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Is smaller smarter? Not always. In some instances, technology companies run ahead of themselves and forget the human element when developing new products. The keyboards and buttons on pocket organizers were initially so tiny, for example, that users had to use a pen or pencil to depress the keys. Frustrated, many buyers declined to invest in them. But customer complaints finally got through, and manufacturers wised up. Today, with palm PCs, we can buy small and smart.
Hot products for the mobile professional, these incredibly shrinking communication centers can sit in their own docking cradles or in the palm of your hand. Several manufacturers have jumped into the market, offering everything from stripped-down, entry-level models to ultra-slick, high-end products. For example, Palm Computing's base model is the $299 Palm III, while its top-of-the-line version is the $499 Palm V, which offers e-mail connectivity.
Whether you need to review daily schedules, check your e-mail, make notes, send a message or share data, a palm PC can input, output and distribute. Its capabilities in no way equal those of a standard desktop PC, but it can be a tremendously helpful adjunct.
Although it's used as a combination personal digital assistant, electronic organizer and pager, the palm PC has no keyboard, unlike a hand-held PC. Instead, most palmtops display a keyboard onscreen, which is activated using a stylus, or they offer capabilities for recognizing sketched diagrams and written text or numbers. If you insist on a keyboard, at least one model, Palm Computing's Palm III, which runs on its own operating system instead of Windows CE, can be hooked up to a small optional keyboard device.
Also showing up on more and more palmtops is voice-command recognition and voice recording. For example, Philips' Nino 300 series can record and play back up to 16 minutes of audio for every free megabyte of memory using its voice recorder. Voice recordings are usually saved as files that can be played back, stored, or sent as audio files via e-mail.
Palm PCs can provide an electronic link not only to your office but also to clients who need frequent attention. Using the Internet, you can synchronize your desktop PC with your palmtop to remotely exchange e-mail and other data. In the office, a serial port or an infrared data communications (IrDA) port connects a palmtop directly to a computer for transferring data. The Palm III is one of the few whose infrared beam is geared to work only with another Palm III, but Palm Computing's PalmPilots can connect to both PCs and Macs.
A palm PC will usually come with a CompactFlash (CF) card slot that allows you to expand its memory or to add such options as a pager or modem card. CF cards can add 4MB RAM to base-model palmtops, which typically come with 4MB.
Although only Philips' Nino 320 is sold with an integrated modem, almost all palmtops can attach to an optional modem device. A few, such as Uniden's UniPro PC 100, come equipped with an internal "soft" 28.8 Kbps modem that's upgradeable to even faster speeds. Everex's Freestyle Associate A-10 model offers a standard fax modem in its optional docking cradle, while the add-on 2.8 ounce Palm modem provides five to six hours of connection time using two AAA batteries. Most external modems for palm PCs cost around $129.
The size of palmtop screens averages 2.25 inches by 2.5 or 3 inches. Compaq's Palm-size PC is a little larger, measuring 2.4 by 3.2 inches. Do you want a color screen, or is black and white sufficient for your needs? For those of us accustomed to our colorful desktop monitors, the extra $100 or so for this feature is worth it. But some black-and-white models, like Compaq's entry-level Aero 2110 Palm-size PC, offer three illumination settings so you can optimize viewing depending on the lighting conditions, making monochrome a bit less drab. Hewlett-Packard's new color HP Jornada 420 is costlier than most at $520, but its vibrant screen has great impact, especially when you're logged on to the Internet.
Palm PCs are powered by standard AA or AAA batteries plus a rechargeable backup lithium or nickel metal hydride (NiHM) battery that takes over when you're changing the AA or AAA batteries. Lithium batteries are more powerful than NiHMs, providing twice the charge per pound. Average battery life is around eight hours in palm PCs, although the UniPro promises 15 hours of continuous use. Some manufacturers offer free extra batteries and an AC adaptor/recharger. Compaq's Palm-size PC includes an integrated battery charger in an optional docking cradle so you don't have to haul around an AC adaptor.
Audio speakers, microphones and earphone jacks are commonplace on this year's palm PCs, as are alarms that indicate when you have a message or that battery power is running low. Complimentary software may include Quicken, bFAX Express, Meeting Minder, PocketCommander, LandWare, Date Book, PhoneManager and a variety of games. Casio's Cassiopeia E-11 includes CD-ROM software that lets you load in expense reports when you're on the road and transfer them to your office PC when you return.
Yet another option in the growing trend of mobile computing, palmtops may be the perfect solution when you don't quite need the power of a laptop. For quick communication and help with organization, these models have what it takes.
Jill Amadio is a freelance writer in Newport Beach, California, who has covered technology for nine years.