Palmtops group test review

sleek, mono PDA
Photo of Palmtops group test
£360 + VAT

Things are hotting up for anyone who fancies buying a pocket-sized palmtop ‘personal digital assistant’ (PDA) thanks to three recent developments. First, Palm Computing has licensed its award-winning Palm operating system (Palm OS) to recent startup HandSpring, so expanding the Palm platform to new and unusual machines. Second, Microsoft has learnt many lessons from its appalling Windows CE platform and come up with a much better palmtop-specific operating system to take its place, called PocketPC. And third, palmtops with colour screens are getting cheaper.

Palmtop PDAs are tiny handheld tablets with small touch-sensitive screens and no keyboard: you use a stylus to navigate the software and enter data. All palmtop PDAs offer some form of handwriting recognition which turns pen strokes into numbers and letters, or you can tap away at a tiny on-screen keyboard image.

The number of colour-screen palmtops is sharply on the increase. Colour screens shorten battery life, but battery technology is improving and you can normally expect between 6 and 12 hours of active use between recharges. Compare that with a typical mobile phone which usually peters out after a couple of hours of talk, and suddenly palmtops don’t seem quite so poor. Longer-lasting mono-screen palmtops are still dominant because of price, but colour is an unstoppable trend just as it was with notebook PCs during the 1990s.

Here we take a look at five of the most popular PDAs on the market, based on Palm OS and Microsoft’s PocketPC, three of which come with colour screens. Click the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.Our second PocketPC-based device comes across as very different from Casio’s Cassiopeia E-115. The Jornada 545 is slimmer, designed with a more curvy look, and includes a hinged plastic flip-up cover to protect the screen. A special flat stylus is hidden inside the cover. There are fewer buttons to confuse the beginner too: just three dedicated buttons for calling up the address book, contacts and tasks, plus one to return you back to the Home screen. There’s also a thumbwheel Action button for scrolling and selecting, although it takes some getting used to. Nor do the Action button controls kick in everywhere in the system, so this isn’t quite a one-handed palmtop.

The screen is 16-bit colour with a resolution of 240×320 pixels. It’s a good display but not especially bright, possibly being a compromise in order to prolong battery life. If so, the compromise also leaves graphics looking a bit drab and text less sharp that it ought to appear.

You get the full set of PocketPC applications, including Pocket Outlook for handling all your e-mail, contacts and appointments. You can store and play MP3 audio and MPEG video (there’s a stereo audio jack on the side), but to do so, you might want to consider upgrading the built-in 16MB of memory using the Compact Flash slot. A built-in mic and Record button on the left-hand side make the Jornada 545 a good digital dictaphone too. HP even bundles a quality pair of stereo earphones in the box.

Perhaps most surprising is how affordable the Jornada 545 is, with HP’s estimated street price being heavily discounted by mail order suppliers. Even at this price, it’s cheaper than many other PocketPC colour palmtops.Such is the demand for colour screens that Palm Computing came up with the Palm IIIc. This machine caused quite a stir when it first appeared, but it’s really just a standard Palm device after all. It even looks just like a Palm III (or indeed a charcoal black HandSpring Visor); all that’s changed is the screen, which still presents only 8-bit colour at 160×160 pixels. To be honest, the screen’s not very interesting.

Beyond that, the Palm IIIc is a light but sturdily-built palmtop which includes some excellent PIM functions. It’s easy to control with the stylus and the usual dedicated buttons for triggering the calendar, contacts, to-do and notes applications ranged across the bottom, plus a special Graffiti handwriting recognition pad just below the main screen area. The screen and buttons are protected by a hinged plastic cover.

In use, the Palm IIIc is a great palmtop. The PIM applications are well integrated and quick to learn. You also get a corresponding Windows-based PIM called Palm Desktop Organiser with which you synchronise all your agendas and contacts. Running the world’s most popular palmtop platform, you will find hundreds of commercial and shareware applications available for download, as well as further sync support with Windows desktop programs such as Microsoft Outlook. We also congratulate Palm for including full printed documentation in the box.

But this could be a description of a mono 8MB Palm III, which costs rather less than the Palm IIIc. Since the Palm OS isn’t graphically rich, a tinge of red and blue here and there may not be enough to win over serious buyers. But if you absolutely must have a colour palmtop, the Palm IIIc is the cheapest you’ll find.Costing relatively little, the Visor Deluxe is a stylish but rugged PDA which runs the Palm OS 3.1 operating system under licence. If you have ever used a Palm product, you’ll know how to use the Visor Deluxe immediately. The machine sports a 160×160-pixel black-and-white screen and comes with 8MB of memory, which is plenty for all your personal information, ebooks and any third-party software which you might fancy running. The shape of the device looks similar to the old Palm III but HandSpring has made it available in a range of fun translucent case colours in addition to good old charcoal.

A dedicated active area immediately below the screen is employed for entering text with pen-strokes. It does this via the Palm OS Graffiti handwriting recognition system, which after just a little practice works rather well. But this is no word processor: the Visor Deluxe is a classic PDA for organising your life, not business documents.

The best feature of the machine is the SpringBoard slot on the back. This is designed to take a slowly increasing number of third-party add-on hardware modules, such as MP3 players, audio recorders and digital cameras. Just bear in mind that there are still very few of these available and most of them are disconcertingly expensive. Otherwise, the hardware design is straightforward for a palmtop, with a pair of up-down scrolling buttons and special buttons for the Date Book, Address Book, To Do List and Memo Pad.

Basically, HandSpring have come up with the first mass-appeal, affordable PDA to come with professional-class applications. Despite the clever SpringBoard idea, most people will see the Visor Deluxe as the perfect palmtop when the budget is tight.Based on the PocketPC operating system, the Cassiopeia E-115 is a chunky piece of button-laden electronics that begs to be picked up and played with. It has a 16-bit colour screen which, at 240×340 pixels, is the largest of the five devices on test. Below the screen is a directional button for scrolling through lists and fields, and dedicated buttons for calling up the menu, the calendar and your contacts book.

Turn the unit sideways and you’ll find more buttons running down the left hand side. As well as the on/off switch, there’s a button which triggers PocketPC’s Windows-like Start menu and a thumbwheel Action Control for scrolling and selecting. These two controls pretty much enable you to navigate the entire system with one hand without having to remove the stylus from its holder until you decide to enter new data.

Unusually, Casio provides its own Mobile Calendar and Address Book in place of Microsoft’s Pocket Outlook. Otherwise, you still get the standard PocketPC applications: Word, Excel, Money, Internet Explorer and the e-mail inbox from Outlook. You can also make good use of the media players for MP3 audio and MPEG video thanks to the generous 32MB of memory built into the machine as standard. This can be expanded via the Compact Flash slot in the top. There’s even a stereo headphone jack so you can use the Cassiopeia E-115 as an MP3 player.

The real star of the show, though, is the screen, which is bright and super-clear. Just bear in mind that the device weighs about a quarter of a kilo, and battery life is just six hours. But the Cassiopeia E-115 is so desirable you might not care.Casio’s Cassiopeia E-115 stands out from the rest for its implementation of the PocketPC software combined with Casio’s own PIM utilities, along with clever one-hand navigation controls. It’s also packed with memory, supports Compact Flash upgrades and the colour screen is simply the best of the lot. The other colour PocketPC-based device, HP’s Jornada 545, simply can’t compete with Casio’s bright and crisp screen, although it’s significantly better than the Palm IIIc in this respect. That said, the Cassiopeia E-115 is the most expensive palmtop of the five. Those on tighter budgets should opt for the Jornada 545 instead and save a good £100 on street prices.

Our second-favourite after the Cassiopeia E-115, however, is actually Palm’s Vx. For us, a good palmtop needs to be exceptionally portable. So while the Palm Vx is just a mono device with 8MB RAM and a limited set of built-in applications, you won’t find a slimmer, lighter or better designed PDA. Along with the Palm IIIc and HandSpring Visor Deluxe, it also offers the best handwriting recognition and hot-syncing in the business. Not least, the price is good and battery life extensive.

The Palm IIIc, on the other hand, seems to have no purpose other than to pander to customers who want a colour screen. As for the HandSpring Visor Deluxe, we’re not convinced. The unique SpringBoard slot seems to be a way of keeping the initial hardware cost low, so that anything you might want beyond basic PIM functions is a third-party slot add-on which costs more than the palmtop itself.This is a machine which sorts the fun-seekers from the business types. If you want fun, expect to pay lots of money and walk away with bulky and heavy palmtops. If you’re serious about your PDA requirements for business, you’ll want something affordable and extremely portable – like the Palm Vx. We’re talking about a palmtop that’s less than 120mm tall and 1cm thick, and weighing barely over 100g (less than half the weight of Casio’s Cassiopeia E-115). It really does feel like a small jotting notepad, compared with today’s typical palmtops which feel thick and heavy when hanging in your jacket pocket.

Inside you get all the core PIM applications from Palm OS 3.5: Date Book, Address, To Do List, Memo Pad, Calc, Expense and Mail. You’ll need third-party software if you want direct access to e-mail and the Web, but the built-in programs synchronise superbly well with your PC. As with other Palm products, just placing the unit into its serial/USB-attached cradle initiates the Hot-Sync process, recharging the battery at the same time.

The machine comes with 8MB of memory, which is plenty considering how small Palm OS software tends to be. The Palm Vx screen is just black-and-white and offers a resolution of just 160×160 pixels, but it’s very well used thanks to the excellent quality of the built-in applications. We feel the screen is a little dark, though, and look forward to more contrasty alternatives in the future. That said, everything is perfectly readable and, combined with easy navigation and the reliable Graffiti pen-based input, the Palm Vx is very easy to use. It may not have the multimedia sparkle of PocketPC-based palmtops, but it handles PIM functions far better.

Company: Casio

Contact: 020 8450 9131