Using The Net To Soup Up Your Palm Top Computer

Dozens of programs are available at little or no cost

Owners of Palm Pilot-type computing devices have a fascination with the handy handheld gadgets that borders on obsession. They constantly scribble notes on the small screens, beam wireless messages to one another, and trade tips on all the nifty features they've discovered. It's not surprising, then, that software developers have created hundreds of programs for the Palm-possessed. Many are available via the Web, sometimes in scaled-down versions, at little or no cost (table).

To see what's out there, I loaded up a Handspring Visor (which operates identically to the Palm Pilot but has a roomier 8-megabyte memory) with programs you might need while out and about on business. At less than $20 each, some are remarkable bargains and others are more trouble than they are worth. You download them into your personal computer, then transfer them into your Palm device by wire through an attachment called the Hot-Sync cradle, or infrared beam. The programs I tried ranged in size from about 1 KB to a little more than 100 KB for a device with a total memory of nearly 8 MB.

Palm devices keep your entire phone number list at the ready, but the search engine is a little slow. A $19.95 shareware enhancement called AddressPro adds a slightly faster search engine and extra functions to the stock address book. AddressPro has an alphabetical bar along the bottom that lets you tap a letter with the stylus to whisk you to the names beginning with that letter. You can speed up searches more by using the "find" button, which allows you to search one field alone--such as last name--instead of the entire database. The stock address book limits which data you can display on the palmtop screen, forcing you to choose between seeing first and last name, or last name and company name. AddressPro allows you to choose any information for the first two items; you could show company and address, or last name and birthday if you wanted. (The third item displayed is always the phone number.)

A free, 30-day trial copy of a $49.95 management program called Consultant, available at, helped me solve another nagging problem: transferring my list of 3,500 addresses and my calendar to the Visor from the electronic address book on my Macintosh computer. I keep such vital statistics in NOW Contact and NOW Up-to-Date. But with the Mac version of those programs, I had no reliable way to get them into the Palm operating system. Consultant did the trick.

BUG ME. The Palm datebook works well. But it's not conducive to jotting a quick reminder note because you have to navigate through several windows to set an alarm. Fortunately, there are programs that operate like electronic sticky notes, such as the popular $15 shareware offering called Bug Me. But DiddleBug 2.10 does the same thing for free. It allows you to scribble a note--or even a drawing--without using the keyboard or the Graffiti characters recognized by the Palm device (although you can use either to enter a note if you choose). The menu allows you to select reminders in five- minute, -hour, and -day increments. More advanced users can go to another screen that allows any increment of time. Its drawing tools let you make perfect geometrical shapes. The limitation is you can only enter reminders seven days ahead.

The Web offers plenty of calculators for Palm devices. Financial types will be pleased to find Abacus, a $12 shareware program. It makes your Palm emulate an HP12C calculator, the Hewlett-Packard model that became the essential tool of MBAs in the mid-1980s and is very much in use today. The virtual 12C doesn't have every function of the real one; you can't calculate depreciation or internal rate of return. Yet you can do present and future value, and discounted cash-flow analysis, among other things.

You'd think figuring a tip would be easy. But judging by the number of tip calculators available, it looks like 15% or 20% is too much for many diners to handle in their heads. One calculator, a $10 shareware program PayUp 1.1.1, is useful for people who are fussy about the bill. The program lets you track 19 people's orders, then calculate an exact bill for each, including tax and tip. Very strict tippers can also figure a gratuity before tax. If you don't want to spend the entire meal entering prices, a second function divides the total cost--with or without tax added--by the number of diners and then determines the tip to the percentage you instruct.

If you are eating a lot of business meals in restaurants, the bill may be less of a worry than the calories you are consuming. Calorie Watch 2.0 is a $15 shareware program that helps you watch your waist. The screen displays the government-approved food pyramid, and you tap boxes for fats, meats, milk, or veggies, then enter how many servings you are taking. Serving-size information is provided on a different screen. The program keeps an approximate tab of your calories. You can also enter what kind of exercise you have done that day, and it will calculate calories burned.

If you would like to convert the pounds you've gained into kilos, you might try Convert-it, a $10 shareware conversion calculator that has 23 measurement categories ranging from acceleration to volume. I can't say that I have the occasion to translate angstroms to microns often, but it would be useful for converting kilometers to miles while in Europe.

DOOR-TO-DOOR DIRECTIONS. Many mapping programs are available for Palm devices, most at a comparatively hefty $60 price. However, DeLorme offers Solis Basic, a stripped-down version of its top model, Solis Pro, for free. It has limited uses, though. For one thing, you can only load a single map at a time. Using a Baltimore-area map, I found too little detail to navigate by. But it will generate a set of door-to-door directions.

If you're the type of parent who's always forgetting to put recent snapshots of the kids in your wallet, you can load them into your Palm device with a free program called Album To Go ( The Palm's little black-and-white screen doesn't allow for color images. But when you whip out the photos for other members of the Palm fraternity, they're sure to be impressed.

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