Online Extra: Handhelds set the pace for PCs these days

Overwhelmed by all the choices available in personal digital assistants? Wait a bit, and it'll get worse. Just a few years ago, users were awestruck by 1.5-megapixel cameras. Now a PDA with a built-in camera isn't exciting unless the images have multiple megapixels.

Wireless phones with calendars and organizers used to dazzle, too. Now almost a dozen companies make intricate PDA-phones. Yet all these devices seem to blend into what essentially is still a digital calendar with pencil or pen.

But wireless networks are changing the landscape. Embedded or attachable IEEE 802.11b technology is pushing the PDA into the notebook PC category. PDA users can surf the Internet or deal with multiple e-mail accounts. People who are always on the go can file reports and input mission-critical data from practically any client with a wireless signal. Pack a 6-ounce handheld computer and leave your 6-pound notebook at home.

The latest PDA operating systems merely scratch the surface of what's to come in wireless networking. Windows Mobile 2003, the next version of Pocket PC OS, for example, will automatically detect and connect to wireless LANs and is designed to work better with attachable keyboards and other input devices.

Likewise, the new Palm OS 5 from Palm Inc. of Milpitas, Calif., has a simple wireless connection wizard capable of storing 802.11b profiles and automatically obtaining a new IP address as the PDA finds a different access point.

Unlike notebooks, handhelds synchronize with a PC to automatically back up your data. For example, with the Palm Tungsten C you can work anywhere around the office and stay wirelessly synchronized as long as your PDA can see an access point.

Many PDA makers now incorporate a phone feature. Research In Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario, for instance, has added phoning to the BlackBerry 6750 line. More future Palm and RIM models as well as some Sony Clie's will probably incorporate phones in their designs.

Wireless isn't the only hot trend in PDAs this year. Many more vendors are embedding QWERTY keyboards. The BlackBerry and Sharp Zaurus were pioneers, but makers such as Palm Inc. now acknowledge that users want to exchange e-mail quickly and without a stylus.

Future handhelds are certain to sprout multiple input slots. Sony Electronics Inc. of Park Ridge, N.J., for example, has responded to user demands for a secondary input slot besides the proprietary Memory Stick port by installing a clever pop-out CompactFlashCard reader.

As overwhelming as it seems to choose just the right PDA tools, remember that most units are designed to add peripherals or software later. Add-ons soften the price blow, because prices for PDAs unfortunately are mimicking the rising prices of notebooks.

(Corrected 9:58 a.m. July 29, 2003)

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