PDA & Handheld Computers Buying Guide

by : Andrew Gates

The Personal Data Assistant (PDA) has won rapid acceptance among university students and executives who are constantly on the move because of its ability to package a lot of different data requirements into a palm sized device. The PDA is designed to make a busy life easier by providing sensible connections to all the information you need, have it at your fingertips when you need it, and transport it to other systems. Once 'organised' with your PDA, you will have all of your contact phone numbers, be collecting your emails, process your business orders, display your photographs and relax to your mp3 library. Many PDAs also act as a digital recorder and have windows based compatibility for word processing and spreadsheet financial calculations.

PDAs At the simplest end of the market, a PDA can help you manage your daily to-do lists, keep track of your diary and record your memos. But it's important for people moving into using a PDA to understand that it is a tool that is most beneficial to an already organised mind: it won't actually do the organising for you. But if you find you need to view and manage documents on the go, keep track of your appointments and have instant access to your name and address book, then the basic functions of a PDA will probably enhance your productivity. And of course the added bonuses of listening to your mp3s, watching short video clips, reading ebooks and being able to rehearse and review your presentations can only help.

PDAs with the Windows Pocket PC operating system and gutsy memory are compatible with your normal windows and office environments. Screen size and image resolution can be critical if you intend to use the device for reading books and managing text-heavy documents. While sales of PDAs have steadily declined over the past two years, losing to smartphone technology, the main manufacturers have advanced the usability of PDA devices with faster processors, increases in memory and multimedia capability. In many situations, smartphones have been able to replace many functions of the PDA, combining data management with mobile phone technology. But if you want to work with spreadsheets and web pages on your PDA, smartphones are at a disadvantage from smaller screen sizes and data storage capability and sometimes cost, but they obviate the need to carry two devices.

What to look for

There's a hand-held PDA device to suit practically every budget and need. You need to consider just how much data you want to carry with you and how connected you want to be. Obviously more memory, faster processor and bigger screen attract higher price tags. You can compare brands, models and prices by searching Myshopping.com.au using the following specifications to guide you.

A budget basic unit might offer a processor speed of 16 MHz, 8MB of memory and at 2.5 inch (diagonal) screen. At the high end, you can get a 4GB micro hard drive, WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, 400 MHz processor, 256MB memory, with expansion slots, 4 inch (diagonal) LCD screen with 65,000 colours and 640×480 display resolution, GPS functionality, MP3 player, digital camera and instant messaging. In the middle of the range you will find devices with 64MB of memory, a 200 MHz processor, 3 inch screen and built-in microphone or audio input jack. Bear in mind that all of these specifications and functionalities change continuously, and devices are upgraded with new features over very short spaces of time.

Apart from processor speed, memory and screen size, some of the critical specifications that you can use for cost and brand comparisons include:

Data input - While some models have a full QWERTY keyboard built-in, you may want to consider adding a fold-up full-size external keyboard. Entering lots of text with the small built-in keypads or using the handwriting software can be frustrating.

Audio input - A built-in microphone or microphone jack is needed for recording voice memos and meeting notes and store audio files.

Music playback - MP3 audio file playback can sometimes need additional software.

GPS - While there are a number of purpose-built hand-held devices for industrial applications, your PDA's GPS capability may not be suitable for rugged outdoor activities.

Communication - Look for integrated Bluetooth 1.1 and a built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi adapter

Smartphone - Combines the functions of a mobile phone with a data management device in a single unit. Phone capability requires a separately purchased service contract

Audio Output - A headphone jack is essential for listening to your audio files

Cradle/Charger - This device allows for easy connection and synchronization with your PC while simultaneously recharging your battery. Consider buying an additional cradle for the office for maximum convenience. Some PDAs include a cable or a special cradle that provides an interface with your desktop computer to synchronize data.

Battery life - Each device will have its own battery-life characteristics. Battery recharge life is also dependant upon the data you are processing. You can use manufacturer's specifications as a guide to compare between brands and models, but these specifications are laboratory measurements and may not reflect your actual use.

Bluetooth - This wireless technology lets you to exchange data with other handheld devices or any other Bluetooth enabled device such as a cell phone, fax machine, personal computer, laptop computer, headset or printer. The Bluetooth feature will allow you to add an external keyboard.

Digital camera - PDA cameras usually capture low resolution images (around 1.2 megapixels), which are perfect for emailing but not ideal for printing.

GPS - Global positioning system allows you to navigate from any point on or near the surface of the earth.

Music/Audio - The MP3 playback quality will depend on the bit rate of the audio file and the quality of the built-in speaker. The audio quality is often better when played back through a quality headset.

PDA Screen - PDA screen sizes are measured in inches diagonally and are available from 2.6 inches up to 5 inches on the very high-end. Larger, brighter screens require more power to operate therefore increase battery consumption.

Processor speed - refers to the speed in which a PDA coordinates its internal functions. Processor speeds are measured in MHz (megahertz) and range between 4 MHz and 624 MHz. Although these specifications can change rapidly as technology develops, it is recommended to have a processor speed of at least 16 MHz for general day-to-day functions.

Video capture - Video playback often requires an additional expansion card and a third-party software download, and higher memory capability.

Web Browser - Used with a Wi-Fi connection, lets you browse the internet as you would from a desktop computer.

Wi-Fi - Integrated 802.11b WLAN (wireless local area network), enables you to connect to the internet in any hot spot. Enabling the Wi-Fi features tends to consume battery life quickly.

In summary

You may like to consider whether you are a novice (that is, new to PDA technology), an entrepreneur or a technophile, and make your search based on your level of understanding of the technology involved. As a novice, you will be searching for a basic unit, as a technophile you will be looking for all the bells and whistles. An entrepreneur will be searching for the most adaptable capabilities. The following might assist.

Choose amongst functionalities. Consider you need for mp3 players, or video players, or web browsing. Doubling the functionality of your PDA may reduce the need to have to carry another device around in order to enjoy the benefits offered.

How much internet access do you need? Bluetooth connectivity can give you mobile phone enabled internet access, Wife can give you access from hot spots, and simple cable connection to your desktop computer can let you read your emails on the road.

Go for maximum memory for money. Memory determines how much data your PDA can process and store, and its ability to handle applications. Memory can be boosted in many devices using expansion slots and flash memory cards.

Search Myshopping.com.au to compare models and brands, and vendors and prices.