Consumer Advice on PDAs

by BrookeYan - Date: 2007-02-06 - Word Count: 1230 Share This!

PDAs can store thousands of phone numbers, appointments, tasks, and notes. All models can exchange, or synchronize, information with a full-sized computer. To do this, you connect the PDA to your computer via a cradle or cable. For models that run on rechargeable batteries, the cradle doubles as a charger. Infrared, Bluetooth, and WiFi let you synchronize your PDA with a computer without the use of wires or a cradle.

Most PDAs can be made to work with both Windows and Macintosh computers, but PDAs with the Pocket PC operating system usually require third-party software for Macs. PDAs with Wi-Fi (wireless) capability can access the Internet. Those without can as well with the addition of a separately purchased modem. Some PDAs can record your voice, play videos, display digital photos, or hold maps, city guides, or a novel.


Most PDAs on the market are the familiar tablet-with-stylus types that feature a squarish display screen, a design pioneered by Palm Inc. (now called PalmOne). Today the main choices are models that use the Palm operating system (OS)--mostly PalmOne--and PocketPC devices from companies such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba. The latter use a stripped-down version of Microsoft Windows. A few PDAs use a proprietary operating system. Kyocera, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson offer units that combine a cell phone and a PDA.

Palm OS systems. Equipped with software to link with Windows and (for PalmOne-brand units) Macintosh computers, PalmOne units and their clones have a simple user interface. You use a stylus to enter data on the units by tapping an onscreen keyboard or writing in a shorthand known as Graffiti. Or you can download data from your computer. Most Palm OS-based PDAs can synchronize with a variety of desktop e-mail programs, such as Outlook Express and Eudora. (PalmOne models with VersaMail software are good at handling e-mails with attachments.) And all include a basic personal-information-management (PIM) application. Palm OS units are easy to use, although navigation between different programs is cumbersome because of the operating system's "single-tasking" nature.
Most models make it difficult or impossible to replace the battery yourself. And beyond the warranty period, you can't be sure the manufacturer will do it for you.

Most Palm OS models have expansion slots that let you add memory or attach separately purchased accessories. All Palm OS-based PDAs can be enhanced by adding third-party software applications--the more free memory that a model comes with, the more software it can accommodate. There is a large body of Palm OS-compatible freeware, shareware, and commercial software available for download at such sites as Many Palm models come with "Documents to Go:" word-processing and spreadsheet software similar to that used in Pocket PCs but more versatile. Price range: about $100 to $800.

PalmOne's top-of-the-line-model, the Tungsten T5, combines a PalmOS-based PDA with many of the best features of the PocketPC operating system. When it's connected to a Windows PC, you can drag and drop files to the T5's built-in "flash drive," even on PCs that don't have Palm's desktop software installed.

Pocket PC systems. These resemble Palm OS-based models but are more like miniature computers. They have a processor with extra horsepower and come with familiar applications such as a word processor and a spreadsheet. Included is a scaled-down version of Internet Explorer, plus voice-recording and perhaps some financial functions. The included e-mail program handles Word and Excel attachments easily. Also standard is an application that plays MP3 music files, as well as Microsoft Reader, an eBook application.

As you might expect, all the application software included in a Pocket PC integrates well with the Windows computer environment. You need to purchase third-party software to use a Mac. And you'll need Microsoft Office programs such as Word, Excel, and Outlook on your computer to exchange data with a PDA. Pocket PCs have a color display and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Unlike most Palm OS-based PDAs, replacing the battery of most Pocket PCs is usually straightforward. Price range: $200 to $700.


Whichever operating system your PDA uses, you may need to install programs in your computer to enable the PDA to synchronize with it. This software lets you swap data with leading PIM programs such as Lotus Organizer or Microsoft Outlook.

All PDAs have the tools for basic tasks: a calendar to keep track of your appointments, contact/address software for addresses and phone numbers, tasks/to-do lists for reminders and keeping track of errands, and a calculator. A notes/memo function lets you make quick notes to yourself. Other capabilities include word-processing, spreadsheet, and e-mail functions. A voice recorder, which uses a built-in microphone and speaker, works like a tape recorder. MP3 playback lets you listen to digital-music files stored in that format, and a picture viewer lets you look at digital photos. A few models also include a built-in digital camera and keyboard.

A PDA's processor is the system's brain. In general, the higher the processing speed of this chip, the faster the PDA will execute tasks--and the more expensive the PDA will be. But higher-speed processors may require more battery power and thus deplete batteries more quickly. Processing speeds are 16 to 400 megahertz (MHz), and models typically have 8 to 64 megabytes (MB) of user memory. Even the smallest amount in that range should be more than enough for most people.

Nearly every PDA offers an expansion slot for some form of removable memory card: CompactFlash, MultiMediaCard (slots also accept SecureDigital cards), or Memory Stick. Models with two expansion slots can accommodate a peripheral device, such as a Wi-Fi wireless networking card, as well as removable memory. If you plan to transfer photos from a digital camera to your PDA, make sure the two devices use the same type of card.

Some PDAs offer wireless connectivity. Models with a capability known as Bluetooth can connect wirelessly over short distances to a properly equipped computer or peripheral such as a printer or modem. Models with Wi-Fi can connect over medium distances to a Wi-Fi-enabled home network or to the Internet at "hotspots" in certain airports, coffee shops, and hotels. A PDA combined with a cell phone can make voice calls or directly connect to the Internet via a wireless Internet service provider. It's possible for a single PDA to have more than one of these three types of wireless connectivity.


Consider your ties to a computer. Pocket PCs provide a Windows-like interface that allows simple PC-to-PDA file transfer with drag-and-drop capability. They're also better than Palm OS models for setting up a Wi-Fi (wireless) e-mail connection. Most have replaceable batteries, along with accessible flash memory to which you can back up data.

Palm OS models run a wider range of third-party software applications than do Pocket PCs. For the basics, they're still easier to use.

While all PDAs can sync with Macintoshes, only PalmOne models do so out of the box. Sony units need software such as The Missing Sync (available at That program and PocketMac ( work for Pocket PCs. Both are priced under $50.

Small size vs. extra features. As a rule, a model with a larger display or physical keyboard won't be the lightest or smallest. A PDA with two slots for memory and peripherals is more expandable, but will tend to be larger.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.

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