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Small Wonders

Tiny, lightweight computers put the world in the palm of your hand.

See the Buyer's Guide Table for product features and prices.

They work their magic right in your hand, displaying data on-screen, gathering information, transferring files, creating documents and reminding you about appointments.

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) and handheld personal computers (HPCs) can organize your day, help you write letters, connect to the Internet, "talk" to your desktop computer, record verbal notes, and even send and receive e-mail. Averaging 4MB RAM and weighing mere ounces, these word-processing electronic organizers and tiny computers carry out their tasks in cases as small as a deck of cards.

How much RAM do you need to perform all these functions? Probably less than you think. 3Com's Palm III organizer has 2MB RAM and is capable of storing 6,000 addresses, five years' worth of appointments, 1,500 memos and up to 200 e-mail messages.

The main difference between PDAs and HPCs is that PDAs are used primarily for gathering data and viewing information, while HPCs are designed for creating data, says Ed Colligan, vice president of marketing for Palm Computing in Mountain View, California. But with HPCs shrinking and PDAs becoming more sophisticated, there is often a crossover of functions. "These days," says Colligan, "features such as address books, calculators, calendars and to-do lists can be found on both, as well as PC connectivity capability with data-sharing and a lot of other applications." Psion, for example, was a leader in the PDA market early on but today covers just about every sector of the handheld industry. Other companies have followed suit, including Casio, Sharp and Texas Instruments. Sharp's Wizard organizers, for example, originally only provided passive calendar/calculator features but can now interact with PCs and still cost less than $200.

The new HPCs are as portable as PDAs and can fit into a pocket or inside your daytimer. Not to be confused with the new, pricier ($2,000 and up) minicomputers that operate on Windows 95 and are half the size of a laptop, the $300 to $700 handhelds operate under a less powerful Windows CE 2.0 operating system. Color screens are popular but cost more. Hewlett-Packard's color HP 620LX costs $899, while its black-and-white version, the HP 360LX Palmtop PC, sells for $599.

For traveling professionals, both devices offer a convenient way to take your office on the road. While one drawback is the miniature keyboard--or none at all--some companies sell battery-operated keyboards measuring 6 inches by 11 inches that plug into your handheld's serial port; most cost less than $125. Genovation, for example, will release its battery-operated keyboard, priced at around $120, in November. Some PDAs and HPCs come with cradles that hold a modem for transferring data. Texas Instruments' Avigo PDA has a cover similar to a flip-phone's that opens at the touch of a button, and Casio's E-10 has a large scrolling wheel on one side so you can scroll up or down on-screen with one hand.

Other features include card slots; faxing and paging capability; tasking functions to categorize and prioritize projects; built-in microphones and speakers for recording and playing back verbal notes; information management functions such as on-screen calendars, calculators and to-do lists you can write with a stylus; and the ability to store and transfer data from network PCs to your PDA or HPC. Available add-on accessories include software from Avantgo ($99) that increases a device's capabilities.

Here's a glossary of terms to help you decide which features you need:

Data-linking: This is the ability to share files, documents, spreadsheets and other information with an HPC or PDA and another computer or handheld device.

File-linking via remote PC synchronization: This feature enables a mobile device and a desktop PC to automatically share, compare and update entries via a modem or a cable connection.

Flash memory card: This card, similar to but smaller than a PCMCIA card, adds extra RAM and fits into a slot in an HPC. Other cards can provide interfacing and compatibility with DOS, Windows 95, Apple System 7 and other operating systems, while flash ROM cards are programmable so you can manipulate data on them. Flash-upgradable means the device's RAM can be increased without replacing the memory card.

Infrared data communication: One of the computer industry's newer innovations, this technology allows handhelds to communicate with PCs, printers and other handhelds through an infrared port so you can transfer data rapidly or print. Both machines must be equipped with the technology.

On-screen keyboard: A graphic of a keyboard appears on the display screen and is used by tapping a stylus on the images of keys.

Organizer functions: These can include a calendar, to-do list, calculator, phone book, spelling checker, appointment reminder, notes, alarm clock, and other time- and business-management features.

Stylus: A plastic or metal pen-shaped device that allows you to write on, sketch on or point to a display screen and its graphic keyboard.

Windows CE 2.0: This is a scaled-down version of the Windows 95, 98 or NT operating systems that includes a menu bar, toolbars, control panels, shortcuts and Web interface. The system allows PDAs and HPCs to interact with Windows-based desktop or laptop PCs with serial or infrared ports to share information and connect to the Internet.


Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California.

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This article was originally published in the June 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Small Wonders.

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