Network: Those small wonders

PC Magazine's lab puts personal digital organisers to the test
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The Independent Culture
ELECTRONIC organisers, or what are now more commonly referred to as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), are to the Nineties what the Filofax was to the Eighties. Unfortunately, the Filofax, which became a roaring success because you could collect everything from telephone numbers to recipes in it, also failed because it became too heavy to lug around.

Hand-held digital devices were the obvious alternative. Psion revolutionised the PDA market in the UK, and for much of the globe, when it launched Psion Series 3a in 1995. The emphasis on being able to transfer data easily between the device and a desktop PC meant that you could use it as a portable extension of your PC rather than just a device for collecting names and addresses.

Psion continued its PDA line-up with the Psion Series 5 in 1997 but its rivals have come on strong. The first real attack on Psion's market dominance came in the form of the PalmPilot from US Robotics' (now part of 3Com), and a raft of devices from vendors that run Microsoft Windows CE, a cut- down version of Windows 95.

Now there is a wide choice of devices, but there are marked differences between them in terms of price, specification, battery life and weight, and so on. To cut through the hype and confusion, and to discover which of these little devices is the easiest to use, PC Magazine conducted a comparative review in its July edition. PDAs had to run a UK-oriented operating system, be capable of direct data entry and be able to send data to and from a desktop PC.

Eleven devices fitted these criteria. All models varied in price, from under pounds 200 for the 3Com PalmPilot Professional to pounds 700 (ex VAT) for the Hewlett Packard 620LX Windows CE device - the only one with a colour screen.

Because the key factor with a PDA is ease of use, PC Magazine ( put all these devices through rigorous usability tests. The findings were interesting. The Windows CE devices, because of their similarity with a desktop system, were the easiest to get to grips with: only the Psion Series 5 came close. Although the lack of a keyboard and the use of a stylus to control the PalmPilot put off a lot of testers, it did get the highest ergonomics rating. This was because the testers felt that it is a truly portable device, provided that you are prepared to spend time learning the Graffiti (shorthand-like handwriting) required to input data.

In the end, the "best" PDA comes down to what you want. If it's portability and the ability to synchronise data with your desktop PC easily and quickly, then the PalmPilot Professional is the best out there, and was awarded a PC Magazine Editor's Choice award. However, there are those who still feel more comfortable with a keyboard and more familiar desktop applications and so we awarded a second Editor's Choice to the Psion Series 5.