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Magazines > MultiMedia Schools > October 2003
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Vol. 10 No. 5 — October 2003
Practical Matters
A Look At Hand-Held Computing
by Charles G. Doe
Media Specialist Hastings (Michigan) Area Schools

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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 around—both online and at local electronics stores—only 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 technology.)

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 various models.

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 systems—Palm 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 technology—something 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 language—including languages other than English.

As might be expected, new classroom uses for handhelds are being found every day.

—CD

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 batteries.

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 hours.

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 light situations.

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 station.

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) or http://www.sonystyle.com/.

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 with—color 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 portable keyboards.

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 keyboard.

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/.

Multimedia, 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 wireless use.

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 feature—removable, 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 PC—400 MHz and more memory, and 300 MHz and about half the memory. Both are well designed. Dell, 800/999-3355 or http://www.dell.com/.

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 operate—with some to spare. Multimedia, picture, and sound files create the need for faster speeds and more memory—and at least one expansion slot.

Costs

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 needs—and 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: charliegd@yahoo.com.
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