focus: PDAs

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Like many forms of technology, handheld computing needed to become accepted, and even commonplace, for business and personal applications before making a real move into the education environment. At the beginning, PDAs could have offered little to education, as they were little more than overpriced schedulers with a few extra bells and whistles.

Now, however, PDAs have come down in price and have become infinitely more functional, finding much more of a niche in education. Handhelds can now browse the Web, house e-books, MP3s and streaming video, and operate any number of educational and productivity programs. Some would consider them a great supplement to desktop or laptop computers, but more and more educators are beginning to see them as an alternative to these tried and true forms of computing.

In any case, PDAs are beginning to play a role in education, so we took a look at some of the top handheld devices available for education. For readers unfamiliar with handheld computing, there are a few basics that hold true for most, if not all models:

Stylus

In place of a mouse or keyboard, PDAs use a touchscreen that is operated with a small stylus. This small, pen-like pointer is used to tap the icons on the screen, navigate around the desktop, enter data, etc. The stylus generally rests in a convenient compartment on the upper right side of the device.

Operating System

Typically, PDAs use one of two operating systems, Palm OS or Windows for Pocket PC (also known as Windows CE). Despite subtle differences, both function in much the same way, utilizing icons and pull-down menus. Both are very user-friendly, however it should be noted that programs and data are not cross-compatible and cannot be exchanged between the two without some sort of translation program.

Data Entry

To enter data into any PDA, there are generally two options: an onscreen keyboard or a character recognition program. The keyboard is simply an onscreen representation of a standard keyboard, allowing you to punch out letters and numbers using the stylus. For the savvier PDA user, data can be “handwritten” using the stylus and one of two character recognition codes. Graffiti is the code found on Palm OS devices, while Windows for Pocket PC uses a program called Character Recognizer. Both are simple variations of regular printed letters and are very easy to learn.

Sync

Since PDAs don’t have any kind of floppy or CD-ROM drive, they must be “synched” up with a desktop or notebook computer. This is done with a program installed on both devices (HotSync for Palm OS and ActiveSync for Windows for Pocket PC), and a physical connection. Sometimes a cradle, and sometimes a simple cord, it connects to a computer’s serial or USB port and to an input on the bottom of the PDA. When synching up, schedule and address book information, e-mails and other specified data are shared between the devices. Also, additional programs or data downloaded to the desktop or laptop can be installed on the handheld device. While some PDAs possess wireless modems or modem attachments (none that T.H.E. has reviewed for this piece), most rely on a synched connection to another computer for Web access.

Infrared Port

Most PDAs have an infrared port that allows users to transfer programs and data wirelessly between handheld devices. Popularly known as “beaming,” it’s an easy way to share applications and information with other PDA users. Again, however, beaming is a platform-sensitive function, so a Windows device won’t be able to transfer information to a Palm OS device.

Accessories

These vary for each device, but can include things like a portable, collapsible keyboard with which to enter data, a digital camera, modem, additional memory storage cards, etc. Also, like cell phones, there are often accessories like leather cases or changeable, multi-colored faceplates available for PDAs.

 

Handspring Visor

(Cost: Visor, $149, Visor Deluxe, $249)

· Specs: size, 4.8” x 3.0” x 0.7”; weight, 5.4 oz; storage capacity, 2 MB (8 MB on the Visor Deluxe).

· Operating System: Palm OS.

· Installed Programs and Utilities: Address Book, Date Book, Calculator, Clock with Alarm, Memo Pad, Note Pad, Mail, Expense, Security, To Do List, Games, Infrared Send/Receive Utility, HotSync Manager and Graffiti.

· Education-Specific Information: Go to www.palmgear.com/handspring/education.

· Special: Springboard expansion slot, snap cover, backlight, built-in microphone.

· Battery: Two AAA batteries can provide up to two months of use.

· What’s Good: The Visor is very affordable (even the more expensive Visor Deluxe is a bargain) and very functional. The Springboard expansion slot provides for an incredible degree of expandability. Slot accessories include a digital camera, modem, MP3 music player, and even a mobile phone.

· What’s Not So Good: If you’re looking for flashy design, this one isn’t for you. It’s very basic in appearance and only the Deluxe allows a choice of colors. Like the Palm m100, the basic Visor is a bit slim on storage space and d'es not provide a color display. Also, the snap cover can be a bit of a hassle, since you have to snap it on and off each time you use it.

· Overall: The Visor and Visor Deluxe are great workhorses that give you a lot of bang for your buck. Plus, the Springboard expansion slot allows users to add on a great deal of functionality as they go along.

 

Palm m100

(Cost: $149)

· Specs: size, 4.66” x 3.12” x .72”; weight, 4.4 oz; storage capacity, 2 MB.

· Operating System: Palm OS.

· Installed Programs and Utilities: Address Book, Date Book, Calculator, Clock with Alarm, Memo Pad, Note Pad, Expense, Security, To Do List, Games, Infrared Send/Receive Utility, HotSync Manager and Graffiti.

· Education-Specific Information: Go to www.palm.com/education.

· Special: Multi-colored changeable faceplates, backlight, flip cover.

· Battery: Two AAA batteries can provide up to two months of use.

· What’s Good: Sleek design with color faceplates make it cool to look at, and its small dimensions make this PDA truly pocket-sized. It has enough storage space for a good deal of data and a few programs. It’s as easy to use as it is to carry.

· What’s Not So Good: As a result of being small and lightweight, the screen is a bit on the small side and its storage, while adequate, isn’t quite as impressive as its bigger brothers. And if you’re into color displays, this one is in gray tone.

· Overall: For its price, this is a great starter PDA, especially for someone who moves around a lot and wants something small.

 

Palm IIIc

(Cost: $329)

· Specs: size, 5.06” x 3.17” x .67”; weight, 6.8 oz; storage capacity, 8 MB.

· Operating System: Palm OS.

· Installed Programs and Utilities: Address Book, Date Book, Desktop E-mail, Calculator, Clock with Alarm, Memo Pad, Note Pad, Expense, Security, To Do List, Games, Infrared Send/Receive Utility, HotSync Manager and Graffiti.

· Education-Specific Information: Check out www.palm.com/education.

· Special: Color display, backlight, protective flip lid.

· Battery: Rechargeable lithium-ion battery quickly recharges in HotSync cradle for two weeks of normal usage.

· What’s Good: Lots of memory means lots of space for applications, data and more. The color display is a nice size, making it easy to read and operate. The desktop e-mail function brings unified messaging closer to reality.

· What’s Not So Good: This PDA is a little bulkier, so wear pants with big pockets. Also, the flip lid can be somewhat awkward and makes the unit look like Captain Kirk’s communicator on the old Star Trek TV show. (Of course, some may consider that a good thing.)

· Overall: A relatively big, color display and lots of RAM make this a great PDA for education. The fact that you can comfortably read what’s on the screen is a very nice touch.

 

Compaq iPAQ 3650 Pocket PC

(Cost: $549.99)

· Specs: size, 5.1” x 3.2” x 6.3”; weight, 6.3 oz; storage capacity, 32 MB RAM/16 MB ROM.

· Operating System: Windows for Pocket PC.

· Installed Programs and Utilities: Address Book, Date Book, Calculator, Notes, Tasks, E-mail Inbox, Microsoft Pocket Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, File Explorer, Microsoft Money, Microsoft Reader, Picture Viewer, Pocket Excel, Pocket Word, Games, Infrared Send/Receive Utility, ActiveSync and Character Recognizer.

· Education-Specific Information: Go to www.compaq.com/education.

· Special: Color display, built-in microphone and speaker, headphone jack, protective slipcover, expansion capability.

· Battery: Rechargeable 950 mAh Lithium Poly mer battery provides around 12 hours of use.

· What’s Good: Big points for design on this unit. Metallic and mighty sleek-looking, this PDA looks as high-tech as it really is. For its large memory and robust functionality, the iPAQ is surprisingly small. The pre-installed programs are a plus too, providing pocket versions of Microsoft Office favorites like Word, Excel and Internet Explorer. Students and educators will love that Windows Media Player turns the unit into an MP3 player, complete with headphone jack. Oh, and did we mention that, like the Handspring Visor, the iPAQ has expansion capabilities? Expansion packs allow users to attach a modem, a PC Card slot, additional memory and more.

· What’s Not So Good: With no backup battery, be sure to keep this one charged. If you set it aside and the rechargeable battery dies, all the stored data and settings will be lost. Also, the slipcover is rather bulky and can make the unit oddly cumbersome.

· Overall: Compaq has crammed quite a lot into a surprisingly small package. PDA skeptics will be shocked at how much can fit into the palm of their hand. Lots of applications and lots of storage space equal lots of possibilities for educators using handheld devices.

 

Casio Cassiopeia E-125 Pocket PC

(Cost: $549.99)

· Specs: size, 5.125” x 3.25” x .75”; weight, 8.4 oz; storage capacity, 32 MB.

· Operating System: Windows for Pocket PC.

· Installed Programs and Utilities: Address Book, Date Book, Calculator, Notes, Tasks, E-mail Inbox, Microsoft Pocket Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, File Explorer, Microsoft Money, Microsoft Reader, Pocket Excel, Pocket Word, Games, Infrared Send/Receive Utility, ActiveSync and Character Recognizer.

· Education-Specific Information: Check out www.casio.com/education.

· Special: Color display, lots of physical button- control, built-in speaker and microphone, headphone jack, soft cover, backlight.

· Battery: Main battery (rechargeable), approximately 8 hours; backup battery, approximately 5 years.

· What’s Good: Like the iPAQ, the E-125 has a nice, big color display, tons of storage space for applications, lots of handy pre-installed programs and an expansion slot for all kinds of additional functionality. Users can write documents and e-mails, or put together Excel spreadsheets while playing MP3s on Windows Media Player. Also, a number of buttons on the side let you do a lot without the stylus. You can bring up the start menu, scroll around, select programs and even record voice memos with the side controls.

· What’s Not So Good: Unlike the iPAQ, this one d'esn’t get many points for design. It is essentially a box with a screen, and a pretty big one at that. By far the biggest and heaviest of the PDAs reviewed here, it’s not exactly “pocket-size” (unless you’re wearing cargo pants).

· Overall: Despite its size, the Cassiopeia E-125 lets you do quite a lot. Plus, thanks to the side control buttons, it is perhaps one of the easiest PDAs to use, especially for those unfamiliar with handhelds. It’s another unit that will find lots of use in the classroom, as well as in any administrator’s office.

—Jim Schneider

jschneider@thejournal.com

 

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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