Test Flying The New Pilot

In the year or so since its introduction, the Palm Pilot has dominated the palmtop-computer market for one simple reason: It doesn't try to do very much, but it does its limited tasks very, very well. The new version of the Pilot, made by the Palm Computing Div. of 3Com (800 881-7256), branches out a bit. The good news is that it is better than ever at its core tasks of giving you an easily portable copy of your computerized address book, calendar, and to-do list. But many of its added functions, especially the ability to send and receive E-mail, are disappointing.

The Pilot comes in two versions, the $299 personal edition, with 512 kilobytes of memory, and the $399 professional version, with twice that memory and E-mail capability. The most important addition to the six-ounce pocket-size unit is backlighting, which makes it easy to read under less-than-ideal lighting conditions.

ANYONE HOME? Another advance is an optional $129 modem that adds three ounces in weight and two inches in length when it snaps on to the bottom of the Pilot. New communications functions include the ability to synchronize data with a desktop information manager over a direct modem connection. The professional version can also handle a local-area network or the Internet and deal with various E-mail systems, whether they're standard Web programs or proprietary programs, such as Lotus cc:Mail.

The direct-modem connection works as well as Pilot's famously simple desktop method of setting the unit in a cradle and pushing the sync button. But there's one important caveat: Your desktop machine has to be up and running or you can't connect. If your desktop is a corporate computer, you'll probably find that leaving your computer on is discouraged, if not prohibited, as a serious security risk.

The same problem also limits the usefulness of "network hot sync," a $69 software option. And there's an additional complication: Even though Palm has gone to some lengths to make it easy to get your Pilot to work over a network, not even Palm can tame a network. Most Pilot owners are going to need help from network administrators to get this feature working.

The problems of E-mail are inherent in the nature of the Pilot. Limited memory precludes downloading file attachments, and the diminutive screen makes it tough to read all but the shortest of messages.

Writing mail is worse. The Pilot offers a choice between tapping a tiny on-screen keyboard or, as most users prefer, writing in a shorthand called Graffiti. This is fine for entering an appointment or a to-do item, but it's a tedious way to write messages. The Pilot offers a handy means of scanning urgent messages and sending brief replies, but it's hardly a replacement for a laptop when it comes to handling mail on the run.

LIBRARY. Some of the new software touches, such as an expense-tracker that can transfer data to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, are handy. And there is a growing library of third-party applications available, including links to a variety of desktop contact managers and scheduling programs.

Pilot's success has inspired imitators. Sharp's $299 SE-500, scheduled for release later this summer, is a bit larger than the Pilot but has a built-in modem. And this fall, look for a device no bigger than a credit card that can download your computer address book and calendar. Pilot, however, is the model to beat. I've tried a variety of palmtops, and Pilot is the one that has earned a place in my pocket.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.