Pocket Pals

Thanks to personal digital assistants, you can take it all with you.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the January 1996 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Don't have time to get organized? Time management theories sound wonderful, but they don't always work for mobile small-business owners who barely have time to grab their files before dashing out the door to handle sales calls and appointments. Being on the go usually means leaving your office-with all its neatly arranged files and electronic equipment-behind.

Or does it?

While laptops, cellular phones and other portables are slimmer than ever, they still weigh more than you might want to carry. Even that snazzy leather-bound daily organizer seems to get heavier and heavier as the day goes on. All you really need on the road are your files, a schedule planner, a notepad, a calculator, your address book, a reminder list, a travel itinerary . . . still sounds like a lot of stuff, doesn't it? Not if you can pack it all into a single electronic device.

Small electronic handheld organizers, also known as personal information managers (PIMs), have been around for years. But manufacturers recently went one step further and created personal digital asssistants (PDAs), which have greater capabilities than PIMs. Texas Instruments, for example, now offers a sophisticated new product called the PS-6800. Its optional docking-station add-on kit allows you to hook this organizer up to your computer so you can download data. While Texas Instruments refers to the PS-6800 as a personal organizer, this new feature takes it into PDA territory.

Several PDAs are powerful minicomputers that not only perform all your organizing duties but also have fax and e-mail capabilities and allow you to network with your computer. Some PDAs have slots for PCMCIA cards for extra memory or file backup.

The newest PDAs are pen-based devices with a message-pad screen. They allow you to create notes and drawings on screen, then they read your scribbles and translate them into neatly typed text. An add-on keyboard is generally an option with pen-based PDAs. Some PDAs can also be used as pagers.

Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California, and ghostwriter of Help! I've Hired a Lawyer! (Emptypockets Venture).

Shopping List

When shopping for a PDA, Kevin Cheek, hardware product manager for Apple Computer in Cupertino, California, recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • How many functions must your PDA fulfill? If you use only a Rolodex and an appointment calendar while on the road, you won't need a highly sophisticated, costly device with e-mail capabilities. On the other hand, if you usually need a substantial amount of data, look for a PDA with lots of memory.
  • How careful are you with your equipment? Should your PDA come equipped with a protective lid?
  • How lightweight must your PDA be?
  • Does your PDA need to communicate with your desktop computer?
  • How well and how fast does your PDA need to recognize handwriting?
  • Do you need wireless communication capability?
  • Do you need a "password" function for confidentiality?

Bear in mind, as with any electronic equipment, manufacturer's list prices and street prices are often very different. For instance, Sharp's OZ-6500 has a manufacturer's list price of $499, but one computer superstore sells it for $269.

Latest Models

To get you started on your research, here's a rundown of the most popular PDAs on the market:

  • Apple: The MessagePad 120 with a Newton 2.0 operating system is an organizer, minicomputer, and electronic notepad you write on with a special telescoping pen. This latest version has more features than its predecessor, including a date book, more storage, a fax-send feature, fax-receive onto the message-pad screen so you can read it, e-mail exchange through the Internet, and a vastly improved handwriting recognition function.

The $699 MessagePad 120 includes a telephone log, calendar and calculator, plus daily, weekly and monthly planners. Its Rolodex is presented in business-card format. It also includes Pocket Quicken software, which puts information about your cash, checking, savings and credit-card accounts at your fingertips.

You can hook the MessagePad 120 up to most bubble-jet and laser printers via an optional accessory, back up data onto your office desktop for safekeeping, and send messages to someone's pager. An optional add-on notebook-sized keyboard costs $89.

  • Casio: While most people associate Casio with low-end pocket calculators and organizers, Casio's Z-7000 is a $599 pen-based PDA that is able to translate handwriting into text. The Z-7000 also organizes your date book, to-do lists, addresses and notes. It calculates; communicates with American Online (with the help of your modem); and has a dictionary, spelling checker, clock and reference sources. This PDA will also manage your expense reports and balance and summarize your bank accounts.

One of the Z-7000's strengths is its variety of accessories, such as the Z-125 PalmConnect, at $129, which links to your PC for data entry, transfer and backup.

  • Motorola: This company is a relative newcomer to the PDA market, but its products, the Marco and Envoy, are becoming extremely popular. Both models have infrared receivers and rotating antennas for wireless communication. You can also send, receive and fax information through Motorola's integrated wireless modems. However, you must subscribe to RadioMail and ARDIS, the wireless data services through which the Marco and Envoy PDAs communicate.

Envoy is aimed at the mobile businessperson who wants wireless messaging, faxing, airline flight information and personal expense management. The $1,000 Envoy integrates e-mail, fax, telephone and paging abilities, and has all the bells and whistles of most pocket organizers, plus two slots for PCMCIA cards to add memory for more data or using other software applications.

Motorola's Marco pen-based notepad uses Newton technology and is best suited for users who frequently need to download databases on the road. With features similar to the Envoy, the $900 Marco is slightly less powerful, has just one PCMCIA slot, and has user interfaces that depend heavily on Newton applications.

  • Psion: A worldwide leader in the mobile and hand-held computing industry, this company calls its Series 3a models "palmtops," but the $595 1MB and the $695 2MB fit into the PDA category.

Both models have multitask operating systems, weigh just under 10 ounces, have relatively large keyboards and are wider than most PDAs. You can send and receive faxes, manage your to-do list, translate words into several languages and find out the time around the world; a password protection feature keeps your data confidential. A computer connecting kit for advanced applications is available for $120.

  • Sharp: This company's pocket-sized Wizard products have been consistently popular for the past seven years. But with businesspeople wanting more from their small organizers than just Rolodexes and calculators, Sharp developed two new models. The $599 Zaurus is a high-performance electronic notebook with a pen and keyboard. The $499 Wizard OZ-6500 is more similar to a PIM but has many PDA capabilities, including faxing. Add $100 to the base price of each for fax capabilities (sending but not receiving).

The Zaurus boasts a large easy-to-read screen and has an infrared port for wireless communication. Files can be uploaded or downloaded from other software, and, using optional mail software, users can send or receive e-mail messages using a Windows-based PC as an electronic post office.

Sharp's OZ-6500 features 512K memory and can display up to 40 characters on 14 lines. In addition to the organizing functions, calculator and time clocks, you can hook up the OZ-6500 to an online service or to your PC to exchange data. Well-suited for first-time PDA users, its on-screen instructions and graphics are large and easy to understand.

  • Texas Instruments: Although this company refers to its low-priced PS-6700 and PS-6800 models as personal organizers, both have moved into the PDA market by virtue of a docking kit with Windows software that enables them to connect to a PC and exchange information.

The PS-6700 and PS-6800 are identical in styling and function; the only difference is the amount of their memory. The $69 PS-6700 has 64KB of storage; the $89 PS-6800 has 128KB. Both have keyboards but no electronic notepad.

Both models can store thousands of reminders, addresses, notes and secret data. Features include an audio alarm, dates and times for five world cities, a 100-year monthly calendar and password protection.

Shopping List

Model 800 Number Built-in Keyboard

Organizer Functions

Electronic Notepad Weight Fax? Price

Apple Messagepad 120 (800) 767-2775 No

Calendar, address book, calculator, maps, currency exchange, notepad

Yes 1 pound Yes $699

Casio Z-7000 (800) 96-CASIO No

Date book, Rolodex, calculator, dictionary, translator, password protection

Yes 1 pound Yes $599

Motorola Envoy (800) 894-7353 No

Calendar, Rolodex, calculator, world clock

Yes 1.7 pounds Yes $1,000

Motorola Marco (800) 894-7353 No

Same as Motorola Envoy

Yes 1.8 pounds Yes $900

Psion Series 3A (800) 99-PSION Yes

Agenda/time management, world clock, password protection

No 9.7 ounces Yes 1MB $595;2MB $695

Sharp Wizard OZ-5500 (800) BE-SHARP Yes

Calendar, scheduler, rolodex, calculator, clock, expense/financial tracking

No 9.3 ounces No $289

Sharp Wizard OZ-6500 (800) BE-SHARP Yes

Rolodex, calculator, calendar, scheduler, clock

No 8.6 ounces Yes (option only) $499

Sharp Zaurus (800) BE-SHARP Yes

Calendar, calculator, daily planner, spelling checker, reminders, world clock

Yes 13.6 ounces Yes (option only) $599

Sony Magiclink PIC-2000 (800) 571-SONY No

Speakerphone, spelling checker, Rolodex, calendar, reminders

Yes 1.5 pounds No $499

Texas Instruments PS-6700 & PS-6800(800) 842-2737 Yes

Rolodex, reminders, clock, 100-year calendar, password protection

No 6 ounces No PS-6700 $69; PS-6800 $89


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