Suiting Up Your Assistant Keeps Your Data Safe, Stylishly Stowed

michelle.maltais@latimes.com

What you store your hand-held computer in is as important as--maybe more than--what you store in it. A case is not only a convenience or a fashion statement. It protects your personal digital assistant from the lumps it's bound to take traveling in a purse, pocket or briefcase.

As the PDA becomes close to ubiquitous in some circles, any number of companies have devised storage designs that range from sporty and simple to clever and convenient. Others are just plain kooky.

But six stand out. In terms of style with substance, three cases are winners--Handspring's Sport Case, Incipio's WildOnes and BodyGlove's DataSuit. RhinoSkin's RhinoPak 2000 is good for storage, and its Titanium Slider probably is the sturdiest and safest. As for the most mind-boggling, e-Holster took that honor.

Handspring Sport Case

The aptly named Sport Case is simple and sturdy. Although in some regards it's plain vanilla, the case is light and serves one purpose--it secures the PDA.

The front of the $25 case is reinforced to protect the PDA's screen from being scratched or punctured. Its Velcro flap closes securely and can accommodate smallish modules attached to the Visor. At the top of the neoprene case is a belt loop and lanyard ring to carry it. Although we aren't wild about Velcro closures, this one is at the top of the case and is sturdy.

The Sport Case fits all models of Visor--and some Palms, for that matter. This is a fine choice if all you want is a safe place for your PDA, but an all-purpose wallet surrogate this isn't. It comes in black, red, blue and yellow.

Incipio WildOnes

For a couple more bones, you can make a statement with Incipio's WildOnes line, which sells for $27. The animal prints appeal to the more flamboyant PDA owner. We checked out the Zebra Case. The zippered case is light, with four internal pockets, including a billfold and a clear window for a driver's license.

One useful feature is the detachable safety strap, which makes carrying it safer for the clumsy among us.

Incipio offers models for both Visor and Palm, differing slightly in how the PDA is secured in the case. The Visor model uses the PDA's cover, slipped in a slot on the right side of the case, to clip the device in. One of the drawbacks of that is you have to align the cover and PDA properly at the bottom to lock it in. The comparable case for the Palm instead uses Velcro to secure it.

Although one of our favorites, the case does leave some things to be desired.

For one, the storage capacity is limited. There's only one slot in which to place the several credit or business cards you might need to carry without affecting the PDA. And if you insert a clear plastic card holder or put too much in the billfold, the case bulges and won't close properly. The case can get dingy rather quickly but can easily be hand washed.

We also must note that the screen of a Visor cracked while in this case. (Both were in a small backpack-style purse being carried at the time.) That gave us pause. The company suggested that the case shouldn't be filled to the point of bulging, and that the Visor could be placed in the case face first for more protection.

The cases come in styles including animal prints (leopard, zebra and giraffe), floral Hawaiian print, velvet fabric, vulcanized rubber and carbon fiber.

BodyGlove Universal Fit

GoNeo's $30 DataSuit for BodyGlove also got high marks as the entry for the less flamboyant but still stylish PDA owner. The neoprene case is shock-absorbent and waterproof.

It has three credit card slots and a smallish but adequate billfold. The device is secured in the case with Velcro. In attaching the Velcro, it's important to do it while your PDA is in its sync cradle so you can avoid putting the sticky stuff anywhere that would get in the way of a proper fit. Something to note: With the Visor, one of the easiest places to put the Velcro strip would be where the cover for the Springboard is, in the back. But because it's removable, it's not the most secure choice.

The case has a heavy-duty zipper. The soft, suede-like case is light and easy to handle, even for klutzes. Plus the style is gender neutral. It comes in black and navy and fits all Palm IIIs, Palm VIs and Handspring Visors, although the Visor Prism might be a tight fit because it is a bit bigger.

One very minor drawback we discovered was that if you use a protective cover on your screen, a card in the top slot of the case leaves a discernible crease down the center.

RhinoSkin RhinoPak 2000

Now hold everything--this $40 case does. It's a bit bigger than the average wallet surrogate but perfect for someone who uses, say, a Minstrel modem. This black case lets you store your PDA as is, without having to put various pieces in different pockets or carriers. Plus, the storage space is astounding.

It has four pockets--two in front, one inside and a long zippered one in the back. Inside, you can store two extra batteries and a pen or stylus.

The area for the PDA uses Velcro to fasten the device in place and includes four elastic straps at each corner to further secure it should there be other items attached. You could pack this case with your checkbook, cards, even your keys.

It's made of water-resistant Cordura and fits all models of hand-helds from Visor and Palm to Jornada and iPaq, even some larger hand-held PCs and digital cameras.

RhinoSkin Ti Slider

This rather pricey entry offers the most security--it is made of titanium, after all. Other reviews have suggested it could survive a Ford Ranger rolling over it. Though we didn't go that far, we did drop it on a hard carpeted floor. The result: no damage to the PDA inside. This is not to say you should go slamming the case with PDA inside on hard surfaces just to test it. But the likelihood of damage from a simple drop is slim.

The $100 Ti Slider has a patent-pending sliding design that lets you slide the cover underneath when you open the case. Inside, the neoprene lining holds the device in place, adding shock absorbency.

Despite its outstanding safety, there are a few drawbacks--aside from the price. The case is far from silent. When you open it, it sounds somewhat like unsheathing a sword. And the design, with its sharp edges, looks rather militaristic.

Functionally, the model that fits the Visor requires you to remove the device to beam or receive data because the left-side infrared port is obscured by the neoprene lining.

The Palm case, however, doesn't have that problem. One option, although probably not ideal, is to flip the Visor around, bottom to top. Another function issue is that you have to remove the Visor to use its Springboard.

The bottom line on this case is that it probably could stop a bullet.

e-Holster

If there's ever a case that could get you shot, the $90 e-Holster is it.

The design, which on the Web site is described as "electronics suspenders" is novel, convenient and mostly comfortable. The e-Holster comprises a leather holster with leather pouches, one for a PDA and the other for a cell phone. The straps go on fairly easily and are adjustable.

The cases attached to the holster are padded with Velcro closures. The PDA case also has a space for a pen.

While wearing this case around the office, I felt fairly secure. However, I felt insecure and relatively unsafe wearing it in the world beyond. (A gas station attendant actually stepped out of the store to write down my license plate number as I fueled up at a self-serve island.)

The company Web site addresses this, saying, in response to a question whether the holster might be mistaken for a weapons carrying system: "Anything is possible. And it is conceivably possible that a police or security person working under extreme conditions might think that your e-Holster system was for carrying a weapon. . . . With the e-Holster system worn openly, only someone extremely concerned about the presence of a weapon (and who is totally unfamiliar with the e-Holster system) might mistake your e-Holster for a weapons carrying system."

I guess that's supposed to take care of their liability. As for me, I wouldn't chance it.

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Michelle Maltais is a broadcast producer and copy editor at The Times.

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