A Handheld Handbook

Back in the dim days of portable yore, you knew where you stood when comparing Palm OS PDAs versus WinCE/PocketPC PDAs. If you wanted something inexpensive, small, light, and with decent battery life, you bought a Palm. If you had money to burn and you needed such amenities as color screens, fast processors, more memory, or expansion card support (and were willing to compromise on size and battery life to get them), you bought a PocketPC.

So much for fairy tales. These days, you can buy some PocketPCs for around the same price as some Palm OS PDAs. Palm OS PDAs have incredible color screens and fast ARM processors, and the two families of devices start to look more alike in basic capabilities every day. So what separates all of these brave new devices from the common porridge of PDAs?

If you're looking for revolutionary, you're going to be largely disappointed. None of these six PDAs break the mold, which has already seen such innovations as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and brilliant hi-res color screens. But from the perspective of institutional deployment, these new units are some of the most attractive and capable devices their makers have ever offered. We'll present a selection of PDAs, and perhaps you'll find the devices that are just right for you among the mix.

Treo 600: One PDA to Thrill Them All

Doing double duty as a cell phone and a Palm OS 5 PDA, the Treo 600 Communicator may be the best "convergence device" yet for school administrators or support staff. For a hefty $500 or so (with cellular activation), you get a reasonably sized unit with a bright color screen (though only 160x160 resolution), a thumb keyboard for typing in text, and CPU and memory allotment that are reasonable, but not stellar. Of course, a faster processor and more RAM probably would have come at the expense of battery life-which in the Treo 600 is surprisingly good. I got 5-6 days of standby time, and at least 4-7 hours of talk time between charges, though that figure also includes occasional use of the Treo 600 for PDA functions.

With the Treo you also get a built-in 640x480 resolution camera, which won't win any photo awards but may be just the thing for sending a picture from the big game for immediate posting on your school's Web site.

The screen is very bright and crisp and functions as a touch screen, befitting its PDA lineage. E-mail integration is straightforward, and you can send and receive messages anywhere you have cellular service.

For administrators on the go, the Treo 600 provides mobile e-mail and voice service as well as PDA functionality.

While the Treo 600 is as good an all-in-one device as you'll find, it does have its share of quirks and room for improvement. It does not include built-in Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, which limits in-building wireless connectivity and synchronization; the screen resolution could be higher (320x320 is becoming almost standard for a device this size); and a palmOne standard Universal Connector would have allowed for greater expandability with UC-based accessories. Most importantly, the price is a bit dear. Still, if you want a single cell phone and PDA device, you won't find better; and if your budget can handle it, this could be a more flexible option for mobile e-mail and voice service than a Blackberry.

Tungsten T3: Big and Bright

The first thing you will notice about the T3, and the most innovative feature of any of the palmOne devices, is the screen. At twice the resolution of most PocketPC devices, this incredibly bright 320x480 transflective 16-bit color screen blows away the others. And when the case slider is extended, it fills the space taken up by the silk screened Graffiti area in earlier Palms. This below-the-slide screen real estate can be filled with a virtual replica of the "classic" silk screen area, a dedicated Graffiti2 area, an on-screen keyboard, or most exciting, an extended screen, if the application in question supports the new high resolution.

The number of third-party applications that support the hi-res mode is increasing rapidly, including most of the software bundled free with the T3. And unlike PocketPC units, there is a landscape option built into the OS level, so with a single touch you can view any application in landscape mode. Rotating the screen to landscape makes spreadsheets immediately more usable, and for the first time, I almost didn't mind using a PDA to browse Web sites.

The CPU is the fastest processor available in a mainstream PDA, which makes the T3 one of the two fastest devices in this review (the other is the iPaq 2210). In fact, I was able to easily view 320x480 video clips at amazing speeds-up to 60fps.

Memory has been boosted to a generous 64MB (52MB usable).

The Tungsten T3 case slides out to reveal a larger screen area.

In addition, the T3 has Bluetooth built in, with the welcome addition of a one-click Bluetooth status and activation button on the system status bar.

Some of the significant developments in the Tungsten T3, aside from the general increase in usability provided by the new screen, faster processor, and more memory, are the improved compatibility with common enterprise applications, such as Word, Excel, Exchange, and the like. In addition, the T3 has the capability to run a wide range of Java applications, including those your district might have developed for in-house use.

The biggest disappointment was the battery life; despite processor and memory upgrades, the T3 has the same 900 mAh battery as the Tungsten T, which means that the bigger screen drains the battery after approximately 5 hours of heavy use. That's getting down into PocketPC range-but if you want the flashy screen, Bluetooth, and a blazing fast processor, you've got to pay for it somehow. (You'll likely want to invest in palmOne's nifty new Power To Go charger sled, which slips on the back of the device to recharge the battery quickly.)

But the bottom line is that for power users, you simply can't do much better in a PDA. The T3 unit does everything a PocketPC does and then some, but unfortunately also resembles a PocketPC in battery life.

To E or Not to E...

The mid-range Tungsten E comes with 32MB of RAM, a Palm V-like form factor, mid-range processor, SD/MMC slot for expansion, passable speaker and stereo headphone jack, and yet another gorgeous, crisp 16-bit color screen (320x320). The screen is as good as I've come to expect from the latest generation of palmOne PDAs, and the device comes with a solid software bundle. Unfortunately like the T3, the combination of bright screen, more memory, and speedy processor brings battery life closer to typical PocketPC levels, measured in hours rather than the days Palm users have become spoiled by.

That said, this unit would be a shoo-in for a general-purpose workhorse PDA for teachers and students, except for one glaring problem. Inexplicably, palmOne left off the Universal Connector, and instead included a standard USB port on the bottom of the unit, of the same type used in the consumer-level Zire units. This means the Tungsten E will not be able to charge and sync on standard palmOne cradles, cannot make use of sleds and devices like the Palm Power To Go charger or UC-based folding keyboards, and cannot share chargers and peripherals with other Tungsten units.

Though it lacks a palmOne Universal Connector, the Tungsten E is an affordable mid-range option for teachers and students.

As far as performance and capability, it would be hard to beat the value proposition of the Tungsten E, but the lack of what should be a standard port for the management and expansion of Palm OS devices turns this unit from what could have been a home run into a decent base hit. With a list price of $199, the Tungsten E is a value champ, offering mid-range performance and features at a rock-bottom price-if you don't need the Universal Connector.

A Street Palm Called De Zire

Finally, palmOne has upgraded its low-end, consumer-focused Zire 21 with 8MB of RAM, and a 126-MHz processor-the same CPU as the Tungsten E! This Zire also comes with a surprisingly decent set of bundled applications for a bargain-basement unit: in addition to the expected PIM software (calendar, address book, to-do, memos), the Zire 21 includes goodies like financial, database, and Outlook synchronization software; a business and scientific calculator; and an eBook reader. Unlike its higher-end siblings, the Zire 21 has no expansion ports or such amenities as a stereo jack for sound playback, and its screen size remains only 160x160 monochrome with no backlight. Of course, the upside of the nonbacklit monochrome screen is that the internal battery in this unit lasts virtually forever on a single charge, and the screen is more readable in bright sunlight than almost any color unit. And the price remains $99 (retail prices under $90 can be found), making this an incredible value for basic no-frills PDA functionality.

Simple and inexpensive, the Zire 21 is ideal for basic PIM and student applications.

Like the Tungsten E, there is no Universal Connector, so syncing and charging are via a standard USB cable and a separate AC charger. This unit will be too little for many heavy-duty organizational purposes, particularly those requiring multimedia, color, and sound; however, for those applications which do work with the Zire 21 (and more will, given the memory and processor upgrade), the low price point makes this an almost disposable unit for basic PDA and student applications, even in times of tight school IT budgets. At the moment, the Zire 21 is the low-end PDA champ, and sometimes price and value are the top (or only) criteria on your list.

If your budget can stretch a bit, we just got our hands on two new palmOne units, which should be available by the time you read this. The first is the Zire 31, which is a major improvement on the Zire 21, offering 16MB of RAM and a 200-Mhz processor, a backlit 160x160 color screen, and adding a SD/MMC expansion slot and a headphone jack for playing stereo audio. For $50 more than the low-end Zire 21, you get a lot more PDA, making the Zire 31 perhaps even a better deal for low- to mid-end use in schools than the Tungsten E.

The second new PDA, the Zire 72 ($299 list) includes a 1.2-megapixel camera with 2x digital zoom and the ability to capture 1280x960 still photos as well as 320x240 video clips, and play back music and video in a variety of formats with a speedy 312-Mhz CPU and 32MB of RAM. Bluetooth wireless capa-bility is included as well, making this a full-featured multimedia device and particularly attractive if you have use for the photo and video-capture capabilities.

iPaq 2210: Expandability Galore

If you're looking for a mid-sized, mid-priced PocketPC with all the expansion options anyone could want, the iPaq 2210 may be your baby. Though it won't win awards for lightest or smallest, it's a reasonable size and weight, and includes some high-end features in that package. You'll pay $299 (closer to $275 street price) to get a 2210, which places it in direct competition with the high-end Tungsten T. But by features alone, the 2210 holds its own. The 400-MHz XScale processor is as fast as any PDA, and 64MB RAM is the requisite minimum you'll want with a PocketPC device. The 16-bit 240x320 color screen is good, though it does not appear as sharp as that of the iPaq 1940 or the Tungsten T3 we tested.

With both CompactFlash and Secure Digital expansion ports, the iPaq 2210 lets users choose from a smorgasbord of peripherals.

But one area where the 2210 really shines is expandability. One of the few PDAs on the market that comes with both a CompactFlash slot as well as the increasingly common stamp-sized Secure Digital slot, the 2210 can make use of a wide variety of peripherals, from modems to Wi-Fi cards to memory expansion. Plus, having a pair of slots means that you can load the unit up with extra memory and still have a slot free for another peripheral.

Like the iPaq 1940 (see following review), the 2210 has a rechargeable, removable battery pack. This feature comes in handy, as I found typical usage to require a recharge or battery swap after a relative handful of hours, particularly with heavy Bluetooth wireless use. The Bluetooth Manager made it straightforward to connect to my cellular phone for outgoing Internet activity.

It's a sign of just how far PDAs have come that a unit with the pedigree and specifications of the iPaq 2210 is considered a mid-range device, and for an all-around daily workhorse, the 2210 is a solid performer.

iPaq 1940: Compact Power

Once known for making powerful but bricklike PDAs, HP has now made one of the sleekest devices on the market, and has still crammed it with functionality and an amazing number of features. The 1940 feels good in your hand, and it looks fantastic-if there was a prize for most svelte PDA, this would be the odds-on favorite. Like many a supermodel, it seems almost too slender (4.46" x 2.75" x 0.5"), and at a feather-light 4.25oz., you definitely won't feel like you're lugging a pocket-hogging brick. Plus, the five-way D-pad and four application buttons have a unique ergonomic style that is nicely responsive.

Yet far from being a stripped-down model, the 1940 has a 266-MHz CPU, 64MB RAM (56MB usable), a bright 16-bit 240x320 screen, voice recording, a SD/MMC expansion slot, and Bluetooth built in for wireless connectivity to a cell phone or other device. It also has a stereo jack, though not the usual size-you'll need to use the included 2.5 mm jack adapter if you want to plug in a standard set of earphones.

Sleek and lightweight, the iPaq 1940 packs a powerful punch.

And you may want to think twice before you play a suite of Mahler symphonies on this baby. Battery life, as you might expect in a color unit this small, is just okay, even by PocketPC standards. I got two days of charge with moderate daily use, but heavy work, particularly with Bluetooth, required me to recharge after around 3-5 hours, which is pretty marginal. Plan to plug in and charge up at least once or even twice a day. If you add an optional Wi-Fi card to the expansion slot, you can expect battery life to drop even faster. On the other hand, like the iPaq 2210, the rechargeable battery is removable, so you can always purchase a spare battery for when you get low on juice.

Listing at $299, the 1940 isn't the price leader, but you get a lot of power crammed into a very small, very attractive package for that money.

RICHARD HOFFMAN, former Web technologies coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools' Department of Information Technology, is an educational consultant based in New Hampshire.

Palm or PocketPC?

What productivity software will you need? In terms of functionality, price, and user friendliness, Palm OS and PocketPC devices are starting to look more alike these days. Which platform should you choose? Ask these questions to get started.

What productivity software will I need? Both platforms come with a fairly complete suite of built-in software for text editing, e-mail, calendaring and other PIM features, music playback, and more. Rather surprisingly, though, the DataViz Documents To Go software that comes bundled with Palm OS units has integrates more smoothly with Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint slides than the Pocket versions of Microsoft Office programs that are bundled with PocketPC devices.

What additional software do you intend to run? Some student information systems and classroom software only run on one platform. There are still considerably more third-party programs for the Palm OS, but that won't matter if the specific software you want is available only for PocketPC.

What OS is on your desktop computer? Mac users will have to purchase third-party software to be able to sync PocketPCs to their desktops.

What is your budget? Though Palm and PocketPC devices are available at almost all price levels, palmOne is still the only company to offer decent sub-$100 PDAs.

Wading through the alphabet soup of handheld terms? Wondering about other handhelds on the market? Click here for a glossary of acronyms used in this review as well as links to Hoffman's reviews of additional handheld models.

Handhelds, Mano a ManoProductTreo 600Tungsten T3Tungsten EZire 21iPaq 2210iPaq 1940CompanypalmOne (800) 223-4817 www.palmone.compalmOne (800) 223-4817 www.palmone.compalmOne (800) 223-4817 www.palmone.compalmOne (800) 223-4817 www.palmone.comHP (800) 752-0900 www.hp.comHP (800) 752-0900 www.hp.comPrice$399$399$199$99$399$299Dimensions4.4" x 2.4" x 0.9" 6 oz.4.3" x 3" x 0.66" 5.5 oz.4.5" x 3.1" x 0.5" 4.6 oz.4.4" x 2.9" x 0.6" 3.8 oz.4.5" x 3" x 0.6" 5.1 oz.4.5" x 2.75" x 0.5" 4.3 oz.Notable Features32MB RAM (24MB usable); 144-MHz CPU; thumb keyboard and touch screen for data entry; incorporated digital camera64MB RAM (52 MB usable); 400-MHz XScale processor; SD/MMC expansion slot; palmOne Universal Connector; voice recording and standard headphone jack; Bluetooth enabled32 MB RAM; 126-MHz TI OMAP processor; SD/MMC expansion slot; speaker and standard headphone jack8 MB RAM; 126-MHz TI OMAP processor64MB RAM; 400-MHz Xscale processor; rechargeable, removable battery packs; Bluetooth enabled64 MB RAM (56MB usable); 266-MHz processor; SD/MMC expansion slot; Bluetooth enabledStrengthsEfficiently combines cell phone with Palm PDA; easy e-mail integration and photo sending toolsLarger screen with landscape option; fastest PDA processor available; Java capabilityExcellent price and performance ratio; thin and lightLow price; long battery lifeBoth CompactFlash and Secure Digital slots make for incredible expandabilityTremendous power in a small formLimitationsPricey; no palmOne Universal Connector; no Bluetooth or WiFi capabilityMediocre battery lifeNo palmOne Universal ConnectorNo palmOne Universal Connector; monochrome screen with no backlightScreen not as sharp as Tungsten T3; application buttons are imprecise; battery life limited, especially during heavy Bluetooth useNonstandard stereo jack; mediocre battery life, especially using BluetoothBottom LineIdeal for administrators and support staff who need PDA functionality as well as mobile e-mail, Web, and phone accessA power user's dream machine: stuffed full of features with an absolutely stellar screenAn ideal midrange choice for teachers and students, but absence of a Universal Connector limits its potentialLow prices makes this the best bet for basic PDA and student applicationsHighly expandable and very fast, this is a good high-end workhorseExtremely stylish and feature-rich, but a bit pricey

Wandering through the alphabet soup of handheld terms? Know the code with this list of definition.

ARM processor: A CPU with a core designed by ARM, a maker of embedded and mobile device CPUs

Bluetooth: A short-range, low-power wireless communication technology, typically with range of 10 feet to 30 feet and a data speed significantly less than that of Wi-Fi. Often used to communicate between Bluetooth-enabled PDAs or laptops and peripherals such as cell phones, Bluetooth-enabled printers, wireless keyboards, mice, and headsets.

CDMA: Code-Division Multiple Access. A standard for wireless cellular phones, popular primarily in the United States

CompactFlash: A widespread standard for small expansion cards, used to add memory and other functionality to PDAs

CPU: Central Processing Unit, the “brains†of a computer or PDA

GPRS: General Packet Radio Service, a data communication standard used over GSM cellular networks

Graffiti/Graffiti2: The handwriting recognition software used in most Palm OS devices

GSM: Global System for Mobile Communication. The dominant worldwide standard for cell phone technology, but one of many competing standards in the United States

IMAP: Internet Message Access Protocol, a popular protocol for receiving e-mail messages

Palm OS: the operating system used by palmOne, Sony, and other PDA manufacturers. An evolution of the operating system used in the original Palm Pilot, there are more third-party Palm OS programs available than for any other PDA OS.

PDA: Personal Digital Assistant or Pocket Digital Assistant. A portable/handheld computing device

PIM: Personal Information Management. Generally used to refer to calendar, address book, to-do, and notepad software that is included with PDAs

Pocket PC: a generic term for portable devices running an operating system by Microsoft. The latest version is officially “Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition software for Pocket PC,†and the previous version is “Pocket PC 2002.â€

POP3: Version 3 of the Post Office Protocol, a popular protocol used to send and receive e-mail

RAM: Random Access Memory, the most common type of computer memory, synonymous with main memory

SD/MMC: Secure Digital/Multimedia Card, a widespread standard for postage stamp–sized expansion cards, used to add memory and other functionality to PDAs

Universal Connector (UC): A standard proprietary interface used on most recent Palm OS devices to provide connectivity to add-on peripherals, such as portable keyboards and chargers

USB: Universal Serial Bus, a common standard for connecting external devices, such as keyboards, cameras, and PDAs, to computers

WinCE: Windows CE, an older version of the current PocketPC operating system

Wi-Fi: “Wireless Fidelity,†a term coined by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA). It has become synonymous with the popular 802.11 Wireless LAN technology standard, which enables in-building wireless communication with Wi-Fi-enabled devices.

Additional Handheld Models

Check out Richard Hoffman’s handheld reviews at our sister CMP publication, Network Computing.
Palm Tungsten T
Palm Tungsten C

And read all about the mobile lifestyle at CMP’s business-oriented Mobile Pipeline.