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Reading palmtops

Sales of handheld computers are rocketing and most people enthuse about their own model. But surely they can't all have made the right decision?

In practice, every model has a different combination of features and just one or two will turn out to fit the bill exactly.

Handheld computers have become rather like cars - certain models are now associated with certain characteristics, says Widget UK managing director Mark Needham.

The Palm Vx is an almost uniform choice among merchant bankers and stockbrokers.

Handspring Visors are seen as slightly funkier - like a Mac compared to a PC. Psions are widely used by people in the IT industry, and by journalists.

What they do

The phrase 'electronic organiser' is often used, but this plays down the power of these little 'palmtop' computers. Their basic purpose is to replace your diary, address book and note pad.

Most people use them in conjuction with a desktop computer so that information can be created seemlessly on either. This also means that there is a back up - which is more than can be said for the diary in your pocket.

But they can also handle all manner of other things such as databases and spreadsheets, photos and, of course, games.

Increasingly popular is setting them up to dial in to email or the web by means of a modem (available for all the machines shown) or mobile phone.

Operating system

One of the most obvious differences between machines is the operating system they use - generally Palm, Windows or EPOC (whose leading brand is Psion).

But in practice, this needn't be the deciding factor, as all can synchronise with your computer, come with the software you need to organise your life and can have more specialist software added.

Synching with the PC

Synchronising data with a desktop PC (or Mac too in the case of EPOC or Palm machines) is generally done by docking the machine in a cradle, or attaching it to a cable.

The syncronisation process is much of a muchness for all three systems, though Palm and Pocket PC do have the edge on Psion.

As regards manipulating the files, Pocket PCs are naturally adept at handling Microsoft Office files, though Psion is very good at translating Word files and Excel spreadsheets to its own format. Palm machines are ideal for synchronising email, contacts and appointments. But third party software, such as Docs to Go or Think DB is needed if Word and Excel are to be handled easily on Palms.

Data input

Ease of entering information is, for most users, the main factor in whether the device is a constant companion, or soon confined to the back of a drawer.

The choice is between a keyboard, or using a stylus to write on a touch sensitive screen. Stylus-based machines also allow use of a tiny on-screen virtual keyboard.

Real keyboards remain in demand, and machines like the Psion Revo Plus are selling well.

Pocket PC manufacturers have however generally moved to handwriting recognition. This sounds great in theory, but its success can be variable.

Palm's main data input method is a stylised form of writing, known as Graffiti. Graffiti is based on the principle that it is easier for human beings all to learn one computer's style of writing than for the computer to learn millions of people's quirks.

An alternative is to spend about £80 on a full sized, foldable plug-in keyboard - ideal for someone who occasionally has to input a lot of information away from the office.

Battery

The type of battery is perhaps the most commonly overlooked factor in choosing a machine.

Some use replaceable batteries while others have in-built rechargeables.

Battery life is typically advertised as 'up to a month of normal use'. In practice, this generally means something in the range of six to 15 working hours, which isn't a great deal. Loss of battery power can be disastrous - all the data may be lost if new batteries aren't inserted straightaway (though regular synching with the PC will mean most of it is safely backed up at home or work).

Many of the slickest machines are dependent on an internal battery, which costs nothing more than a drop of electricity to run and is fine for people who are never far from their charger. One that takes standard batteries is however a better bet for long trips. Rechargeables can be used, but these give less warning of imminent failure. Psion models generally include a back up battery, which is reassuring.

Memory

Psions and Pocket PCs tend to have more memory than Palms, but this partly reflects the different ways the operating systems need to work, and the fact that Pocket PCs often come with added multimedia features.

In practice, there is no need for most users to worry about memory. Even the 8Mb on a machine like the Palm Vx or Handspring Visor Deluxe allows room for hundreds of contacts, appointments, notes and emails, dozens of items of third party software, a few novels, as well as the day's news from websites such as Guardian Unlimited.

But memory does get guzzled if you need a major set of data.

Large quantities of setting out information, or design rules and regulations could fill the device up.

Some of the machines can take extra memory in the form of standard compact flash cards, or propriety modules.

Colour

Palmtops are increasingly available in models with colour displays. It does look good - especially, where the information is complex, such as maps, or in high spec games such as SimCity.

But the price you pay isn't just monetary - the battery life is drastically hit. Palm's first colour machine, the IIIc, certainly hasn't been a huge seller.

Compaq Ipaq H3630

Typical price: £469

Operating system: Pocket PC

Memory: 32Mb

Battery type: built in lithium polymer - up to 12 hours use, can use AC adapter

Main data input method: Handwriting recognition

Extras available include: expansion packs allowing use of compact flash and standard PC LAN cards

Mark Needham says: 'The best implementation of Pocket PC to date, with state of the art graphics and multimedia as well as basic organiser functions.'

Psion Revo Plus

Typical price: £300

Operating system: EPOC

Memory: 16Mb

Battery type: Built in NiMH rechargeables, mains lead

Main data input method: Small keyboard

Extras available include: car charger, infra red printer connector

Mark Needham says: 'A very high spec machine for its small size and weight. Includes a small keyboard for basic data input.'

Psion Vmx

Typical price: £400

Operating system: EPOC

Memory: 16Mb

Battery type: 2xAA plus in-built lithium ion backup cell, optional external power supply.

Main data input method: Keyboard

Extras available include: built in slot for Psion memory disc of up to 20Mb

Mark Needham says: 'A pocket computer which can perform 90% of the tasks you do on your laptop, with a keyboard good enough for touch typists.'

Hewlett Packard Journada 545

Typical price: £370

Operating system: Pocket PC

Memory 16Mb

Battery type: inbuilt lithium ion, 8 hours life

Main data input method: Handwriting recognition

Extras available include: compact flash cards.

Mark Needham says: 'HP has been one of the most consistent manufacturers of pocket computers with the Microsoft operating system. This is the latest of the palm sized PC format.'

Handspring Visor Deluxe

Typical price: £199

Operating system: Palm

Memory: 8Mb

Battery type: 2xAAA

Main data input method: Graffiti

Extras available include: Wide range of modules available or under development, including back up, camera and GPS

Mark Needham says: 'New and exciting range based on the Palm operating system but allowing a whole range of different add-ons from memory cards to cameras to MP3 players.'

TRG Pro

Typical price: £270

Operating system: Palm

Memory 8Mb

Battery type: 2xAAA

Main data input method: Graffiti

Extras available include: takes industry standard compact flash cards

Mark Needham says: 'An ideal replacement for a Palm III, if it is expandability and more memory you are after when you upgrade. The TRG allows you to add anything on a standard compact flash card.'

3 Com Palm Vx

Typical price: £300

Operating system: Palm

Memory: 8Mb

Battery type: Built in lithiumion. Travel rechargers available.

Main data input method: Graffiti

Extras available include: camera, keyboards

Mark Needham says: 'The city slicker's favourite. Has all the agenda and contact management you need in a sleek and shiny form.'

Verdict

First find out your firm's policy - many companies recognise the business benefits of using palmtops, and may provide staff with a particular brand.

If that fails, decide first on the data input method, then it's mainly a question of price and style.

From the ones covered here, the choice is between the two Psions if you want a keyboard.

The Vmx has the better keyboard, but is £100 more.

If you are happy to learn Graffiti, you have a wide choice of Palm OS machines. The Vx is the best seller, the slickest to look at and the cheapest to run.

But the TRG Pro and especially the Visor are a better bet for users who need expandability; or who want to use standard batteries.

If you don't want to bother with Graffiti, the choice is between the various Pocket PCs (though some handwriting recognition software is available for Palms).

The Ipaq is the top machine at present - but it is also considerably more expensive than some other models on the market.

Something a little different. . . . .

Less likely to arrive on Santa's sleigh, but possibly more appropriate for use on site, are the latest models in Itronix's Husky fex21 range. These wireless handheld PCs have been made especially rugged for use in the kind of tough situations civil engineers encounter. They cost between £999 and £1199, and come with the usual software plus client/server and GSM applications, and the new models have improved radio performance.

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