Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs for short)
No more long searches for important, misplaced business cards. No more note-taking on napkins. No more sifting through stacks of paper tablets trying to locate memos to yourself. Instead, all of those tidbits of information can be recorded and later recalled quickly, conveniently and digitally in one amazing little device. Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs for short) are small, compact and easy to use. The benefits of these revolutionary little machines abound, which makes them worth a closer look.
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The Convenience Factor
Convenience. Without a doubt, this is the PDA's salient benefit. Many PDAs are so small and lightweight they'll fit into your pocket. You can carry them anywhere. And they perform numerous organizational functions fast. They're a calendar, phonebook, notepad and daily planner in one. And unlike their larger cousins, notebook computers, which require time to start up, PDAs fire up instantly, so the information you need is at your fingertips in a flash. A very fine feature indeed when you're on the go and needing that important piece of information right now!
Like notebooks, PDAs synchronize with your desktop PC, so you can easily exchange information between the two. It's a good idea, therefore, to select a PDA with an operating system that is compatible with your PC or notebook. This will make exchanging appointments, contacts, files and other information quick and easy. The two most popular operating systems for PDAs are Palm OS and Windows CE. Palm OS is a proprietary system which, when combined with the right software, is compatible with Mac, Windows, OS/2, Linux and Unix. Windows CE is a pocket version of the Windows program familiar to most PC users.
Other Advantages Over Notebook Computers
In addition to the advantages described above, PDAs are hundreds of dollars less expensive than notebook computers. PDAs also are more durable because they have no internal moving parts to break should they slip off the table or slide off your lap. And PDAs have a longer battery life than their bulkier counterparts.
Of course, it is not a one-or-the-other proposition. The fact is that many people who own notebook computers also own PDAs. These people want the power, productivity and stand-alone features that notebooks offer but also want the lightning quick access to important bits of info that PDAs provide.
Two Choices: Palm-size and Handhelds
There are two fairly broad categories of PDAs: palm-size and handheld. So what's the difference?
Palm-size devices are, not surprisingly, designed to fit into the palm of your hand. They're enabled for editing and note-taking but primarily are used for referencing schedules, organizing to-do lists and storing and retrieving contact information. To enter data, you use a stylus either to peck at letters on a virtual, on-screen keyboard or to write free-hand intelligent handwriting recognition software converts your handwriting to text. Portable keyboards with docking cradles are also available and sold separately. You will find palm-size devices with either monochrome or color screens, battery lives that range from a week to about a month and slots for CompactFlash memory cards. While most palm-size devices do not have internal modems, you can synchronize data with PCs and other PDAs using infrared ports or cradles.
Handheld PCs are larger than palms. They are pricier but in return deliver increased functionality. Handhelds basically are companions for your PC. Think of them as a compromise between the notebook and the palm. Typically they offer real rather than virtual keyboards and let you work with word processing and spreadsheets, in addition to personal-information-management applications. Most handheld PCs have color screens, internal microphones and speakers, plus CompactFlash and PC Card slots, infrared ports and built-in modems. Battery life is not as lengthy as with the palm-size devices, typically ranging from between eight and 20 hours.
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- Memory: Internal memory will range from 1 MB to 32 MB of RAM. Generally, the more memory you have, the easier your life will be. With greater memory, you can store more information. Palm-size devices require less memory particularly if you use it simply to access and store contact information. Handhelds, on the other hand, need more RAM to store larger files and run applications. Generally speaking, more memory translates into better performance. The downside? Memory upgrades cost money and the increased power kick consumes energy, so the life of your battery will be shortened. Memory upgrades are available, as are removable memory storage cards.
- Display: Here's a biggie. The screen should be easy to read in varying shades of light, including daylight. After all, if you can't see characters on your display, you might just as well be looking at a slab of wood. Fortunately, most handheld devices have backlit screens that increase the sharpness of characters and icons. Screen resolutions will vary according to the platform. Monochrome screens display images in four shades of gray, while color displays produce resolutions ranging from 120 x 160 dots per inch all the way to 800 x 600. Higher resolutions translate into clearer images and are generally easier on the eyes.
- Audio: Some palm-size units and handhelds feature built-in microphones and speakers for voice-recording. They also might have jacks for headphones and earphones. Some can play MP3 files and other audio recordings. And almost all PDAs feature alarms.
- Rechargeable Batteries: Batteries typically recharge in two to four hours and hold their charge, depending on the device and the draw on power, between a day and a month. You can save battery life by using an AC adapter (not always included). A word to the wise: Whether your device uses alkaline, nickel metal-hydride (NiMH) or lithium-ion batteries, it's important to recharge or replace batteries quickly when they're running low; otherwise, if you've not synchronized with your PC, you could suffer some data loss when they go dead.
- Software: Both palm-size PDAs and handheld devices include synchroniziation software and personal-information-management (PIM) software that includes schedules, to-do lists, date books and contact information. Beyond that, additional software may include word processing and spreadsheet programs, file-transfer and back-up utilities, budget and investment programs, communications software and more.
- E-mail: With a modem (not always included) and communications software installed, many handheld devices and palm-size units allow you to send and receive e-mail.
- Web: As with accessing e-mail, hooking up to the Web requires a modem and communications software, plus an Internet Service Provider (ISP). However, what you see on the Web will be determined by the size of your screen. Because big graphics are difficult to represent on very small screens, some software will display text only. Other devices will download only select Web pages. Increasingly, Web sites are offering scaled-down versions of their sites, tailored especially for viewing on PDAs.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do I Connect to My PC?
There are several ways to link your PDA to your PC, so you can synchronize information between the two. USB and serial cables are two of the most common methods. A USB cable is faster but requires a newer Pentium computer with USB capabilities. Most models come with a serial cable, which is a bit slower but just as dependable. You can also link through an infrared port, which beams information via light signals without cable hook-ups. Infrared is slower than a cable connection. Finally, you can link with a docking station. The PDA fits snugly into the docking station's cradle.
How Much Memory Do I Need?
Generally speaking, more memory translates into better performance: the more you have, the more information you can store on your PDA. However, the amount of memory you need will depend on the PDA you purchase and the operating system that runs it. Palm-size devices require less memory than handhelds, which need more RAM to store larger files and run applications. Standard built-in memory will range from as little as 1 MB to as much as 32 MB. If you find you need additional memory, you can always upgrade memory or buy removable memory storage cards.
Can I Send and Receive E-mail?
Absolutely. However, to access and transmit e-mail you will need a modem, an ISP and a phone line or wireless access. Most handhelds feature integrated modems. Palm-size devices might require a peripheral modem or attachment.
Do I Want Rechargeable Batteries?
Yes. Rechargeable batteries are the most cost-effective way to go. Most PDAs come with rechargeable batteries, such as nickel-cadmium, nickel metal-hydride (NiMH) and lithium-ion. Recharge times are typically 2 to 4 hours.
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Standard on most devices, the alarm usually can be set to sound at specific times and on dates far into the future.
The software programs and built-in specialty features included with the device. Standard applications include Contacts, Calendar, Notes/Tasks, Calculator and Alarm. Additional software programs may also be built-in and are available for purchase.
An LCD display with a light source at the back of the panel that makes the characters on the screen appear sharper and more bright.
Included in the basic software, Calendar functions let you keep tabs on monthly, weekly, or daily appointments, tasks or meetings.
Standard software that records addresses and phone numbers. This information can be transferred easily between your PDA or handheld device and a desktop computer, so you need only enter the information once.
Also known as a "cradle," it connects to your desktop computer and allows you to exchange information easily with your desktop, without attaching cables. The PDA fits snugly into the docking station. The cradle may also recharge the device's batteries.
Larger and usually more rectangular in shape than palm-size devices, Handhelds offer more computing options; they also often come with a small, integrated keyboard and weigh anywhere from less than 1 pound to 3 pounds.
Software that converts handwriting into text after the handwriting has been entered onto the screen with the stylus. Advanced software actually "learns" individual handwriting styles; other types of software require that you learn a special, simple style of text.
Uses invisible light to download, or "beam", information directly from your PDA to a desktop computer or another PDA without requiring cable hook ups.
A feature of handheld devices, keyboards are a means of inputting data into your PDA. Some devices include both integrated, hardware keyboards and-on screen keyboards that incorporate touch-screen technology.
Converts digital pulses into analog frequencies and vice-versa. Modems are not always standard, and some models do not support modems.
Standard software for taking simple notes, such as to-do lists and short memos.
Operating System (OS)
The control program that runs the PDA, generally Windows CE, Palm OS or a proprietary type of operating system.
The smallest and lightest of the handheld/PDA devices, these are under 16 cubic inches and generally weigh less than 10 ounces. They generally function as electronic organizers and typically run fewer applications than handheld PCs.
Measures the speed of the microprocessor in megahertz (MHz). Typically, the more MHz, the faster your device.
Random Access Memory. The memory capability of your device, measured in megabytes (MB). The more memory it has, the more information it can hold. PDAs have between 1 MB and 32 MB of RAM. Expansion slots and internal upgrades often are available.
Measures the sharpness of the display and is expressed as the number of horizontal pixels by the number of vertical pixels (640 x 480, for example). Higher resolution translates into sharper images.
Standard connection that permits synchronization beween a PDA and a desktop computer. Serial connections are faster than infrared, slower than USB. Devices that come with a serial connection usually have optional docking stations too.
A tool used to tap characters and icons on a screen or for writing by hand (handwriting with the stylus requires handwriting recognition software).
A display that is sensitive to the touch of a finger or stylus. The panel covering the display's surface translates touch-pressure into workable data.
Short for Universal Serial Bus, it is a cable that transfers data from the PDA to a desktop computer. It is faster than a serial cable or infrared; however, it works only with Pentium computers and is not a standard feature of PDAs.
Built-in microphone that lets you record voice messages. The amount of recording time available will vary.
Software such as Microsoft Word, condensed into pocket versions, available on devices using Windows CE operating system.
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