Whatever happened to personal digital assistants (PDAs)? You remember — those devices that turned your wonderful penmanship into gibberish, cost nearly as much as a new computer, and still couldn't store a spreadsheet. Well they're back, re-christened as souped-up "electronic organizers."
Your Need: The closest thing to a laptop computer that will still fit in a jacket pocket or purse.
Power Tool: NEC MobilePro 400
NEC's MobilePro 400 is one of the first handheld computers to use a slimmed-down version of Windows 95 software walled Windows CE. It features a collection of organizational tools such as a calendar, an electronic Rolodex, and a To Do list. Take the MobilePro on the road, and you can check a cost estimate or a project proposal while you're away from your desktop PC. When you're back at the office, IrDA infrared transmissions or a serial cable link the handheld with your PC.
Although the NEC model can't store notes that are written in electronic longhand, other versions of the Windows CE device can. So check out soon-to-be released, CE-based handhelds from Casio, HP, and Philips before making your choice.
Vital Stats: Size: 13 ounces — slightly larger than a check book and a lot thicker (one inch). Memory: 4 MB of RAM. Batteries: runs on two AA batteries for about 20 hours of steady use. Options: you can add capabilities like a wireless modem using a standard Type II PC Card device.
Geek Factor: It's a handheld computer that delivers your Excel spreadsheets while you're on the road.
Weak Factor: It's slow, it works only with Windows 95, and the price tag is high for this first-generation device.
Coordinates: NEC MobilePro 400, $649. NEC Electronics Corp., 800-632-8377; http://www.nec.com
Your Need: Track expenses while you're traveling.
Power Tool: HP OmniGo 120 Plus
The OmniGo's built-in software packages are in many ways better suited to the electronic organizers than Windows CE. OmniGo features DOS-and-Windows compatible applications like an appointment book and an address book, and it can handle a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet and act as a traveling alarm clock. Best of all — for me, at least — it includes a version of Quicken called Pocket Quicken that let's you enter new checks and create expense reports on the road.
Vital Stats: Size: 11.7 ounces - it's sleeker than the bulky Windows CE devices. Memory: 1 MB or RAM. Options: there's a Type II PC Card slot for adding more memory.
Geek Factor: You can write Post-it style notes and attach them to other applications at a later time.
Weak Factor: The only way to get your PC and the OmniGo to sync is to buy an additional package called HP OmniGo Connectivity Pack ($49).
Coordinates: HP OmniGo 120 Organizer Plus, $399. Hewlett-Packard, 800-637-7740; http://www.hp.com/handheld.
Your Need: Better ergonomics in a cheaper, Windows 95-compatible handheld.
Power Tool: Sharp Zaurus ZR-3000
Even though the Zaurus's touch-sensitive screen is more legible than NEC's screen, I still found myself squinting at times. Then I discovered that if I tapped on the screen it zoomed in on the text. And with its larger keys, its got the best keypad of the devices reviewed here. The calendar, spreadsheet, and address software can translate files into Word, Excel, Act, GoldMine, or Schedule+ files.
Vital Stats: Size: at 10.9 ounces, the Zaurus is slightly smaller than the NEC handheld PC. Memory: 1 MB of RAM. Options: Sharp offers an external fax/modem ($150-$175) that works with the included CompuServe software. But it's slow.
Geek Factor: It's got a power adapter; it's easy to use.
Weak Factor: No PC Card slot, so you're stuck with slower and more expensive add-on devices.
Coordinates: Sharp Zaurus ZR-3000, $399. Sharp Electronics Corp., 800-237-4277; http://www.sharp-usa.com .
Your Need A serious handheld that can handle special business needs.
Power Tool: Psion Series 3C
Psion's software is easy to follow, but the hardware lacks some amenities. For example, the Series 3c is the only handheld reviewed here that doesn't include a touch screen and stylus. That means you must master the diminutive keypad and remember the proper key to hit for certain functions — something I often forget in the middle of a busy day of testing.
Then again, Psion's Windows-like software lets you store contact information, book appointments electronically, use spreadsheets, and take quick notes.
To Psion's credit, this is a more durable platform for companies looking to put specialized software on handheld computers for their entire staff. There are already several engineering and medical applications available for it.
Vital Stats: Size: just 9.7 ounces with batteries. Memory: 2MB of RAM. Options: there are two slots behind swing-out panels for adding more memory, different applications, and a fax/modem.
Geek Factor: The Psion enables you to record your own sounds, and it includes a spell-checker.
Weak Factor: No stylus — which means you must struggle with the tiny keys. Coordinates Psion Series 3c, $599. Psion Inc., 800-997-7466;
Your Need: A simple, low-maintenance electronic day planner that won't weigh you down.
Power Tool: Pilot 5000
The bantam-weight Pilot is responsible for all the renewed interest in PDAs. Its major virtue is its simplicity. Don't look for large word-processing documents or spreadsheets on this machine. It includes only software applications that help you stay organized: , a basic appointment book, address book, To Do list, calculator, and memo pad, all of which are compatible with Windows applications. To transfer information, use the serial cable to connect the Pilot with your PC. The little PDA knows when its hooked up, and a hotswap feature makes transferring information and backing up files a snap.
Vital Stats: Size: 5.7 ounces — it rides easily in a shirt pocket. Memory: 2MB of RAM. Batteries: a pair of AAAs keeps the Pilot running for about two months. Options: There's also a version that's Mac-compatible.
Geek Factor: It's the tiniest electronic organizer that works with your PC — without complaining.
Weak Factor: Using Graffiti to enter text is like having to learn a new alphabet. I'd rather study Russian.
Coordinates: Pilot 5000, $299. U.S. Robotics Palm Computing Division, 800-881-7256; http://www.usr.com/palm
A version of this article appeared in the Feb/Mar 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.