POWER USER

PDA stands for pretty darned affordable

John McCormick

If you've been waiting for the right time to buy a couple dozen Palm OS personal digital assistants for your office'or one for yourself'now might be the time.

Palm Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., and Palm OS licensee Handspring Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., have fallen on hard times. They're holding massive inventories even as new products are coming out, so prices have never been lower.

I can't think of a better productivity investment than these useful little units in the hands of agency managers and technical people.

Make certain you check around before you order. For example, the large-screen, full-keyboard Diamond Mako PDA from Sonicblue Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., lists for $299 at www.diamondmako.com and through CDW Computer Centers Inc. of Vernon, Ill., at www.cdw.com. But TigerDirect.com Inc. of Miami sells it for $99 at www.tigerdirect.com.

Palm's store, at www.palm.com, offers the Palm VIIx for $199 and gives a $100 rebate on Palm.net wireless service, but www.mysimon.com shows other vendors selling the VIIx for about 20 percent less.

Handspring, at www.handspring.com, offers free shipping, $30 off a low-end Visor, $50 off a Visor Deluxe or Platinum, or $150 off a VisorPhone and Visor Prism color PDA bundle. CDW matches some of those discounts but not all.

If you're a serious PDA user, you'd rather tote one in your pocket than have a full notebook PC in your briefcase. You may have noticed that Palm OS isn't exactly rock-solid. Crashes do occur, especially if you often try out new software.

A crash is minor when your host PC is handy for a quick hot synchronization, but what if you're on the road? The latest expansion module for Handspring models is the $95, 8M Hagiwara backup and flash module. Plug it into the expansion port to gain nonvolatile backup for all applications and data on the Visor, and you can also use the module as regular expanded memory.

A year ago, supplies of expansion modules for the Handspring line were tight. Today you will find several brands in most categories, and many are ready to ship. For example, there are four Global Positioning System modules for Visor units.

I recently tried out the $289 Geode GPS from GeoDiscovery of Orem, Utah, at www.geodiscovery.com. Sound pricey? You're correct. Other units cost about half that.

But I have tested several GPS units for notebook PCs as well as several for PDAs and inexpensive standalone units, and I've never tested one as sensitive and accurate as the Geode. It worked in my office, locking onto satellites from indoors faster than most other units with a clear view of the sky.

Accuracy was significantly better, too. The Geode pinpointed locations to within a car's length compared with about 20 feet for other units.

All GPS units gained accuracy when the Defense Department changed its satellite signal encryption last year, but the Geode is still the champ. It uses signals from the Federal Aviation Administration's Wide Area Augmentation System to give 2-meter accuracy.

The Geode has its own two-AA battery supply and is entirely self-contained. Plug it into the Visor expansion slot to get GPS and compass functions.

If you have any optional multimedia cards installed, you'll see maps and other information instantly. Free maps are downloadable from the company Web site, and the Geode's software can also be upgraded. I know of no other PDA GPS unit in that category.

The Geode makes an accurate civilian-grade GPS unit, but if you only need to know which end of the field you're standing on, save about $150 and get one of the less-accurate GPS modules.

Try them first; I have found that some don't work quickly and need a clear view of the entire sky. Plus, performance won't be good around tall buildings.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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