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Band Of The Handheld PCs

10/25/00 05:17:52 PM PST
by David Penn

You can take notes! You can play games! You can access the Internet! You can get your E-mail -- and you can even be fashionable as you do it all. The newest offerings represent the bargains, best buys, and things to come in the growing market for handheld personal computers.


FIVE OF A KIND: Handspring Visor is just one of the newest entries in the field of on-the-go handheld PCs.

While technology pundits bemoan the declining sales of personal computers, pointing to "Internet appliances" as the newest New Thing, the revolution in handheld computers (also known as personal digital assistants, or PDAs) continues almost without pause. More handheld PCs were sold in the first half of 2000 than in all of 1999, when approximately 1.3 million units were sold to the tune of more than $436 million, according to International Data Group. Much of the surge in sales is attributed to lower prices, more choices, especially from newcomer Handspring, and the expansion of sales beyond the geek market. As ubiquitous as cellphones have become, however, handheld PCs are not close behind.

What is everyone who has one doing with these handheld PCs? Based on the most popular features, it appears the world is taking notes and making plans, and even playing games. To-do lists and memo pads are standard features with most handhelds, as are such applications as address books, calendars, and E-mail. And with Palm's Palm.Net service and Mobile Internet Kit, the most popular handheld brand in the world is now Internet wireless-capable. Another exciting development with handheld PCs is the expansion pack or slot that allows handheld PCs to be hooked up with digital cameras, digital music players, or other auxiliary devices. In fact, there are numerous $20 programs that can be added onto handhelds that can add useful functions.

Now that most everyone who doesn't have a handheld yet has at least started thinking about what life might be like if they did own one, Working Money decided to take a look at three of the most interesting handheld PCs on the market today.

PALM LEADS THE PACK
In spite of the proliferation of companies offering handhelds, Palm (www.palm.com) still sells more handhelds worldwide than any other company. At the end of 1999, Palm handhelds represented 78% of the market for the most popular of the mobile computer companions, and the company has sold more than seven million handhelds since its inception. Currently, the Palm line of handheld computers consists of three main "families": the Palm III, which includes the Palm IIIc with a color screen; the Palm V; and the Palm VII, which make the devices available for buyers with a variety of needs and budget sizes. The VIIx (Figure 1), the newest addition to the Palm line of handheld PCs, features wireless Internet connectivity -- long the Holy Grail of pocket-sized mobile computer devices.

Palm stands out for the enormous volume of software applications available for its line of handhelds -- more than 5,000 at last count. Most of these are Web-clipping applications that enable Palm users to surf select Internet sites through their handhelds. Among these are applications from E*Trade, TheStreet.com, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as Ticketmaster, MapQuest.com, and Yahoo! People Search. Palm has also added Internet wireless capability to its handhelds, starting with the most recent version, the VIIx. However, Internet-seeking Palm users with earlier models will not be left out; the company has developed a Palm Mobile Internet Kit that will provide earlier models with wireless Internet capacities through the company's Palm.Net online service.

Palm handhelds range from about $250 for the low-end Palm IIIe model to upward of $450 for the latest Palm VIIx. Palm units come with 8 MB RAM and have the benefit of being the industry leader; owning a Palm automatically lands you in a community of likeminded handheld holders, making it easier to share files and exchange information with most others using handheld PCs.


FIGURE 1: PALM VIIX. The leader in the PDA field, Palm handhelds represented 78% of the market at the end of 1999. Notable for the enormous volume of applications available for the company's handhelds -- more than 5,000 at last count -- Palm has a variety of units for a variety of needs and budget sizes.
 
VISOR SPRINGS INTO EXPANSION
Handspring (www.handspring.com) and its line of Visor handhelds are among the most affordable of the first-rate handheld PCs on the market. Although Handspring's latest handheld, Visor Deluxe (Figure 2), is comparable in both features and price with the top offerings from Palm, Handspring's user-friendly, colorful product line also features handhelds that are more modest in cost and capability. Running on the same basic Palm OS that powers Palm's handhelds (Handspring was, in fact, founded by the same folks who built the original Palm Pilot) and possessing many of the same features, Handspring's Visor distinguishes itself by its expandability, connectivity, and, well, style.

Style?

Yes, style! After all, computer devices in the iMac age need to be more than merely functional, and Visor's five color options (blue, graphite, ice, green, and orange, all available only for the Visor Deluxe) are mindful of the fact that pulling out a handheld in a public place can be as much a fashion statement as a technological one. In fact, Handspring's style-conscious entry into the handheld market seems to have worked well; the company enjoys a 21% market share after only two years in the business.

But there is truly more to the Handspring Visor than its cool, colorful, translucent cover. Handspring was also quick to make all of their units easily expandable through the addition of optional Springboard modules and the universal serial bus (USB) connectivity that is as much as four times faster than the serial connections used by most other handhelds (including Palm). At $250, the Visor Deluxe offers more than the comparable Palm version (the Palm IIIxe) and does it with a bit of flair to boot. If looking good while getting the job done matters, then Handspring's Visor demands serious consideration.


FIGURE 2: HANDSPRING VISOR. Handspring's Visor line of handhelds are among the most affordable of the first-rate handhelds. These handhelds are notable for their expandability, connectivity, and style, making a fashion statement with choices of colorful translucent covers.

IPAQ: THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME?
What will the handheld PC of tomorrow look like? Odds are, handhelds will increasingly take after the design of Compaq's iPaq H3650 Pocket PC (www.compaq.com), which features a high-resolution color screen and enough computing power to play an action-shooter game like Doom. The iPaq's 2.25-inch by 3-inch color screen is of such quality it can easily be read indoors and out, and is capable of displaying 4,096 colors.

What makes the iPaq Pocket PC particularly of interest is the fact that inside its small, 3-inch by 0.7-inch by 4.8-inch frame is 32 MB of RAM and a processor that runs at 206 MHz. This is four times as much RAM as the Palm handhelds and Handspring's Visor, and more than 12 times as much processing power.

What in the world can anyone do with all of this power in a handheld PC? For starters, the iPaq handheld is capable of storing a much larger amount of data (as well as those E-mails with attachments) than other handheld PCs. The amount of RAM and the fast processor of the iPaq handheld also means that Windows for Pocket PC applications such as Pocket Word and Pocket Excel run smoothly.

The iPaq Pocket PC's power also makes it a valuable tool for the corporate set, for whom access to spreadsheets and real-time data (through an expansion pack sold separately) are both key. Ironically, given the iPaq's might, the handheld device is notoriously easy to use, with a configurable menu system and one-tap application launching. If there is any obvious downside to the iPaq, it is the inavailability of the unit in most bricks-and-mortar stores. In fact, the best bet for those looking to purchase a Pocket PC may be to go directly to the Compaq Website, where buyers can also get a glimpse of the iPaq's Pocket PC precursor, the Aero.

FIGURE 3: IPAQ'S POCKET PC. The iPaq Pocket PC is of interest because of the fact that inside its small frame is 32 MB of RAM and a processor that runs at 206 MHZ.

GETTING A HANDLE ON HANDHELDS
How does someone go about choosing his or her own handheld PC? The best method is probably through word of mouth. If you have a friend or relative who cannot stop talking about his Handspring Visor Deluxe or who seems to have her Palm VII in hand more often than her cellphone, then you might have run into someone with a few opinions about handheld PCs. Another great method is to simply visit various stores and try out different models. While this approach is not the same as having one to play with on your own for a few days, it does give you an idea of overall size and the way the unit feels in your hand, as well as how effective the display seems and how easy it is to enter information.

All the same, when it comes to cost and convenience, it looks hard to beat the Handspring Visor and Palm III handhelds, which are both inexpensive and capable. These are also the brands and models that first-time handheld buyers are most likely to be familiar with, so the skittish might be best off with a device similar to the ones that their colleagues, friends, and family are using.

If familiarity is not a big issue and cost not an object, both the Palm VII and the iPaq Pocket PC offer about as much as anyone buying a handheld could hope for, with Palm's emphasis on wireless connectivity and the iPaq's sheer computing power. But wherever you find yourself on the handheld PC continuum -- from casual, occasional E-mailer to corporate power user -- rest assured the people of Palm, Handspring, and Compaq have a handheld PC that fits you.



David Penn

Technical Writer for Technical Analysis of STOCKS & COMMODITIES magazine, Working-Money.com, and Traders.com Advantage.

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