PDA Field Guide

FRAMINGHAM (03/20/2000) - Bob from Sales comes in and says, "Hey Joe, you have to buy me and my staff a bunch of Palm Inc. Pilots. Now. We need them. Really."

Before you fork over half of your equipment budget for fiscal 2001, check out our guide to what's hot, what's not and what will make Bob happy.

We invited the leading vendors of personal digital assistants (PDA) to send us their latest and/or greatest offering. We fiddled around with the settings, kept them on our desk, dropped a few of them (accidentally) and now present this guide.

A thorough examination of each device is located on Network World Fusion.

The Windows CE vs. Palm OS debate

The debate over Windows CE vs. Palm OS is somewhat like the Windows 2000 vs.

Novell Directory Services debate, or the Windows vs. Linux debate, or the Windows vs. Unix debate (sense a pattern here?). For several reasons, both real and imagined, there are people out there who don't like Microsoft and would refuse to work with anything that they produce. If that's the case, look at the Palm OS devices.

At the start of the testing phase, we found that the Windows CE devices were somewhat easy to work with, as long as you were comfortable with Windows. But then the Palm OS devices arrived (The Handspring Visor and the two Palm units), and blew us away. The Palm OS uses a much more intuitive icon menu system to get to the programs you want, installing add-on software is much simpler and the system is more stable (We had to reset the Windows CE devices several more times than the Palms). Also, the ton of available add-on software for the Palm OS gives it an edge over Windows CE.

Features decisions

Once you've decided which operating system to go with, take a look at the features for each machine and decide what your staff wants to accomplish with the PDA. All the devices can handle contacts, calendars, to-do lists and other personal information management functions. But what if you need them to upload e-mail quickly or instantly? What about access to spreadsheets or other heavy-duty applications? Deciding how you want your staff to use their PDAs could go a long way in determining which system you finally choose. Of course, price is always an option and there are some clear choices in that area.

Finally, if you have the budget and want to make Bob happy, we've listed the "coolness" factor for each PDA so they can impress their clients or friends or family with their new "business toy."

Compaq Aero 1530

Street price: Around $300

Who would want this? A mobile worker who lugs around a lot of devices (cell phone, PDA, laptop) and wants a lighter alternative.

Pros: Ultrathin design and light weight makes it easy to carry, easy-to-push buttons, metal stylus has a good feel to it.

Cons: Can't adjust contrast, gray-scale screen might turn off some.

Coolness factor: Silver frame gives it a sleek look. Thin is always in too, but no fancy bells and whistles hurts with the "ooh" factor.

Bottom Line: A functional PDA at a good price -- may not impress the sales staff, but it's still cool enough to impress others.

Casio Cassiopeia E-100

Street price: Between $450 and $500

Who would want this? Executive who wants to flaunt the color screen, multimedia and audio features of Windows CE.

Pros: Vivid colors, comes with lots of software including movie file player, writing on the screen much smoother than others.

Cons: Ran slower than other Win CE devices, hung up more.

Coolness factor: Very cool -- Silver frame very sci-fi, looks like an old-style Walkman, color quality will impress.

Bottom Line: If you're out to impress someone and don't mind Windows CE, this is the PDA to get.

HP Jornada 430

Street price: Around $500

Who would want this? An executive who wants to impress people with the color screen and then go home to download MP3 music or digital photos.

Pros: Color screen improves some Windows CE functions, includes MP3 software and image viewer.

Cons: Instead of a cradle, synchronization and power charger are snapped on, which is awkward.

Coolness factor: Color screen gives it extra hipness, but the black frame and boxy feel make it look like a portable tape recorder.

Bottom Line: Pricey compared to other PDAs, MP3 software and photo viewing attractive to consumer audience.

PALM IIIxe

Street price: $250

Who would want this? Everyone on your staff who wants a PDA but can't afford a Palm V or Palm VII.

Pros: All of the benefits of the Palm OS, more RAM than the Palm III, tons of software available, price on a par with the Handspring Visor.

Cons: Not as cool as the Palm VII

Coolness factor: Very cool. Whipping out a Palm Pilot oozes coolness. Not as cool as the Palm VII, but then not as expensive either.

Bottom line: The Palm to have if the Palm VII and Palm Vare out of your price range, and you want the Palm brand name.

HandSpring Visor Deluxe

Street price: $249

Who would want this? Budget-conscious manager who wants the Palm OS at a lower price, and a PDA that can "evolve."

Pros: Inexpensive, compatible with Palm applications, lots of software available, expansion slot has potential for future applications; docking cradle connects via USB port.

Cons: Monochrome screen could be a turnoff, the iMac-ish frame colors might turn off some.

Coolness factor: Very hip if you want a color frame and like the Palm OS.

Bottom Line: The expansion slot holds promise for future applications, and the price can't be beat.

PALM VII

Street price: $450

Who would want this? The road warrior who needs instant e-mail or Net access.

Pros: Wireless ONet access built-in, tons of software.

Cons: An expensive device, and wireless access can add to the cost.

Coolness factor: Extremely cool. You'll be the envy of everyone in the office when you flash this baby out to check your e-mail or the latest stock quotes.

Bottom line: The Rolls-Royce of PDAs. But the luxury comes at a price -- if your staff doesn't need the instant e-mail access, why pay for it?

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