Handhelds branch out as network clients

Handhelds branch out as network clients

GCN Lab tests seven units that are more than glorified organizers; Palm VIIx, Compaq iPaq get top marks for usefulness



Handheld computers a few years ago whistled, beeped and stored a small amount of data with little more functionality than a calendar.

Now handhelds have grown up. They can run some pretty amazing applications for mapping, training, inspection, record-keeping, wireless e-mail'even databases.

They have taken two paths to greater usefulness. The first is a memory upgrade, which boosts processing power and application headroom. Some units in this GCN Lab review came standard with 32M of memory. One device had an optional memory stick for 128M, more than many desktop systems have.

The second path to usefulness is clever software design. Trimming the size of the operating system, in some cases below 100K, leaves more room for apps. Clever design has produced astonishing programs in only 8M of memory'for example, satellite mapping or battlefield target tracking.

The first company to take the software approach was Palm Inc., and it remains the leader. Although Palm is reluctant to budge from its memory limits, we suspect market pressures and expanding applications will force a substantial Palm memory upgrade.

No matter which upgrade path is taken, handhelds can no longer be dismissed as glorified organizers. They are now network clients.

A personal purchase

A recent GCN survey found that more than 40 percent of federal computer users personally paid for their handheld units. That percentage will likely fall as agency programs become dependent on handheld apps. Network administrators then will have to support the devices as they do other clients.

The lab rounded up seven of the top handheld computers on the market today and compared their available applications, ease of administration at client and server ends, physical characteristics and raw specifications.

Available applications and administrative features accounted for 85 percent of the overall grades'a testament to the declining market emphasis on raw specs. There's more of a 'show me what you can do' attitude among today's handheld buyers, as opposed to the 'show me what you have' mentality of the desktop PC market.

The Palm VIIx, current flagship in the Palm OS lineup, boasts 8M of memory, the most of any Palm unit. Although 8M is meager compared with the memory of some units in the review, the Palm OS itself requires only 100K, so there is a good deal of headroom for programs.

Palm is the most popular handheld device among government users, according to the GCN survey.

Palm is clearly aiming higher than the organizer market, as the VIIx's $399 price tag indicates. It has wireless connectivity through a small plastic antenna not unlike that of a cellular phone. Indicator bars along the top of the unit show signal strength.

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In our tests of the VIIx while moving around Washington and Los Angeles, we got full signal strength almost all the time. Sending or checking e-mail took only a few seconds with a good signal. Web browsing was limited to specially formatted sites.

You pay for what you view; the basic $9.95 service plan allows 50K per month. Three full pages equal about 1K.

Most apps

No handheld currently has more applications than the Palm. One of the most impressive apps we tried was FileMaker Mobile from FileMaker Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. We could run an entire FileMaker database and synchronize the whole thing or just certain fields with a PC database. Smart memory management made this feat possible. In our tests, the FileMaker software never missed a beat, or a record.

Through Palm's HotSync Server software, a Palm VIIx becomes manageable just like any other network device. The administrator can control what applications Palm users have and even remove unauthorized games or memory-intensive apps whenever the users sync with their desktop systems.

Multilevel security and encryption are available, too. Because each Palm unit has an individual security code in its chip, the administrator can make that the token component for network log-ins.

Our review puts the Palm VIIx at the top of the heap. We do believe, however, that it needs more memory. Carefully managed programs are great, but software will soon outpace the platform's capacity, especially for busy users who need multiple applications.

The most impressive of all the units we tested was the Compaq iPaq H3650 Pocket PC. Its 32M of memory made the color iPaq feel and function more like a notebook PC.

Of course, running the Microsoft Windows Pocket PC operating system and basic applications takes far more memory than a Palm or Handspring unit can provide.

The main drawback we found was the iPaq H3650's $500 price tag, which did not include an attachable PC Card expansion slot that brought the grand total to $650'as much as a basic PC client.

If you can afford it, the iPaq can go wireless with an attachable modem for another $100. It boasts the fastest processor in the market at 206 MHz. It's also the closest thing to a multimedia handheld available. We've even heard stories of users watching movies such as 'The Matrix' streaming onto their iPaqs.

But it should be noted that a Pocket PC with intricate hardware and Microsoft operating software is likelier to crash than a Palm unit. Management is basically left up to the user, so network administrators can expect headaches. Personnel supervisors can, too. Watching 'The Matrix' in the palm of your hand is a hard-to-resist time waster.

The Sony PEG-S300 at first glance looks like a Palm, or at least the screen does. It runs the Palm OS, so the resemblance is not surprising. The Sony, however, is about half the size of the Palm VIIx, though comparable in just about every other area.

The Sony PEG could run the same applications as a Palm, including the FileMaker Mobile database. Whatever works on a Palm should work on a PEG. We liked its small form factor with an equivalent viewable screen area.

The PEG has one advantage over the Palm, and one disadvantage. The disadvantage is easy to spot: lack of wireless connectivity. The advantage is a bit subtler: The PEG has a port for a Sony Memory Stick.

Attaching the $139 stick automatically boosts available memory to 64M. Sony has announced a 128M stick.

Of course, that 64M of memory costs almost half as much as the unit itself, but imagine the power of a Palm with that much storage capacity. You still get the smart programming, but you have much more memory to work with.

Lacking a wireless function, the PEG did not score quite as high as the Palm VIIx, but extra memory made the PEG attractive anyhow. As applications grow more demanding, expect to see the 128M PEG move to the forefront of the market.

The Research in Motion BlackBerry 957 was the only unit truly unlike the other devices in the review. It nevertheless should not be discounted as merely an advanced organizer. Depending on your needs, the BlackBerry might be just your cup of tea.

The form factor was pleasing, even though the unit was somewhat larger than the Sony PEG. Most of the bulk came from the keyboard, something no other device in the review and few handhelds can boast.

Users who hate Palm Graffiti shorthand for scribbling commands will love the BlackBerry input method. The keys are small, but thumb typing is easy and more accurate than Graffiti input.

The BlackBerry had the crispest screen image in the review by a factor of 10. In any lighting situation other than pitch blackness'there's no backlight'it was easy to read.

Part of the reason for the excellent image is the keyboard, which eliminates the need for a touch-screen. You move from icon to icon with a dial on the side of the screen and then press Enter, much as you would with a mouse and full-size keyboard. It feels fairly natural, but users accustomed to a stylus pointer and a touch-screen might get confused.

Anywhere computing

On the subway or in the back of a cab, the BlackBerry was easy to use with one hand. And there were no worries about a pointer'or cleaning fingerprints off the screen.

The BlackBerry works wirelessly without a separate antenna. If you set it up correctly and leave your desktop computer on, you can forward your e-mail to the BlackBerry.

More and more vendors are writing programs for the BlackBerry, though not nearly as many as for Palm OS.

For example, you can now run a mobile version of Lotus Notes R5 on the BlackBerry and sync it wirelessly with an office Notes server'an incredible feat for a road warrior.

The BlackBerry is not for every user, but it suits those who want wireless e-mail without a lot of hassle. Its limitations also make it easy to administer, as users are unlikely to find a way to crash it.

The Handspring Visor Platinum aims to do to the Palm what Papa John's did to Pizza Hut. Three former Palm employees founded Handspring in 1998.

We saw little difference between the Handspring Visor and the Palm Pilot line. Both run the same operating system and have similar specs: 8M of on-board memory, date and address book, to-do list, memo pad and the same HotSync Manager. But the Visor Platinum does have one noticeable plus.

It comes equipped with a backside peripheral device port that can turn the unit into anything from a digital camera to a wireless Web search tool. The device port gives the Visor flexibility that the Palm can't match, in addition to memory beyond the Palm's 8M barrier.

The Visor Platinum sells for $300, not much more than the Visor Deluxe, which runs about half as fast. The difference is quite noticeable.

In combination with a $150 wireless modem from YadaYada Inc. of New York, the Visor Platinum can surf the Internet like a desktop computer. It outshines the wireless capabilities of the Palm VIIx, which is limited to text browsing, whereas the Handspring with YadaYada is a full Web browser.

But the Visor Platinum and the YadaYada modem together cost $450 to $500, a significant price if you want only wireless e-mail and text-based Web sites. Also, the YadaYada modem must be carried separately, whereas the Palm VIIx has only an antenna to raise and lower.

The Palm IIIc is almost identical in size to the VIIx without an antenna. The main difference is that the IIIc can display applications in color.

Surprisingly, we found it made little difference. Microsoft Word documents and e-mail looked about the same in color as in monochrome.

Palm officials showed us programs that do work better in color, such as battlefield mapping, but the typical user will not benefit much from color. And when you consider that you are trading off wireless functionality for a color screen, there's no contest. The VIIx is the better choice.

A color screen is suited more to a device such as the Compaq Aero, because the Windows Pocket PC OS is a lot easier to use in color.

We encountered severe glare problems with the IIIc. It worked well as a mirror for combing hair and the like, but not so well for heavy-duty, color-intensive applications.

The Vtech Helio is unique in the handheld market for its open-source aspirations. The vendor has posted the Helio OS on its Web site as a free download.

An open-source Linux platform would promise freedom from crashes plus free software. At $160, the Helio is already one of the most affordable handhelds. A network of free Linux software would add muscle.

The problem is that the Helio simply isn't well-designed. Command execution is neither intuitive nor logical. For example, to get to the shorthand tutorial, you must tap Jot, then Advanced and then Trainer. With Palm units, you merely tap the Graffiti button to be walked through the tutorial.

The space where you're supposed to write on the Helio is divided up so much among symbols, letters and numbers that there isn't enough room for writing.

Seven handhelds squeeze powerful programs into tiny packages
Palm VIIxCompaq iPaq H3650Sony PEG-S300Visor PlatinumBalckBerry 957Palm IIIcVTech Helio
VendorPalm Inc.
Santa Clara, Calif.
tel. 800-881-7256
Compaq Computer Corp.
tel. 800-888-0220
Sony Corp.
Park Ridge, N.J.
tel. 212-833-6849
Handspring Inc.
Mountain View, Calif.
tel. 650-230-5000
Research In Motion Ltd.
Waterloo, Ontario
tel. 877-255-2377
Palm Inc.
Santa Clara, Calif.
tel. 800-881-7256
VTech Information LLC
Beaverton, Ore.
tel. 503-646-2880
Pros and cons+ Good client-server management
+ Fast wireless communication
+ Many applications
- Expensive
- Low memory ceiling
+ Standard 32M of memory
+ Fastest processor
+ Excellent color TFT screen
- Most expensive unit
- PC Card expansion slot not standard
+ Most portable of reviewed devices
+ Memory expandable to 128M
+ Light weight
+ Scroll dial and touch-screen
- Memory expensive
+ Backside peripheral device port
+ Runs applications fast
+ YadaYada wireless modem
- Expensive
- Memory restricted
+ Integrated wireless
+ Best-looking display
- No touch-screen
- Easy management
- Expensive
+ Color display
+ Batteries charge in cradle
- Low memory ceiling
- Somewhat heavy
- Screen glare
+ Inexpensive
- Difficult navigation
- Low memory ceiling
- Poorly designed Graffiti tab
- Touch-screen insensitive
Weight in ounces6.
Memory8M32M8M8M5M flash and 512K SRAM8M8M
Operating SystemPalm OSWidnwos Pocket PCPalm OSPalm OSIntegrated mail/organizerPalm OSVTech-OS
Overall Grade

The Helio has 8M of memory, a phone book and a calculator like the Handspring and Palm.

One big difference: Sound recordings can be converted to WAV formats for e-mailing while syncing with a PC.


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