PDA accessories come of age

PDA accessories come of age<@VM>PDA accessories can page, photograph, even help if you're lost

Powerful new devices can turn your note taker into a serious computer


Personal digital assistants, those pocket-size computers exemplified by the ubiquitous Palm, long ago stopped being merely glorified contact managers.

Armed with several megabytes of RAM, powerful processors and often color screens, PDAs now perform tasks that once required a notebook or desktop PC.

Handspring Inc.'s VisorPhone brings digital cellular communications to its PDA. It's priced at $299.
Few things do more to bolster a basic PDA than a well-chosen accessory, such as a communications link or alternative input device that makes the little machine reach into more places or perform more useful and specialized tasks.

Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, for example, will soon add wireless LAN cards to Palm devices from Palm Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. This will let maintenance crews check parts availability by accessing a database remotely from an aircraft, rather than walking to a distant PC 'or talking on the squawk box,' said John Inkley, Palm's manager of federal sales in Vienna, Va.

Elsewhere, staff members of the Bureau of Land Management have since 1998 taken Palms on-site to federal lands to enter environmental observations and perform calculations measuring the land's ability to sustain wildlife. Previously, observations written on paper had to be manually entered into computers, a time-consuming task that risked data loss. Now BLM is augmenting the devices with Global Positioning System receivers that automatically add location data, Inkley said. In another example, a California state agency uses Palms outfitted with Kodak PalmPix digital cameras to document fire code violations.

Though stylus-based PDAs and their QWERTY-keyboard cousins, usually called handhelds, have a long and storied history, there are today three major PDA platforms that define compatibility for accessories and application software. They are the popular Palm platform; devices running Microsoft PocketPC and its similar predecessor, Windows CE; and the up-and-coming Handspring Visor from Handspring Inc.

Ways to accessorize

Hundreds of companies make accessories; most are small companies, and none dominate the market. Accessories range from such things as styluses and cases to storage-boosting memory cards and miniature hard drives, and connectors that simplify PC linkups.

The Lowdown

' What is it? PDA accessories are many things, but they all add functionality to your palm-size or handheld device.

' What are the compatibility concerns? They are more than just what operating system it runs on. You need to be sure that the hardware fits together. Check to see if an accessory is listed as being for your device.

' What about wireless connectivity? When buying a wireless WAN device, be mindful of the price, feature limitations and coverage area of the network service. They vary widely.

' Will an accessory affect a PDA's performance? An accessory's power source might affect the battery life of your PDA. Many devices are significant power drains; some can only be recharged with separate AC adapters.

' Must-know info? Think long and hard about real needs, and avoid gadget-itis. Checking
e-mail, for example, is cheaper and nearly as convenient when done nightly from a sub-$100 land-line modem than hourly from a $500 wireless device with monthly network fees, weak signals and spotty coverage.

But the real advantages of PDA accessories for agencies have been in the realm of communications, especially wireless. Dozens of companies make devices that let PDAs communicate over two-way paging and cellular phone networks, as well as on more specialized networks and the Cellular Digital Packet Data system. Some integrate tightly with and attach directly to the PDA itself, while other, often cheaper, devices connect via a cable tied to a small memory card in the PDA.

The most important buying consideration, besides a device's purpose, is hardware compatibility. The operating systems a device can run on is only part of the puzzle'it says nothing about whether the physical connections fit together.

'I know people who have bought the accessories for a certain PDA'say, the Handspring Visor'and thought they would work because they run under the Palm OS, but they didn't,' said Ken Smiley, senior industry analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

The surest way to determine compatibility, Smiley and others said, is to check that your exact PDA model, or at least the model series, is listed for the accessory.

Another common 'gotcha,' Smiley said, is thinking that PC Cards for notebooks and desktop computers will work in a PDA's PC Card slot. Low power-consuming devices such as 56-Kbps modems will, but power-hogging wireless and other devices likely will not.

Other accessory connectors include cables that attach to the PDA's serial port, the somewhat bulky sleds that run the length and width of some Palm and PocketPC models'some provide the power for the otherwise incompatible PC Cards'and infrared ports.

Only the infrared ports are compatible across platforms, but you can sometimes buy attachments that function as adapters. But even if the shoe fits, you can't wear it without the right driver software to ensure OS compatibility.

Standards proceed

Two communication standards are changing the way PDAs and accessories communicate with each other and with the rest of the world. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11b standard for wireless LANs is catching on in hospitals and other organizations with intensive data-entry and display needs that can be confined to a small area.

And the short-distance wireless networking standard, Bluetooth, promises to make cables obsolete while serving as a LAN alternative, but products are only now trickling out.

PDAs aren't yet the Everyman computer that their proponents sometimes claim. With little time to test an HP Jornada 520 from Hewlett-Packard Co. with a Targus Inc. Stowaway Keyboard and Novatel Wireless Inc. Minstrel wireless modem, I struggled for hours just to get the Jornada synched up with a PC so I could load the special software. A consumer electronics device shouldn't need this much tech support.

PDAs are personal, digital and of some assistance, but they aren't always PDQ. Information technology departments should be prepared to devote significant time to setting them up, but the productivity gains to users could make the effort worthwhile.

David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

CompanyProductTypePDAs supportedConnectorRequires own battery/

Clarinet Systems Inc.

Milpitas, Calif.




Infrared Ethernet LAN connection

IBM Workpad, Palm with Palm OS 3.3 and later, Palm VII with OS 3.2, PocketPC devices, Win CE and Psion EPOC handhelds, others

Built-in infrared port

No (wall plug)

$249 up

Eastman Kodak Co.

Rochester, N.Y.




Digital camera

IBM Workpad; Palm m100, m105, m500, m505, III series, V, Vx, VII; TRGpro

Palm docking connector

Yes; nonrechargeable AAA batteries; rechargeable optional


Enfora Inc.

Plano, Texas



PocketSpider CF+ CDPD Modem

Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) wireless data modem

Palm, PocketPC, Win CE 3.0 devices with Type I or II slot

Type I, II Compact-Flash



Glenayre Electronics Inc.

Charlotte, N.C.



Activelink Wireless Messaging Module

Two-way messaging on ReFLEX paging network

All Handspring Visor models

Visor Springboard

Yes, nonrechargeable AAA batteries


Handspring Inc.

Mountain View, Calif.




Global System for Mobile Communications digital cellular phone

Handspring Visor

Visor Springboard



iBIZ Technology Corp.




KeySync Keyboard

Full-size, nonfolding keyboard

Palm, Pocket PC, Win CE

Standard cradle or serial cradle cable

Yes, nonrechargeable AAA batteries


Ideo Product Design

Palo Alto, Calif.




Digital camera

All Handspring Visor models

Visor Springboard



Eyemodule2 (VGA)

Digital camera

All Handspring Visor models

Visor Springboard



Magellan Corp.

Santa Clara, Calif.



GPS Companion

Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver

All Handspring Visor models, Palm V series

Palm docking connector or Visor Springboard

Yes, nonrechargeable AAA batteries


Novatel Wireless Inc.

San Diego



Minstrel III

CDPD wireless data modem

Palm III, IIIe, IIIx

Palm docking connector



Minstrel S

CDPD wireless data modem

Handspring Visor

Visor Springboard



Minstrel V

CDPD wireless data modem

Palm V, Vx

Palm docking connector



Minstrel 540

CDPD wireless data modem

HP Jornada 540

Jornada docking connector



Rand McNally & Co.

Skokie, Ill.



StreetFinder GPS for the Palm III

GPS receiver

Palm III, IIIe, IIIx, IIIxe

Palm docking connector

Yes, nonrechargeable AAA batteries


StreetFinder GPS for Palm IIIc & VII Handhelds

GPS receiver

Palm IIIc & VII

Palm docking connector

No; nonrechargeable battery and AC adapter included


Sierra Wireless Inc.

Richmond, British Columbia



Air Card 300 for Handhelds

CDPD wireless data modem

PocketPC, Win CE 2.11 and 3.0 handhelds

Type II PC Card



Air Card 400 Ricochet Modem

Two-way data communication over Wireless Web-Connect Ricochet service


Type II PC Card



Socket Communication Inc.

Newark, Calif.



Ethernet PocketPak

RJ-45 Ethernet LAN connection


Type I Compact-Flash



Targus Inc.

Anaheim, Calif.



Stowaway Keyboard

Full-size collapsible keyboard

Compaq iPAQ 3600 series, Handspring Visor, HP Jornada 540 series

PDA docking port

No; special adapter allows PDA to recharge


Total Recall Digital Voice Recorder

Digital Voice Recorder

All Handspring Visor models

Visor Springboard

No; nonrechargeable AAA batteries allow optional standalone operation


TeleType Co. Inc.





GPS receiver

Win CE 2.0 and higher, PocketPC

Type II PC Card via PDA jacket attachment




Princeton, N.J.



Pocket CoPilot

GPS receiver

Casio Cassiopeia E-105, E-115, E-125; Compaq Aero 1500, 2100, iPAQ 3100 and 3600 series; HP Jornada 540, 545, 547, 548



* May require purchase of separately priced attachments


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