The Incredible Shrinking Computer

Palms, Pocket PCs pack power in a pint-size package.

September 1, 2000

They usually don’t attempt to replace notebooks, let alone desktop PCs. But there’s no denying that pocket-size personal digital assistants (PDAs), also known as palmtops, have become breakout hits with busy businesspeople and gadget lovers alike.

Palm Inc. (www.palm.com) continues to lead the field with entries ranging from the wireless Internet and e-mail-capable Palm VII ($449) to the color Palm IIIc ($449) and the sleek, light Palm Vx ($399).

Legions of add-on software programs and nifty accessories such as Kodak’s snap-on PalmPix Camera ($149) keep the Palm cult happy--and arguably upstage Palm’s breakaway brother, Handspring's Visor Deluxe (www.handspring.com; $249). Palm has also partnered with Supra to bring you the real estate-specific palmtop, eKEY, which comes loaded with Top Producer software.

Palms are wonderfully simple yet capable address, appointment, task list, and memo managers, and are easy to synchronize with both PCs and Macs. The only problem with the Palm family is that it has yet to offer a single model that combines lightweight, wireless data access and a color screen. Until it does, the monochrome Palm IIIxe is arguably the best buy at $249.

In the past, Microsoft has had limited success chasing the Palm with its colorful but heavier and more complex Windows CE palmtops. But its new Pocket PC operating system—as seen in the HP Jornada 540 ($499) and Compaq iPaq H3600 (www.compaq.com; $499)--tempts Palm defectors with simpler operation and familiar Word and Excel file editing (but no Mac compatibility). It also boasts consumer-oriented frills such as the ability to play MP3 audio files and read books downloaded from the Internet.

Ironically, the arrival of the Pocket PCs has all but upstaged the remaining Windows CE-based micronotebooks and palmtops with keyboards, which for some users can actually replace a laptop. NEC’s MobilePro 780 (www.neccomputers.com; $799) boasts a wonderfully typeable keyboard in a 2.2-pound PC companion about the size of the folder in which the waiter hands you a dinner check.

Vadem’s Clio C-1050 ($999) is nearly notebook size but features an ingenious three-way pivoting screen that lets the device function as a laptop, a handwriting tablet, or an easel for presentations.

If your e-mails tend to be more than a few sentences long, don’t count out the keyboard devices, no matter how appealing the coat-pocket computers seem. For the best of both worlds, consider pairing a Palm with the company’s nifty $99 fold-up keyboard.

Eric Grevstad is editor in chief of Home Office Computing, the technology resource that reaches more than 500,000 home-based businesspeople each month. It covers everything from home office furnishings and tax and time management to computers, communications, Internet product reviews, and buyer’s guides. HOC is available on newsstands or by annual subscription for $19.97 (800/288-7812).

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