Palm vs. Pocket PC
Work. Leisure. Even dating. His electronic organizer has improved just about every area of his life, claims Christopher Pfeiffer, an enthusiastic Compaq IPaq owner. Pfeiffer, director of programming at Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Outrage Entertainment, a PC games company, takes notes on the IPaq at company meetings, catches up on e-mail messages while lying in bed, and plugs in headphones to listen to MP3s at the gym. The IPaq even helped further a personal relationship; after failing to write down the phone number of a new friend scheduled for wisdom-teeth surgery that day, Pfeiffer found it among the e-mail he had downloaded to the IPaq before leaving his apartment. "She thought it was so sweet that I remembered to call, it led to our first date."
Peter da Silva, a software engineer for ABB Network Management, an industrial and utility control systems provider for power companies, is just as enamored of his Handspring Visor Deluxe, a PDA based on the Palm operating system--but for more practical reasons: It's a work tool. In addition to taking notes and scheduling his day on his Visor, he uses it with a serial cable to help configure and diagnose problems in networking equipment such as routers and modems. In da Silva's opinion, its OS makes the Palm quicker and more reliable than the newer Pocket PCs. He's tried the IPaq, but its OS was too much like Windows for him. "It hangs for 30 seconds or more for no apparent reason," da Silva complains.
More and more professionals and consumers are relying on PDAs. According to the Gartner Group, sales of handhelds in the United States will increase by 300 percent to about 28 million over the next four years. Not too long ago, the choice was simple: The 5-ounce, monochrome-display Palm III reigned as the de facto standard because it was practically the only option. These days, shopping for a PDA means sifting through lots of choices.
Consider the Pocket PC PDAs that are based on the latest version of
Windows CE from Microsoft. About the same size as Palms, but with color screens
and Pocket versions of familiar Microsoft applications such as Word and Excel,
Pocket PCs make the first good case for Palm fans to switch (see "
Which to buy? We looked at 12 in all, and put each to the test in six areas: note taking, personal information management, e-mail, expense tracking, document handling, and entertainment.
Here's what we found.
There's a reason PDAs aren't called personal note-taking assistants: Most are terrible input devices. Poor handwriting recognition software and cramped keyboards can thwart efforts to add a phone number correctly, much less allow you to take notes during a fast-paced meeting. This latest crop of PDAs, however, gave us a couple of pleasant surprises.
Palmtop devices rely mainly on character recognition, and none outperform the new Pocket PCs. Transcriber, an application on the ActiveSync CD-ROM included with the Casio and the IPaq (but not preinstalled on these devices), represents a major advance in handwriting translation. More streamlined and flexible than either the Pocket PC's onboard Character Recognizer software or Palm's Graffiti, Transcriber accepts characters scrawled on any part of the screen in any application. We mixed cursive with letter printing; Transcriber got the words right most of the time, though it did have trouble with some people's scrawly handwriting. Filling in forms with Transcriber was a snap: Write anywhere on the screen, and the application puts the recognized text wherever the cursor is.
Even fast longhand can't keep up in some situations, however. For
writing long e-mails or taking detailed minutes, a PDA keyboard like
At the price of extra weight, the 1.1-pound Jornada 720 offers a relatively large built-in keyboard. Once we got used to a few oddly placed keys, we touch-typed at about 40 wpm on the 7-inch-wide keyboard, with few mistakes.
The Mako and BlackBerry, both of which include small keyboards, rank at the bottom of our list for quick note taking. The Mako's 5.5-inch-long keyboard is too small and shallow for all but the most determined hunt-and-peck typists. The BlackBerry's tiny keyboard is only good for typing out a short e-mail reply.
Despite all the extra roles PDAs are taking on, information management remains their primary purpose. For this task, Pocket PCs once again pull ahead of the others. The Palm offers lots of power and flexibility, but the IPaq and Casio are just as useful overall and superior in some areas. Where Pocket PCs really shine, however, is in their interface. Their bright screens, shortcut menus, and handy pick lists simplify adding and viewing appointments, tasks, and contact information, making them more fun to use than any other organizer we tried.
To help you keep track of all the people in your life, Pocket PCs include the powerful Contacts application, which provides over 40 fields for information. The Calendar application turns the IPaq and Casio into great appointment books. Day, week, month, and year views let you see and fine-tune the busiest of schedules. And it's easy to find open spots and add and reschedule appointments, recurring meetings, and all-day events.
With their meeting invitation feature for Schedule+ and Outlook, Pocket PC PDAs make the best palmtop choice for corporate users who need to stay in the loop. They do come up short in one major area, however: task and appointment integration. Palms excel at melding these important components of a busy schedule, providing several ways to look at them together.
The chunkier Jornada matches Pocket PCs feature for feature and displays a larger part of your contacts list and schedule at once, including a separate window for tasks. The Diamond Mako offers users a mixed bag. People who need complete control over their address books might like its Contacts application, which lets you relabel and rearrange every one of its 23 fields--even name, address, and phone number. But we found the quirky Agenda application difficult to use.
The little RIM BlackBerry handles PIM basics--just. Minimalists might like the stark screens--the calendar's week view consists of two labeled axes--but most will want a more informative interface.
A PDA is a great tool for staying on top of e-mail, and most of the PDAs we reviewed allow you to take your e-mail with you, answer it on the move, and send your answers when you sync with your desktop machine. Only the low-end Palm m100, which lacks an e-mail client, can't do this.
The Casio Cassiopeia EM-500, Compaq IPaq H3600, and HP Jornada 720 come with the most-attractive mail application--a Pocket version of Microsoft Outlook. The Diamond Mako offers a similar-looking Inbox e-mail program, and Palm PDAs use the plainer but still very good Mail. In all cases, we could easily read, sort, and reply to messages.
To pick up corporate mail over a standard phone line, you'll need a PDA equipped with a modem--and among this group, only the $899 Jornada includes a standard built-in 56-kbps modem. Add-on modems, most starting at a pricey $300, are available for all the others except the CLIE. Modems made for Handspring's Visor PDAs, such as Card Access's ThinModem, add a minimum of weight and no bulk because they fit inside the Visor's Springboard expansion slot.
The Palm VII and the BlackBerry are the only PDAs reviewed here that are capable of receiving e-mail wirelessly. You have to lift an antenna on the Palm VII to pick up service; the BlackBerry beeps whenever e-mail arrives--a great feature for busy people and e-mail addicts. You can add wireless modems to the Palm III, IIIx, and V; to the IPaq; and by this summer, to the CLIE as well.
Because of their slower connections, PDAs send and receive e-mail more
sluggishly than your desktop or laptop, although several vendors, including
Compaq, have announced partnerships with the 128-kbps Ricochet wireless
service. And Web browsing on a PDA remains something of a parlor trick. If you
don't need real-time access, an easier and cheaper way to obtain the same type
of Web content is to install the free application
Only the Jornada, with its 7-by-2.2-inch screen, let us browse nearly complete Web pages in real time, albeit with twice as much scrolling. But even here we missed out on a lot of content: The Pocket Internet Explorer Web browser built into the Jornada won't let you download applications, or view animations or videos.
Whether you're attending a two-week conference in Toledo or you always forget to enter lunch receipts back at the office, PDAs are naturals for jotting down expenses on the spot. Visors, the CLIE, and every Palm but the m100 include Expense, a handy expense-tracking application. It lets you record method of payment (cash, check, credit card), currency (23 countries), vendor, location, and any of 28 expense types (airfare to snacks). Back at your desktop just sync your Palm device, click Expense in the Palm Desktop application, and pick one of the five editable expense report templates to dump your data into. Our expenses mapped correctly into the handsome spreadsheets within seconds.
Expense is not a personal money management tool, however. It doesn't
handle checking, money-market, or savings accounts, nor stock portfolios. To
add these capabilities to your Palm, you can choose from various commercial and
shareware programs, including Quicken- and Microsoft Money-compatible
applications such as the $15
Pocket PC models come with Microsoft Money but no expense-tracking
software. Half a dozen third-party apps are available, including the $15
The Jornada, the Mako, and the BlackBerry come up empty in the money-management department. None bundle financial software aside from calculators.
For times when you can't or don't want to take a laptop along, a PDA makes a decent stand-in for viewing and even doing light editing in Word and Excel documents. Downloading desktop documents into a PDA is easy. You just place them in a special synchronization folder, pop the PDA in its cradle and voilà, the syncing software compresses your spreadsheet to more manageable size for your PDA.
Just remember that, to make files small enough to fit in the PDA's limited amount of RAM, the conversion process strips out some features and formatting. For example, spreadsheets lose complex formulas and Word documents lose headers and footers, among other things.
With the biggest screen and a relatively large keyboard, the Jornada handles documents best of the devices in our roundup. Like the Casio and IPaq, it comes with Pocket versions of Microsoft's familiar, easy-to-use Excel and Word applications. The Jornada's screen--at 6 inches long by 2.2 inches high, it's a third larger than a Pocket PC's--can display up to ten tightly squeezed spreadsheet columns; in addition, a healthy subset of Word and Excel features is available.
The midsize Mako offers many of the same features as the Jornada, and its Excel-like Sheet application lets you create charts and draw graphs.
We liked the Casio and IPaq next best after the Jornada and Mako. Although both Pocket Word and Pocket Excel are somewhat weaker than their desktop cousins, they offer most of the everyday features people expect. Still, spreadsheet views are cramped on the 3-by-2-inch screens.
Palm-based PDAs are the least robust for document viewing and editing.
Their screens are even smaller than Pocket PCs' because the Graffiti panel
takes up a third of the screen area. They also lack built-in word processing
and spreadsheet programs, so you'll have to add a third-party application such
You're on a long flight and you've seen the in-flight movie 15 times. Or maybe you're sitting at the doctor's office or growing old in line at the DMV. With a Pocket PC, you can while away your down time playing MP3 tunes, reading e-books, or showing off videos and snapshot-quality color photographs of your kids.
Palm organizers come with more games in the box, but Pocket PC units trump them with built-in headphone jacks and a miniature version of Windows Media Player that works with the desktop version to convert and download songs onto the PDA. In addition, the Casio Cassiopeia EM-500 has a built-in MultiMedia Card slot, which can hold a card with up to 64MB of storage--enough for an hour's worth of music. The IPaq can use CompactFlash cards with an optional $40 sleeve, while the Jornada has a headphone socket and slots for both CompactFlash and PC Card devices.
The IPaq does a nice job with photographs, but the Casio edges it out as an electronic photo album. Its Picture & Video Player compresses high-resolution photos better than the IPaq and displays them in landscape mode so you can see more of your shot on the small screen. Test pictures on the Casio had truer, more brilliant colors, thanks to the device's ability to display 65,536 colors, compared with the IPaq's 4096, although the Casio's 16MB of memory can be limiting.
For Palm fans in search of a little entertainment, Handspring's Visor
Prism is the best choice. The only Palm-based unit with both a color screen and
an expansion slot, it can do almost everything a Pocket PC can, though it lacks
a built-in headphone jack. Like all Visors, it works with two add-in MP3
Like the Casio, the Visor Prism can display 65,536 colors; unfortunately, its screen resolution of 160 by 160 makes images appear pixelated.
Sony's CLIE is the only Palm-based PDA that has video-playing software, but with a monochrome screen and no sound, it doesn't live up to its multimedia label.
Pocket PCs are improving by leaps and bounds. Excellent multimedia features, a first-rate screen, and the MultiMedia Card slot combine to make the $499 Casio Cassiopeia EM-500 a great package that earns our Best Buy award, although its 16MB of RAM could be limiting.
At the other end of the price spectrum, our other Best Buy--the $249 Handspring Visor Deluxe--boasts 8MB of memory and a Springboard slot. This makes it easy to expand and use with add-ons ranging from digital cameras to MP3 players.
PDAs are technological marvels that let you carry useful information like contacts, to-do lists, and appointments around in your pocket. But the software that most PDAs provide to synchronize this information with your main PC is limited. If you use a PIM other than Outlook, Palm's HotSync and the Pocket PC's ActiveSync software can't help.
That's where third-party synchronization packages come in. Puma
Intellisync and CompanionLink also filter data, so you don't have to download your company's entire phone book, and field-mapping capabilities let you redirect data from your desktop so that your PDA contains the information you prefer to see. For instance, you could map an assistant's name stored in your desktop PIM into the notes stored in the PDA contacts program. Otherwise, this data would not be copied because the PDA contacts programs don't have a section for it.
No syncing package is seamless. Chances are, you'll encounter quirks and glitches that require workarounds to make sure that you get all of the data you need. But that is a small price to pay to keep your little marvel all synced up.
Call it the clash of the tiny titans. The two main electronic organizer operating systems are headed for a showdown, and the outcome rests in users', er, palms. For the moment, PDAs based on the industry-standard Palm operating system continue to take the lion's share of the market; last year Palms accounted for about 62 percent of sales in the category of keyboardless "handheld companions." But analysts predict that by 2004, the Pocket PC will own as much as 40 percent of the market, with Palm falling to 45 percent.
Pocket PCs are expected to woo nonbusiness users and corporate types alike by virtue of their bright 240 by 320 screens, faster StrongARM processors, and familiar Windows-like interface and applications. Palm PDA owners tend to be fiercely loyal to their devices, however, citing streamlined operation and longer battery life as key benefits.
Strategists at 3Com and Microsoft predictably disagree over what users want. "We're not trying to produce a night light," says Palm's chief competitive officer Michael Mace. "We're trying to give users the right balance of weight and battery life. When you try to make a handheld act like a PC, you end up screwing it up."
Ed Suwanjindar, product manager of Microsoft's mobile devices division, praises the Pocket PC's appeal to sophisticated users who've decided they want more. "We're striving for depth. Our users have decided that if they're going to carry around a device, they want it to do more than just hold phone numbers. They want to read Excel and PowerPoint and get e-mail attachments. They want to enjoy music and read e-books."
Meanwhile, both camps are busily nudging their products toward the middle. The next version of Microsoft's PDA operating system will be designed to conserve power, says Suwanjindar. To catch up with Pocket PCs, Palm is planning to release Palm OS 4 later this year; it will support faster processors and increase screen resolution, says Palm's Mace.
Work toward a common expansion device standard continues, and Palms and Pocket PCs due out later this year are expected to standardize on the new Secure Device (SD) slot. Based on the MultiMedia Card specification, postage stamp- size SD cards will add storage as well as LAN and Internet connectivity.
However they evolve, analysts expect that both Palm-based and Pocket PC PDAs will secure their marketplace niches. "The overall demand for PDAs will continue to grow over time and there will be more than enough room for everyone," says Gartner Group analyst Ken Dulaney. "People are pretty committed to the Palm. The gem of the product is the software, which has not changed much over the last four years. But Microsoft has been creeping up on them."