I was present at the 1996 industry trade show where Palm Computing (now part of 3Com) introduced the PalmPilot hand-held organizer. The techno-savvy crowd was impressed and, apparently, so were a lot of other people.
In the two years since the pocket-sized device was introduced, about a million of them have been sold to road warriors looking for a convenient way to keep track of appointments, addresses and phone numbers, notes and other personal information. The device has evolved, offering plenty of new software applications and even some hardware add-ons such as a modem, which lets you use the device to check your e-mail and perform other tasks.
3Com recently came out with the Palm III ($399), which makes some minor refinements to the already well-honed device. The new version has more memory and additional features not available on the $299 PalmPilot Professional Edition, which is still available.
In the meantime, Microsoft, never one to remain out of a lucrative market, has developed a similar device, called the Palm-size PC, which is being manufactured by Casio, Philips, Everex and Palmax. Palm-size PCs come with a variation of the same Windows CE 2.0 operating system used in Microsoft's Handheld PCs, which have keyboards. Palm-size PCs come with Microsoft address book, calendar, note pad, e-mail and Web browsing software and has a built-in digital voice recorder. Prices range from $299 to $499.
3Com loaned me a Palm III, and Microsoft provided me with Casio's Cassiopeia ($399). Both devices come with a CD-ROM that includes desktop calendar and address book applications in addition to software that lets you synchronize data from personal information management programs, including Microsoft Outlook 98.
I brought them along last week on a five-day trip to Washington, D.C. Before leaving, I loaded both with the same calendar, to do list and phone directory. That allowed me to put the products through a real world test--looking up phone numbers, checking my schedule and jotting down notes from cabs, airplanes, phone booths and even the halls of Congress.
The Palm III and the Cassiopeia are roughly the same size and weight (about 6 ounces), though different manufacturers' products may vary in size. Both have real (not virtual) buttons below the screen that instantly take you to the calendar, address book and to do list.
The Palm III has a fourth button that takes you to a memo pad. It has four additional icons that take you to a menu of applications, a calculator and a "find" area, where you can search for text in any program running on the device.
The Windows CE device has a Start menu, similar to the one in Windows 95. You touch it with the stylus to reveal your options, which include Calendar, Channels, Contact, Inbox, Note Taker, Tasks and Voice Recorder. There are also programs and settings menus reminiscent of Windows 95.
Neither the Palm III nor the Palm-size PC has a keyboard, but both have a virtual keyboard that lets you "type" using the stylus to click on the keys displayed on the screen.
Both devices can also recognize a type of block printing. The Palm III works with a simple alphabet, called Graffiti, which is a slight variation of block printing. The Palm-size PCs support Jot Character Recognition, which recognize most printed and some handwritten characters. I found Graffiti a bit easier, perhaps because the Palm III comes with a clamshell lid with room for a Graffiti cheat-sheet sticker. The Palm-size PC has a built-in Jot training module that shows you how to enter characters.
When it comes to immediate productivity, the Palm III was the clear winner. Even though the Palm-size PC has a Windows 95-like interface, the Palm III's clear icons and simple functions made it a cinch to use.
Not only did I figure it out right away, but so did my buddies at the local cafe. I passed both units around the table, and everyone was able to quickly look up data on the Palm III. My fellow coffee drinkers and I eventually figured out how to use the Palm-size PC, but it took a bit longer.
The Palm-size PC also takes longer to search for data. If you like looking at that Windows 95 hourglass while waiting for your PC to perform a function, you'll love searching on the Palm-size PC.
Once I got the hang of using the Palm-size PC's pull-down menus, I quickly became facile at using it and started to appreciate some of its extra features. The synchronization software, for example, makes it easy to copy Word or Excel files to the device. Although I would never write or even edit a Word file on a pen-based device, I did use it to review some of my work.
In addition, I could download e-mail from Outlook 98, which I was able to review while traveling. The Palm-size PC comes with a Channels program that allows you to read information from Web sites that you previously downloaded to your PC and transferred to the device.
Of course, a 2 1/2-inch screen isn't exactly my idea of the best way to read a novel, but it isn't a bad way to catch up on the day's news. And so far, that's about all you can do with it. The only Web site I could find that supports the channel feature is MSNBC--which, conveniently, is half-owned by Microsoft. The Palm III supports a third-party program called AvantGo, which allows you to define your own channels from your favorite Web sites that you can download and transfer to the Palm III.
The Palm III comes with software on the CD-ROM that lets you use the stylus to write or draw on the screen. It doesn't turn your handwriting into computer text, but it's a useful way to jot down a quick note that you can read later or transfer to your PC. Palm-size PCs have the same feature built in, and it's integrated into the regular Note Taker, so you can mix computer text with handwriting and drawings.
The added feature I like most about the Palm-size PC is the voice recorder. It lets you take audio notes by pressing a button on the side of the unit. You can listen to recordings on the unit, download them to the PC (they're standard sound files) or include them as an attachment in an e-mail message for others to listen to on their PCs.
I used it to record a phone number I needed to remember. It's not the most exciting use of the technology, but it sure was a lot faster than bringing out the stylus, selecting Contacts from the Start Menu, pressing the "new" button and using the stylus to tap in the person's name and phone number.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com.