Pilot: The Little Dynamo

Pilot's big plus: It can easily swap schedules and addresses with your desktop

My long search has finally borne fruit. For a couple of years, I've been looking for an electronic calendar and address book that's small enough to fit into a pocket but that can swap information with my desktop computer.

My new companion, which is called Pilot, weighs just under 6 ounces. Unlike more versatile personal digital assistants (PDAs), such as Hewlett-Packard's OmniGo and Sharp's Zaurus, Pilot doesn't allow me to send faxes, collect E-mail, track expenses, or play solitaire. What it does do extremely well is allow me to easily update my address and schedule information on my desktop or Pilot. The Windows version of the $299 Pilot, from the Palm Computing Div. of USRobotics (415 949-9560), will be in stores in early April. A Macintosh model is due in early summer.

INSTANT EXCHANGE. Pilot was designed as a computer accessory rather than a free-standing PDA. It has a plastic cradle that attaches with a cable to a port on your desktop. Set the Pilot in the cradle, press a button, and all new entries and modifications are instantly exchanged between the devices.

Pilot comes with its own personal information manager (PIM), and most people will find that this program keeps track of names, phone numbers, and scheduling just fine. But what if your entire life is already stored in another PIM--say, Lotus Organizer--and you don't want to face the trauma of changing? You may be in luck: Versions of HotSync software, which connects the Pilot to desktop programs, will be available for several leading popular PIMs.

I tried Pilot out with Now Software's Windows 95 version of its popular Up-to-Date Mac PIM. While there were some rough edges to the early test version, it looks as if it will work fine when it ships, probably in April. Other early synchronization products will handle Campbell Services OnTime and Franklin Ascend. Meanwhile, a company called IntelliLink is building synchronizers for a variety of PIMs, including Organizer, Microsoft Schedule+, and Starfish Sidekick.

The biggest difficulty is entering data directly into Pilot. This requires using Graffiti, a shorthand developed by Palm for the Apple Newton. It's not hard to learn, and I found the accuracy quite good. But it takes a bit of investment in time. Given Pilot's other virtues, learning Graffiti is not a bad trade-off.

SPEEDIER NEWTON. At the opposite end of the PDA scale in size and price, Apple is trying to breathe new life into the Newton, which can run a large assortment of software and even surf the Internet. Apple offers a new version of its operating software in the $699 MessagePad 120 and is adding a backlit screen in the $799 MessagePad 130. The new software features speedier performance and better links to Mac and Windows programs, but the biggest improvement is in Newton's handwriting recognition. Instead of pursuing the chimera of recognizing cursive scrawls, Newton now expects you to print, which works wonders for accuracy. Apple also sells an accessory keyboard for data entry.

My objection is that the 19-ounce, 8-inch-by-4-inch unit is too bulky. Newton is finding a market among specialized users, such as doctors who need to jot down notes and write prescriptions while on hospital rounds. But business users may find it overkill.

The good news is that, in the next year or so, speedy new low-wattage processors, especially Digital Equipment's StrongARM, may bring Newton-like power to a package the size of Pilot. That will be a killer combo.

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