Prioritize PDA features: separate "neat" from "needed.".
Determining size is easy: It seems a device the size of a shirt pocket is as large as we're willing to carry, and as small as we're willing to accept. Determining the right PDA feature set is more complicated. Device manufacturers are cramming as many features as possible into these devices--some of them are useful, others are just gimmicks. In this article, I hope to help you figure out what you really need in a PDA.
Calculator: At a minimum, a calculator should offer the basic functions to balance a checkbook. Financial, scientific, and units/conversion functions can also come in handy, depending on the work you do. (Just my opinion, but Microsoft's Pocket PC calculator is simply inadequate.)
Voice recorder: Nothing beats a press-to-talk voice recorder for recording quick notes, part numbers, addresses, or to-do items. This is a great feature when you don't have the time (or free hands/eyes) to write or type. Better than a tape recorder, messages are random-access and you can rename and categorize them. Another bonus: There are no belts or idler wheels to fail or replace.
Video or MP3 viewer: Today's RAM and COderDECoders (CODECs) are a long way from letting you watch Frodo Baggins journey through Middle-Earth. However, add-on memory modules can provide hours of MP3 music or instruction, and save you the expense of (and need to carry) a separate MP3 player.
Digital camera: This feature is useful for insurance appraisers, realtors, and anyone who'd find it useful to take photographs and either store or e-mail them without fuss. Photos can take up a lot of space on PDAs, where storage is usually at a minimum. You'll want to either beef up storage or make sure the camera offers some mechanism for slimming down graphics files (either compression, or
Cell phone/PDA combo: We all want the smallest, lightest cell phone we can get. Add a keyboard and even a slightly larger screen, and you're carrying a brick. Worse, if you've ever watched someone trying to talk/listen while trying to read/write on the same device, you'll see how entertaining this "telephone/tablet tango" becomes. I've watched techie-troopers with headsets, but even they concede it simply isn't worth the setup time and fuss to make calls while referencing contact lists or taking notes, I haven't had a chance to use the Nokia 9290 (evaluated in this issue on page 20), but I'm skeptical that even a first-class speakerphone feature is the answer. To each his own, but that device is just too big.
GPS: How often do you need this? Enough to carry the extra bulk and pay the extra cost? If you want to go hiking, get a GPS that you can drop, get wet, or even lose without tears. For your SUV, dash-mount devices have bigger screens and better-tailored features, and aren't likely to cause an accident by flying off the dash.
Business software: While some PDA users denounce the need for Word and Excel, I regularly create and reference spreadsheets and documents on my PDA. I've started countless articles (including this one) on PDAs because they're portable enough to be with me when an idea strikes, and power up with the touch of a button.
A close assessment of the features PDAs offer, and a clear understanding of how you will realistically use a PDA will help you separate "neat" from "needed." This can save you from having to purchase three or four devices before hitting the right combination of features.
They Should Call Them "Pocket" Digital Assistants Q Pop quiz: What's the best PDA out there?
A Easy--one that's so compact and lightweight it stays in your pocket, not in a drawer.
#1 If the device isn't small and light enough to comfortably carry every day, it will eventually take up permanent residence with all my past PDAs: at home, in my dresser drawer.
#2 The device must be more than a day planner, phone book, and source of entertainment (games) on long flights. I regularly take notes, create ad hoc spreadsheets, review reference does, write articles, and record voice messages when writing them isn't practical.
#3 Synchronizing and backing up data to a laptop or desktop computer must be easy. I'm not willing to do double entry--and, there's no way I'm going to re-enter all that data every time the battery dies.
#4 The device must run for several days of fairly heavy use without charging or battery replacement. It must also offer quick backup to a memory device in case I don't make it to a charger in time.
There are all kinds of cool, useful, all-in-one PDAs out there. But, bottom line, if it doesn't meet these four criteria, I'll stop carrying it. Whether 1 leave it in a briefcase, my car, or my dresser drawer, it won't be with me when I need it.