From the April 2001 issue of Startups

Duh.sometimes the solution is as near as the palm of my hand, but I still don't see it. For many years, I've complained about the high cost of laptop computers but could never bring myself to not own one. I am increasingly tethered to e-mail-clients and friends alike expect me always to be within easy reach, so when I travel, I need a way to get online. You can probably relate.

But do I really need a laptop? Keep reading, because I'll tell you how to stay in touch with important contacts but only spend 25 percent of what a laptop would cost. In the process, you'll be doing your back a serious favor by lessening your load.

Ask yourself what you use a laptop for. If, like me, you use it primarily for e-mail, with perhaps a little word processing, you'll likely be fine with a low-priced handheld. How cheap can this get? Pretty much any Palm will do; figure around $250 for an entry-level model. (I use the Palm IIIx.) Add a modem (around $99). But don't stop there. With just those basics, a Palm theoretically will fetch and compose e-mail, but not well or comfortably. But buy a few more tools, and you'll genuinely transform a Palm into an e-mail machine:

MultiMail Professional, $39.95 (all prices street). Download this program at http://store.palm.com. Some bare-bones e-mail functionality comes built in to Palms, but with this upgraded program, you can download big (up to 2MB) file attachments (such as Word files). Plus, there's also support for multiple e-mail addresses. This is first-rate, slick software that goes far toward making a Palm the only tool a road warrior needs.

GoType! Keyboard, $69.95. I confess, I've never mastered the graffiti input alphabet used by Palms. Why bother to learn it? I simply use this slick but small keyboard. Go to http://www.landware.com.

WordSmith, $29.95. Get a trial download from http://www.bluenomad.com. This word processing program is cool. Install it, and you have compatibility with MS Word files.

AOL for Palm, free. Get it at http://www.aol.com/anywhere/pda/palm. AOL users are in luck; AOL's e-mail program is both good and free.

Do you need anything else to turn a Palm into a power road machine? Nope, that's the complete shopping list-and the total cost is around $500. The Palm, of course, won't do everything a high- octane $2,000 laptop will do. But if what you want is a lightweight, cheap e-mail tool, then, truly, there is no better buy for the money.