Travel light with a multifunction handheld

Handheld computers, like cell phones, have become work necessities, not mere niceities.

Many combine portable storage with wireless voice, e-mail, camera, browser, dictation and audio playback as well as compact word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications'all in an ultraportable chassis.

Delicate balance

The ideal handheld has enough processor speed and memory to do all the work you want to do. But getting the balance right is tough. The GCN Lab has seen too many PDAs with features too demanding for their processors and memory.

The new capabilities put more importance on memory expansion ports. Many handhelds now have color LCDs and can process digital images, so they need more built-in memory plus the ability to expand it for multitasking.

For this review we compared six high-end handhelds from four vendors. We divided them into two groups'with and without phones.

Even before examining the Dell Axim X30's specifications, we knew it had a rocket of a processor because we could navigate effortlessly through the latest Microsoft Windows Pocket PC operating system, Version 4.21.

The test unit had the fastest handheld processor available, a 624-MHz Intel PXA270. With 128M of memory (64M of RAM and 64M of ROM), it could almost be considered the world's smallest notebook PC.

The Axim X30 is one of two PDAs in the review with a 624-MHz processor and the only one that came with a standard battery as well as an extended-life battery.

We assumed that the large, fast processor would drain the battery fast, hence the second battery. But the Pocket PC OS automatically kept the processor from operating all the time at the top megahertz rate.

Rather like the SpeedStep technology Intel Corp. developed years ago for notebooks, the chip management software kept the X30 alive for three hours of continuous use before we had to switch to the extended-life battery.

The best thing about the Axim X30 isn't its robust IEEE 802.11b WiFi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity or the SecureDigital Card expansion port. What impressed us most was the modest $349 price tag, which clinched not only a Reviewer's Choice but also a Bang for the Buck designation.

The Axim X30 costs about half as much as some high-end handhelds, and $300 less than the next-ranked Hewlett-Packard iPaq.

Retailing for $649, the HP iPaq hx4700 has some cutting-edge features, including the first 4-inch, transflective VGA display capable of displaying 64,000 colors.

Navigating with Pocket PC 4.21 on that high-resolution display felt more like working at a touch-screen desktop computer than a PDA. And the 624-MHz Intel PXA270 processor and 128M of memory with 85M of storage presented many of the capabilities of a desktop PC'particularly in viewing photos or playing audio and video files.

HP's smartest move was incorporating a Type II CompactFlash port on top of the standard SecureDigital port. Most high-end digital cameras use CompactFlash cards, so photographers could easily process high-resolution images on the hx4700, unlike PDAs with weaker chips or only SD slots.

The CF slot is so close to the SD port that they seem merged, forming part of the sleek 5.1- by 3.0- by 0.59-inch frame. At 6.6 ounces, the hx4700 isn't heavy.

Those features, coupled with a robust 802.11b card and Bluetooth wireless, make transferring, receiving and editing data as easy as on a notebook.

One change we hope to see in the next model is the way the lithium-ion battery attaches. It snaps into a holder that must be slid into the body of the PDA'a step that should be simplified.

The test unit ran continuously for about two hours before needing a recharge.

One minor negative is the hx4700's headphone jack, which should be farther from the stylus. Our volunteer testers consistently tried to jam the stylus into the wrong port.

Although the VGA screen and robust OS make the hx4700 look and feel like a mininotebook, the $649 sticker price is only $150 less than HP's least-expensive notebook.

The hx4700 earned an A- instead of a solid A, but it's nevertheless worthy of a Reviewer's Choice designation.

The best weight and form factor in this review belongs to the PalmOne Tungsten E, which measures only 4.5 by 3.1 by 0.5 inches and weighs a mere 4 ounces.

Despite its small size, the body of the Tungsten E seems durable and solid right down to the stylus. Unlike the others, it was made of the same sleek, composite metal as the frame.

The slow, 126-MHz Texas Instruments processor has just 32M of RAM with only 28M allocated to storage. But that was generally enough to run the Palm OS 5.2.1 basics: calendar, contacts, notepad, memos, tasks and low-resolution photos.

Priced at $199, the Tungsten E has no wireless capability and is best suited for executives who need only a basic organizer.

If you hate carrying both a PDA and a cell phone, try a PDA/cell phone'not a cell phone/PDA.

Cell phone/PDAs are small phones with organizers, which tend to be difficult to access and use. PDA/cell phones, covered below, primarily organize your work and secondarily make phone calls.

The HP iPaq h6315 handheld operates exclusively with T-Mobile USA Inc.'s wireless infrastructure and has everything a traveler needs. But it's biggish and fairly hefty.

Weighing 6.7 ounces and measuring 4.6 by 2.9 by 0.73 inches, the h6315 is a little heavier and thicker than earlier iPaqs. It comes standard with a 200-MHz Texas Instruments OMAP 1510 Xscale processor, 64M of RAM and 64M of ROM'55M of which is available to the user.

The h6315 displays images on a 3.5-inch transflective color screen with a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels.

Its Microsoft Windows Pocket PC OS 4.20 is easy to configure, initiate and use with the three built-in wireless features. From the desktop, you simply select the wireless icon.

A window appears showing icons for the phone, the 802.1x wireless card and the Bluetooth wireless card. Selecting one of those automatically and quickly detects the networks available.

Next to the icons are settings for specific networks or default configuration changes. For 802.11b WiFi, you enter an encryption key or select Wired Equivalent Privacy.

A button at the bottom lets you turn off wireless, which is great when you're about to enter a meeting and don't want to be disturbed, or you plan to continue working with the PDA features during an aircraft takeoff or landing.

A SecureDigital slot that also supports MultiMediaCards is well-located at the side.

The wireless connectivity and the robust Pocket PC OS make the h6315 ideal for users who need to do real work on the road and don't want to lug a notebook.

The main difference between the HP h6315 and the Research In Motion BlackBerry 7230 is that the BlackBerry has a built-in QWERTY keyboard, whereas the HP unit's button keyboard is separate.

The BlackBerry 7230 costs $349 with T-Mobile service and is more geared to send and receive e-mail than the other PDAs. We found it the easiest to set up and, at 4.4 by 2.9 by 0.8 inches, also the most convenient for typing.

There's no stylus'one less item to worry about. But the downside is that you can't edit Microsoft Word or Excel documents as on the HP.

The BlackBerry is fine if you need just a phone, e-mail and organizer. If you need more, stick to the iPaq h6315 or the Treo, below.

The phone features of the BlackBerry are easier to reach than the iPaq's, mostly because the interface is a little more intuitive. But talking on the phone is more pleasant with the iPaq and Treo because the BlackBerry's width gets uncomfortable to hold to your ear after a few minutes.

The 7230's battery life was the best of all the PDA/cell phone devices. Despite a color screen, 16M of flash memory and 2M of RAM, the 7230 lasted for 10 hours of standby and four hours of talk time.

Although it can't edit word processing and spreadsheet files, the 7230 can display Microsoft Office attachments, Adobe Portable Document Format and ASCII text.

The 7230 won't let you take your work with you as the iPaq does, and it isn't expandable like the Treo. But it does provide affordable wireless e-mail'invaluable to many agencies.

The PalmOne Treo 600 has the best phone features of all the PDA/cell phones. Measuring 4.4 by 2.3 by 0.8 inches, it was one of the smallest units in the review and shaped more like a phone than a PDA.

Small package

Its built-in SD and MultiMediaCard port and its 3-megapixel digital camera could supply just about everything a user needs on the road in a small package.

With third-party applications, the Treo can view but not edit Microsoft Office documents. It has the same OMAP 1510 processor as the iPaq but only 32M of RAM (24M available to the user), so you'll definitely need an SD card for more storage.

The Treo comes with a difficult-to-use QWERTY keyboard. Users with large fingers would have an easier time on the BlackBerry.

The Treo 600's Palm OS 5.2 operating system isn't as robust as Pocket PC, particularly for viewing Microsoft Office files. The processor should be faster, and it would be great to have 802.11b capability and more than just 3,375 colors at 11.5-bit resolution.

GCN Lab technician Arthur Moser contributed to this review.

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