If you crave a PDA, you have options


In most organizations, when the boss "recommends" something, smart players take it to heart.

But one of those recommendations raised a troublesome question for a reader:

"My boss is telling everyone that we need to get a PDA," my reader confided. "He recently bought a Palm Tungsten. He is always getting the latest and greatest and money is not an issue [for him]."

Before he invests $400 in a Palm Tungsten, my reader asked, is there a chance he can get a good PDA for less money?

The answer is definitely yes. PDAs, the short term for personal digital assistants, are tiny handheld computers that can help organize your life. That assumes your life needs a high-tech organizer, which is not necessarily the case.

Office politics aside, you don't need a PDA just because the boss likes them - unless he's requiring that all his employees use them. In that case, the company should buy them, or at the very least, provide standardized software that will synchronize employees' PDAs with company computers.

Although PDAs have turned into marvelous tech toys that can make phone calls, play music, video and games, browse the Web, send e-mail through wireless connections and perform many other stupid computer tricks, they became popular because they perform three very prosaic functions.

First, they provide a computerized Rolodex of names, addresses, phone numbers and other contact information.

Second, they offer a calendar to keep track of appointments, meetings, birthdays and so on, and a computerized to-do list to track important tasks.

Third, they enable you to enter information by writing on the screen with a stylus, using a slightly modified alphabet that's easy to learn.

Finally, if you also keep appointments and mailing information on a desktop computer, a PDA can hook to your PC and automatically synchronize your address book and calendar with similar programs on the desktop machine. So, if you enter an appointment or add a contact when you're out of the office, it will automatically show up on your office PC calendar, and vice versa.

From my experience, the people who benefit most from PDAs are (a) highly governed by appointments, meetings, lunch dates, soccer games and other tightly scheduled events and (b) spend enough time away from their desks that they need to be able to update and access the information at any time.

Just remember that it takes work to set up a PDA, and discipline to keep it synchronized with your home or office PC. If you don't make a habit of using it all the time, a PDA will probably wind up in the back of a drawer somewhere.

That said, there are two basic flavors of PDA, distinguished by their operating systems. Programs designed for one system won't run on the other.

The most popular are descendants of the original Palm Pilot, which started the PDA craze in 1996. They include machines from Palm, Handspring and Sony. They all run versions of the original Palm operating system, which was simple, fast and easy to use.

Palm-based PDAs come with the company's personal organizer software for your PC, including a calendar and address book that are fine for personal use. But widely available third-party software such as PumaSoft's Intellisync enables them to synchronize information with Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes and other popular corporate organizing programs.

Over the past two years, Palm PDAs have faced a strong challenge from handheld computers running Microsoft Windows for Pocket PCs. They include models from HP/Compaq, Toshiba, NEC, Casio, Razor and others.

As the name implies, these PDAs run a miniature version of Windows, with all the benefits and drawbacks appertaining thereto. They automatically synchronize with Microsoft's Outlook personal organizer, and they're loaded with mini-versions of Microsoft Word and Excel that are compatible with the desktop versions.

Which is better? Like the Windows-Mac debate, it's largely a matter of religion. I've tried models of both types over the years, and for basic PDA chores, they're both fine.

On the whole, Palm-based machines are a bit cheaper. The entry-level Palm Zire sells for $99, compared to $249 for the least expensive Pocket PC, the Dell Axim. Windows-based machines tend to be more powerful and packed with more bells and whistles if you need them, which isn't likely.

What do you get for more money? Mostly convenience and those bells and whistles. Inexpensive PDAs have reflective monochrome screens that can be hard to read in less-than-ideal light, as well as limited memory that can't be upgraded. Even so, it's unlikely you'll overwhelm one with calendar and address data.

More expensive handhelds have back-lit color screens (and shorter battery life), expandable memory for digital music or video, built-in wireless networking, titanium cases and slots for add-ons that can turn a PDA into a camera, phone or other gadget. Basically, it's stuff for corporate power users and propeller heads. If you don't have a PDA by now, you don't fall into either category.

A handful of manufacturers are turning out hybrid gadgets that combine a cell phone and PDA. These make sense in theory, and they integrate both functions well. Unfortunately, the models I've tried are too big to be comfortable cell phones or too cramped to be good PDAs. But they're worth a look if you want to carry only one device and you're willing to put up with compromises.

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