The PDA Wars--Part II

If you're the type that likes to take the road less traveled, read on to find out what capabilities you can get by diverging from the Palm OS majority.

HP's most recent offering comes in the form of the Jornada 525, which is a more affordable version of HP's 540 line. At the time of this writing, the 548, with 32 MB of RAM, costs $449, while the 525, with 16 MB, has an MSRP of $359. "The primary difference is the screen resolution," says Boris Elisman, worldwide marketing manager for embedded and personal systems for HP.

I generally liked the appearance and feel of the 525: The silver metallic finish is sleek, and the screen has enough color. It has all the software you'd find on the 540, including pocket versions of Word, Excel, Outlook and Explorer. Practically the only thing I didn't like about the 525 was the lack of a cover for the display and the absence of a slot on the PDA to stow the stylus, which could lead to lost styli. (There is a slot to store a stylus in the included leather carrying case.)

The Jornada 525 has built-in MP3 and e-book capabilities thanks to preloaded Windows Media Player and Microsoft Reader software. It runs on a Hitachi 133MHz processor and has a built-in voice recorder and a CompactFlash slot for memory expansion or hardware add-ons. The list of features far surpasses what users get with Palm OS devices. The trade-off is that Pocket PC devices are a bit bulkier (8 ounces with battery--double that of a Palm V) and generally don't offer the same simplicity.

Compaq's most recent offering, the iPAQ, boasts a 206MHz Intel strongARM 32-bit processor, the most powerful of all the PDAs covered in this series. The monochrome iPAQ H3135 has an MSRP of $399, but with an MSRP of $599, the color H3635 iPAQ is less likely to appeal to the mainstream crowd until the price drops. The iPAQ weighs in at 6 ounces, is 0.62 inches thick and features a five-way navigation button on its face. It comes with a USB docking cradle, battery charger, 16MB RAM and 16MB Flash ROM. Unfortunately--perhaps to get the weight and thickness down--expansion requires a slide-on sleeve as opposed to a built-in slot. A color-reflective screen with 240 by 320 resolution handles the visuals. Bundled software includes Microsoft's Pocket Outlook 2000, Pocket Internet Explorer 5.0, Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Windows Media Player, Microsoft Reader and ActiveSync 3.1.

A lesser-known handheld OS is EPOC, championed by U.K.-based Psion, which has had problems establishing a recognizable brand presence in the United states. Psion set out to change that in October of last year by joining forces with U.S.-based S3 to market its Revo handheld in the states under the name Diamond Mako.

The first obvious difference between the Mako and other PDAs discussed here is its clamshell design and small keyboard. It has the basic resident applications for text, calculator, clock and agenda, but the calculator, for instance, is a full scientific model, meaning if you're so inclined, you can do trigonometry, factorials and more. Also included are spreadsheet and word processing programs that interface with Word and Excel.

The Mako works with MS Outlook and Lotus to synchronize e-mail, agenda and contact data; import or export documents; print documents from the Mako; and back up information. It also offers mobile connectivity for e-mail and full Web browsing through an optional 56K IR travel modem or through a compatible, data and IR-enabled GSM phone. Additionally, it incorporates two integrated rechargeable batteries that allow up to 12 hours of battery time. The unit is powered by a 36MHz ARM 710T RISC processor and incorporates 16 MB of RAM. The Mako offers a 480- by 160-pixel display but no backlight. The Palm is simpler compared to the Mako, and it will take some time for users to learn Mako's programs and functions. But for users who need the capability, it'll be time well spent. MSRP is $299.

If you really want to stand out from the crowd, you may want to hold off on buying your next PDA until some of the promised Linux-powered devices hit the market. Linux differs from Microsoft's Pocket PC and Palm's OS because the code is openly available to developers. California-based Agenda Computing formally launched its VR3 in April at CES. In company literature, it looks pretty cool with an ergonomic design and unique colors like H2O (transparent) and matrix (black). Each VR3 will come loaded with 16 MB of Flash memory, which eliminates the problem of data loss associated with RAM-based units, the company says. MSRP is $249.

Agenda's not the only Linux supporter, as Japanese electronics company Sharp also plans to introduce a PDA running Linux. Sharp has had little success in the United states with its own proprietary operating system Zaurus, so the company plans to use Linux to get into markets in both Japan and North America. Sharp is the biggest manufacturer of handheld computers in Japan, and if its Linux device proves successful, it could bode well for the upstart OS.

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