PDAs: The Essentials to Buying a Handheld

PDA s -- Personal Digital Assistants, Personal Data Assistants, or, simply, "handhelds"  -- have become increasingly necessary for the business professional, and increasingly accessible and appealing to other users.  At their most basic, they help you organise your schedule, personal contacts, and store notes for yourself.  More advanced  models additionally serve as portable media players  (PMPs), storing and playing music and video files as well as your photo collection.  Some even include software to help manage your finances.  Most PDAs will synchronise with your PC to update your personal information, applications, and data, as well as back up important files (always back up!).

Recently, companies have started marketing handhelds as communication devices for accessing the Internet via wired or wireless networks.  This allows you, the user to browse the internet, view PDF documents, and download E-books.  It also means you can stay connected almost wherever you are.

There is a plethora of PDAs on the market. Which one is right for your needs? If you are a very basic user (say, a freelance writer-slash-parent who needs to keep track of your appointments - and your children's) you may want a simpler model, without potentially confusing additional functions. Or, perhaps you are frequently out of your office, but can never really afford to be "away" - you may need one with internet capabilities and a wider range of applications.  Whatever your needs and budget, there is certainly a PDA to match.

Things to Consider

  • Size, weight, and form factor -- Since you will be carrying the PDA around with you, make sure it is portable, light and convenient to use, preferably with the use of one hand.
  • Operating system (OS) -- The OS is an important factor in terms of applications, upgrades, and utility support.
  • Memory storage for applications and data -- How much memory you need is a function of the OS, the applications you want to run, and the size and type of data you intend to store on the device. An easy way to add memory to improve productivity and media entertainment capabilities is through expansion cards. Palm OS devices come with a minimum of 2MB RAM, and 8MB is the norm. The most common needs require about 16 MB of RAM. On the other hand, Windows CE devices the minimum is 6MB RAM, while 32MB is the norm.
  • Expansion -- The more expansion capabilities your PDA has, the more versatile it is.
    • You can access removable media through different types of slots i.e., MultiMedia Cards, Secure Digital, and CompactFlash.
    • Bluetooth connectivity allows your PDA to 'talk' to other devices like keyboards, headphones, etc.
  • Communications ports -- PDAs are designed to communicate with other devices, such as PCs, other PDAs, printers, and GPS devices, via serial and USB ports, cables, infrared, and wireless services.
  • Docking cradle -- The cradle serves as a battery charger as well as a port for synchronisation.
    • Travelers will want to look for a light travel charger to take with you on trips rather than the bulky docking cradle.
  • Display
    • Monochrome or colour -- Colour TFT touchscreen displays enhance productivity.
    • Resolution -- The higher the better. A 320 x 480 resolution is considered to be very good.
    • Backlighting and contrast adjustments -- Look for devices that have display settings that are easy to adjust.
    • Audio/Video -- Audio features are particularly important if you plan to use your handheld as a portable media entertainment player.
    • Speakers and Headset jack-- Stereo speakers and a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack.
    • Music formats -- Choose the device that supports the digital rights management system that you subscribe to, such as Napster, Rhapsody, iTunes, etc.
  • Data input
    • Character recognition is good only for short notes. Handwriting recognition software is still a far cry from being perfect. Sample it before you invest time and productivity in a new device.
    • If you plan on writing long memos your best bet is a keyboard accessory, preferably with Bluetooth connectivity. ThinkOutside produces Bluetooth enabled stowaway for large variety of PDAs and mobile phones.
    • Infrared beaming is great for transferring small-sized data between handhelds; for larger files Bluetooth is exceedingly better.
  • Battery
    • Backup -- Check to ensure that you won't lose data and applications if the device runs out of battery power.
    • Battery type -- Lithium polymer is the longest lasting type, followed by lithium ion, nickel hydride, and nickel cadmium.
    • Recharging -- A short recharging time is ideal.
  • Wi-Fi option -- If being connected to the Internet is important to you while you are mobile, buy a handheld that either has built-in Wi-Fi or can accommodate a Wi-Fi adaptor.
    • Wi-Fi offers high speed Internet access allowing you to send large files via e-mail and browse the Internet for information faster.
    • Wi-Fi will let you access the Internet at airport or cafe hotspots, such as Starbucks.
  • Digital camera accessory
    • The quality camera has a 1.3 MP unit capable of taking 24 bit colour images at up to 1280X1024 pixels.
  • GPS functionality
    • Extremely useful for the business traveller or road warrior who has to navigate different cities for sales trips. it is well worth the additional investment.
  • Warranties -- If you travel a lot, look for extended coverage and consider getting insurance against screen damage.

Which PDA Is Right For You

Don't overspend; only buy the technology that you really need or will need in the future.

Budget User

  • Designed for people who simply want a digital planner to keep track of appointments, handy access to contacts, and the occasional journal entry.
  • The available memory is minimal, ranging from 8 MB-32 MB, and the processor speed is fairly low, from 126 MHz-300MHz.
  • Limited options for third-party software applications.
  • Expect to spend from £25-£70.

Suggestion: The new Palm Z22  handheld, which retails for about £68.

Professional User

  • Expect more features with faster processors and more memory. The processor speed (416 MHz-624 MHz) will make multitasking easier.
  • 64 MB of memory is standard on models with Integrated CompactFlash and SDIO Expansion slots.
  • Integrated Bluetooth Wireless Technology is also standard; however, integrated 802.11b Wireless Technology for connecting to wireless networks in airports, hotels, and coffee shops costs extra.
  • A full range of compatible peripheral and third-party devices are available.
  • Such models are available for £100+.

Suggestions: The Dell Axim X51  starts at £189 (with upgrades pushing the price to £269) or the O2 xda IIi for £180.

Wireless Road warrior

  • Perfect for people who are constantly working on the go and who need speed (624 MHz), memory (32 MB with expansion slot), and even extra rechargeable batteries.
  • Upgrade to GSM/GPRS/EDGE and Bluetooth wireless technology so you stay connected in and out of the office. Separate GSM/GPRS wireless service plan required.
  • Integrated GPS receiver coupled with separately purchased navigation application can give you driving directions at your fingertips to get you anywhere you need to go.
  • Prices start around £299.

Suggestion: HP iPAQ hw6515  Mobile Messenger, priced at £434.

Personal-entertainment users

  • Sleek designs with fast processors of 416 MHz or higher for people who like to travel with their entertainment.
  • Large hard drives (4 GB or higher) are perfect for recording your favourite TV programmes (or football matches).
  • Multimedia models have colour displays and stereo audio jacks.
  • Expect one or more types of expansion slots and a wide range of available accessories.

Suggestion: Palm's LifeDrive  mobile manager, priced at £329.

Related Products


Memory Cards 

Mobile Phones

GPS Devices 

Bluetooth Headsets 

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