Paul Lynch's Home Page

Comments on PDA Devices

People use PDAs for many different reasons, and there is no one device that works perfectly for all users. Each different device, moreover, doesn't accomplish any of its aims ideally, so we can expect that new revisions of existing models and new models will cause some rapid swapping of positions.

As I see it, the uses that people would like to fit a PDA to include:

I have used and own a number of current PDAs; as I see it, the candidates for this market are (* against the ones I have personal experience of):

The Great Communicator

More than anything else, I need to send and receive email quickly and easily from wherever I am. The ideal would be some kind of wireless Internet connection available from anywhere in the world, but the infrastructure doesn't exist for this yet, never mind the PDA. Surprisingly enough, not all PDAs have Internet support available, although this isn't essential for email support. Most devices are capable of sending (but not receiving) faxes, which would be handy if I didn't have next to no use for a fax.

My personal requirement has been to send and receive text emails from anywhere in the world, easily and cheaply. The best solution I have found for this, until recently, has been to use Compuserve. The advantage of Compuserve has been that it has local call access almost anywhere, and supports email to Internet mail addresses. Any PDA with a terminal program and modem support (no, not all of them) is good endough for this.

More recently, as the infrastructure has improved, I have upgraded my requirements. Now I look for a TCP/IP stack with POP/SMTP email support, and use Compuserve as the world-wide ISP.

In the past, at times I have been forced to use a laptop as the smallest device capable of doing what I want; more recently, a Psion S3, a Magic Link, and a Newton have been used. Not long ago only the Newton of the true hand-held devices had a proper built-in TCP/IP stack, although the HP 200LX has supported KA9Q for several years; now Newton, CE, MagicCap, PalmPilot Professional and Psion's Series 5 all have one.

My vote for the best Communicator: Newton 2000 with NIE, CISMail and a PCMCIA V.34 modem. No third party software is required: it includes a POP/SMTP email client and a web browser. The Magic Link PIC-2000 with built-in V.32bis and PrestoMail/Access should be capable; when the Internet software is released for the Psion S5, it should be even better. Windows CE fails because it can't support a PCMCIA modem from internal batteries.

Take Note!

I would like to be able to sit in a business meeting, and unobtrusively take notes, and refer to previous notes. That means no keyboards! There is nothing quite as off-putting as someone tapping away while you are trying to hold a meeting. Scribbling on the back of an envelope (the default mode I tend to fall back into) can look distinctly un-cool. The (theoretical) advantage of a PDA is the ability to duplicate, mail/fax and search notes, which genuine note pads aren't quite so good for.

About keyboarding: trust me on this. Typing is geeky. If I mention this to a fan of any keyboard based PDA, they swear blind that it isn't so. But just picture a Psion user typing with his thumbs on a Psion discreetly held in his lap.

For me, the Newton works well enough; I'd much prefer faster and more accurate recognition, but it is just about good enough. Grafitti is OK, but the static position of the entry pad doesn't feel natural, and it still takes some learning. With the Newton, you do have to adjust your writing style for recognition, or take notes in ink, and recognise (and correct) later.

Winner (and only real contender): Newton.

Filofax Clone

The electronic diary/address book is a popular concept for the smaller and cheaper devices. However, I have never had much time for it. I use PDAs to cover these functions as a matter of course, but would never (any more) buy one for the sole purpose. A long time ago, I used a Psion 2, which was only really capable of being used for these simple functions; but that was when I needed to carry with me several thousand names and addresses, which I maintained on a PC database.

Ove the years I have also used various paper systems: DayTimer, Filofax, Time Manager. These are all very well thought out systems for organising your life, and are optimised to work with the simple paper folders that they sell. If their electronic equivalents were 1% as well thought out, they would be worth using. In this market, cheap Japanese devices prevail, with complex and arcane key strokes required for the most frequently used functions.

Strong recommendation: Time Manager (paper version) is the best and only, but the PalmPilot is close.

Fleures du Mal/Leaves of Grass

A long time ago, I read a book that perfectly described the ideal PDA. The book was Roadmarks, by Roger Zelazny; and the PDA was variously called (for it used voice comms; there has to be some room to grow) Fleure, or Leaves. Fleure was the size of a reasonably slim volume of poetry (hardback, or course), and could talk back. Mostly she was used to search for information. At the time, I calculated that I could build a Fleure type computer from a TRS laptop with modem; I would dial in to my Unix desktop system, and grep for information from databases. The only real problem was populating the databases. With the capabilities of systems on the Web, that part is easy enough. Anyone can search for data, and find some useful answers, given just a web browser of minimum capability and a GSM interface.

This is the rising category. The systems with Web browsers currently are Newton, MagicLink, Windows CE and the laptops. The technology is broken enough, however, that there are no winners.

Pocket PCs

This category scares me: whoever would want a full-scale desktop machine in a pocket computer? To me, that would be cutting down on capabilities. Desktop machines are fine if you want to drive a 21" monitor, and restrict yourself to keyboard and mouse input. Desktop OS user interfaces are designed and optimised for that kind of use. The metaphor that works for a desktop system isn't appropriate for a handheld device; the size and form factor make data entry and presentation very different, and the portability places different requirements. A cut down version of a desktop OS is not going to make the grade. I feel that it needs to have more capabilities, not less. As a result, I'd rather use a 2.5 lb genuine laptop for this requirements than a 1 lb cut down device.

Group think, that phenomenon that allowed British generals in the First World War to think that the battle of the Somme was a good idea, has helped Microsoft to foist so many dubious ideas on computer users that they could almost win in this category with Windows CE. However, the Psion Series 5 has a good enough small keyboard, and better software, to beat them; but Psion have a big hurdle to leap to persuade users to use their software simply because it is better.

It may also be that the ability to synchronise data with the desktop is a more important ability, in which case the PalmPilot is here now, is small enough to be shirt pocket portable, and can synchronise with most apps (with third party software).

The Unknown

There was a great series of science fiction short stories from the late eighties; I forget the author. The premise was of a device the size of a pack of cigarettes that would expand a persons memory, when carried with them. A simple idea, but radical implications. Small incremements in capability force large changes in patterns of use. Five computers are not sufficient for the entire computing needs of the world (old IBM story from the fifties).