Selecting a Palmtop Computer
If your work is always mobile, consider a palmtop computer for your business records and appointments, and your social engagements.
Where do you want to go today?
Slogans like that mindless piece of drivel are typical of the way computers are sold. All sizzle, and little content. Think instead about the business needs you can handle more efficient via a computer.
You can't get an appropriate pocket palmtop computer until you decide what you wish it to do for you. On the other hand, you probably can't decide what you wish to do until you have owned a palmtop and discovered its limits and strengths. Not exactly Catch 22, but close.
If what you want is exactly what you do with your desktop computer, with exactly the same programs, then you are mostly out of luck.
Microsoft (and most other large companies) have forgotten how to write small, fast applications. Even if this were not the case, there is no way they will destroy their existing market by producing effective alternatives. It does not make economic sense for them. Palmtops almost inevitably lack the horsepower for running large applications (a few exceptions appeared in late 1996 like the Newton 2000, and again at the end of 2000 with the Compaq iPaq, and later others), and when they have the horsepower, their battery life is measured in minutes, and there are keyboard problems.
If you must have standard applications (with "standard" here being considered to be MS Windows), consider a notebook computer. This site won't be much use to you. That said, there have been video cassette sized notebook computers available in Japan. In particular, the IBM PC110 (486 based), the Toshiba Libretto (75MHz and up Pentium) and new models from Fujitsu and Sony. Please note carefully that despite the hype, Windows CE is not even close to being Windows compatible.
My list of what I want tends to include a bunch of items, some of which are not precisely compatible. It also tends to be technology based, rather than application based, which isn't the right way to go about deciding.
- Pocket size and weight
- Under 200 grams is great, and you sure won't carry something that weights over a kilogram. If you can't stick it in a pocket, you won't carry it. Unless you have strange pockets, most pre 1997 PDAs fail this test. If you always carry a bag with you, some of the larger PDAs may work for you, and can be substantially more productive than smaller models.
- Easy production of lots of applications
- This means there must be a readily available programming language and SDK (Software Development Kit), so lots of people other than me will write programs. If there isn't any shareware and freeware, I don't buy. That automatically rules out some excellent proprietary stuff without a language, like the Sharp Zaurus, and all the cheap organisers from Casio and the like.
- Standard batteries
- I've seen too many computers with batteries that can't be obtained. If the batteries are not standard, I don't buy. That rules out the IBM PC110, Toshiba Libretto and similar notebook power machines. My preference is AA or AAA batteries, because you can almost always get them. It is real nice if the palmtop will accept both standard and rechargeable AA batteries (most don't).
- Battery life exceeds a week
- I can usually live with recharging batteries overnight, but if travelling I'd prefer a week of moderate use. That rules out notebook machines. This is a real tough one, and hits powerful machines far more than slower ones. It is also the requirement most users have the hardest time accepting when their hearts are set on a fast computer.
- Fast basic database
- I don't do sophisticated searches, but I want results quickly. Under two seconds per 100k is essential for unstructured searches, faster than that for searches on a field. If your database needs are considerable, check out this aspect early, as some PDAs are very limited and very slow.
- Text editor
- Fast, general purpose editor, without any silly small file limits. The Palm for example has a 4 k file size limit.
- Some simple PIM facilities, like a calendar and todo list are nice. Some machines have really dynamite PIM facilities. The Psion Agenda application can take on pretty much any of the desktop machine PIMs and come out looking pretty reasonable. Most pocket computer PIMs are distinctly more limited than desktop versions. Try to get some experience with a PIM before buying.
Classes of portable computers
I tend to classify first by size, then by function.
Notebook or laptop
Basically a desktop computer shrunk to A4 (or 11" x 8.5") size or so. Premium price due to the expensive display, and usually with lower performance than a desktop. Some lack some peripheral, or you may have to choose between a CD-ROM, floppy disk or spare battery as only one will fit. Choice for many users who move basically from one desktop to another desktop rather than computing while they walk or stand around. Remember most notebooks don't really run on batteries; they hold their breath between power sockets.
They fail the pocket test, in that you carry them in a bag, and need a desk or lap to use them. Battery life is usually limited to a few hours. I won't be considering them further. If you absolutely must carry your desktop system with you, these are probably the best way to go. For any except very popular models, repairs may be impossible.
Video cassette sized
There were a few fairly limited palmtop computers about the size of A5 paper, or a trade paperback book (say 8.5" by 4.5") that appeared around 1990 to 1995. They typically weigh between half kilogram and a kilogram. These tend to turn up, get supported for a while, and then disappear, or sold at discount stores. They usually run older version of MS-Dos, typically can't run MS Windows, but generally work on a few AA penlight batteries for 8 to 30 hours.
The great thing about these is that you can still (usually) type easily on them, as the keyboards are only 30% smaller than standard (usually some keys are sacrificed). Displays are usually limited to CGA (640 x 200) in grey or monochrome, but still show a decent amount of text. Their great advantage is they are light enough that you tend to throw them in a bag when you are travelling, just in case you need to use them. The disadvantage is that they are large and heavy enough that you don't pick them up from your desk every time you go to another room.
I find this sort of MS-Dos palmtop pretty handy as a travel computer. Brands include Fujitsu Poqet, Sharp PC3000, Gateway 2000 PocketBook, Lexmark M15, Abstract RandD Lexicomp, Prolinear. They are now almost impossible to find.
There are some pretty full featured Windows "notebook" computers in this size (usually at a premium price). The first I recall was a Hewlett Packard OmniBook. In late 1996, three Japanese models appeared. The Toshiba Libretto (Pentium), the IBM Japan PC110 (486), and one from Fujitsu, with a Sony following a few years later. A few niche marketers are importing them into USA and Australia, but they are mostly designed for Japanese input, not English, so check before you buy.
PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) is a marketing term, probably originating at Apple, generally applied to a palmtop computer with personal information manager (PIM) programs, and pen (well, stylus) input. If the idea had worked, the companies get to charge you a premium for your palmtop.
Amstrad got out the first PDA, and it was underpowered and distinctly poor at handwriting recognition. It could sort of recognise printed characters, so it was back to first grade. Too large, too slow, too soon.
Apple promised the world from their Newton, and delivered a joke. Or so the Doonsbury strip showed. However Apple keep improving it, and you can get workable handwriting recognisers as add ons. While the limited PIM programs included are pretty good, there are some strange limits. For instance, you can't make a note longer than 4k, which is less than a single printed page of paper. I had a long term loan of a Message Pad 110, and considered it a joke, except for running custom programs. Also, it is too large to stick in a pocket, so you tend not to carry it always. Here is a Newton review. In late 1996, Apple announced a new very fast Newton (160 MHz StrongArm CPU) which actually started to produce acceptable results. Apple have now dropped the Newton, after finally getting it mostly working, more due to internal politics rather than strong business reasons.
However that still gave a nice indicator of acceptable PDA performance. If it has an ARM CPU, and runs around 160 MHz or better, some of the performance essentials may be there. Or, it may be broken by a poor operating system.
Some companies are sort of backing away from trying to sell a "do everything" PDA in favour of one that had a handy subset of PIM programs, and a real easy way of connecting and synchronising your data with your main desktop computer, combined with low price. USR's (then 3Com, then Palm) tiny Palm Pilot organiser is a really nice (and popular) early example of this approach, being very focused on what it does do. It includes Grafitti, so the handwriting recognition works, however like the Newton, it can't handle notes larger than 4k. Many models now available, new ones now include IrDA links, Bluetooth, and software development kits are now available. Many companies have started making imitations, mostly not as well thought out. The IBM version was a genuine Palm Pilot with a different case and more business oriented software. Sony make the most advanced an interesting models. Currently the Palm OS is by far the most popular PDA on the market, but may eventually be overtaken by Microsoft's PocketPC (version 3 of Windows CE).
Hewlett Packard tried to cover both bets with the OmniGo 100 in the early 1990's, which had very nice Grafitti pen recognition, and a keyboard, small size, and a not bad price. It included an extensive and well thought out PIM, including a lot of financial functions and a spreadsheet. You can draw with the stylus, or "write" and produce text. If it were not for a too small, hard to read display, an overly slow Geos operating system, and no apparent way to transfer files by PCMCIA card, I'd be really impressed. As it is, it was still pretty impressive. Here is the OmniGo review. HP dropped it after a year or so, instead of fixing it.