PDA Pundit: Handy Handheld Information

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Sometimes I think I must be the biggest cheapskate alive; other times I just think my notions on relative value are completely out of whack. For example, I think nothing of paying $2.71 (plus tip) a day for a latte at the coffee shop in my office building, yet I'm debating whether Handmark Express, a news and information service for connected Palm- or Windows Mobile-based handhelds and Windows Mobile Smartphones, is worth $7 a month (or $70 a year).

Launched last month at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association's annual conference and expo, Handmark Express lets you bypass your handheld's browser to get an assortment of information with a minimum of fuss and waiting.

Specifically, you can download news and sports headlines, stock quotes, and weather reports and forecasts for the U.S. cities you choose; additionally, you can do yellow- and white-page directory lookups, check the movies playing at your favorite local theaters, and get maps and driving directions, all properly formatted for your handheld's small screen.

This is all useful stuff. But when the folks from Handmark invited me to check out their service, my first reaction was skeptical. Why would I pay anything, let alone $7 a month, for information that is generally available for free on the Web? Isn't that why I got a connected handheld (and agreed to pay extra to my cell-phone carrier for data services) in the first place? Why can't I just use the browser I have to get this information?

It's an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad, Web

I can, of course--if I have the time and patience to try to use Web pages designed for 640-by-480 or 800-by-600 displays on a small screen (160 by 160, on my PalmOne Treo 600). I say time and patience because even on Sprint's CDMA 2000-based PCS Vision network, download speeds (in the 50-to-70-kilobits-per-second range, according to Sprint) are definitely pokey compared to the Digital Subscriber Line speeds on my home network, not to mention the gigabit Ethernet at my office.

Say I want to look up movie schedules on Fandango. Here at my office, I click on Fandango's entry in my Favorites in Internet Explorer, and in a couple of seconds I have a nice big page with all sorts of navigational options. I can browse a list of box-office hits, or find the movie I want by clicking on the first letter of its title on a hyperlinked alphabet. If I want to check on theaters near me, I can enter a zip code in a box at the top of the page; if I know what I want to see, I can type in the name of the film. Almost all of these choices appear neatly on my 17-inch display. Okay, I do have to scroll down to see the alphabet, but that's no great hardship.

Contrast this with my experience using the Treo's included Blazer browser. It takes over a minute for the page to load, and even then at least one image is dropped. Page elements that are side by side on my monitor have to be stacked on top of each other by Blazer because my Treo's display simply isn't wide enough. I have to scroll very carefully to find the field I want.

Ads that didn't particularly bother me in Internet Explorer are extremely annoying in Blazer because I have to wade through them to view the fields I want. I know that Fandango relies on advertising as well as ticket-service surcharges to make money, but on the Treo the aggravation factor is, well, aggravated by the time the ads take to load and the space they take up on screen.

Cleaning Up Clutter

Handmark Express's Movies utility dispenses with all the clutter. Since the service is fee based, you don't have to deal with ads. When I first installed Express and tapped on Movies, the application asked me to input my location (the city and state will do), then brought up a fairly complete list of theaters in the location. Since I usually don't want to browse all the theaters in San Francisco, I chose about half a dozen that are near my home--the ones I most frequently patronize.

When I want to go to the movies, I simply tap an Update button that presents me with a list of all movies playing at the theaters in my personalized list. I tap on a film that interests me, and Handmark Express shows me where it's playing and a list of times. In some cases, I have the option of buying tickets online; sadly, Handmark uses your built-in browser to make the transaction (probably for security reasons), but at least the pages it summons to do this appear to be stripped of ads.

How much are the clean pages, small-screen formatting, and time savings worth? I imagine that will depend on how much you use Handmark's service. The more you're on the move--and unable to get to a PC or notebook with Internet access--the more Handmark Express will justify its cost. I'm basically a sedentary deskbound type, so I'd probably save the money for my latte budget. But I can see how a more mobile professional would find this service well worth the price.

Quick Hit on a New Clie

Somewhat late for a full-blown review in this column, the folks at Sony sent me one of the Clies I saw a couple of months ago at PalmSource. I've been playing with the PEG-TH55 for all of a day, and my first impression is that this is one cool handheld--if you're willing to spend a little time learning how it works.

I'm most impressed by the camera, which seems to take pretty good photos for a handheld: It produces 640-by-480 pics, and it's got a 2X zoom. Also cool: The NetFront browser, which does a credible job of handling big Web pages. Of course, NetFront has some assistance in the form of the TH55's 320-by-480 screen, which is huge for a PDA. The screen takes up almost the entire device. With that kind of real estate Web pages look a lot more like they're supposed to than, for example, on my Treo 600. However, the TH55's screen gets smaller when you bring up the software-based Graffiti window.

I've enjoyed fiddling with Sony's included Free Note app for handheld notes. Not only can you capture your handwriting, but you can also insert your photos. This feature is great for sending e-mail messages from the road, using the integrated 802.11b Wi-Fi. The built-in speaker produced good sound when playing my brief audio test clip. And I was intrigued by the included Picsel document viewer, which gives you all sorts of controls, including the ability to zoom in and out of a document and to change its orientation on the Clie screen. This lets you hold your handheld in landscape rather than the usual portrait mode.

The only thing I'm not crazy about is Sony's custom interface for the Palm-based OS. It seems overly busy to me, with its combination of tabs as well as the Palm OS's signature icon-based menu. You also have the option of using an even more esoteric Sony application interface; I can't even begin to describe this in print. Give me the simple Palm OS look any time. But others may disagree, and even those who don't may find the TH55's extras well worth Sony's idiosyncrasies. If I weren't so in love with my Treo PDA-cell phone, I'd be tempted by this $399 Clie.

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