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A fistful of handhelds

Handheld computers used to be just for geeks. Now, additional power and add-ons are making them must-haves for anyone on the go.

By PETER H. LEWIS, New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2000


photo
[Photo: Hewlett-Packard]
One of the first devices to showcase the new Pocket PC software is Hewlett-Packard’s Jornada 545, a sleek and powerful challenger to Palm’s bestselling Palm V. But at 9 ounces, it has twice the heft of the Palm V.
NEW YORK -- Consumers often may have suspected computer companies of trying to pick their pockets. Now the companies are trying to fill them.

Small enough to slip into a shirt pocket or purse, handheld computers are appearing with capabilities that go far beyond their original task of organizing personal information.

Once viewed as Silicon Valley fashion accessories, geek toys and portable sidekicks for desktop computers, these miniature computers are reaching for a broader consumer audience as they add power and an expanded repertory of tricks.

They still have the basic features such as a calendar, an address book, an expense report, a calculator, a memo pad and a to-do list: features that have endeared the Palm handheld organizer and its successors to several million users. But by adding software or hardware attachments, the newer handheld computers can be transformed into digital cameras, voice recorders, electronic books, global positioning systems, digital music players, pagers, bar code readers, electronic maps, language translators and game machines.

When outfitted with clever peripherals such as folding, full-size keyboards and snap-on modems, these pocket rockets can do limited duty as lightweight substitutes for laptop computers.

Linked to a wireless communications network, the new handhelds can send and receive e-mail, browse the Web and tap into services being developed for mobile shopping and investing.

Almost overnight, the pocket computer category has become one of the hottest areas in the technology industry. Consider:

  • Palm Computing said that its new models would be able to connect to the Internet without wires by the end of the year. It also said that at least one model would be controlled by voice commands. Like other handheld computers, Palm's current models rely on handwriting recognition or taps on a tiny, screen-based keyboard.
  • Microsoft, which has been trying with limited success to break Palm's tight grip on the handheld market, unveiled a much-improved operating system for pocket computers. Hewlett-Packard uses Microsoft's new Pocket PC software in its impressive new Jornada 545.
  • The Handspring Visor, created by the people who developed the Palm organizer, became available in retail stores in April. Before that, it was offered only online.
  • Research in Motion, maker of a popular wireless paging and e-mail device called the RIM Blackberry, said it planned to add organizer functions to its products, thereby going head to head with both Palm and Microsoft.

In short, lots of good things are coming in these small packages. But as the field grows, the choices are getting more complicated, and the fancier the application, the fancier the price. Meanwhile, pocket computers are facing increasing competition from smart, Internet-enabled cell phones and pagers that include many of their basic features.

So what are some of the more intriguing new handheld computers, peripherals and applications? Well . . .

. . . Palm Inc. sold more than 2-million Palm III, Palm V and Palm VII handheld computers last year, making it by far the most successful company in the category. Palm attributes its success to a "less is more" philosophy, focusing on simplicity and ease of use.

Microsoft is taking the "more is more" approach. It envisions a series of handheld computers that can do almost anything that a Windows-based desktop computer can do.

It sounds great in theory, but the strategy has not worked. Adding bells and whistles such as color screens and multimedia features increased complexity, weight and cost, and reduced battery life. Consumers also balked at the clumsy Windows CE operating system. Things got so bad last year that Microsoft was abandoned by several manufacturers, including Philips, IBM, Uniden and Everex.

Microsoft recently released the Pocket PC operating system, which is a significant improvement over Windows CE, although many similarities remain.

Pocket PC is unlikely to be the Palm killer that some analysts have envisioned, in part because thousands of software applications are available for the Palm OS but only a relative handful for Pocket PC.

Still, Microsoft deserves a hand for what it has accomplished. Pocket PC comes with pocket-size versions of Microsoft mainstays such as Outlook, Internet Explorer, Money, Word and Excel, which makes it a compelling choice for people who have standardized using those desktop applications.

But it is not all work and no play. Pocket PC also includes Windows Media Player for playing color videos and stereo music files, including MP3 files. And it includes Microsoft Reader with Clear Type, a delightful program that enables a Pocket PC device to display text more legibly on a handheld screen. Clear Type makes it practical to download books from the Internet and read them easily, anywhere.

Given its current travails, it is interesting that Microsoft includes Machiavelli's Prince among the small library of e-books that it distributes with its Reader software.

The new operating system has expanded support for many plug-in and peripheral devices, making Pocket PC-based devices the most versatile on the market.

One of the first devices to showcase the new Pocket PC software is Hewlett-Packard's Jornada 545, a sleek and powerful challenger to Palm's bestselling Palm V. Do not confuse this model with the previous generations of Jornadas, which had the styling and appeal of a brick.

The Jornada feels more solid and rugged than most handheld devices. But at 9 ounces, it has twice the heft of the Palm V. You will be fully aware that it is in your pocket. The weight includes rechargeable lithium ion batteries that last about eight hours between charges.

The passive color display screen is not the best in the category, but it is better than most, including Palm's only color-screen model, the Palm IIIc.

The five-button layout on the Jornada's face is surprisingly elegant considering the device's many features. Two more buttons on the left edge are notable. One controls a voice recorder (the microphone and speakers are built in), and the other is a scrolling wheel for leafing through the virtual pages of an electronic book. There also is an infrared port for beaming information, a la Palm, and a headphone jack.

I had a few other gripes with the Jornada 545. For some reason, probably to reduce bulk, H-P gave the Jornada a Type 1 (Compact Flash) expansion slot instead of the slightly larger but more versatile Type II slot. The main drawback is for people who might want to put a few hundred megabytes of MP3 music files on a tiny IBM Type II MicroDrive.

The other quibble is with the stylus, a wimpy, insubstantial, flattened pointer that nests awkwardly inside the flip-up cover of the Jornada. The lid is removable, and when the Jornada goes topless there is no convenient place to stash the stylus.

Like other handheld computers that use a Windows operating system, the Jornada 545 is expensive, about $499. But if you consider that it combines the capabilities of a handheld PC, a Rio-type MP3 player and an electronic book, and that the much less capable Palm IIIc costs $449, the Jornada's price does not sting as much.


-- People who have never used a digital camera might not understand why the Design by IDEO eyemodule for the Handspring Visor is such a good idea. But once you get used to the idea of taking pictures without having to mess with film development, somehow nearly everything you see demands to be preserved in pixels.

The tiny, $149 eyemodule camera snaps into the Springboard expansion slot of the Visor and adds little weight or bulk.

It is by no means a replacement for a good digital camera. Instead, it is intended for taking small but decent color or black-and-white snapshots that can be viewed promptly on the handheld's screen. Exposure and focus are automatic, and each shot is labeled with the time and date. Depending on how much memory the Visor has, the eyemodule can store up to 25 color pictures or 125 black-and-white shots.

Once inside the Visor, the pictures can be organized, annotated, transferred over a cable to a PC for printing or e-mailing as JPEG files, or beamed wirelessly to another nearby Visor or Palm device (both of which use the Palm operating system). Real estate agents and insurance adjusters might find such cameras useful, and it is just a matter of time, I'm sure, before Visor-toting grandmothers beam pictures of the grandkids to one another at their weekly poker games.

You would not want this camera if you are serious about photography, but it is fine for casual, low-resolution snapshots of the kind used on Web pages or sent by e-mail.

When the Visor was introduced last year, Handspring promised there soon would be a variety of plug-in modules for the Visor's clever expansion slot. But the offerings have been sparse, and the eyemodule is one of the first such modules to appear. A list of available modules and accessories is available at www.handspring.com.

Kodak plans to offer a much better digital camera attachment for the Palm family. Called the PalmPix, it takes VGA-quality (640 by 480 pixels) photos and includes a 2X zoom lens. Photos can be saved in either JPEG or BMP file formats.

The PalmPix will cost $179 and is expected to be in stores within weeks.

-- Entering information into a handheld device is often a challenge, requiring the user either to learn a new written alphabet for the computer's handwriting-recognition software (called Graffiti on Palm systems and Transcriber on Pocket PCs) or to have the patience to tap out messages using a tiny, virtual keyboard on the display screen. Some people master those skills quickly, but others find the process odious, especially for taking notes or composing e-mail messages longer than a few sentences.

Even rapid tap-typists will appreciate the cleverness of Think Outside's Stowaway Portable Keyboard ($99) for Palm and Handspring Visor computers. A version that works with Microsoft's Pocket PC is promised for summer.

The Stowaway, which is in such demand that many stores have it on back order, is a full-size keyboard that unfolds accordion-style from a package not much larger than the handheld PC. There is a built-in docking station for the computer. The keyboard weighs less than a half pound and draws the power it needs from the little computer. Best of all, it has the same size and feel of my favorite laptop keyboard. When you are done typing, the keyboard folds up easily and tucks back into a pocket.

I tested a version with the Handspring Visor and resolved never again to travel without a Stowaway.

The main attraction of these pocket computers is their ability to travel with you, but for many of us the main drawback to traveling is that we get lost at some point. (And those of us with Y chromosomes are known to be genetically disadvantaged in asking for directions.) Rand McNally, known for its maps, comes to the rescue with a global positioning system, or GPS, attachment and maps for several models of Palm computers.

A GPS receiver communicates with a network of 24 satellites that continuously broadcast precise time and location data toward Earth. The GPS device for the Palm, which is about the size of a flattened beer can, tracks these broadcasts and uses them to calculate its own longitude, latitude and altitude with an accuracy of 100 yards or less.

Knowing the raw coordinates is not much help, so the real power of the Rand McNally system is in plotting the information on customized Streetfinder street maps that can be downloaded from a PC and displayed on the Palm's screen. Then, if the device has a clear view of the sky, it plots the user's approximate position on the map. You still may be lost, but you will be lost more accurately than ever before.

Normal people may find that downloading the maps to the Palm is sufficient. But for those who have special needs, such as hiking in a remote area, driving in unfamiliar rural areas or having the latest and greatest gadget to show off to friends, the Rand McNally GPS system for Palm III computers is quite handy. It is available for $179 from the Rand McNally online store (www.randmcnally.com). A version for the Palm V costs $199.

Sadly, the Streetfinder GPS does not work with the Palm IIIc, which is the only Palm that can show maps in color, or the Palm VII, which is the only Palm that can wirelessly send e-mail messages explaining that you are lost and will be late.

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