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Paper better than handheld for jotting down notes

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 21, 2000


The stylus is not yet mightier than the keyboard. And Eliza Doolittle would be as frustrated trying to write on a Pocket PC screen as she would be talking to a computer with voice recognition software.

In fact, Doolittle's Cockney accent in My Fair Lady would be better than "I C rhI Ulsoa.iv," as the lyric "The rain in Spain" was translated by the Hewlett-Packard Jornada 540 with Microsoft Windows CE software.

It may not be totally fair to ask a machine to read my handwriting, which few people can decipher and which sometimes leaves even me wondering what I scrawled on a page. But then pen and paper cost a lot less than $500, the price for one of these gizmos.

And the Jornada goes far beyond just a note-taking device. Microsoft and HP packed it with features to make it a mobile office that fits in a pocket.

It includes Pocket versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, Money and Internet Explorer. It can synchronize with a desktop PC to share files and data. It plays MP3 music, uses Microsoft Reader for e-books and has a built-in voice recorder. It can send and receive e-mail and instant messages. It has games.

This is how the battle is being waged for the hearts and pockets of handheld users: Cram as much as possible into a 9-ounce device. Microsoft in this case is playing the role of challenger, with Palm organizers dominating the market.

I have not yet jumped into the handheld market, with only an occasional check of friends' Palms previously, so I can't compare the Jornada's performance with the Palm's.

The Jornada is fairly easy to figure out and use, and I had no problems creating Word documents, listening to music, checking the Reader and, of course, playing solitaire.

Trouble arrived with writing notes onscreen, using a stylus. I kept it simple, but "call home" came out as "CA Llii.jm C"; "check e-mail" was "CII.C. cilO.M.ii." Nothing came close to accurate. It was worse than the Tech Times' test of voice-recognition software (Jan. 17) when "The rain in Spain" didn't come out right but was at least recognizable.

The Jornada would not be the first handheld to have trouble recognizing handwriting. The Doonesbury comic strip lampooned the transcription failures of the late, great Apple Newton. Jules Allen, Tech Times' Site Seeing columnist and gadget aficionado, remembers the Newton spelling his name as "Flynn's Alien" at first, though later versions of the Newton improved.

I checked a few online reviews to see if others had difficulties with handwriting recognition. "Transcriber is awesome, though it messes up sometimes," said a posting at PDA Buzz (www.pdabuzz.com) from a Jornada user who also admits to lousy handwriting. A reviewer at Smaller.com (www.smaller.com) praised the character recognition as "very good," and he was "sure that pretty much anyone could get the swing of it very quickly." Right.

What struck me about the reviews is how few people mention the handwriting function. Either it has come a long way since Newton's early days, people have adapted to make it work for them or the handwriting-challenged use the onscreen keyboard instead.

Or, like me, they use pen and paper.

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