's Clié PEG-NX70V. All four handhelds have the basics. Each uses a relatively easy-to-learn handwriting scheme called Graffiti to enter data, beam data to other handhelds via infrared ports, and recharge the battery with AC power. The range But that's where the similarities end. The Zire is a very basic PDA for the user who wants what amounts to an electronic address book and calendar; the Tungsten T is a PDA with a colour screen, Bluetooth connectivity, and other high-end features; the Treo adds a mobile phone; and the Clié is both a PDA and a digital camera. Each of these high-quality handhelds will surely meet the needs of specific types of users, but our highest overall recommendations go to the Tungsten T and the Zire, for their quality and design. If you're a busy person who wants to store contact information, notes, and calendar entries in a light, portable, no-frills PDA, the Zire was built with you in mind. It comes with 2MB of memory for storage, and unlike the more expensive handhelds, it doesn't have slots for adding storage cards, or ports that allow it to connect to a variety of peripherals. So if you like the idea of adding cards for backup or applications, or of connecting to gear such as the Palm Portable Keyboard, the Zire will seem limiting. The Zire is about 7.6cm wide, 1.2cm thick, and 11.4cm tall, making it just a bit bigger than an iPod. But the 107g Zire is noticeably lighter than the 10GB iPod, and a simple rubber flap covers and protects its screen. With its small monochrome display, the Zire isn't for people who have trouble reading small text. Also, the screen isn't backlit - a standard feature of more-expensive monochrome and colour handhelds - so when dusk begins to fall, it's time to put the Zire away. People familiar with earlier Palm models will find their way around easily. Below the viewable portion of the screen is a touch-sensitive section for writing Graffiti or tapping on built-in icons that let users issue commands or jump to applications; below that area are up and down buttons, a Datebook button, and an Address Book button. Catch in the cradle
Most PDAs require cradles to exchange data with the Mac via USB, but the Zire connects with a simple cable. When on the road, you might appreciate this - however, PDAs that use proper cradles have a different kind of advantage: the cradle-connection port also allows them to connect with the aforementioned Palm Portable Keyboard, business-card scanners, MIDI sound modules (which turn your PDA into a synthesizer), and many other peripherals. If you're trying to simplify your life and not add more gadgets to it, though, the unadorned, self-contained Zire may be just the ticket. If the Zire defines the humble side of Palm Computing's PDA line, the Tungsten T, a colour PDA with stereo sound, epitomizes its extravagant side. This device is designed for people who want entertainment, expandability, and flexibility in a PDA. The Tungsten T is eminently portable - it's about the same size as an iPod and a tad lighter. It has a unique design: pull on the bottom of the PDA's front panel, and it expands to reveal a Graffiti-writing area. The device's clip-on cover can be a bit of a pain - it has to unsnapped and then attached to the PDA's back before you can get to work. Storage options
The Tungsten T ships with 16MB of storage, but you can add more space via its Secure Digital (SD) card slot. SD cards are about the size of a postage stamp, and you can buy cards capable of storing as much as 256MB of data. Because the Tungsten T includes stereo-sound capabilities, you can use it as an MP3 player, but you'll need additional software, as well as enough storage space for the music. We tried out the $16 AeroPlayer from Aerodrome Software (www.aerodromesw.com), and the sound from the Tungsten T was rich, full, clear, and strong. The Tungsten T has an incredibly sharp, bright 320-x-320-pixel colour screen. The colours are rich, and the displayed text is easy to read. Best of all, the Tungsten T's screen remains very sharp and legible in bright sunlight. For navigation, the Tungsten T provides a five-way thumb switch and four application buttons. In addition, a small button on the left calls up preinstalled software that lets users record voice memos. Blue in the tooth
The Tungsten T can connect to a Mac via a USB cradle, but its real perk is connecting via Bluetooth without requiring that users purchase additional hardware. It gets better: if you have a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone, you can not only share contact information between your Tungsten T and the phone, but also use the phone to set up a wireless Web connection for your PDA. The Tungsten T can reach out in many ways to other peripherals. For users who don't want to juggle a handheld and a mobile phone, the Handspring Treo 270 offers a cool two-in-one option. The Treo 270 is about the same size as the Tungsten T, and just a bit heavier, at 153g. It ships with a USB cable rather than a cradle for connecting to a Mac, so it's easy to transport. You can order a cradle for the Treo, and its cradle-connection port theoretically allows it to connect with peripherals. However, the connector is non-standard, and as of press time, no folding keyboards or other such peripherals had been designed for it. The Treo ships with 16MB of storage, and doesn't have slots for extra memory. The Treo has a 160-x-160-pixel screen, and it supports fewer colours than the Tungsten T, so images appear a bit coarser. This is acceptable, but in bright sunlight the Treo's screen was nearly impossible to read - even after we had adjusted the contrast and brightness. Along with the usual application and up and down buttons, the Treo has a clickable, scrolling thumb wheel. One addition we weren't expecting is the Treo's keyboard, reminiscent of Research In Motion's BlackBerry pagers. The keyboard sits below the screen, and you push the tiny oval buttons with your thumbs to type. The Treo has no Graffiti-writing area, which disappointed us at first. Fortunately for those who prefer Graffiti, Handspring, in partnership with CIC, offers RecoEcho, a free utility that lets you write Graffiti anywhere on screen. It worked flawlessly, and it greatly enhanced our Treo experience. The Treo uses the GSM network, but is GPRS-upgradeable. Voices came through more clearly and signals didn't break up as easily. Also, you can use Treo's applications while on the phone. Best of all, the Treo provides wireless Web surfing. It downloads text and images relatively quickly, but don't expect broadband speeds. A simple page such as Google's main screen (www.google.com) takes about two seconds to appear, but Apple's page (www.apple.com) takes a full two minutes. The Treo 300 is a very useful device for people who don't want to carry around both a PDA and a mobile phone, but the screen's poor performance in bright sunlight makes it a little awkward to use. Jack of all trades
What if you wanted a PDA that was not just a PDA or a PDA with a phone, but an MP3 player and a digital camera? You'd have the Sony Clié PEG-NX70V. This handheld is the biggest and heaviest of the bunch, standing a full 14cm high and weighing 212g. Like the other higher-end handhelds we tried out, the Clié has a colour screen and ships with 16MB of storage. The Clié gives multiple options for extending storage and memory. It can take CompactFlash cards and Memory Sticks, and because it uses a cradle, it also has a connector on the bottom, which allows you to connect a folding keyboard, as you can with the Tungsten T. And you can mount Memory Sticks right on a Mac's desktop, which allows you to drag files directly to the Clié, turning it into a hard drive. The Clié requires a $30 third-party application, Mark/Space's The Missing Sync (www.markspace.com), to connect to a Mac. This program, available for both OS 9 and OS X, worked without any problems. The Clié's screen is on its lid, which might sound unusual; indeed, we found it pretty awkward to write Graffiti on the lid with the base of the PDA dangling beneath it, especially considering the Clié's weight. But the lid can swivel completely around to face out, so when you close it you can hold the Clié comfortably in one hand as you enter text. The Clié has another unique design feature: the Graffiti area is actually part of the display, so you can hide it; this gives you a screen with roughly one-third more real estate (320-x-480 pixels) than the screens of the other PDAs we looked at provide. Like the Tungsten T's, the Clié's screen is very easy on the eyes, but fonts are a bit lighter, and it doesn't hold up quite as well in bright sunlight as the Tungsten T. Like the Treo, the Clié has its own keyboard, which sits at the base of the handheld with the application and up and down buttons; it also has a scrolling, clickable thumb wheel for navigation. One of the coolest things about the Clié is the digital camera cleverly concealed inside the lid's hinge. The camera works quite well for its size: it can take pictures at 640-x-480-pixel resolution and record small 2K movies with sound that run for several minutes. The camera won't give you the greatest image quality, but the colours should be just fine for a gadget-loving amateur videographer. As if its digital-camera functionality weren't enough, the Clié also works as an MP3 player. It comes preloaded with software for playing MP3s, and Sony even throws in a pair of headphones and a remote. When we listened to the same tune side-by-side on the Tungsten T and the Clié, no obvious victor emerged. However, one advantage of the Clié is that if you connect it to a Mac, iTunes can play MP3s from the Clié directly.
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