The units all have basic calendar, appointment, phone book and clock features, and most offer a spreadsheet program as well, allowing users to plug in a formula for such tasks as delivering a job estimate on the spot or entering vital accounting data. PDAs are more than simple organizers, as a serial cable can connect each unit to a stationary or laptop computer to allow information to be easily downloaded and uploaded between the two machines. Powering a PDA can be as easy as going to any store and picking up some regular alkaline batteries, although some units work only on rechargeable batteries.
The units with communications functions offer faxing, Internet and e-mail capabilities, with some providing speakerphone functions when connected to a cellular phone. While handwriting-recognition technology is included with most units, an on-screen keyboard is usually also featured, allowing the PDAs to show off two different uses of their touch-screen technology.
One unit that has received a lot of positive press lately is the U.S. Robotics Pilot 5000. Relatively low-priced (in the $370 neighborhood), the Pilot was touted as a hot new technological item by Playboy magazine and received an enthusiastic review from PC magazine.
The unit offers a lot of the basic features which are making these tiny electronic assistants quite popular. The Pilot, for instance, transfers a day's worth of information to a computer in about 15 seconds, according to the PC magazine article. Playboy states that the unit "stays juiced for several months on two AAA batteries," but PC magazine cautions, "when your batteries run out, you have only three minutes to replace them, or you will lose all the data on your Pilot. Of course, you don't lose all the data on your desktop PC, so the moral of the story is to be sure that you back up your files frequently."