Likewise, staying fluent in the changing vernacular is an equally breathless exercise. Acronyms and monikers change as quickly as the technology they are meant to describe. For example, 10 years ago, the term PDA meant nothing to the average consumer. Now, it is ubiquitous. The original personal digital assistant, otherwise known as the PalmPilot, combined the functions of a traditional personal organizer with the processing and data storage capability of a computer. Small enough to fit in a shirt pocket--or the palm of your hand--it became the envy of electronically inclined, people throughout the world.
Palm Inc., a San Francisco-based firm, burst onto the scene with its new invention. Other companies were quick to follow and cash in on the craze. Soon, Palm found itself surrounded by competitors. Change breeds more change, and the stage was set for yet another breakthrough.
Enter the Pocket PC, which raised the bar for PDAs. While the latter offer only the basic features of an organizer, albeit in a sophisticated electronic device, the former bring full computing capabilities to handheld equipment.
For consumers trying to decide if they need to own any of these sexy electronic contraptions, the choices can be daunting. There is a full range of models in both the PDA and Pocket PC categories. As mentioned, most of the big players in computing and electronics have developed their own competitive versions.
Among PDAs, Palm remains the old reliable standby. A seemingly endless stream of upgrades emanates from the original PalmPilot 1000 Handheld, which the company unveiled in the late 90s.
The latest model from Palm, the i705, offers a slew of improvements over its many predecessors. Described as "an evolution in wireless it offers built-in wireless Internet access, instant messaging, and an "always-on" email service that alerts the user when new emails have arrived. It has a respectable 8 MB of memory, a rechargeable battery, and a monochrome screen display.
Of course, there is a catch, and users should be cautious about such sexy-sounding features. Internet access is limited to those sites that are set up to deliver text (in simplified format) over wireless connections.
Also, there is an extra monthly fee for the wireless hookup, just like a cell phone subscription, that ranges from $20 to $40 dollars, depending on how much usage is needed. According to Palm, the $20 Associate Plan is good for about 25 emails per month and several dozen Internet hits. For those who prefer no constraints, the Executive Unlimited Plan at $39.99 per month is the way to go. Palm advertises the i705 at $399 with a $100 rebate for a one-year subscription to its wireless service.
Of the many competing PDAs, the most popular was developed by a group of former Palm employees. Handspring's Visor, which has now evolved into the Treo, quickly became the most sought-after product on the market.
The Treo 300, which is the newest model in Handspring's Communicator line, is advertised as a phone, organizer, email, and web device all in one. Unlike the Palm i705, it has a full color screen, 16 MB memory and a protective flip lid. It also features a built-in mini-keyboard, designed as an alternative to Palm's touch-screen graffiti display. Handspring advertises the Treo 300 for $499. Sprint PCS, which provides the Internet access and cell phone service, offers special credits for trade-up buyers. Monthly service plans are advertised from $35 to $120.
For about $60 more, gadget geeks should consider the NR70V Color Clie handheld from Sony that features a digital camera and MP3Audio Playback, in addition to all the other basic features of a handheld electronic organizer. It can even display videos. While PDAs offer a dazzling array of expanding multi-functionality, otherwise known as "handheld convergence," the new Pocket PCs take the handheld realm into an entirely different dimension. Unlike the PDAs, most of which operate on the Palm computing system, Pocket PCs run on a scaled down version of Microsoft Windows.
Users can type up documents, create spreadsheets, and browse the Internet with the Pocket PC version of Microsoft Word, Excel, and Explorer. They feature high-powered processors, slick graphics, and other innovative functions. Like carrying around a little shrunken desktop in the palm of your hand, these devices offer enhanced computing capabilities that would strike down the most satisfied PDA owner with envy.
Of the Pocket PC makers, Compaq (now merged with Hewlett-Packard) has set the standard. Its iPAQ series stands out from all the other models. The new iPAQ 3975 leaves the PDAs and most other Pocket PCs in the dust, with a 400 MHz Intel X-Scale Processor, 64 MB SDRAM, and a liquid-crystal display that can produce more than 65,000 colors.
More important, the 3975 features a built-in Bluetooth transceiver giving users the capability to create their own personal wireless network, with laptops, mobile phones, and the Internet. Last, it includes a consumer infrared remote (CIR), which transforms the device into a computerized remote, controlling electronic equipment in the home and office, like televisions, DVD players, and other devices. For all of this, the 3975 is priced at a whopping $750.
Whether it's a PDA or a Pocket PC, consumers face a startling array of choices. The latest models seduce weak-kneed buyers with their siren song of electronic bells and whistles, but the astronomical prices provide an antidote to the allure. Smart shoppers will opt for the scaled-down, older models to save a hundred dollars or more. Companies offer rebates and discounts for trade-ups, and like all new electronic devices, prices come down with time.
The most inquisitive buyer will ask, "Do I really need all this?" Further, they may wonder how anyone managed to get along before these devices were invented. Day-timer anyone?