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   Nov/Dec 2001


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TECHNOLOGY IN PRACTICE
COOL TOOLS WITH MICHAEL TAMBURO

The PDA Buyer’s Checklist

A PDA is a great device to help you organize your life. Here’s what you need to know before you buy one.

After listening to colleagues rave about their personal digital assistants, or PDAs, you’ve finally decided to buy one. With a little research, you will quickly realize that Palm is not the only game in town. In fact, even though Palm is still the most widely recognized name in this market, a bunch of other players have gained a foothold, including Blackberry and Visor. Which device do you choose? You must first determine what you want out of a PDA.

The Nitty-Gritty

A PDA is basically a handheld computer. It has an LCD display that comes in monochrome or color. The screen accepts pen and usually finger input, which means that you use its stylus to select items on the screen and to navigate, much like you use a mouse to navigate and operate your desktop computer. Some PDAs offer handwriting recognition via the stylus. Some even have built-in keyboards.

There are all sorts of bells and whistles for PDAs, but all these devices have one common purpose: They give you the ability to manage your contacts, schedule, tasks, e-mail and more right from the palm of your hand. Most PDAs come with a cradle or other device that allows you to synchronize the information in your desktop computer with the information in your PDA. A number offer wireless connectivity to your e-mail.

• Color versus monochrome displays.

The choice between a color and a monochrome display is mostly a matter of personal preference and budget. As you can guess, color displays are more expensive than their monochrome counterparts. Check out both before deciding which to buy. Some people have difficulty using a monochrome display. The color display is usually sharper and easier to see in most lighting conditions.

Also consider whether you will use your PDA to work with any special applications. Custom applications can be written to work on many PDAs. For example, a law firm could set up an application that would allow real-time entry of court rulings by clerks working off-site via a PDA. Such applications might require a color display.

• Screen inputs and keyboards.

Just about every PDA comes with some sort of stylus or pointing device. Although most also work with your fingertip, the stylus works better and can also be used to "write" on your PDA. Many of the Palm PDA devices have handwriting recognition software that can convert your written input on the display into typed characters. The characters that you write are not exactly the alphabet, but they are similar enough that it’s easy to learn the new language. Once you have the language down, it’s much faster to write than to select letters and numbers from the display-based keyboard.

Some PDAs have built-in mini-keyboards that are typically arranged like a computer keyboard. Others have optional external keyboards. Many users prefer these to the stylus (though it seems to me that getting an optional external keyboard defeats a PDA’s portability aspect).

• Memory requirements.

Generally, PDAs have from 2MB to 32MB or more of memory. If you will be storing thousands of contacts and e-mail messages, you want to have at least 8MB. If you will be using a PDA that connects real-time to your office e-mail box, you may not need as much memory.

Some real-time connectivity options display the same information that is currently in your desktop e-mail box. The PDA never stores all the data. Instead, it gives you a real-time, interactive window into your mailbox.

• Battery requirements

. PDAs can really go through the batteries. Some have built-in rechargeable batteries that charge while the device is sitting in its stand (or cradle). That means you don’t need to carry batteries on the road. If you are not going to get a PDA with built-in rechargeable batteries, get a separate battery charger. You will save a small fortune when compared to purchasing new batteries.

• Wireless connectivity.

Wireless connectivity allows you to access your e-mail while away from the office. Some PDAs have an antenna that allows you to connect on-demand to retrieve e-mail. Others have real-time connectivity, which means that they are always on and ready to receive e-mail.

To check your e-mail with on-demand wireless, you need to connect to the Internet, usually through the built-in antenna. For many users, this approach works fine. The drawback, though, is that you have to initiate the checking-in process. There is no way to be automatically notified when a message has arrived.

Always-on devices can be configured to work with your firm’s e-mail system. You typically won’t need to initiate the process to check for new messages. Since the PDA is always checking, you can be notified, via a sound alert, when new messages arrive. Do not, however, expect always-on devices to have fool-proof connectivity. They experience dead zones much like cellular telephones, but generally work very well. Be aware that none of the current PDAs allow you to get file attachments.

• Multiple e-mail addresses.

Another consideration is whether you’ll need multiple e-mail accounts. With some PDA solutions, you must use a separate and distinct e-mail address just for your PDA. But how many e-mail addresses do you want to check each day? Sure, you can have e-mail from each account forwarded to your office mailbox, but then you have to remember which messages you have responded to via your PDA and which you must still reply to once you are back at the office. Moreover, when you’re conducting business, you want to make it easy for clients to contact you and easily recognize messages you send. How important is it for your e-mail to appear consistent to all your recipients? Do you care if some messages come from jsmith@wirelessco.com and others from js123@aol.com?

How Much for What? Popular Devices

So, you’ve decided what factors matter most to you. Now, what features can you get for what price in which PDA? To give you an idea, here’s an overview of four popular models.

• Palm VIIx.

The Palm VIIx ( www.palm.com) is an on-demand PDA that gives users wireless Internet and e-mail connectivity. To get the wireless capability, you must sign up for the Palm.Net monthly service. (It’s like your cell phone, except you pay by the amount of data you send or receive instead of by the number of minutes you’re online.) It starts at $9.99 per month and goes up to $44.99 per month for unlimited wireless usage. You can find the PDA for around $199.

• Blackberry.

The Blackberry ( www .blackberry.net) is designed to stay on and connected to your Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes network continually. Using RIM Wireless Handheld devices, the Blackberry solution integrates seamlessly with your existing office e-mail account. Devices vary in size and cost, from $399 to $499. The basic difference is screen size. Unlimited monthly service runs about $25. Running the Blackberry with your enterprise e-mail requires Blackberry enterprise software, which runs about $2,999 for a 20-user license. (This can be quite economical compared to a laptop-based solution.)

• vTech Helio.

Designed to compete with the Palm and Handspring PDAs, the vTech Helio ( www.vtechinfo.com) includes a full-featured calculator and a voice recorder. Connectivity to your computer is through a serial connection. The price is around $160. For users who don’t need wireless connectivity, this is a good solution.

• Visor Platinum.

The Platinum ( www.handspring.com) is a step up from the basic device and has a new kind of expansion slot that takes cards called Springboard Modules. This slot can house such things as modems, memory and software cards. There is even a card that enables the PDA to operate like a cell phone. At $299, the Visor Platinum can sync through the faster USB port in addition to using a serial connection. Although it’s not touted as wireless, the Springboard Modules make this device much more capable than the basic PDA.

First Things First

When purchasing a PDA, your first decision is whether you need wireless connectivity. If you need to retrieve your e-mail via your PDA, look at the always-on solution to determine how it will integrate with your office e-mail. If always-on is more than you need, look at the on-demand solutions. Consult your IS department before jumping into a wireless solution to make sure that the PDA will be compatible with your computer and network.

If you don’t really need to access your e-mail via your PDA, look at less-expensive devices that don’t offer wireless connectivity. They will still replace your date book and give you much, much more. If you’re feeling a bit intimidated at the thought of getting a PDA, you might go with a basic one to start. You can always move up to a wireless solution later.

Michael Tamburo(mtamburo@conexnet.com

) is President of ConexNet, Inc., a Chicago-based company he co-founded to provide connectivity solutions.

TOOLS - PDA Tip List

Check with your IS department before choosing a PDA to make sure your selection is compatible with your firm’s systems and future plans.

Get no less than 8MB of memory on your PDA. This will give you some flexibility if your usage plans or requirements change.

There can be problems with PDAs that charge while sitting in their stands. To synchronize information with a computer, PDAs typically connect to the desktop through either a serial or USB port. Some serial ports go mysteriously bad after a PDA has been connected to them for a while. Use the USB port for synchronizing. —Michael Tamburo