Power In Your Palm

When they were introduced to consumers back in 1988, handheld electronic organizers could do little more than store telephone numbers and daily "to do" lists. Their tiny keypads, limited memory, and barely legible liquid-crystal displays made them impractical for more sophisticated operations.

The pocket-size organizers have come a long way since those days. Some machines now offer word processing, spreadsheets, and other high-powered functions. And although they're not quite in the category of so-called palmtop computers, which can use the same software as IBM PCs, the new organizers are more computer-friendly. Special software allows them to share stored data with any IBM-compatible PC through a connecting wire. One model even transmits via infrared light, much like a TV remote control.

BEEP BEEP. What's more, a function that lets you take onscreen notes offers glimpses of the powerful Personal Digital Assistants, or (PDAs), expected to be available later this year. Instead of pecking away at a tiny keyboard, PDA users will be able to write out commands. In this way they can carry out a variety of tasks, such as sending faxes and electronic mail, and interpreting your handwriting to create printed memos.

Of course, if you just want an electronic diary that does nothing more complex than beep to remind you of an important date, you need spend as little as $50. If you want spreadsheets or PC compatibility or real computing power, expect to pay at least $200.

Among the simpler and less costly of the upper-end products is the DM2160 Notebook Organizer from Royal Consumer Business Products, a division of Olivetti Office USA. The unit, which lists for $300 but can be had for one-third less at discount stores, has more than 24 functions, such as an expense manager and an electronic ledger that keeps track of checkbook balances. But it doesn't offer the versatility and complexity of certain units from Sharp and Casio, which together hold the lion's share of the electronic organizer market.

For instance, Casio's $450 SF-R20, the top of its Executive Business Organizer Schedule System (BOSS) line, comes with a Lucid 3-D spreadsheet built in. Like similar spreadsheet programs found on larger and pricier PCs, Lucid allows owners to do sophisticated calculations such as ledger accounting or financial analysis involving complex formulas. Numbers crunched through Lucid can be shared with the popular Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program for PCs.

The state-of-the-art in digital organizers is the $650 Wizard OZ-9600 from Sharp. This latest Wizard model also focuses on a task that was typically left to larger notebook PCs: word processing. Its word processor can produce short letters or memos with four type styles. You can even preview what the printed page will look like on the LCD screen--a feature typically found in desktop publishing.

However, the Wizard's limited memory--only 256 kilobytes, compared with a notebook PC's 2,000--means you can't write anything of great length. Still, it's a leap above previous Wizards, which at best allowed simple outlines and unstructured memos.

Some of the new organizers don't limit the owners to built-in functions. Both Casio's SF-R20 and Sharp's Wizard OZ-9600 accept memory cards that provide extra file storage or contain software programs, such as a spell-checker and language translator. The cards can also be a means to add extra hardware, such as a modem or other communications devices.

KEY ADVANTAGE. Building such sophisticated functions into such a small package underlines for many users the central limitation of the form: tiny, hard-to-use keyboards. In some electronic datebooks, keys serve multiple functions that require cumbersome keystrokes or combinations of keys. Unfortunately, most organizers still must rely on tiny keys to keep the unit size small enough to fit in a pocket. But Sharp seems to have the most innovative solution to cramped and confusing keyboards. Simpler to use and more appealing to look at, Sharp's OZ-9600 is equipped with a touch-sensitive screen and a "graphical user interface." Like Microsoft's Windows, the program uses small pictures, or icons, on the LCD screen to represent functions. Touching a picture of a clock, for instance, quickly brings up the time. By moving more functions onto the screen, Wizard was able to make the OZ-9600 keys about 75% the size of standard typewriter keys--much larger than those on other organizers.

The touch-sensitive screen gives the OZ-9600 another distinctive feature: pen input. Even though the keyboard is the largest of any organizers, Sharp figures it is still too small for certain jobs. A "scrapbook" function and a plastic stylus allow owners to write directly on the screen, which makes it easy to take down quick notes or draw sketches and store them. For example, instead of just having an address of a client's building, you could keep a rough sketch of a map to show how to get there. Sharp is working on technology that will take this one step further, allowing users to store photos and computer graphics as well.

Further blurring the line between Sharp's latest Wizard and PDAs is the wireless communication feature. Like other electronic organizers, the OZ-9600 can share information in its memory with other 9600s or PCs. But instead of using a cable, the OZ-9600 transmits information via infrared light waves. To send data between 9600s, owners merely point the devices at each other and press a "send" button. A separate infrared receiver, due out later this year, will allow PCs and computer printers to receive information from the Wizard as well.

However, some of Sharp's rivals are quick to point out that while the OZ-9600 has some PDA-like features, it is far from a PDA. One important feature that PDAs will have over electronic organizers is handwriting recognition. Although the OZ-9600 will store your handwritten reminder to "call Mom," it will not understand that as a command to find Mom's phone number in its directory and dial it.

PDAs will also have much greater communication capabilities. Apple's PDA, code-named Newton, will allow owners to send and receive faxes over a telephone line. Casio, in conjuction with Tandy, is working on a PDA called Zoomer that will offer access to America Online, a computer information service that normally requires a PC and phone line. Future versions of PDAs might use cellular transmission.

CARD SWAP. Somewhere between the most powerful organizers and the forthcoming PDAs is another category of handheld devices called palmtop computers. While they often feature organizer-like functions such as appointment reminders and an address data base, palmtops are much more general-purpose machines. Hewlett-Packard's 95LX and Atari's Portfolio run special versions of the basic IBM software, DOS, which allows the machines to share files with PCs more easily than electronic organizers can. What's more, some palmtops such as the 95LX use the same types of memory cards found in notebook and laptop PCs, so you can transfer information by just swapping cards.

While palmtop computers and PDAs are taking miniaturization to new extremes, the Sharp and Casio lines--with more than 40 models between them--offer a fair, albeit limited, amount, of computing power. But as the technology continues to improve, many people may discover that they will be carrying their main PC in their pocket.