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Thinking of buying a PDA?

Article written: December, 2004

This is a guest article kindly written/donated by Jon Baker. Please send any feedback/queries/comments via this website and they will be forward to Jon.

Download a copy of this article in zipped EPOC Word format here:  (295KB)

Download a copy of this article in zipped MS Word format here:  (923KB)

A look at the world wide wonderland of pocket computing:

Hey, it's a reader, hello, welcome.

PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), Palmtops, Sub-Notebooks, Notebooks, even Laptops, and "Smartphones". What a list, if you need something a little more compact than a desktop PC then you will have or will be seeing such a list and if you're anything like me (and I certainly hope you are otherwise I doubt you'll be reading much of this) you probably fancy the idea of one for whatever the reason, such as:

Word processing
E-mail / Internet / Network access
Music/video playback
PIM functions (Personal Information Management) such as a calendar and to-do list
and the list goes on...

With Christmas coming I've noticed where I work more and more PDAs been sold, to those people reading this who have been in the palmtop scene for a long time you may be very surprised how "mainstream" they've become, but just as PCs have become a common household object, PDAs seem to be becoming just as often seen. Since I guess you yourself may be interested in a little new toy, sorry, work tool, I believe the following advice, plus a visit to a few select websites, could help.

There are several things you'll want to consider when purchasing a PDA (I'm going to use this as an umbrella term for the rest of the article meaning anything for pocket computing).

Please ask yourself these questions:
What do I want to do mobility? (i.e. from the list above)
Do I require Internet or network access?
What software will I need (word processor, presentation etc)
Do I need a keyboard? (Or will onscreen input or voice recognition be sufficient)
What sort of battery life will I require? (Only a couple of hours or days of use without a recharge or fresh batteries)
How much storage will I need (1MB of memory may store a lot of text but not even one music track)
How much kit am I willing to carry? (Its all very well having a top-of-the-range laptop with mobile printer and external hard drive, but try carrying it all without breaking your back let alone your bank)
Do I need a colour screen or is it worth ditching the colour screen for longer battery life and cost?
Is this a work or play machine? (Or indeed both!)

Do spend some time thinking about these because once you've made the decision and bought the device you will have to live with it.

Oh, and following all the talking, there are pictures of all the items discussed here.

I'm not going to bore you with (many) technical specifications but merely run through most of the different types and models and try to explain the work you can carry out on each.

Here is somewhat of an index:
Pocket PCs

So, we start with the most common not-a-desktop-PC, the laptop. A quick run down first I think:

Lovely size and quality of screen
Compatible with all desktop PC files and software and operating systems
Excellent specifications available
Specifications are remarkably cheap when compared to PDAs specifications for same price
Uses standard PC connections and accessories

Battery life

That's all there is to know really, a laptop is of course a fully-fledged PC in a smaller box. If you need a full PC for some reason (PC only software for example) then this is your only choice, sorry. If however you don't need PC software and the thought of carrying a laptop around isn't exactly your idea of portable then there are other options (obviously, this is the idea of the article!).

Portability is your issue here, if you could get a laptop in your shirt pocket - you would! As well, three hours of battery life is not a great idea on a long flight or train ride. The benefit here is the ability to carry real PC software (or if you need to edit videos on a train of course!).

And most manufacturers websites

Next up on the line is the sub-notebook. This is still a PC; it comes running the real Windows operating system. It is however smaller, size wise a cross between a laptop and a palmtop thus a "sub-notebook".

Proper PC software
Size (as compared to a laptop, its still bigger than a palmtop)
Standard PC connections and accessories

Battery life (not as good as a top end palmtop but much better than a laptop)
Screen size (as compared to a laptop, its still bigger than a palmtop)
These are wonderful machines (made mainly by Sony) but they have two fatal flaws, namely their cost (upwards of 900 at this time) even though their specifications aren't close to that of a laptop and that the screen size is smaller thus some software will not fit on the screen.

If you need a smaller PC and cost isn't an issue then here is your answer. However if your budget is smaller and you want a better battery life, carry on.


The rest of the line up are not a-sort-of-desktop-PC in any way, they are all PDAs. I'm doing these in the order I feel starts most with a PC and ends up least like one. One thing to remember about PDAs is that unlike PCs they have "instant on", no boot up or shutdown times!

So to start with, the Psion range.

Psion manufactured (yes, past tense, they no longer make these) the Series 3(a, c, mx), 5(mx), Revo(plus), 7 and netBook range of PDAs. They were the original portable office and in my mind are still the best (this article is being written on a netBook even though there is Word on the PC next to me). Here I will only be going into what are known as the EPOC machines (EPOC Release 5 is the operating system used on the later models and I will be addressing this) since they are the ones that are easy to get hold of still (there are many websites selling new and used ones).

Psion Series 5mx, Revo, Revo Plus, Series 7, and netBook are easy to get through various sources. All these machines come with the same software. That is:
Expandable 32bit multitasking windowed operating system (which by the way is ridiculously stable, this doesn't crash nearly as often as any other OS)
Office suite (Word, Sheet, Data)
PIM functions (The best Agenda software ever in my opinion)
E-mail and Web browsing software
File management
Touch screen

These are the main bits of software, and what's even better the amount of software available for these machines is immense. My netBook, and my old Series 5mx had everything from Doom and Space Invaders through to a PC DOS emulator and FTP software. What's even better most of it is freeware.

The Series 5mx, Revo and Revo Plus are in one "league" and the Series 7 and netBook are in another and will be addressed as such. The former are all smaller machines, all three have good size QWERTY keyboards and screens which are greyscale (not colour) but are larger than found on other PDAs and are designed to be able to carry full A4 width in the Word package. The greyscale screen also gives much better battery life and contrast, the Revo runs off an internal rechargeable battery and the '5' off 2AAs. Revo has 10-20 hours of use, the 5 has 20-40 hours dependant on what you're doing.

The 5mx info:
16MB RAM (enough to run a web browser and word processor while still storing a few books in the memory)
A compact flash slot (CF) (Psion only guarantee their cards to work, but most work, I personally have used Lexar 64MB, PQI 128MB, Lexar 256MB and SanDisk 512MB.
Larger screen at 640x240 pixels.
External dictation buttons

And here is some Revo info:
Much smaller unit (its lovely!)
8MB RAM (Revo) / 16MB RAM (Revo Plus)
Smaller screen (480x160)
No CF slot (no memory expansion at all - the price of the size)

Next up after these three little beauties you have their bigger brothers, the Series 7 and the netBook.

These devices are basically the same except for the following:
  Series 7 netBook
Memory 16MB 32MB
Processor 133MHz 190MHz
ROM OS in Rom Loaded from CF Card into RAM
PC Cards Memory Memory, Modem, Network

And of course, the badges and logos.

You can expect around 8 hours off the rechargeable battery.

These machines run the same software, still both have keyboards, the main difference is that these two have larger screens (640x480 - double the height of the Series 5) and its colour. It's just bigger. And looking at speed the Series 5mx and Revos are at around 36MHz, so these are faster. Don't bother thinking about these speeds relative to a PC, it doesn't work like that, or relative to anything else for that matter.

Battery life
Software suite
Range of add-ons (Hardware and software - although the hardware available is not the newest)
Excellent keyboards

No multimedia capabilities (Won't play videos and doesn't have a headphone socket but MP3 software is available)
Not as small as the Palms or PPCs
Windows integration is not the best but better than Palms and software is available to covert file formats (The OS includes Word DOC conversion software though!)

If you're looking for a portable office suite and aren't bothered about multimedia at all, look no further, but if you want to play audio or video files I wouldn't look here.


So so so, where to next, the land of Microsoft, and to Pocket PCs.

Now it is true, I own a netBook, I've owned a 5mx and a 3mx, but I do also own a hp Jornada 568 Pocket PC (it's an old one now) so don't think I'm being (too) biased.

The Microsoft Pocket PC Operating System (which, as the name suggests, Pocket PCs (PPCs) run) is in some ways it is excellent, very colourful, quite quick, but I do find I'm resetting the device several times a week (it is Windows-like, it does crash). The Pocket PC type devices don't have keyboards in the main, and if they do they are "thumb-boards", it's like typing on a phone.

Pocket PCs have the following built in software:
32bit multitasking Windows CE Operating System
File Management
Windows Media Player (Pocket)
Pocket Internet Explorer
Pocket Word
Pocket Excel
Today view

Please note the "Pocket" prefix. These are not Outlook, Word and Excel, in fact please read the following list of lacking features.

Pocket Word does not include: Page layout, tables, columns, grammar check, macros, VBA scripting and most advanced formatting.
Pocket Excel does not include: Graphing facilities (that's right, no graphs!), and multiple worksheets.
Windows Media Player (Pocket) only has support for MP3s and WMA/WMV files (and only specific types at that).
Please note that have released real office software for these systems and boy, it's up to Psion standards.

So, if you're after a work machine you will more than likely need some extra software unless you're idea of work it a quick simple email, and a simple document and spreadsheet. On the other hand the web browser and the audio/video abilities are excellent. The ability for new technology on Pocket PCs is much better than the Psions' however, they have Bluetooth, network, and other add-ons available that make them much more compatible with newer equipment, as I said, Psions' are no longer supported officially. They are also smaller and quicker, I personally find that when route planning the PPC runs 3-5 times faster. One problem of being smaller is a smaller screen, 320x240 pixels.

One of the smallest palmtops
Wonderful multimedia capability
Latest technology
Software/Hardware support
Full Windows compatibility
Seamless Outlook integration (If you use Outlook, the synchronisation features here are amazing!)

Does not come with very good office software
Smaller screen when compared to Psions' and laptops/notebooks
Average battery life (4-14 hours dependant on hardware/software usage)
No keyboard
I've found that the Pocket PC OS 2002 needs to be reset up to once a day sometimes

This device is what I consider a fantastic multimedia and reference device, I use my PPC for reading books (using the excellent uBook software) and listening to music and watching videos, and as a PIM device. The small size allows easy carrying in a pocket and the range of games :) available is fantastic!


Next, we have the Palm devices.

Palms, these little gizmos originally started out with a simple little operating system with simply a Date book, Address book, To-do list, and little else. Some these days still have little more than that, but heck can you get 'em cheaper than anything else! These range all the way up to lovely colour devices that play some great videos and some that come with excellent office suites. It is a great range of devices. The main problems with Palms is that the OS can be considered a little simplistic (good for some people that though) and the Windows integration is not as near as good as PPCs.

Can be quite cheap
Simple to operate
Some have excellent multimedia capabilities
Some have excellent hardware/software expandability
Better than average battery life

Windows integration is not excellent (but more than useable)
Personally I've found the Palm OS unstable when using third-party software, but the newer (v5) OS is much better than the older ones (still used on some Zire models)

It's difficult to compare Palms as they come from greyscale non-multimedia ones (the Zire) through to models like the Tungsten series which comes with an office suite and a beautiful colour screen with audio/video playback. Overall all I will say is that if you want office software or web browsers or email software etc (all comes on the Psions and PPCs) unless you buy a device that comes with it, you'll pay for it! Finally as I mentioned the OS is simplistic and was never designed as a powerful platform though various people that program Palm software have done a good job of making it better.


Well, all that's left now is those weird and, well no just weird, smartphones.

By smartphones I'm not only talking about Microsofts' venture into the talking world but ones like Nokia's Symbian phones as well. It's amazing how technology grows. It's a pretty well known story, when someone suggested cameras on mobile phones to their boss they told them it could never catch on, such is life. Today it's possible to buy a phone capable of web browsing, word processing, MP3 playing and video playing. When I say video playback I'm not referring to dumbly-low-quality videos on a 1.5cm screen, I mean a quality good enough to watch a film. These devices come in three major sets:
Microsoft smartphones
Nokia Series 60s
Nokia Communicators

I'll start with the Nokia Communicators. Some people consider these the continuation of the Psion line, though honestly, I wish they wouldn't. They are fully functional top-of-the-range GSM mobile phones with keyboards, wide (colour) screens and similar software to what you'd expect from a Psion-like Symbian (formally EPOC) OS, though don't expect the exact same software.

Colour screen
Mobile phone
Excellent software
Excellent available add-ons

Running palmtop functions against phone - low battery life
Though this is a Symbian OS the software isn't quite up to Psion standards
Makes for a large phone these days
Guess what, cost

Fancy an all-in-one unit capable of multimedia, cellular phone functions, word processing and Internet access all together. You're in luck. However you'll have to make compromises on the battery, size, weight and cost front.


Here look, it's a nice looking phone, a Series 60 we call them. Again we're looking at a nicely stable Symbian OS but it looks more like a phone, no keyboard and a smaller screen, but don't let this deceive you, it's powerful. Now, while you probably wouldn't want to try constructing your latest presentation on here, these systems can make excellent viewers. They especially make great PIM systems and email systems.

Very small compared to anything else
Built-in cameras
Office software available (built in on some models)
Email facilities
Good PIM software
Video and audio playback
Great software/hardware available

Tiny screen compared to anything else, but this is a phone remember
Good battery life on standby but less than 10 hours of "real" use
No where near as powerful as a Communicator or PPC etc, then again, it's not designed to be

If you want something to view files on (or some quick editing) this could be for you. If you want a personal organizer, again, this could be for you. Again email/Internet is no problem it is a phone. But this is no powerful palmtop.


Finally, Microsoft's venture. Windows Mobile-based smartphones. These were designed to function like tiny-PPCs with a built in phone. In practice these are more like a Nokia Series 60 phone however.

PIM software is great
Seamless Outlook connectivity
Email facilities
Video/audio playback
Good software/hardware available
Built in cameras on most
Office software available

Tiny screen compared to anything else
Low battery life
No where near as powerful as a Pocket PC etc, then again, it's not designed to be

If you want something to view files on (or some quick editing) this could be for you. If you want a personal organizer, again, this could be for you. Again email/Internet is no problem it is a phone. But this is no powerful palmtop. One thing though, I've seen these crash, and take over a minute to boot!


Well, that's pretty much all there is on the market, a lot isn't it! I guess if you got this far you're serious about getting one of these, and/or a real techno-freak. Having a look at the links a bit to see what the details are beyond what I've put here not to mention add-on software will help you a bit more to work out exactly what sort of machine is best for you. There is no "most-powerful" machine here, each is a very different piece of kit each designed for a purpose (purposes) and each will do something the other will not. As with a TV, a Hi-Fi, or a PC there are compromises to be made, so pick some.

It's also worth noting that 16MB RAM may sound so sad today (say on a Palm or a Psion) but it is not useless, far from it. Remember you're used to a Windows PC, which can't do much (anymore) with 16MB of RAM but a palmtop can! ON my 5mx with 16MB I had a web browser, word processor and a couple of other things running at the same time, no problem. So don't jump to conclusions. Beyond that I think I'll have to let you look yourself more.

As promised here are some pictures.


Sony F Series


Sony TR Series

Sony T Series


Psion Series 3C

Psion Series 5mx

Psion revo / revo plus

Psion Series 7 and Psion netBook

Pocket PCs:

HP iPAQ 2210

HP iPAQ h4350

Casio BE-300


palmOne Tungsten T3

palmOne Zire

palmOne Treo 600 Phone

Nokia Communicators:

Nokia 9300 Communicator

Nokia 9210i Communicator

Nokia Series 60 Phones:

Nokia 6660

Windows Mobile Powered Smartphones:

Motorola MPxw

i-mate SP3

OK, so, that's all folks, enjoy the search for the kit, do answer the questions posed at the beginning, they should help, and hey, if you find anything of interest let me know and I'll add it in.

When it comes to buying these I would like to recommend the following places:
As well as manufacturers sites too of course.

It's been a pleasure people.

The End

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