A Look At Hand-Held Computing
by Charles G. Doe
Media Specialist Hastings (Michigan) Area Schools
Just after purchasing my fourth small spiral notebook,
I realized that it was time to start looking at hand-held
personal computers, also known as personal digital
assistants (PDAs) or pocket PCs. The oldest small notebook
had been in my briefcase for more than a year and I
had been planning to copy the important phone numbers,
addresses, etc., into a newer one. With the purchase
of the newest notebook, I found I needed to copy information
from two worn notebooks, as well as a separate notebook
containing key technical details that I needed to remember.
My briefcase had run out of room and it was time
to seriously consider the purchase of one of the hand-held
electronic devices I had reviewed twice in the past
3 years. The handheld wouldn't wear out as quickly,
the data transfer would be easier, and the unit would
take up quite a bit less space. The calculator function
would be useful, the address book function would provide
a way of saving addresses and phone numbers, and an
electronic "to-do" list could even help me with organization.
In addition to the obvious organizational functions,
I decided to look at compact keyboards, following the
example of my 19-year-old nephew who used a handheld
with a fold-up keyboard to take notes in his college
classes. The device would be useful for the odd bit
of keyboarding and note-taking I needed to do away
from my desktop computer.
I began looking aroundboth online and at local
electronics storesonly to find that I didn't
know as much as I thought I did. Many new features
and possibilities had been added to the units. My first
question was, "What in the world is 'Bluetooth?'" (The
answer: A cross-industry short-range wireless enabling
Next, I had to ask myself about specific uses. Did
I really want to take pictures, access the Internet,
or get e-mail with something I was still thinking of
as a glorified address book? It was clear that it would
be essential to keep the reasons I needed a handheld
firmly in mind as I considered the features of the
While there are many different handhelds available,
the most highly recommended and useful are made by
four or five different companies and use one of two
types of operating systemsPalm OS or MS Pocket
PC. The Palm OS (Operating System)-based units are
made by Palm and Sony; MS Pocket PC systems are manufactured
by Compaq (merged with Hewlett-Packard) and Dell.
Initially, the Palm OS models were the best organizers
and the Pocket PCs were the best multimedia handhelds.
However, this distinction is blurring as Palm OS systems
now power some excellent multimedia handhelds.
There are additional system differences. At this
point, there is more software available for Palm OS
systems, and this software tends to be business-oriented.
Pocket PCs tend to be more expensive, especially at
the lower end. A good Palm OS handheld can be found
for less than $100, while Pocket PCs start at $300.
As you begin your handheld survey, some general factors
to consider are compatibility issues and the different
operating systems. Palm handhelds are the most compatible
with Macintoshes. To work with Macintoshes, Sony handhelds
require software purchased separately. Pocket PCs use
a Windows operating system and aren't compatible with
Macintoshes. Pocket PCs are the most fully compatible
with Windows computers, especially for e-mail purposes.
Palm OS handhelds can be used with Windows machines
as well, although with some limitations.
Handhelds Go to School
Educators at many levels are looking at educational
applications for hand-held computers, including
the use of low-end models with younger students.
Some educators believe that handhelds offer
an inexpensive, one-to-one use of technologysomething
that may never be fully available with computer
labs. In some schools, handhelds are providing
students with more access to computer time and
more opportunities to learn to use technology.
Students have been using handhelds to record
information for special projects, store and graph
data, perform graphing math calculations, record
journal entries, and more. The units are also
used by students to access electronic assignments
folders, school e-mail accounts, and for limited
access to school Web sites.
Traditional hand-held software is helping students
develop assignment calendars and "to do" lists.
Additional software has been added to expand
hand-held versatility, such as dictionary programs
for spelling and languageincluding languages
other than English.
As might be expected, new classroom uses for
handhelds are being found every day.
Beginning or Basic Users
The choices are a little easier for those interested
in a basic model for organizational purposes such as
addresses, calendar functions, a "to-do" list, and
so on. Learning to use a basic handheld is quite a
bit easier, and the cost can be quite a bit less.
Monochrome models are getting scarcer and cheaper
as handheld manufacturers move to color displays in
most of their models. The monochrome models are excellent,
however, working longer on a single charge or set of
The length of time a handheld will run on a single
charge or without changing the batteries is an issue
because manufacturers seem to be moving away from removable
batteries. Recharging that involves setting the unit
into a docking station or cable that is plugged into
a wall outlet is generally less convenient than being
able to carry extra batteries.
Color and other multimedia functions use power faster.
A monochrome handheld may run as long as 20 hours on
a single charge, while a color unit may only last 4
Most basic models can't be expanded with additional
memory or multimedia functions at a later date, and
some of these units aren't "backlit." The lack of backlighting
means the screen is easy to read in a bright light,
but can cause a problem in dimmer light. "Backlit" models
provide their own light and are easier to see in lower
Two excellent monochrome units are the Palm Zire
and the Sony PEG-SJ20 CLIÉ. Neither of these
has replaceable batteries and both are compatible with
Macintoshes as well as Windows machines. Compatibility
in this instance means that files (the number and type
depend on the hand-held model) can be transferred to
and from a desktop computer using a cable or docking
Palm Zire ($99)
The Zire has the most readable display (other than
in dim light) and is one of the smaller handhelds,
weighing only 3.5 ounces. It has only 2 MB of memory,
which is enough for most purposes, and allows for some
additional software if desired. The unit contains the
basic software and features found in most handhelds.
It can store addresses, appointments, notes, and tasks
and includes an expense tracker and calculator. Writing
must be entered using specific alphabetic shapes that
can be read by the included Graffiti 2 software. As
with most handhelds, data can be transferred to and
from a desktop computer. The excellent user interface
of the Palm OS makes this one of the better models
for beginners who are sure they want only basic organizer
functions. Palm, Inc., 800/881-7256 or http://www.palm.com/us/.
Sony PEG-SJ20 CLIÉ ($130)
In addition to all of the basics, this model has
15 MB RAM and an expansion slot so that memory can
be added if desired. The unit allows viewing and editing
of Excel and Word software and is compatible with Macintoshes
with the purchase of extra software. This handheld
has a great hardware design, is nearly as easy to use
as the Palm Zire, and even has an LCD alarm. Sony
Electronics e-Solutions Company LLC, 877/865-SONY (877/865-7669)
A Few More Features,
a Little More Complicated
Some more advanced users may want to take notes or
type, work with Excel or specific Microsoft files,
or take advantage of some of the many programs developed
specifically for handhelds. And, some users may want
more features to play withcolor displays or more
memory and operating speed.
These are the handhelds that I looked at for myself,
since the units in the basic group don't work with
Of course, all hand-held units have a means of input.
Some have onscreen keyboards that allow typing with
the use of a stylus. Some use handwriting recognition
software (such as Palm's Graffiti) that requires users
to learn to form special characters or to form letters
in a specific way. Both of these methods seem awkward
and definitely aren't as fast as using a standard-type
Several types of keyboards are available for hand-held
computers. "Thumb keyboards" are smaller with fewer
keys. Fold-up keyboards fold in three sections, are
light and very portable, and are full-sized with all
of the standard keys. The fold-up keyboards are commonly
available for less than $100.
The hand-held models listed below have all of the
features mentioned in the basic models.
Sony PEG-S360 CLIÉ ($185)
A monochrome handheld, this model is very highly
rated and has some multimedia functions, including
a picture viewer. The unit has a single expansion port
for a memory stick. Sony Electronics e-Solutions
Company LLC, 877/865-SONY (877/865-7669) or http://www.sonystyle.com/.
Palm m500 ($200)
This excellent color handheld is still available
but is no longer being made. Its still excellent cousin,
the m515 offers slightly weaker battery life and a
little more complexity for about $300. Beyond the basic,
including an expansion slot, the m500 has some e-mail
and Web browsing functions. It even has an LCD and
vibrating alarm. Palm, Inc, 800/881-7256 or http://www.palm.com/us/.
the Internet, and More
Users interested in taking or viewing photos, using
a handheld as an MP3 (music) player, or working with
wireless connectivity face a sometimes confusing choice,
as well as one that can be a good deal more expensive.
Connectivity is one of the issues that adds expense
and complexity. Wireless connectivity basically means
using Bluetooth technology to connect wirelessly to
a peripheral (printer or modem) or computer over short
distances. All of this hardware must be equipped for
A handheld equipped with Wi-Fi (a wireless local
area network global standard) can connect to a home
network (with the right equipment) or to the Internet
in airports, hotels, etc., that have "hot spots" (i.e.,
the proper equipment to enable a connection). A subscription
to a wireless ISP is required as well. These models
can receive e-mail; some can receive e-mail attachments
and can browse a limited form of the Internet.
Most of these models are also equipped with some
degree of multimedia capability, such as picture viewers
and voice recorders or MP3 music playing capability.
All have the basic office software discussed earlier,
color displays, expansion slots (one or two), and are
the fastest models available with the most memory.
Dell Axim X5 ($325)
The Axim X5 is one of the newer models. It has two
expansion slots and can be used with a peripheral as
well as extra memory. This handheld runs two programs
simultaneously better than most. It has an increasingly
rare featureremovable, rechargeable batteries.
Users can carry a spare to replace a battery with a
low charge, avoiding the need to recharge the whole
unit. There are two versions of this Pocket PC400
MHz and more memory, and 300 MHz and about half the
memory. Both are well designed. Dell, 800/999-3355
Compaq iPaq h3955 Pocket PC($400)
This iPaq runs multiple programs better than most
Pocket PCs and is very expandable. The expansion slots
enable expanding functionality that may require the
purchase of extra peripherals, software, and/or accessories. Compaq/Hewlett-Packard
Company, 800/888-0262 or http://welcome.hp.com/country/us/eng/welcome.html/.
Palm Tungsten THandheld ($350)
This model features e-mail, Web, and media viewing,
can play MP3s, and can record voice memos. The unit
includes built-in Bluetooth connectivity. Palm,
Inc, 800/881-7256 or http://www.palm.com/us/.
Palm Zire 71 Handheld ($300)
This is the least-expensive handheld available with
a camera (a low-resolution, mega-pixel digital camera).
This model also has an MP3 player and other multimedia
functions and is compact and light. Palm, Inc,
800/881-7256 or http://www.palm.com/us/.
Sony PEG-NX70V CLIÉ ($600)
Sony has two hand-held models with a digital camera;
this unit is the least expensive. It has the same type
of camera as the Palm Zire 71. The features include
a built-in keyboard and a larger display than most
Palm OS models. Sony Electronics e-Solutions
Company LLC, 877/865-SONY (877/865-7669) or http://www.sonystyle.com/.
Memory and Speed
I've avoided much discussion of memory and speed
because, in general, the handhelds have the amount
of memory needed for the programs they operatewith
some to spare. Multimedia, picture, and sound files
create the need for faster speeds and more memoryand
at least one expansion slot.
Before making a final decision, be sure to check
company Web sites for special deals and pricing. When
I wrote this article, for example, the Palm m515 handheld
was selling with a free mini-keyboard and case. Dell
was offering free shipping and a 10 percent discount,
and so on.
What Did I Buy?
My considerations included several factors. I do
most of my work with Word and may start using Excel
shortly, so better compatibility is an issue. I like
being able to remove and recharge the battery so I
can carry a spare. I like having two expansion slots.
And, as mentioned earlier, I plan on using a keyboard.
It was a tough decision. I had just about decided
to purchase a Palm m500 or perhaps a Palm m125 when
I started to read about Dell's new Axim, which was
very highly praised and had all of the basics.
At Dell, the keyboard I wanted was alittle cheaper,
and the Axim was marked down a little with free shipping.
Also, I've purchased two computers from the company
and generally like doing business there. I also like
the company's product support.
Ultimately, I bought the Axim. All in all, I paid
about $100 more than I had planned and got a Pocket
PC that should expand to meet any changing needsand
has the speed and memory to do so.
Charles Doe has been teaching for 32 years, including
20 years as a Title I reading specialist and 3 years
as a media specialist. In addition to presenting and
writing articles, he has been involved with computers
in education for 12 years. He is also a long-time product
reviewer forMultiMedia Schools. Communications
to the author may be addressed to Charles Doe, Media
Specialist, Hastings Area Schools, 232 W. Grand, Hastings,
MI 49058; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.