Palmtops/PDAs group test review

PDA with Pocket PC 2002
Photo of Palmtops/PDAs group test
£599 + VAT

Personal digital assistants (PDAs, or palmtops if you prefer) have come of age. Whatever the operating system they use, these gadgets are now as popular with consumers as they are with the business community. So we’ve decided to take another look (you can read our last round-up here) at these pocket-sized computers.

Microsoft’s recently launched Pocket PC 2002, a development of the Pocket PC operating system adds a host of new features and refinements to the old software. The company has laid a down a strict new set of hardware guidelines for all devices using the new OS, probably the most important of which are that all devices must use flash ROM and the OS will only support chips based on ARM designs, most commonly the 206MHz Intel StrongARM SA-1110 processor. It will also support SrongARM’s successor, the XScale, which Intel plans to launch early next year.

Also supported is a whole host of connectivity options ranging from Bluetooth, through wireless LAN (802.11b) to wide area networks, plus the ability to connect to Virtual Private Networks (VPN) and, by using the new Terminal Services application, access to Windows based servers. Going hand in hand with these is stronger password support to give some degree of security.

If this wasn’t enough, the user interface has had a complete revamp, and the OS is more power efficient, with some of the PDAs here giving around 20 hours of battery life and all giving over ten hours’ life – remarkable because they all have power-hungry colour screens and fast processors.

Not to be left behind, the Palm OS has also been updated, and the latest release, version 4, has gained improved security features and better mobile connectivity and the most important thing for faster data transfers – native USB support.

Here we take a look a seven of the newest PDAs available, all of which feature colour screens. Click on the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

Hewlett Packard has been loyal to the Windows CE operating system since its release and has produced devices using most of the revisions released. The latest Jornada is no exception, but while the 568 is a powerful PDA, its price and limited expansion option may deter some.

The Jornada 568 is HP’s first Pocket PC based around the 206MHz StrongARM processor, and outperforms any of its predecessors. Backing up the processor are 64MB of RAM and 32MB of flash ROM, however if you need any more space, expansion is limited to just a single CompactFlash Type I slot.

The 16-bit 65,536-color, 320 by 240 pixel, reflective display is protected by a detachable plastic cover and is not particularly bright even indoors, but it can be read in direct sunlight. There are two brightness levels available, but these are too similar to make a substantial difference.

One plus point in the Jornada 568′s favour is that the battery is removable, so you could carry a spare. A word of caution, though; if you do remove the battery during operation, you have the option to keep or erase data in RAM. We couldn’t get the device to retain data successfully and had to choose the ‘no’ option to clear it from the device. It’s a useful way to reset your device quickly, but could be disastrous if you don’t have an up-to-date backup on your PC. A sign of the lower power consumption of Pocket PC 2002 is that you get 14 hours of battery life.

To supplement the basic Pocket PC2002 software package, there are several of HP’s own utilities, including HP Display Profile (for setting a screen brightness appropriate to your surroundings), HP Viewing (for displaying common image file formats), HP Backup and HP Task Switcher, which lets you jump quickly to another HP application or close all applications at once.

The Jornada 568 is a well-designed PDA, but it is pricey and it would be more useful if the CompactFlash slot was Type II, allowing for larger-capacity storage cards.

Looking similar to its monochrome siblings, the Visor Prism is a highly capable colour Palm OS device. Fitted with a 16-bit colour TFT display, the same as the Pocket PC devices but with a lower resolution, the Visor Prism is slightly heavier at 194g than the monochrome models.

Perhaps even more useful than the colour screen is the Visor Prism’s fast 33MHz Motorola Dragonball EZ processor, allowing faster task switching when you have a lot of information stored. This also speeds up Graffiti and unlike other colour Palm devices the Visor Prism isn’t noticeably slowed by its colour screen. The screen itself is a 16-bit color, active matrix display that is backlit and is capable of displaying up to 65,536 colors.

The Visor Prism comes with 8MB of RAM and the all-important Springboard expansion slot, for which there is an increasing amount of third-party support.

For power, the Visor Prism relies on an integrated rechargeable Li-ion battery, which gave over 16 hours life when tested. The USB-based HotSync connection and Li-ion battery recharger are combined in a neat desktop cradle and the USB connection has the port that carries the AC adapter cable built in. Four application launch buttons and two scroll buttons allow easy access to the most common PIM functions.

The Visor Prism is a capable PDA which will suit a few users’ requirements, but if you need only basic PIM functionality, then a colour Palm OS device is probably over the top – monochrome will do.

Compaq has been at the forefront of Pocket PC device design and the impressive iPAQ series of PDAs still leads the way in non-Palm devices. The H3870 continues that trend by bringing integrated Bluetooth connectivity to the PDA market.

Like its predecessors, it’s both small (8.3 by 1.6 by 13.46cm) and light (190g) and the excellent 16-bit colour ‘transflective’ TFT screen is highly visible in indoor and outdoor lighting conditions.

In keeping with the Pocket PC2002 standard, it uses a 206MHz StrongARM SA1110 processor backed by 64MB of RAM. While there’s only a single SD Card expansion slot built in, you can use the range of optional iPAQ packs that support PC Cards and CompactFlash cards.

Backing up the integrated Bluetooth transceiver is Manager software, which allows the device to work with Bluetooth hosts for cable free data exchange and synchronization. As an alternative to synchronising over Bluetooth, you can also use the supplied USB cradle, which will drain the 1,400mAh battery more slowly than the wireless method.

The software bundle for the H3870 is quite good. Besides Pocket PC 2002 and all of its associated improvements, there is Block Character Recognizer for people who are proficient in Palm’s Graffiti writing system and a File Store application that allows you to put your most critical files in 6MB of EEPROM that the iPAQ system leaves free. If you ever run the iPaq’s batteries down completely or hard-reset your handheld, the data stored in EEPROM won’t be lost. There’s also Insignia Java Virtual Machine, a special data-encryption package.

Compaq also bundles IBM’s Embedded ViaVoice Mobility Suite, which lets you dictate commands to your calendar, contacts, and in-box. The PDA can even read back the contact names, numbers, and addresses that you request.

Covered by a one-year warranty, the iPAQ H3870 would make a great choice for those needing a handheld device with integrated wireless connectivity

Toshiba is a late arrival into the PDA market, but its first Pocket PC device, the e570, is one of the smallest and lightest Pocket PC 2002 units around, and with its dual on-board expansion slots it has plenty of expansion possibilities.

At 12.4cm deep by 7.6cm wide by 1.8cm thick, it’s slightly smaller than Compaq’s iPAQ H3870 and weighs in at just 180g including battery. All the requirements for meeting the Pocket PC2002 specification are present, including 32MB of flash ROM, 64MB of RAM, a 206MHz StrongARM processor and a 16-bit colour, 240 x 320 pixel reflective LCD screen. These components are packed into a well-designed hard plastic case.

There are both CompactFlash Type II and SD card slots, but there’s no cover for the SD card slot and the cover for the CompactFlash card slot doesn’t detach. That means that if you use an oversized CompactFlash card such as an 802.11b wireless card, a wired network adapter or a digital camera attachment, the cover flops around on the back of the unit, which is undesirable. Unfortunately the unit’s generally good build quality doesn’t extend to the stylus which is a flimsy affair.

Although the e570 lacks some of the hardware features of its competitors, there is a 3.5mm headphone socket at the top of the device for use with Windows Media Player 8, and while there’s no jog wheel, you can still launch Notes easily thanks to the hardware button just above the microphone.

Toshiba provides some extra software over and above that which comes with the OS. You get a copy of driving game V-Rally and a version of the London Underground map from Visual IT.

Toshiba’s e570 is one of the smallest and lightest Pocket PC 2002 devices around and although it may lack some of the features of its competitors, it is relatively inexpensive.

Because of the guidelines which determine the use of Pocket PC 2002, all the devices using this OS look similar, and all try to emulate the leading Pocket PC, the Compaq iPAQ. With the iPAQ H3870 now sporting integrated Bluetooth, it’s now very nearly the perfect pocket device – albeit a very expensive one.

The iPAQ’s nearest rivals in terms of features are Casio’s Cassiopiea E-200 and Toshiba’s e570. Both of these devices are well designed with the added bonus of a choice of built in expandability. The Cassiopiea E-200 in particular also has a very long battery life, but it is expensive and those wishing to save money should opt for the Toshiba instead, saving £200 on the retail price. It is also cheaper than the less well-equipped HP Jornada 568.

The question remains over the necessity of a colour Palm-based system. If all you need are the basic PIM functions then aim for a mono device and save money – you will also gain a bit more battery life. However, the best of the Palm OS systems we looked at, in terms of both battery life and features, was the Clié from Sony, which includes a MP3 player in its list of features.

With the m505 Palm has finally taken away the advantages that the Handspring Visor Prism had over the old Palm devices, namely USB hot-syncing and expandability. Although the m505 is more expensive than the Visor Prism, you can plug the expansion cards straight in without having to buy expensive add-on modules.

As is often the case, then, it’s still horses for courses. But whereas the Pocket PC operating system (né Windows CE) once looked dead in the water, it is now increasingly Microsoft’s portable OS that’s heading the field.

The Clié (Communication, Link, Information and Entertainment) is, as you would expect from Sony, a sleek and stylish device with lots of added features such as a higher resolution screen, MP3 player, multimedia features and a Magic Gate Memory Stick slot. It also has a very impressive battery life.

While other Palm-based devices make do with a screen resolution of 160 x 160, Sony has doubled this to 320 x 320 for the Clié and the device includes a High Resolution Assist application to enable any of your current programs to run at the higher-resolution mode. Because of this, everything – text, pictures and videos – look a lot sharper with the Clié. The front-lit screen offers 16-bit colour and is readable in daylight.

The Clié uses the same 33MHz Motorola Dragonball VZ processor as most of today’s Palm-based devices, backed by 8MB of RAM, and it comes with an 8MB Memory Stick. One of the biggest complaints of previous Clié’s was way they dealt with running programs from the memory stick. This has been dealt with, and now the Clié automatically copies the application into RAM and deletes the file when you close it.

Included are two Memory Stick-based applications. These are Memory Stick Backup, which allows you to back up the RAM with a single tap, and the Memory Stick Import/Export, which turns the Clié into a plug-and-play USB Memory Stick reader/writer, with the Clié showing up on your desktop as an external storage drive.

There’s also a bundled remote control, so you can leave your Clié in your pocket and control the AudioPlayer software for the MP3 player.

Sony’s Clié has the most features currently available on any Palm device and pushes at the boundary between Palm and the Pocket 2002 devices. However, most of these features are memory hungry, and memory is something that the Clié is a little short of.

Handspring has long offered fast USB synchronisation and Springboard expansion, two distinct advantages over Palm’s own model line of PDAs. With the m505 and the m500 (m500 is the mono version) Palm has hit back, with both models featuring USB synchronization and an expansion slot and the latest Palm v4 OS.

The m505 sports the sleek look of its Palm Vx predecessor, but weighs just a bit more; 139g compared with the Vx’s 114g. It uses Motorola’s 33MHz Dragonball VZ processor, together with 8MB of static RAM memory and 4MB of Flash ROM.

Expansion is the m505′s key new feature. Housed in its top edge there’s a dual-purpose slot that accommodates SD (Secure Digital) or MMC (MultiMedia Card) modules, and it also features Palm’s new Universal Connector, which is located on the unit’s bottom edge.

The m505′s screen retains the 160 x 160 pixels resolution as ever, but is a 16-bit, 65,536-colour, reflective side-lit display. Unfortunately there’s no adjustment to the brightness, so indoors the screen is a little dimmer than either the iPAQ or the Palm IIIc. But where the m505 scores is when it’s used in sunlight; the screen is just as viewable as the iPAQ, making it the first Palm screen that is truly usable in daylight.

Although not the perfect device to use the Palm OS, the m505 brings Palm back into the PDA race with the one of its best own-brand units to date.

Perhaps the hardest hit of all Pocket PC manufacturers, when Microsoft announced the decision to base Pocket PC 2002 around ARM-based processors, was Casio, since all of its previous range of PDAs were based around the NEC VR41xx series of processors. The latest PDA, the Cassiopeia E-200, closes the gap towards the Compaq iPAQ that previous models struggled to fill.

The Cassiopeia E-200 retains the 65,536-color capability of previous models but instead of a TFT screen there is a reflective colour LCD, enabling it to be used in all lighting conditions. Powering the Cassiopeia E-200 is the ubiquitous 206MHz StrongARM processor backed by a hefty 64MB of RAM and 32MB of built-in flash ROM, so performance is good and there is enough room for upgrades of the OS. Battery life is very good too, thanks to Pocket PC 2002′s more efficient use of power.

For expansion, the Cassiopeia E-200 is well equipped as it comes with both CompactFlash and SD card slots. The Compact Flash slot can accept either Type I or Type II cards, while the SD slot accepts both MMC and SD cards. Both of these can be used simultaneously, so you could, for example listen to music stored on an SD card while you’re surfing the web via a Bluetooth or 802.11b CompactFlash card.

The Cassiopeia E-200 can be charged either via the USB cradle or by a standard AC/DC jack so you don’t have to take the cradle everywhere. All in all, this is a well-designed and specified PDA that offers some serious competition to the iPAQ, but it is very expensive.

Company: Casio

Contact: 020 8208 9448