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PDA panacea not at hand

Handheld vendors are packing products with more functionality in an attempt to graduate from the gadget-lovers to the corporate business worldrn



The growth in the handheld device market may have slowed this year, but that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from coming out with new, innovative products. If anything, it’s had the opposite effect.

Today’s personal digital assistants offer more and more functionality, aimed squarely at the corporate

user and the executive gadget freak. They still provide all of the basic functionality we expect in our PDAs — calendar, address book, task list and notepad — but they add goodies like built-in connectivity to wireless networks, Bluetooth, and even cell phones.

All had colour screens. Although you can still buy a monochrome PDA, they’re getting harder to find.

All of these features, of course, come at a price. More than one of the Pocket PC devices’ user manuals recommends that users keep the units in their cradles, attached to power, when they’re at their desks. The Palms, as always, enjoy battery life numbered in days and weeks rather than hours, although the add-ons such as camera and Bluetooth do shorten the time between recharges.

These days, the cradle to PC connection is over USB, not serial — a relief for users of the increasingly popular ultra-light notebooks that don’t even have serial ports.

We took a look at some of the latest toys, to see how this year’s crop stacks up.

Handspring Treo 90

Handspring surprised everyone with its about-face into the communicator world, and startled them again with its pure PDA Treo 90. The Treo 90 runs the Palm OS, but unlike others of its ilk, it doesn’t rely on a stylus and Graffiti for input. Instead, it has a BlackBerry-like keyboard you type on with your thumbs. The stylus is relegated to the task of selecting items onscreen. It takes a bit of getting used to, but works well once you get the hang of it.

There’s lots of room for storage and expansion with 16 MB of memory, plus an SD card slot (the proprietary Springboard slot is dead). The 12-bit colour display is clear and bright. It’s protected by a flip-up cover.

At a mere four ounces, the Treo is the smallest, lightest unit in our roundup.

Casio Cassiopeia BE-300

The BE-300 is the odd one out in this roundup. Although it’s based on Windows CE 3.0, its interface is not the Windows-like look of the Pocket PC. Instead, it has a simplified GUI that launches all of the basic functions from a single menu.

The unit has a colour screen and a Type II Compact Flash slot for expansion. Its four buttons don’t start programs, instead they provide controls: one for power, one indicating OK, one for Esc, and one to return to the main menu. The final button is for navigation.

This is not a super-speedy device, and it’s not sexy, but it does work.

Audiovox Thera

The Thera is a PDA, sold by the phone company. The Thera is a 1X/CDMA phone that happens to look like a Pocket PC. A rather schizophrenic device, it nonetheless does a pretty good job at both of its functions.

Unlike some of the PDA/phone devices, it is not designed to be held to your ear like a phone; the integrated speakerphone, or included earbud and microphone take care of that job. Phone-like “”send”” and “”end”” buttons supplement the usual ones on the front of the device. “”Watcher”” software handles data and voice connections.

All of the usual Pocket PC 2002 software is included, offering PDA functionality, from calendar and contact management to viewing and editing spreadsheets and Word documents and playing MP3s.

Surprisingly, battery life isn’t bad — I got a couple of days out of the unit, despite some phoning and Web browsing. Its power save mode is a bit aggressive in its screen dimming, though — the display was practically invisible at peak economy setting.

HP (Compaq) iPaq H3970

This iPaq deals with some of the problems of older iPaq models. Its battery life is better and it has an SDIO expansion slot. Its 400 MHz XScale processor provides decent performance and audio quality is good.

The unit’s design is a modification of the funky iPaq retro look. The screen is clear, and an ambient light sensor adjusts the brightness automatically. At 6.5 ounces, it’s half an ounce lighter than the Thera. A plastic wrap-around cover snaps over the display so firmly that it almost takes a safecracker to remove. It can turn into a universal remote control. This unit also offers Bluetooth.

Palm Tungsten T

Palm has split its product line into consumer and corporate lines, and for the first time since the original Pilot, given the units names instead of numbers. The corporate product is known as the Tungsten.

When I first saw the Tungsten, it didn’t look quite right. Then I realized that the Graffiti area appeared to be missing.

It wasn’t. The Tungsten stretches into a full-sized Palm with a little tug, revealing the writing area. Closed, it’s a bit smaller than a Palm V, open, it’s a bit larger. It tips the scale at 5.6 ounces. It comes with a clear plastic cover that fits over the device when it’s compressed. The cover has a hole in it so you can push a button in the middle of the new, circular cursor control and activate the clock, as you can already do on the Palm m100 series. Since it snaps on and off, I’m sure the cover will quickly be lost or broken. As such, a good case would be an excellent investment for owners of this device.

The Tungsten addresses some of the criticisms aimed at Palm over the years. It now has a voice recorder, and Bluetooth connectivity as well as the usual infrared, and Palm bundles a collection of useful software including DataViz’s Documents To Go.

The screen is excellent — the best one on a Palm in some time — and the unit is relatively speedy thanks to a new processor and Version 5 of the Palm OS.

The unit seems sturdy enough, but I’m concerned about the open/shut mechanism’s health after prolonged use. Time will tell.

Toshiba e740

The e740 is an elegant Pocket PC-based unit with integrated 802.11b wireless. Unfortunately, when wireless is enabled, the unit eats battery power even more than most Pocket PCs. A couple of games of Solitaire ate three per cent of the remaining power. Irritatingly, low battery warnings started when the level hit 50 per cent. The optional high-capacity battery pack should help alleviate the problem.

It has 64MB of SDRAM, a 400 MHz processor, and a 64K colour screen. Both Compact Flash and SD slots mean lots of expandability. At 6.5 ounces, the slim unit is almost as sleek as an equivalent Palm.

The usual Pocket PC applications are supplemented by Microsoft Transcriber, IA Presenter and IA Screen Mirror. You can buy an expansion pack that lets you plug a projector into the unit and do presentations without a PC.

The wireless worked, sort of. It was cranky to configure, though it ultimately was able to function over a standard wireless network protected by WEP encryption. Every time I started it up, though, I had to fiddle before I got connectivity.

Sony Clié PEG-NR70V

The Clié is a classy Palm OS-based clamshell. When you open it, the top half is a normal Palm, and the bottom holds a miniature keyboard. The fat hinge between the halves isn’t just a pivot; its bulk conceals a small camera. And if you’d rather have a normal-looking Palm, all you have to do is rotate the screen, fold it down, and like magic, the keyboard is concealed and you have an ordinary PDA. Memory expansion is via the proprietary Sony Memory Stick.

Sony has done some clever things with the software. It has included multimedia, a higher resolution 320 x 480 colour screen, and a “”soft”” Graffiti writing area that can be used for display by applications. Graffiti strokes are visible when you’re writing.

The unit is a bit unbalanced in its clamshell mode &#