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2004-12-15

PDA advice

Thinking about buying a PDA? Here, have some free advice.

If you are willing to buy used or 'factory reconditioned' (Overstock.com and eBay come to mind, as does Craigslist), then virtually any PDA can be had for less than retail.

I prefer the PalmOS, but must admit Windows Mobile 2003 (formerly known as Windows CE and Pocket PC) is less sucky than its predecessors (although it still has a long way to go). PDAs with other operating systems (i.e., Linux and Symbian) just don't have the wide diversity of programs available for me to recommend them to a new user.

Avoid the Blackberry and the Sidekick. They have *very* limited software available, and Blackberry's company just lost an important court appeal which will slow down its acceptance further.

FreewarePalm.Com is a great source for free programs for PalmOS PDAs. There are Palm-compatible PDAs from folks other than PalmOne (over a dozen makers), and I will recommend them to many folks based on need, as they all will run software for Palms.


Now, I have a few questions for you:

1. KEYBOARD OR GRAFFITI? Many Palms have a keyboard which make it very easy to enter text. Those which do not rely on your writing with a stylus (a plastic-tipped pen; my fave is the Bic e.3 pen-pencil-stylus @ $5 ea.), and almost all PDAs come with a stylus which fits into their body.
Are you a quick learner of manual dexterity tasks? If so, Graffiti might be OK.
I started with Graffiti, and never thought a keyboard would be important, but I used a Palm with a keyboard, and now I am sold for life on built-in keyboards.
Snap-on and plug-in keyboards are nice, but even though I have them, I rarely use them, only on plane or train trips where I have a lot of writing to do. It's Another Thing To Carry Around, and snap-on devices wobble (which I dislike when keyboarding).
As for Windows Mobile devices; their script recognition system is not Graffiti and seems to be to be significantly inferior. I would not have a Windows Mobile without a built-in keypad.
If you can, go visit a CompUSA or other electronica store, and test drive typing on built-in thumboards of the Palm Tungsten C and other PDAs.


2. SCREEN

DO NOT get a monochrome screen. Color is much easier to see, and the earlier problems with bright daylight have almost all been resolved.


3. CONNECTIVITY

If you want to connect to get or send information from your PDA when you are away from a PC, you will want wireless of some kind.

There are three broad categories of wireless systems for PDAs. You can buy a good PDA without any of them, but let me explain what each does. Different wireless types can co-exist, BTW, and often do on spendier models.

a) BLUETOOTH: Very short range (10 meters), suitable to allow a PDA to use a Bluetooth phone for a link to the Internet for e-mail and web browsing, as well as for peripherals (keyboards, syncing to a PC). Bluetooth can work for a data connection, for a voice connection (like a cordless earset), or both, but sometimes only one or the other.

b) WiFi (also known as 802.11, of which there are many varieties): Longer range (100m? Possibly longer) so you can sync to your home PC or a shared PC and use its Internet connection for e-mail and web access. If you want to check your e-mail while sitting in Starbucks, you can do so... but many places (e.g., Starbucks) charges for WiFi access. WiFI can be an add-on for many PDAs, but check before you buy to make sure the WiFi adapter you want to use absolutely, positiviely, works with the model of PDA you will buy. You can also add WiFi to your home computer so you don't have to use a desktop computer to work the net and e-mail.

c) CELLULAR BY BLUETOOTH: There's an alphabet soup of acronyms for different kinds of cellular. Suffice it to say you can, if you have 1) a Bluetooth cellphone and 2) a data service plan with your cellular carrier and 3) a Bluetooth PDA, have web access and do e-mail. It will not be as fast as broadband, but it's better than nada.

d) CELLULAR BUILT-IN: I have two PDAs with cellphones built-in. One works on Sprint and another on T-Mobile. If you buy a PDAphone, you only have one thing to tote around (plus) but PDAphones are spendier than regular PDAs and phones, and are never as fast or fancy as the competing equivalent PDA. I like PDAphones, but my wife likes a separate PDA and a separate phone connected by Bluetooth.

It's so darned handy to be able to dial directly from my PDAphone's address book, and to e-mail directly as well. Web browsing is hit-or-miss, as lazy web designers make websites which don't work well with a PDA, but it's also neat to be able to Google to get information when you're out and about.

I scouted around until I got the very best deals on data plans for cellphones, but if you're new at this, just make sure if you need connectivity, that your cellphone carrier cost for data service won't break the bank.

So: Is connectivity important to you? Or, do you just need to have a spare brain in your pocket and just update data & send/receive e-mail when you get back to the home or office? If the latter will suit you fine, then you can do without.

PDA Phone Home is a good place to look further into connectivity, BTW.


4. USE

If you will want to read, write, create and edit wordprocessing and spreadsheet data on your PDA, then get a Tungsten model, as those come with the DataViz Documents To Go software, which does better than even Pocket Word and Pocket Excel on the Windows Mobile Pocket PCs.

What else do you want it to do for you? Make a list before you talk to any sales droids.


GENERIC RECOMMENDATIONS:


BASIC NO-KEYBOARD MODEL WITHOUT CONNECTIVITY: PalmOne Zire 31, $150 or less


BASIC NO-KEYBOARD MODEL W/ BLUETOOTH: PalmOne Zire 72, $300 or less.

You can also add a WiFi card or case to this, if WiFi's important.


ADVANCED MODEL W/ BLUETOOTH: PalmOne Tungsten T5, $399 and under


KEYBOARD MODEL w/ WiFi: PalmOne Tungsten C, $399 or less
It's better to start with the Tungsten C if you know you want WiFi, as it's got a bigger battery than the Zire 72 and will run for longer in Wi-Fi mode.


PDAPHONES: These vary according to which cellular company has good signal where you live, work and play, as well as a reasonable rate plan. I don't know where you are, so I can't make a specific suggestion about PDAphones. However, I will warn you that cellular companies can, and generally do, 'subsidy lock' any cellphone they sell so it can only be used with them. Unlocking the phone is not casual, and can be difficult-to-impossible, so if you like Cellular Company 'X', then make sure what you buy worked on their system or make it a condition of sale that it must.

If you like the idea, you can get started with a decent PDAphone for $200-400 (PalmOne Treo 600 or equivalent). The Treo 650 has a better screen than the Treo 600 plus Bluetooth for a cordless earset, but is spendier, and might not be a good match under several circumstances.

Also take a look at PC Magazine's PDA reviews, which are not perfect, but will be a good start.

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