Getting Personal

Once upon a time, the personal digital assistant used to be viewed as the impractical status symbol of the yuppie. Nowadays, it is a businessman’s best friend. But do you really know what it is capable of? We give you the lowdown on everything you can do from the palm of your hand.

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By  Vijaya George Published  July 22, 2002

I|~||~||~|Staying connected has become critical to every traveller today, whether we are off on vacation or business. With the arrival of the affordable personal digital assistant (PDA) — also known as the handheld — on the scene, this has become possible not just for corporate travellers but also for youngsters and low-budget consumers. Affordability and efficiency have made handhelds so popular that by 2005, IDC statistics show that PDA shipments will exceed PC shipments.

If you often shuttle from one part of the world to the next, or even between different GCC countries on business, this pocket-sized device that fits snugly into your palm is a companion that will stand you in good stead, performing all your essential on-the-road activities. Apart from managing your essential personal information management (PIM) functions like the calendar, address book and diary, it comes well equipped to handle common formats such as Word documents, spreadsheets, images and power point presentations. More importantly, today's handhelds offer the road warrior connectivity.

||**||II|~||~||~|Palm versus pocket

When launched in 1996, Palm seemed to be the most appropriate name for the PDA. While Palm was not the first to introduce such technology, theirs was and continues to remain the most popular selling PDA in the world.
Essentially, there are two types of PDAs that operate on two different philosophies in the market. At one end of the spectrum lie classic PDAs like Palm, Sony and Handspring, which use the Palm OS and have kept the technology simple while maintaining a high degree of mobility to help a business traveller organise his PIM tasks with minimum power and battery consumption. Palm has been known for stripping its OS to the bare essentials so that it povides the business traveller with optimum efficiency. It leaves all the frills to third party vendors, who develop applications to perform tertiary functions.

At the other end of the spectrum lie pocket PCs from HP/Compaq, Fujitsu Siemens, Casio and Toshiba that have attempted to crunch the personal computer into a handheld device. Almost all the PC vendors have taken the pocket PC route. These devices are powered by Windows CE, the pocket version of the Windows operating system and they carry pocket versions of Word, Excel, MSN Messenger, Outlook, Internet Explorer and so on.

For this workshop, Windows Middle East teamed up with experts from the new HP and Palm to illustrate how the two most popular types of PDAs in the market operate on different philosophies, what features they have in common and where they deviate so that you can make a more informed choice when you purchase your first handheld.

Palm handhelds primarily target business users, who require PIM functions such as e-mail, scheduling on the calendar, keeping an address book and so on, while they are away on travel. PIM is priority for Palm. As a result, power consumption and battery use are at a minimum, total cost of ownership is less and the product has found favour with the business community. Today, Palm commands more than 50% of the market share for handhelds in the region. But with such devices come small compromises as well. You can run only one application at a time, although newer models are becoming available that allow you to multitask.

Moreover, if you are hoping to listen to a little music on the Palm, you'll have to put it up to your ear like the old radios.

||**||III|~||~||~|They don't come with a jack for headphones and they don't encourage listening to music although the software supports it. It would drain battery power. Then again, the fact that, in six years since the Palm Pilot was first introduced, over 13,000 applications have been written for the Palm OS is proof that music hasn't particularly been top priority for many businessmen — at least in the past.

In the case of the pocket PC, Windows is the OS of choice. There are handhelds with the Linux OS on them as well but they are yet to make an entry into the region. Pocket PCs don't necessarily claim to replace the PC but vendors do try to make them capable of doing everything that a PC can so that you don't miss the desktop.

Not only do you have the pocket version of Windows with all miniaturised MS office applications, these devices come with multimedia applications as well. As a result, the pocket PC requires more RAM, more powerful processors and stronger battery power. This, in turn, means the price of the pocket PC is substantially much higher than that of the Palm. Where you'd get a good Palm handheld for approximately $300-$450, the starting price for a pocket PC such as the iPAQ from Compaq (now part of the new HP), would be around $600.

Handwriting recognition software

No doubt both these groups of handhelds look very similar at a glance. Most come with a stylus, which is used to tap on the touch screen and works a bit like the average joystick. In many cases, the stylus can also be used to write on the screen as well. Your writing will get transcribed into print letters.
However, the accuracy of transcription depends on the handwriting-recognition software used. Palm devices use Grafitti, said to be one of the best and most user-friendly. You will, however, have to learn a new way of writing the letters of the alphabet so that Grafitti can read them. The software has its limitations. For instance, you have to write each letter in one uninterrupted motion so that it is correctly recognised. The letter A, for instance, is written as an upside down V so that it can recognised as an A by the software. The procedure is rather simple but for those who do not have the patience, there are other options such as an onscreen keyboard or, better still, a collapsible keyboard specially designed for handhelds that will allow you to type normally.

The iPAQ, again, uses a reasonably accurate handwriting recognition system called the Transcriber. You could get away with writing words in running handwriting and still get fairly accurate translation. The secret lies in dedicated practice.

||**||IV|~||~||~| Language

This is an important consideration for many Arab users and Palm has given it considerable thought, which is another reason for its popularty in the region. Palm handhelds come with Arabic software, which when installed allows users to switch between English and Arabic. However, for all other languages, once you choose the language, the PDA displays all the settings only in that language.
Pocket PCs are still relatively new in the market. Perhaps the only one that did support Arabic was the HP Jornada but with the HP-Compaq merger, the Jornada will be discontinued by the new HP and the iPAQ will be the handheld of choice. Although the iPAQ doesn't currently support Arabic, it won't be long before it borrows the Jornada secret.

Memory

When you see that devices using the Palm OS come with a maximum processor speed of 33 MHz, you don't need to think it won't suffice. Palm devices are very fast, which is why many people opt for it over the pocket PC, although the latter are also gradually improving their mobility. Based on the assumption that you use the Palm about 30 times a day, the battery could last you a week, claims the company.

But there are some natural drainers that could get your batteries down in an hour and music is one of them. As mentioned, the Palm is not yet music friendly. However, it has licensed its OS to vendors like Sony, who are likely to develop more applications for entertainment. However, handhelds from Sony are not available in the local market.

Most handhelds using the Palm OS come with a memory of 8 or 16 MB and you can rest assured that this will suffice. So, when you look at handhelds, finding out which OS they operate on, will give you a good estimation of whether the memory will be sufficient or not. If you do need to store lots of other applications, use the SD memory card for the purpose rather than saving them on your device.
In the case of the pocket PC, the use of the power-hungry Windows CE means that you will require relatively more memory. Some pocket PCs come with 32 MB memory, but it might be advisable to look out for those that come with more. There are some that incorporate 64 MB memory.

Processor

Palm has been going with the DragonBall processor for a long time and it has proved to be efficient. On pocket PCs, the standard processor used to be the Intel StrongArm 206 MHz. Most are still running on this.
Now, however, Intel has come up with a new CPU standard called the Xscale, which is said to offer better performance both in terms of security as well as multimedia productivity. Also, this new series of processors is said to guarantee lower power consumption and better battery life.
Currently, the only pocket PCs released with the new processor are the iPAQ 3900 series and the Fujitsu Siemens Pocket Loox, but others are gradually getting there as well. Ensure that you check what processor your device is running on. There is no point in purchasing a device with a processor that might be discontinued by its manufacturer in the next few years.

||**||V|~||~||~| Wireless connectivity

This has become an important consideration for many travellers and all handheld vendors have been working hard to incorporate this. What's the point of a handheld if it has to be wired, you may ask. Point noted! There are basically three kinds of wireless connectivity, namely Bluetooth, WLAN (Wireless local area network)/802.11 and Wide area network based on GSM which allows voice transfer and GPRS, which permits data transfer. Do handhelds support this?
It would be wrong to give a straight yes or a no. In a round-about way, most of them do. Few like the Treo handheld and the Siemens pocket PC come with integrated telephony. Most others require additional peripherals or there are some ifs and buts.

For instance, the average Palm comes with two interfaces — an SD slot, which takes in expansion cards such as memory cards/wireless cards as well as bluetooth cards.

But does your mobile phone support Bluetooth?
Does the country you live in currently have GPRS? (Currently, GPRS is not available in all countries in the region. Some like the UAE, Lebanon, Bahrain and Jordan (to name a few) support it. Check if the country you live in supports GPRS.
Is remote connectivity to GPRS possible? (None in the region currently support remote access through GPRS.)
Are there additional charges from the telecommunications company for connections? These are questions you need to ask.

If you have a mobile that supports bluetooth, you can slide the bluetooth card into the SD slot of your Palm handheld and dial into the Internet through GPRS. Alternatively, there are many third party vendors that produce hardware that can be used along with the Palm. Take the mobile sled from Xircom (made by Intel) for instance. You can slide the sled onto the back of the Palm and use it as a mobile phone. But don't forget! These are extras.
The same applies to the pocket PC. A pocket PC, by itself, limits functionality to Word, Excel, power point, PIM applications etc.

Most of these devices do come with integrated Bluetooth. But remember to ask the following questions.

What if:
Your current mobile phone does not support Bluetooth?
You want to use your pocket PC as a normal mobile phone with your existing sim card?
You want to connect to the Internet via a modem?
Are these things possible? They are. But for all these extra functionalities, you'll have to pay extra, whether it is for the Palm or Compaq. The total cost of ownership naturally goes up.
Compaq (the new HP) prides itself on having an expansion port for its iPAQ. This slot takes several different types of expansion jackets for different purposes. Prices for each of these jackets vary. On an average, be prepared to pay $300 for each jacket.

Using your iPAQ as a mobile phone:

If you want to use your iPaq as a mobile phone, a GSM/GPRS jacket is available. It comes with software that allows you to use the iPAQ as a dialpad for voice and data transfer and allows you to multitask at the same time. Some like the HP Jornada comes with GSM integrated into the unit, but they cost more.
Connecting to the Internet:
A CF (Compact Flash) expansion jacket with CF modem can help you connect to the Internet. Some PDAs like Casio comes with an integrated SD slot as well as a CD slot. So, you can straight away plug your CF modem card into it without going in for any extras.

Wireless/Intranet:

A wireless LAN card will let you connect to a wireless hub that is within 100 metres. But then that's one more expansion jacket on your list. It's true that all people will not need all these additional peripherals. Some may only want to connect to the Internet and need purchase only that expansion jacket. The iPAQ also comes with an infrared port, which allows you to print, for instance, something onto a printer that also supports infrared.

Data synchronisation:

If you have just purchased a handheld, or intend to, remember that one feature you will find useful is the ability to synchronise the data on your PC/mobile/laptop with your PDA. Obviously, one doesn't expect you to put all your data on your PDA. But, for instance, if you are travelling for a conference, you can synchronise all related data, contact details, addresses etc between the PDA and the PC. This is typically done through a serial or USB port on the PDA.
Each handheld comes with the relevant software to achieve this kind of syncing. For the Palm OS, the software utility is called HotSync while in the case of the Pocket PC, it is called ActiveSync.

Projector

Both the Palm and the pocket PC have means of helping you project a presentation from your handheld onto a projector. In the Palm, it's as simple as connecting a cable from the relevant card (extra) in the SD slot to the projector. In the case of the iPAQ, it means the use of an expansion jacket. But both support the feature should you require it.

Security

Security has also been taken care of by the vendors. Log in passwords as well as other in-built security measures are available on each of these handhelds but it might help to check before you make a purchase.

Multimedia

Where the pocket PC scores over the Palm is in its ability to support many multimedia applications and audio in a much more sophisticated manner than the Palm. So, while the pocket PC also targets business users, its multimedia capabilities give it an edge over the Palm. If Palm has kept its multimedia capabilities down, however, it has been deliberate, but the company now realises that in order to retain its mass appeal, it might have to take a more lenient approach to incorporating multimedia applications. Many games, however, have been written for the Palm OS.

But not focusing on music does not mean that Palm does not appeal to the younger crowd. It does have budget devices (which use plastic casings instead of metal) lower than $300, which mostly appeal to women and youngsters.
These are some of the basic features that you must find in your handheld devices today — essentially PIM, if it has common data formats such as Word, spreadsheets, and power point, and supports wireless connectivity as well. Two other important factors that will determine your choice will be requirement and budget.

If you are a no-nonsense businessman, looking only to get work done while on a trip and plan to leave your multimedia applications on your desktop, Palm might still be your choice. But for those who can't do without extensive music and other multimedia applications, the pocket PC holds more promise and creates a deeper dent in your purse. The choice is yours for the making.||**||

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