Which PDA To Buy?

What I needed was a new PDA. What I had was a lot of questions, so I asked for help from my blog readers.

May 9, 2006

13 Min Read
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I've always been a Palm Pilot guy, ever since the very first model. I bought a Palm Vx just so I could put a modem on it and check e-mail, and this was before everybody I meet on the street had a Blackberry. A few weeks ago the time came to put the Vx out to pasture so I began to think about PDAs and scope out the currently available models.

I wrote a blog entry headlined Which PDA Should I Buy?. All my window-shopping and spec-reading boiled down my choice to three questions:

  • Would I really use fancy features like WiFi access and a built-in MP3 player?

  • Is there any advantage at all to a Pocket PC over a Palm?

  • Is there something I'm missing here, another maker, another OS?I asked the readers of my weekly e-mail newsletter for their help, too. Between the e-mail replies and blog comments I got quite a bit of very helpful response.

    The advice seemed to boil down to three main schools of thought. One group was very vocal in its praise of the Palm TX. Another recommended the Treo 650. And a third, slightly smaller contingent supported various Pocket PC models, with no particular favorite. Taking it all into consideration I made my choice, and after a couple of weeks of experience I'm as happy with the result as I was with the good advice.

    WiFi access, in particular, rated high, both with people who want it, and with people who have it. The Palm TX users rated it very important.

    Dave Rogers wrote, "Last year, I bought my wife the Palm TX and I remain very impressed with it. She initially thought the wireless option was unnecessary, but now she uses it constantly and can't imagine being without it. And after adding Palm's universal infrared keyboard (the Bluetooth 'board was too expensive) I often find her composing and editing documents directly on her TX rather than booting her laptop. She routinely pops in SD cards with music, pictures or documents. In short, the TX has almost become an appendage. And here's the kicker: She's not a geek or tech-minded at all. The TX simply works for her. I don't think you can go wrong with one yourself."

    If Rogers had been alone, I might have wondered whether he was trying to boost the Palm stock price, but other people had similar comments about the TX. Eric Hagerty upgraded from a Palm M500 to a TX and he's just as thrilled as Mrs. Rogers with his choice.

    "I find that the wireless is handy for checking e-mail as more and more places are offering free wireless access. I even use it a home with my wireless network rather than turning on the desktop or laptop," he says.Hagerty downloads a daily blog to his TX, and also uses its SD card slot to offload photos from his digital camera. He praises the "documents to go" feature's ability to render Microsoft Office documents on his device, and also the Palm version of the Adobe Reader.

    Bob Pegram has a new Palm TX that replaced an older Palm Zire. He says he's moved all the programs he used on the Zire over to the TX, and he's a happy camper, too: "Would you use the new features? In my case that is a very BIG YES! I configured it up for email and web via 802.11b. Wifi setup is a bit rough around the edges, but it does support WPAPSK, which everyone should use at home. I spent a day or 2 not booting my laptop because I had lots of non-computer work to do. The TX kept me in touch all by itself."

    Like other TX users, he finds the MP3 features almost as compelling as the WiFi. He upgraded the limited version of Pocket Tunes that comes with the TX to one that allows him to listen to streaming audio and use WMA DRM music, like from Yahoo! Music. "Unless you are already wedded to your Ipod," he writes, "you have a twofer, a PDA/MP3player."

    He does point out a couple of downsides: WiFi is power hungy, even with power saving features on. And, he says, Grafitti 2 can be irritatingly different to learn.

    Several commenters recommended the Treo 650 which combines a cellphone with the PDA features of a Palm.David Bobson loves his: "The phone is probably one of the best I have ever used in any PDA or phone. That in itself says alot. It can handle SD cards. The screen output is one of the clearest on the market. The web browser is excellent. The email client is rather decent." And, he points out, if you've already used a Palm the learning curve is low.

    Don't expect all your favorite Palm software to run on the Treo, however, warns Dennis Durham: "I had to keep my Visor for some legacy programs until I decide if I can live without them."

    John Anderson's company tries out every PDA that comes from its cell service provider, Cingular, he writes: "None of them are perfect, but they do get better. Our users mainly use the Treo 650. Half are happy, half are not happy. The unhappy people don't like the voice quality and problems with freezing and resets. Definitely don't get sucked in to buying a cheap Treo 600."

    The Pocket PC/Windows Mobile devices have their boosters, too. Most of them like the same features the TX users like -- WiFi, MP3 music -- and several mention compatability with PC apps as a buying decision-maker. Stuart Cohen, for example, says, "I love my Dell Axim running Windows. It does Winamp (not well) and does Graffiti! Having Wifi is great in boring meetings, and the SD slot allows me to bring my own music." "Michael" says he's used a Palm M130, an HP iPAQ 2215, and even a Motorola SmartPhone 2003. "All are fine equipment and can be made compatible with my Lotus Notes." (He uses it to sync his e-mail, he says, not to run Notes apps on his portable device.)

    Rob Martell also is concerned about compatibility with PC documents: " If you are used to a Palm you may want to stick with that. I must admit I was jealous of a friend's Documents-To-Go on his Palm, but the latest PPC version of Excel is much improved." Martell uses the Dell X50v, and he likes the Wi-Fi, but doesn't use it for e-mail. "We use Outlook at work, so I send myself iCard versions of appointments to myself so it will sync up with the X50v and pop up the alarms."

    Martell also likes the MP3/media player features of the device: "I replaced an old HP Jornada 548 with a Dell X50v. I loaded up on 1GB cards (SD and CF) and dumped a bunch of tunes on it, as well as getting some TWiT TV mp3s, and some DL.TV and CrankyGeeks video items for the train rides. I use PocketMusic, a Winamp clone." The iPAQ's storage capacity is what Russ O'Connell likes: His device is loaded with "20 or 30 books, several spread sheets, a Korean phrase book, and assorted games, I really use it for a data collector, I do building inspections and store permit numbers by the thousands. I think I liked the Palm better but after spending all that money I'll learn to love the iPAQ."

    Some users of other less widely used devices stood up for their favorites, too, and had interesting observations about what makes a PDA usable.Chris Robinson got tired of carrying both a Palm T3 and a cellphone, so he writes, "I opted for the MDA Compact from T-Mobile here in the UK, which is a PDA and phone combined running Windows Mobile. The hardware can be bought separately as a PDA called the I-Mate JAM. Now I only have to carry around one compact device, which is really nice."

    He rarely uses his PDA as an MP3 player, he says, "because it's not designed as one and is therefore a pain to control 'blind' when it's in the pocket."

    Several Palm users praised the PalmOS for being more compact and efficient than Windows (as Rich Barrett says, "I don't like running Windows on a desktop; why would anyone run it on a portable device?") and for having the most applications available. Robinson agrees, and finds the MDA falls short of the Palm in one other respect: the screen. "I definitely preferred the screen of my old T3 than my current MDA compact. There's absolutely no comparison, the T3 screen was better by miles. It was really sharp and you often forget you're reading off a screen (not that all Windows Mobile devices will have poor screens - it's been nearly a year since I looked at them, perhaps they've improved)."

    Jeremy Hannah is a Psion fan, but says he's looking for a new PDA, and it may be a Dell Axim like the one his wife has: "I tend to use Skype a lot, and I am trying to decide just how badly I want to use Skype to speak to my parents back in Europe. Skype is only available for handhelds with [Windows Mobile], so Palm devices are not really an option."

    The Asus 716 is what Tom Vaughan uses: "It has Bluetooth to connect the GPS and OnCourse navigation software. Because it supports both the SD and CF storage devices I have enough storage to have the complete US available when I travel. I do on occassion listen to mp3s and I do watch a video on flights sometimes. I don't know what the equivalent device would be for someone buying a new PDA, but the Asus 716 has a host of needed attributes."

    I pondered all this very good advice and looked for good deals. Staples, the big office-supply chain, had a sale on Palms, and the Palm TX seemed to have everything I was looking for, so I took my wife into the store and we stood in front of the display. I pointed to the TX."What about that one?" She pointed to the Palm LifeDrive, which, like the TX does WiFi and MP3 and has an SD card slot and a rotatable screen, and, unlike the TX, has a built-in 4GB hard drive.

    "Yeah," I said, "I like it a lot, but it's so expensive, and with that hard drive battery life has got to be awful, and . . ."

    "If you like it buy it," she said.

    So I did.

    Nobody had commented on the LifeDrive, and I suspect price is the reason it hasn't gotten more attention. When it was introduced last year the LifeDrive was priced at a heart-stopping $499. It has recently dropped it to the $399 range on the street, about $100 more than the TX.I justified my purchase by saying I couldn't buy 4GB worth of SD cards for $100 (not actually true these days if you're a careful shopper, but who wants to spend all day swapping cards?)

    With a couple of weeks experience under my belt, I think I did the right thing.

    I do use the WiFi. It's not as useful as I had hoped it might be. I had had WAN service with a modem add-on for my Palm Vx, and anywhere availability for your e-mail is better than hunting down a WiFi hotspot. That is the key to the BlackBerry's success, I am sure. And even though the WiFi works well enough, and the LifeDrive has a terrific screen, the Web is still designed for SuperVGA. A PDA screen is just too small a window to look at the Web through.

    Palm's VersaMail application is usable, though I've had trouble setting it up to work with Gmail. Using Web-based mail services, however has been problematic. More than once I've labored with the stylus and the new, unfamiliar version of Graffiti on the LifeDrive to create a couple of paragraphs of reply in Yahoo Mail and clicked send only to lose the message somewhere in the process of reconnecting to the wireless router. I'm left with "Message Not Sent" and no way to get my laboriously created text back. I've got to remember to compose in Memo and copy to Mail.

    What I really use the LifeDrive for is music. I second the complaints about using a PDA as a media player. It is awkward to have to get your stylus out to select tunes. And there are other interface problems with Pocket Tunes as well — there's no single-click "Play Album" command, for instance. But I really like having music in my pocket.I did make a discovery that has made the LifeDrive even more of a music machine. I bought a Brando WorkShop Palm Music Dock. It's an overgrown cradle that does all the usual Palm cradle things -- charges, hotsyncs, data transfers -- plus it includes a couple tiny speakers that produce surprisingly good sound. For $35 it comes with a charger and USB connector cable. It comes from Hong Kong, by the way, and frankly I wondered how well that would work, but it arrived on my doorstep in a week. The Music Dock works not only with the LifeDrive, but with the Palm TE 2, T5, and TX. If you've got one of those, get one of these.

    As I suspected, the battery life of the LifeDrive isn't great. When you turn WiFi on you can almost hear it sucking the batteries down, and anything that leaves the screen on for long periods, like reading an ebook, is a battery killer. But the audio player seems to do pretty well -- roughly equivalent to my limited experience with iPods. My Palm Vx went on the charger once a month. My LifeDrive lives on the charger. But that seems to be OK.

    A couple of the commenters mentioned the changes in Graffiti, and I'll have to say, they suck. I like some things about the change, like the elimination of the shift stroke, but I'm having trouble getting used to two-stroke characters like "i" and "t" and especially the "k." I read on the Palm Infocenter blog that there's a way to replace Graffiti 2 with the original Graffiti. If I try that I'll let you know how it goes.

    Finally, I'd second three points that one of the commenters, Jim Johnson, made:

    • Be sure to get a hard case, mine gets dropped a lot out of mypocket and the case has done a terrific job protecting my Palm.

    • Check out the Brighthand Forums available from the Palm website. Youwill get a lot of insight on Battery life and other importantinformation.

    • Wait for any new Palm to be refined and QC issues dealt with by not purchasing one until its been available for a few months.

    I was tempted by the LifeDrive last year. I didn't hear of major problems with them then, but the product I bought has been solid. If there were any bugs they've been shaken out -- along with some of the original high price.

    My thanks to everybody who shared their experiences and advice.

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