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Traveling light

By sliding a Palm Pilot into a GoType keyboard, you have a familiar way to take notes or write e-mail without using the stylus. [Times photo: Jonathan Newton]

Don't want the hassle or cost of a laptop computer, but want the freedom to travel and check your email? Consider a Palm Pilot and a few handy add-ons.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 1999

Oh the joys of travel! Cramped leg space back in cattle class, dried-out nasal passages from hotel air, and $3 for an 89-cent bottle of water. It makes me wonder how Road Warriors do this for a large part of their year.

It should come as no great surprise, then, to learn that I don't have a laptop. And not just because they're as much as 50 percent more expensive than a comparably equipped desktop. Am I cheap? Maybe. Practical? Certainly.

For a recent trip, my mobile computing needs were simple: I needed to be able to check e-mail, take notes while at a conference and send a fax in case of a dire emergency (such as the recipient not having e-mail).

Laughter greeted a request for a company loaner laptop -- it is not as if it has these things sitting around. I considered buying a high-end Windows CE (www.microsoft.com/WindowsCE/) machine. I was looking for something that was bigger than a palm top, like the first generation Windows CE devices or the Palm Pilot, but not quite a laptop with a hard disk and all the battery woes that come with it.

However, a trip to a store to check out the Windows CE-based Vadem Clio (www.vadem.com/) collapsed when a sales clerk wouldn't allow me to play with it without buying it.

Then I discovered I already had the solution to my travel needs. I'm not a total desk jockey. You might even call me seminomadic within my own limited space. Like a lot of folks who enjoy the electronic lifestyle, I have a Palm Pilot (http://palm.3com.com/), a remarkably compact note-taking and personal information reference device.

The Pilot reminds me of the Apple II and IBM-compatible PCs in their heyday: Hackers have fallen in love with the machine and extended it beyond what the designers envisioned.

Much of the credit for these innovations goes to Palm Computing. It seems to have made a strategic business decision to make the platform as open and extendable as possible.

Adding a few gadgets to the Pilot gave me a surprisingly functional machine, without the costs of a laptop.

First, connectivity

I purchased the official Pilot modem to keep my mobile setup as compact and light as possible.

Another solution could have been a cable to hook the Pilot to a regular modem because it has a serial port of sorts. This would have meant more wires, boxes and probably access to a power outlet. The Pilot also lacks a PC Card slot (or PCMCIA as they used to be called), ruling out those ultra-thin credit-card sized modems.

The tiny $129 Pilot modem neatly clips to the bottom of the machine. It has one jack on the bottom for a standard RJ-11 cable, like the one that connects your phone to the wall. Any domestic hotel worth its salt provides phones with an extra jack for modem hookups. This beats the daylights out of fighting with dust-bunnies and trying to find a jack under the bed at your not-so-well-vacuumed Generic Inn.

Next on the list was the LandWare (www.landware.com/) GoType keyboard. It certainly was the belle of the ball at the geek conference I attended. After a couple of impromptu demos, I started to get the keyboard out 5 minutes or so before I actually needed it just to get the show-and-tell out of the way.

Almost every time a fellow Piloteer saw me slap my Palm III into the keyboard's cradle, he would demand a demonstration. The demo would invariably be followed by "$80? You're kidding?" If I had had a big box of these to sell, I could have at least paid for my air fare.

The GoType keyboard is remarkably compact, but people with larger hands might have trouble touch typing on it. If you hunt and peck the keys, you should have no problems.

I wrote the bulk of this article with it. While the keyboard's action is a little rubbery at first, you soon get used to the feel. In addition to a standard QWERTY layout that most U.S. keyboards have, it has some dedicated, customizable function keys for launching Pilot applications, such as to-do lists, datebook, notepad, etc. The keys are particularly useful for getting to applications that require a few taps on the touch screen, such as the expense application or third-party applications you've installed.

The Pilot's screen is touch sensitive and all input is usually done with the stylus. When you're typing, you have to put the stylus somewhere, and the GoType's regular -- and southpaw-friendly -- stylus-holders are a smart idea.

I was impressed with the way the keyboard barely affected the Pilot's battery even though the GoType has no batteries and sips its power from the Pilot. Pilot owners are blessed with a machine that is a power miser. Some weeks my Pilot is barely turned off, and I still get about two weeks of usage between battery changes, providing I keep the backlight display option to a minimum. My conference lasted four days, and I was still using the two AAA batteries I installed the previous week.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was the built-in Dvorak keyboard layout option. The Dvorak layout (www.thisistrue.com/dvorak.html) is an alternative to the QWERTY standard, with the most frequently used keys on the home row. Your fingers travel a lot less and, therefore, get less stress and strain.

Everything wasn't perfect, though. My GoType keyboard shipped with a version 1.0 driver, and I didn't get chance to install the 1.02 driver from LandWare's Web site before my trip.

On a few occasions, the driver took control of the serial port so the modem couldn't make a connection. Only a soft reset (the Pilot equivalent of a slap in the face to bring the thing to reason) would free the port and give me modem access again. Soft resets are generally safe, but they still scare the willies out of me: I'm on the road and I could potentially lose all my data, miles from home.

Also, the arrow keys on the keyboard would occasionally not work properly, and sometimes the machine had to be turned on and off a few times before the keyboard would start to work. If you're not familiar with the Pilot, this isn't as bad as it sounds because the Pilot has no boot-up time as a regular PC does.

On my return, I installed the 1.02 driver, which unfortunately did not resolve these issues. LandWare technical support assured me these problems will be addressed in the next version of the software.

Armadillo Pilot

Another checkbox on my must-have list was the $99 Hardcase from Rhinoskin (www.rhinoskin.com/). Pilots, while better than they used to be, are still fragile

If you drop a cordless or cell phone from a few feet, you pick it up and usually expect it to keep working. If you drop a fragile Pilot, your teeth itch. If the screen is cracked, you've just broken the most expensive part of the unit and might as well buy a new one. If your Pilot is important and the loss of your data is worth more than $99, get one of these hard cases as soon as possible.

The case is titanium, which also is used in high-end golf club heads and certain military equipment. It is lined with neoprene, a synthetic material that is used in wet suits and oh-so-trendy purses.

This combination makes the Hardcase like an M&M;: hard on the outside and soft on the inside. And it works well to protect the machine from knocks and drops. However, even with the titanium insurance, you hope you never need it.

I had no problem hanging the Pilot from my belt with the optional Clip Pak Hardcase belt holster. To top the ensemble off, the titanium stylus was a must-have. Geek fashion is a strange thing.

The built-in Pilot mail application's limited feature set just wasn't going to cut it for me, so I chose the $49 Handmail 2.0 from SmartCode Software (www.smartcodesoft.com/).

This gem performed flawlessly. If you're reliant on HTML-rich mail, as generated from Microsoft Outlook Express or Netscape Navigator, you'll be disappointed; Handmail handles only plain text. It is readable but irritating unless you're used to reading HTML (hypertext markup language) on a regular basis. (HTML e-mail programs allow fonts to be made bold, for instance, and plain text doesn't. An HTML e-mail program would show "this text" in bold, a non-HTML mail program would show you "this text.")

Handmail also allows you to get your America Online mail, though I couldn't test it since I don't use AOL.

If your travel computing needs are e-mail-centric and you've got a Palm III, this could be a winning combination. Instead of spending thousands on a laptop, my gadgets cost about $357 (not including the cost of the Pilot) and got the job done.

There are even packages for the Pilot that allow Web browsing. I didn't get to try them on this trip, but I imagine they're like that doughnut tire in my trunk.

Sure, it'll get me by in a pinch, but I'd hate to drive to Canada with it.


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