Shopping for Handhelds

If you want computer power on the go, you've got a lot of alternatives that are compact, lightweight and affordable. From palmtops to near notebooks, today's handheld computers meet the needs of most mobile government executives.

The term "handheld" refers to machines that vary dramatically in cost and function. However, all these machines depend on a desktop PC as a home base and provide a convenient way to take information from that primary computer on the road. Most handhelds use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE operating system; however, the most popular handheld device, 3Com Corp.'s PalmPilot, uses its own operating system.

The Los Angeles City Fire Department is about to roll out a program using PalmPilots-a move that will save field inspectors hours of time and effort. Jack Shafer, a senior systems analyst with the department, designed the brush inspection program using customized PalmPilots. Previously, inspectors would fill out forms listing fire code violations, and the data would be keyed into office computers later. "We were keying in maybe 20,000 notices," Shafer said, adding that the effort took many weeks.

The new system enables inspectors to enter violation information into PalmPilots and later synchronize those units with the fire stations' computers. "We're saving a good amount of time on inspections and massive hours of data entry," Shafer said.

We reviewed seven handheld computers representing the full spectrum of available offerings.

At the low end, and priced at less than $400, are tiny palmtops that are suitable for taking contact and calendar information from the base PC on the road. These devices also provide limited ability to check e-mail and save notes or voice memos. But none of today's palmtops is suitable for more than very minimal data input.

We reviewed three palm-size devices: 3Com's Palm III, Casio Inc.'s Cassiopeia E-11 and Philips Mobile Computing Group's Nino 312. They all received identical scores in most categories. The Cassiopeia E-11, however, beat the others for keyboard and stylus quality and price.

At the high end of the handheld market are machines that look and act like extremely light, thin notebook computers. These quasi-notebooks cost about half the price of a subnotebook and claim battery life of eight to 12 hours. These machines run Windows CE from ROM and store information in RAM because they don't have hard drives.

These quasi-notebooks have tolerable, if not great, keyboards and include stripped-down "pocket" versions of Microsoft Office applications, so users can create documents rather than simply view information created on a PC.

We reviewed three Windows CE-based quasi-notebooks: NEC Computer Systems Division's MobilePro 770 and MobilePro 800, and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Jornada 820. The MobilePro 800 edged ahead of the other two due to the size and quality of its screen. However, it was the largest and heaviest of the three systems.

Between the quasi-notebooks and the palmtops are hand-size computers that are about as long and thick as a notebook but half as wide. These devices have significantly smaller screens and keyboards than quasi-notebooks. They fill the bill for reading e-mail and making quick replies. We only tested one of these hand-size computers: the C-Series 2015C from Compaq Computer Corp.

Because handhelds vary so much in terms of capability, we rated each unit on its own merits using word scores. We used a task-based approach that focused on how the systems would be used; for example, we rated their ability to retrieve contacts, access e-mail and synchronize files with a PC. We also gathered a panel of notebook computer users to rate the systems' screens and input devices.

Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.


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