Get organized with a handheld computer

Question: This may sound like a cliche, but I am going to get organized in 2001. (Don’t laugh.) So I have been looking at PalmPilot computers so I can carry around my personal and work schedule as well as phone numbers, etc. What else can they do? Which one should I buy? — S.G.

Answer: I count hand-held computers as the reason I got more organized several years ago. Technology is fun. Getting organized is not. Pairing the two makes an unpleasant project more palatable.

In the beginning, hand-held computers were pretty much the electronic equivalent of a paper day-timer. Today, they do much more. Besides the organizer functions, hand-held computers can download programs from the Internet via a desktop computer. You can download games, business programs, and even Internet-access utilities such as e-mail and Web browsers, although it’s a bit early to rely on the computers just for this purpose. I’d give the technology a little more time for that one.

There are two dominant players in the hand-held market. There’s Palm Inc. which makes hand-held devices and licenses its PalmOS operating system to more than a dozen other companies which make their own Palm-powered devices.

Their first models were called PalmPilots, but the “Pilot” part of the name was dropped a couple years ago.

Microsoft is the second banana in this category. The company’s Windows CE operating system appears on devices called Pocket PCs. Three manufacturers make them: Hewlett Packard, Casio, and Compaq.

A company called Symbol Technologies licenses both operating systems and makes both kinds of devices for industrial applications. Chances are you will encounter Palm-powered devices when you shop for them.

The Pocket PC devices that have the Windows CE operating system on board are expensive by Palm standards and were in short supply last year.

Palm offers more than six Palm models, divided into four families. All of them come with a cradle that synchronizes data on the device with a computer. This is used to backup information on the devices. It’s also used to install programs you acquire from the Internet for either free or for a fee.

Except for one model, all Palms have monochrome back-lit screens. Some use disposable batteries, others have a built-in rechargeable battery.

The mainstay of the Palm line is the Palm III family. The charcoal grey line was inaugurated with the Palm III and was extended to include the Palm IIIe, Palm IIIxe and Palm IIIc. The IIIe has 2 MB of memory. The other two have 8 MB. Feature-wise, the IIIxe and IIIc are identical except that the IIIc has a color screen and rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

The Palm V family began with the 2 MB Palm V device and was replaced by the Palm Vx, which has 8Mb (eight megabytes) of memory. Its sleek brushed aluminum case and compact style has made it a favorite with the business set. It was also the first Palm to integrate a built-in rechargeable battery.

The baby of the Palm product line is the Palm m100. It is a cheaper device with snap-on colored face-plates designed to appeal to the entry-level handheld user.

Note the m100’s name. The Roman numeral model numbers are being dropped by Palm because they have been confusing. The m100 is the first model with the new naming convention. Expect all future Palms to follow this.

The fourth family in the Palm repertoire is the Palm VII and the follow-up Palm VIIx. It’s a handheld device not unlike the Palm III that can access e-mail and Web information wirelessly. It’s only available in the U.S.

Because many companies have licensed the Palm OS software, you’ll see lots of Palm-enabled devices emerge this year.

Most notable is Handspring. The company makes Palm clones called Visors that are affordable and come in multiple colours. They can be bought without a PC cradle, which trims the price even further. The new Visor Prism comes with a color screen.

The Visor Platinum has a processor that’s 50-per-cent faster than the standard Visor model.

All Visors come with a Springboard port, which is used to clip on devices that expand memory or functionality. For example, the new VisorPhone Springboard module turns the PDA into a cellular phone.

Other hand-held devices that have the Palm operating system on board are available from Sony, TRG Pro, and IBM. Later this year, you’ll also see Samsung and Kyocera roll out cellular phones with a built-in Palm-powered computer.

If you like the Microsoft way of doing things, you may be drawn to the Pocket PC devices. Casio makes a Pocket PC device called the Cassiopeia.

Hewlett Packard makes the Jornada Pocket PC.

Compaq’s device is called the iPaq Pocket PC.

These devices all come with color screens and built-in rechargeable batteries.

The color screens are far superior to the Palm IIIc but they also tend to be battery munchers.

The ActiveSync software that comes with the Pocket PCs is clever technology that offers pain-free data synchronization with Windows computers.

The HP and Casio both have a Compact Flash expansion port, so you can expand a Pocket PC’s memory beyond the 16 or 32 MB standard with a card the size of two domestic stamps.

This slot also can take add-on CF (Compact Flash) devices.

Casio, for example, makes a CF digital camera that turns a Pocket PC device into a still or mini-movie camera.

In the fall of this year, Palm will add an expansion port called Secure Digital to its line of devices. Palm executives have also said more products with color screens will be announced. Expect those in March.

If you’re looking to test out whether you’ll like hand-held computers without a major investment, consider the Palm m100 or Handspring Visor. Both can be had for under $300.