Tried & Tested: Electronic organisers - Palming it off

Tired of keeping your life together on scraps of paper? Our panel asks which electronic organiser could help you
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The Independent Culture
AS THE sight of the great and good producing ever larger Filofaxes was common place in bars and restaurants in the Eighties, today, in keeping with the constant march of technology, it is now electronic organisers which keep the nation running smoothly. With some of these personal digital assistant (PDA), as they are more grandly known, costing several hundred pounds we have a look at a range of digital friends.

THE PANEL

Martin Southwood manages an up-and-coming band so needs to keep his act together; Jen Walker runs a small PR firm and at the moment uses two paper diaries; Elaine Bowers is an experienced PDA user being a long standing Psion owner; and myself, creative director of hyper-M, a London based multimedia and internet design company.

THE TEST

We looked at ease of use for a number of basic tasks - keeping track of your diary and contacts, sending and receiving e-mail and linking to your desktop computer. We also looked at special features offered by each PDA, and battery life.

****PALMPILOT PROFESSIONAL

pounds 269

The PalmPilot won points for being the smallest, and simplest unit we looked at, measuring just 8cm by 12 by 1.5 and weighing under 6oz, even with the two AAA batteries installed. "It's the only one you can really just put in your pocket," as Martin said. "For those of us who don't carry bags around with us all the time it's great." This model has a back-lit screen and 1MB of memory, but for pounds 219 there's another model with half the memory and no back light. The batteries last around a month.

The PalmPilot is basically an address book and dairy with e-mail functionality (via an optional clip-on Modem) and expenses tracking, and can be used to make handwritten notes. Unlike the Apple Newton, it does not learn your handwriting, instead you write in a stylised alphabet with a stylus on the viewing window. We all agreed with Jen who said, "you can pick the alphabet up in a few hours, even the special characters are pretty easy."

The Pilot comes with all you need to get up and running, including versions of its software for your PC. Load the software on to your PC, link it up to the PalmPilot, push a button and the two machines are fully synchronised. The Pilot comes with PC software with a Macintosh converter.

The software is compatible with most of the major personal information management applications including Microsoft Schedule, Symantec ACT and Lotus Organiser. It is possible to add applications to the Pilot and even though 3Com hasn't developed many, a few enthusiastic users have written their own.

****HEWLETT PACKARD 360LX PALMTOP PC

pounds 599

This was perhaps the most laptop-like of all the PDAs we looked at. Running Windows CE, a version of Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system designed for hand-held computers, the 18.3cm by 9.4 by 2.9 360LX feels very similar to a standard desktop PC. With two AA batteries or the single rechargeable cell provided it weighs 16oz.

"The screen is very clear and the back light makes it easy to use in the dark. This would be great if you didn't want to buy a laptop," commented Martin.

Versions of Microsoft's standard programs, Word, Excel and Powerpoint are included on the machine and these look and feel very much like their grown-up siblings. You use the mini keyboard to input information but the 360LX also has a stylus that can be used to select items on the screen. Jen said she would find it very difficult to type on the keyboard for long periods and it was agreed that it was fine for taking notes or typing e-mails but you won't want to write a book using it.

The unit we looked at had 8MB of memory with a slot to add memory flash cards that can be used to save your work. The 360LX has a standard serial port along with an infra-red communications system, both of which can be used for direct printing. A docking cradle and sync cable are supplied to allow you to connect to a PC running Windows 95 or NT4.0. There is also a PC card slot which can be used for a card modem or network card. Everyone found it easy to connect to their PC. However, if you are a Mac user you're out of luck.

The 360LX was the easiest PDA for e-mailing and surfing the internet. The built-in version of Microsoft Explorer is simple to use and set up, as is the e-mail and fax software which comes included.

Elaine felt, "If you need to work on a machine this is a good option but it's too expensive to use as an address book."

***PSION SERIES 3C *****PSION SERIES 5

pounds 269 and pounds 430

Psion makes perhaps the most popular PDAs and we looked at their two main models as they vary quite significantly. The more basic Series 3c offers contact management, a calendar, word processing and a spreadsheet. The Series 5 adds e-mail and internet functionality along with sound recording, infra-red connection, a larger screen and a touch-screen stylus. At 10cm by 9 by 2.3, the 5 is only a few millimetres larger than the 3, and can easily fit into an inside pocket.

The 3c we tried had 2MB of memory and the 5 had 8. A 10MB memory card is available for the 5 allowing you to store a considerable amount of data. For both models the two AA batteries last around a month given average usage and both machines can be connected to the mains.

The 3c would be fine if all you need is the basics, and if all you need to do is write letters you wouldn't need another computer if you had the 5 as you can print stuff out directly.

"I loved the keyboard on the 5," said Elaine. "It's like a laptop's, the keys are full size which makes working easy."

Martin was enthusiastic about the software on the 5, "The sketch program is like a standard drawing program, you can do freehand sketches and draw geometric shapes with the tools provided."

The connection kit for linking to your PC is included with the 5, with an optional kit available for the 3 and a kit is available to connect to Macintoshes.

If you need a bit more than the PalmPilot has to offer, the 3c is a good choice and good value for money.

We all felt the 5 was worth the extra money and it was a close run thing between it and the PalmTop for the best high-end choice. The keyboard gave the Psion the edge although the PalmTop scored points for running Windows CE and standard office applications.

***APPLE NEWTON 2000

pounds 700

The most expensive PDA we looked at, the Newton, which doesn't have a keyboard (you use a stylus to write or draw onto the screen, although an external keyboard can be added), was also the most idiosyncratic. Unlike the PalmPilot the Newton can recognise your handwriting and either convert it to text or leave it as script. The 12.9cm by 8.3 back-lit screen can be viewed in landscape or portrait format. Everyone enjoyed using the Newton and though not immediate, it does learn to read your handwriting within a few days of use.

"I tended to use the pop-up keyboard on the screen as it kept making mistakes with my handwriting. It's a bit tedious to keep clicking on letters to type something in," said Elaine. We all felt that to make working on the Newton easy, you would need the optional keyboard which adds another pounds 75 to the cost and is something else to carry around.

"It's fun to use but too big and heavy to carry around in your pocket," said Jen. With its four AA batteries, the Newton weighs 1.4lb and at 21cm by 11.8 by 2.7, it was the largest PDA we tried.

The Newton includes its own word processor and spreadsheet as well as e-mail and internet software and contact manager and calendar. The software is compatible with most desktop applications allowing information to be easily exchanged. Connecting the Newton to a Macintosh or PC is simple using the optional kit. You can also use the built-in serial port to connect to a printer. Two PC card slots allow card modems or network cards to be installed with an option available to connect the Newton to a GSM mobile phone.

Overall the panel felt the Newton was fun to use and ideal if you need to draw or sketch anything on the move. Combined with your mobile phone you could then e-mail or fax sketches etc from anywhere, should you need to.

STOCKISTS

For further information on the PalmPilot call 3Com, 01628 897000; Psion, 0990 143050; Hewlett Packard, 01344 360000; Apple, Freephone Apple. !

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