A funny thing happened as I laughed about the uselessness of the tiny Palm Pilot handheld computers. Oh, I'd done that for a couple of years, ever since one of the first models landed in my hand because Palm wanted me to review it. But recently another one plopped down on my doorstep and, not knowing what else to do with it, I gave it to my fiancée to try out.
A week later, she was gushing about how cool it was to have all her addresses in this little gizmo ("no more five-pound Day-Timer!"), how easy it was to sync with a desktop computer ("just put the Palm in its cradle and, whoosh, data zips back and forth"), how smart it was to be able to record petty-cash expenditures on the fly ("buy a magazine and tap the price into the Palm while waiting for the receipt"). Well, before long, I'd bought her the thing because I knew I wasn't going to be able to pry it away from her and return it to the manufacturer.
Fast forward a few weeks. I was growing increasingly envious of how easily she retrieved useful stuff--phone numbers, daily schedules and more--from this six-ounce gadget that neatly slid into her pocket or handbag. What about the stupid graffiti-the shorthand that's required to input data into a Pilot? That had always put me off. But my fiancée showed me that, really, it's simple to learn. ("There's even a cheat card you can paste inside the case.") In fact, you don't have to learn it at all. A "soft" keyboard can be put on the screen whenever data input is required. Then you just tap the letters with the stylus (pointer). Or you can input anything you want on the Palm into desktop personal information managers--Symantec's ACT!, Starfish Software's Sidekick and many others-and, shazam, the data is transferred to the Pilot with the press of a button.
Pretty nifty, huh? I was convinced, so I bought a Palm IIIx (about $225 from many online retailers), a modem (about $100), downloaded the Act conduit (transfer software) from the Symantec Web site (http://www.symantec.com), and suddenly I was a Palm Pilot-er, too.
But I wanted more--at least I wanted to make the thing do much more than it can with the barebones software that comes on shipping units. So I set off on a hunt for extra goodies-and promptly discovered hundreds of add-on applications that dramatically extend a Pilot's utility. The little thing can be coaxed into sending and receiving e-mail and faxes, keeping up with expenses and staying in touch with your home PC. When all is factored in, with just a small outlay of cash (about $500), a Pilot functions as just the thing to take to meetings, bring along on my weekends away from home and use as an all-purpose replacement for my over-strained memory. Read on for a roundup of the apps that transform a tiny Palm into a beefy techno tool.