When animal-control officers in Lincoln, Neb., pick up a stray dog, they can enter its license-tag number into a Palm VII wireless handheld and instantly see any information on the animal from records stored on an IBM mainframe back at the office. Lincoln's tax assessors can use Palms to look up the history of a house they're appraising. Soon, the city's parking-enforcement officers will brandish handhelds, checking license plates in their search for scofflaws and even verifying that a plate matches a vehicle identification number.
The 50 Palms deployed by the city of Lincoln, and the hundreds more that the city hopes to put in the field, show how much handhelds have evolved. Once merely a handy way to carry an electronic address book and calendar, they are now valuable tools for the mobile worker.
These days, handhelds offer a low-cost solution to complex business problems. Why did Lincoln choose Palms? "They're affordable," says Terry Lowe, project supervisor in the city's Information Services Div. "We're talking hundreds of dollars instead of the thousands we pay for the mobile data terminals used by the police." The cost of a Palm VII, which will be replaced early next year by an improved version, is down to $200, plus wireless service starting at $10 a month.
If you're in the market for a handheld computer, you're in luck. The number of choices has exploded this year, with new models emerging in all sizes, shapes, and price ranges. If you need a constant connection to your e-mail, you can get a handheld with wireless service, or you can add the service later. A growing number come with color screens. Whether you are looking for the elegant simplicity of a Palm, the sophistication and flexibility of a Pocket PC, or the single-minded e-mail efficiency of a BlackBerry pager, there's undoubtedly a handheld that's right for you. Best of all, prices are coming down fast. A year ago, Palm's slim Vx model sold for $400. Today, its more capable successor, the m500, goes for $329.
VAST MENU. Despite the profusion of models, choosing a handheld isn't difficult. First, assess your basic needs, and choose the type that fits them best--wired or wireless, Palm or Pocket PC. Then go for the extras best suited to your tastes and your budget. Is a gee-whiz color screen worth the extra money and shorter battery life? Do you want rechargeable batteries, or are throwaway alkalines O.K.? Are you interested in the wealth of free consumer software available for Palms, or the ability to tap into corporate e-mail and databases offered by a Pocket PC?
Lots of people are content with the original Palm concept of a "connected organizer" that shares data with a PC. "I never felt the need for a PDA, but when DayTimer offered a deal on a Palm m100, I thought I'd see what my kids were raving about," says medical consultant Larry Seib of Oconomowoc, Wis. "I became addicted overnight." It syncs with the DayTimer software on his desktop PC. He subscribes to the Palm versions of CNN, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and the Weather Channel. He has added a spreadsheet program, TinySheet from Iambic Software, for $20, as well as maps from Mapopolis, a scientific calculator, and tables for looking up telephone area codes. All fit in the Palm's paltry 2 megabytes of memory. His favorite feature? "The batteries last for weeks," he says.
SLIMMER. There are now about two dozen models from either Palm (PALM ) or the seven companies that license its operating software. Palm's own line runs from the $149 m105 to the $449 m505, a slim model with a color display. The newest entrant is the midrange m125. At $249, its only major departure from the $329 m500 is the use of AAA batteries instead of rechargeables. All of the m-series Palms, except the 100, come with an expansion slot. So-called Secure Digital (SD) cards that fit the slot offer either extra memory or programs, such as city guides or handheld games. Eventually, SD cards will be able to handle communications options such as a wireless modem.
Palm rival and partner Handspring (HAND ) also has filled out its portfolio. The $199 Visor Neo is a bit thicker and heavier than the Palm m125, but it costs $50 less and features much wider expansion possibilities with its Springboard slot. Springboard options include wireless modems, GPS receivers--even a massager. The rechargeable Visor Pro, at $299, features 16 MB of internal memory, twice that of most models. Meanwhile, the cost of the color Prism has been cut from $449 to $299.
Newer entrants to the Palm family also are making their mark. Sony (SNE ) caused a splash earlier this year with its $499 CLIE model boasting a brilliant color screen. Now, it has a $300 monochrome version, which features the same stylish design plus a long-range infrared port that lets it do double duty as a universal remote control for your TV, VCR, DVD, and stereo. That should be in stores by late November.
If access to corporate networks and integration with desktop applications such as Microsoft Office (MSFT ) are a priority, you might be happier with one of the Pocket PCs. These are more capable--albeit at a cost in weight, price, and complexity. The latest models, based on Microsoft's Pocket PC 2002 software, feature big improvements in their e-mail programs and in their ability to connect to corporate networks.
David T. Bowman, a business development manager for an electrical contractor in Chesapeake, Va., was a longtime Palm user who became frustrated with its limitations, especially in synchronizing with Microsoft Outlook mail and contacts. He switched early this year to a Casio Cassiopeia EM500 Pocket PC and is considering moving to a Pocket PC 2002 from Hewlett-Packard. "The best feature is the ease of communication between my laptop organizer software and the Pocket PC," Bowman says.
FRESH BATCH. He's especially pleased by how well the Pocket PC works with Microsoft Outlook's database. "This is a big advantage over the Palm," he says. Bowman uses his Casio for e-mail, even though he doesn't use wireless or even a standard modem. He just downloads his e-mail when he syncs and then reads and writes messages off-line.
The newest batch of Pocket PCs from Compaq (CPQ ), HP (HWP ), and Toshiba (TOSBF )--with more models due soon from NEC (NIPNY ) and Casio (CSIOY )--should continue making inroads into Palm's longtime dominance of the market. Like the Palms, the Pocket PCs all run the same basic software for your calendar, address book, and e-mail. Even in terms of hardware, the products are more alike than different. The main variation is in the number and type of expansion slots, which determine what accessories you can use.
Compaq's iPAQ, with its striking industrial design and ultrabright screen, turned a lot of heads last year. Its new $599 model 3800 remains the style leader. In addition to Microsoft's much better Pocket PC 2002 software, the 3800 has gained a built-in SD memory slot. If that's not enough, Compaq offers a variety of accessory sleeves that fit around the back of the handheld and, at the price of a bit of extra weight and bulk, let you use either CompactFlash cards or laptop-style PC Cards. The options can handle nearly any wireless communication, from a local area network to the Sprint PCS phone network.
SEXY. If you think you'll use a number of accessories, you should take a look at Toshiba's first entry into the handheld field. Its e570 has a design that is functional rather than sexy and comes in a bit cheaper than the competition, at $569. It's also the only model with a pair of built-in slots that allow it to handle both SD and CompactFlash cards right out of the box.
HP's $599 Jornada 565 is not quite so flexible--with only a single CompactFlash slot. But it can run longer on batteries than any other Pocket PC--as much as 14 hours between rechargings if you keep the screen's backlight turned down. That's enough for at least a couple of days worth of normal use. The Jornada is also the only Pocket PC to use a removable battery, with the option of an oversize battery that doubles the usable life.
You can equip nearly all of these handhelds--Pocket PCs and the Palm family--for various types of wireless operation. Handsprings, most Palm models, and Sony's CLIE can use clip-on wireless modems to reach the Net. They'll put you on the data network operated by AT&T Wireless (AWE ) and Verizon Wireless. Tip: Early next year, most wireless phone carriers will launch higher-speed data services, so you might want to wait for the required new gear to come out. You can also buy adapters for any Handspring, most Palms, and any handheld with a CompactFlash slot that lets you work on a wireless local area network.
There are now handhelds masquerading as wireless phones. The first practical model was the Smartphone from Kyocera Wireless (about $500 with activation from several different carriers). Samsung has gone Kyocera one better with its sleeker $500 I300, just hitting the market now.
The most exciting news in the Palm phone market comes from Handspring. Its new $399 (with activation) Treo 180 won't be available until early next year but could be worth waiting for. It's a flip-phone design that's a bit wider than most phones, at 2.7 inches, but is narrower and shorter than any other Palm family device. The Treo is the first Palm to ditch Graffiti shorthand in favor of a miniature keyboard.
SINGLE-MINDED. All of these handhelds offer great flexibility at the price of complexity. By contrast, Research in Motion's BlackBerry (RIMM ) thrives on its single-minded ability to handle wireless e-mail. It comes in two basic styles: a $399 pager-size version and a larger model, about the size of a Palm, for $499. Both use a tiny but surprisingly efficient keyboard.
The original BlackBerry service allows you to get corporate e-mail via a $39.99-per-month service. Several Internet service providers now let you get to your mail using the BlackBerry Internet Edition. For example, Earthlink (ELNK ) offers unlimited e-mail service for $39.95.
Because the BlackBerry is basically a pager, it is ideally suited for instant messaging. You can get Yahoo! Messenger on Motient's eLink service (MTNT ), which starts at $24.99 a month. The AOL Mobile Communicator (AOL ) is a modified BlackBerry 950 pager that handles AOL mail and instant messages. To spur sluggish sales, AOL has cut the price of the device to $99, with unlimited wireless service for a $29.95 monthly fee above regular AOL membership.
Today, the overwhelming majority of handheld owners don't use their Palms or Pocket PCs to connect to anything but a PC--and they find them useful tools. But as the wireless options expand, as wireless data networks get better, and as the design wizards figure out how to merge the functions of a PDA and a phone into a device small enough to fit into a pocket, these Swiss Army Knives of the computing world will be the wave of the future. As someone who rarely leaves the office without a Palm, a BlackBerry, and a phone, I can't wait.
By Stephen H. Wildstrom in Washington