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How to Shop for a Palmtop

Now that computing’s gone palm-size, the question is this: Which palm’s on top? Here’s a handy guide to the top of the palms – and add-ons to make them handier.

Some people won’t go anywhere without their PalmPilot. Consider Jefferson Lilly, a technology investment banker for SG Cowen Securities Corp. in San Francisco, who this past summer took his PalmPilot to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

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That may be taking the popular digital organizer to an extreme, but no one can deny that the PalmPilot is a hit – even at 19,340 feet above sea level. Market analysts at Dataquest report that PalmPilots have gobbled up 41% of the entire handheld computer market. According to Palm Computing, makers of the PalmPilot and a subsidiary of 3Com, there are now more than 1 million Piloteers in the United States.

The PalmPilot’s wild success has spawned hundreds of accessories, more than a thousand software programs, and a third-generation device, the Palm III. Not surprisingly, Microsoft aims to get a piece of the action by backing a bevy of Pilot imitators, which run on the stripped-down Windows CE 2.0 operating system.

Trying to choose among the dizzying array of add-ons and knockoffs generated by PalmPilot mania is a bedazzling experience. I know, because I spent four weeks testing and rejecting scads of Pilot-related gizmos, until I had rounded up the very smartest applications. I also forayed into the world of palmtops themselves, and tried out all the options confronting shoppers who must decide among older but cheaper PalmPilots, the new Palm III, and the latest Windows CE copycats. In this edition of PowerTools, you’ll learn what I learned.

The PalmPilot: Doing More with Less

The PalmPilot’s appeal isn’t hard to fathom. Unlike souped-up personal digital assistants, the PalmPilot doesn’t attempt to do the work of a complete computer. The device simply does what it’s supposed to do, and it does it very well: Track appointments and contacts, synchronize them with a desktop computer, and take the occasional note.

The PalmPilot organizers come in three editions: the PalmPilot Personal, the PalmPilot Professional, and the newer Palm III. If you’re on a tight budget, check out the PalmPilot Personal ($199) with 512K of memory. PalmComputing has discontinued production of the Personal edition, but some retailers are still carrying it. The machine has all the features of the original models (such as the date book, address book, To Do list, calculator, and memo-pad programs), plus an improved version of the built-in software, dubbed Palm OS 2.0, and “Expense Tracking,” a program for recording your expenses. But the Personal edition won’t let you email over the Internet.

For the best value, consider the Palm-Pilot Professional ($299). Its improvements over the Personal edition include an Internet email program and more memory (1MB) – enough to store about 10,000 names, dates, and other information. The email program doesn’t actually dial into the Internet, but rather it grabs unread mail from your desktop computer’s email program.

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If you’re shopping for your first PalmPilot, spring for the Palm III ($399). While it has the same basic organizer software as the Professional (including a date book, address book, To Do list, memo pad, and pocket email), the Palm III comes with 2 MB of memory, enough for 20,000 names and dates.

Palm Computing has also improved the Palm III’s basic operating software (upgraded to Palm OS 3.0) – it’s faster, it sports different-sized fonts, and it offers support for beaming capabilities. This last feature means that you can “beam,” say, a digital business card to another Palm III user – but you can’t do the same with a PC. That’s because the Palm’s infrared transmission doesn’t conform to the PC industry standard known as IrDA (Infrared Device Association).

If you already own a PalmPilot Professional, there’s no need to move up to the Palm III. The minor improvements don’t justify replacing your existing model. If you’re thinking about upgrading, Palm Computing does offer a pop-in hardware upgrade ($130) that gives you the infrared port, the additional memory, and updated software. But I recommend that you stick with your old model until you accidentally sit on it. Better versions will undoubtedly be out by then, for less money.

Coordinates: PalmPilot, Palm Computing Inc./3Com, 800-881-7256, www.palmpilot.com

PalmPilot Copycats – or Killers?

If you launch a winner like the palm-Pilot, you can bet that Microsoft will follow. And follow it has, with a version of its Windows CE 2.0 operating system adapted for limited-function computers that are roughly the size of the PalmPilot.

Microsoft has partnered with hardware companies to launch a bevy of PalmPilot copycats, inelegantly dubbed “Palm-size PCs.” They do everything the PalmPilots and Palm IIIs do, plus a little more.

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If you already own a PalmPilot, the advantages of the Windows CE palmtops aren’t great enough to make you switch. But if you’re new to palmtops, you may find the Windows CE models easier to learn than the PalmPilots. That’s because the Windows CE palmtop interface looks and feels like Windows for desktop computers. If you already work on Windows 95 or 98, you already know how to use Windows CE 2.0.

The Windows CE palmtops also feature a bigger and sharper screen – each model has a screen resolution of at least 240-by-320 pixels, versus the Palm III’s fuzzier 160-by-160 pixels. This makes it easier to read notes and to do things like sketch maps with directions. There’s also a handy voice-memo function that’s standard on all the Microsoft-based devices, which lets you squeeze from 16 to 60 minutes of recording into about 1MB of memory.

However, the Windows CE palmtops lose their edge in a couple of areas: First, they are compatible only with Windows-based machines, whereas PalmPilots work with Macs as well. Second, they’ve got a case of first-generation hiccups. For example, using the “find” lookup function in the contact manager can hang the entire system. (Microsoft says it plans to have a patch for the problem by the time you read this.)

Coordinates: Windows CE 2.0, Microsoft Corp., www.microsoft.com/windowsce

Here’s my take on the first three Windows CE 2.0 palmtops to hit the market.

1. Casio Cassiopeia E-10

The Cassiopeia is best suited for people who value ease-of-use over sophisticated gadgetry. Just press one of the three buttons at the bottom of its screen to launch, for example, the contact manager, calendar, or task list. On the left side is a fourth button to start the voice recorder, as well as an “Action Wheel” for scrolling and an “exit” button that closes dialog boxes.

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On a head-to-head comparison, the Cassiopeia runs second-best to the Everex Freestyle Manager (reviewed below). The Cassiopeia comes with just 4MB of RAM (versus the Freestyle Manager’s 8MB) and does not include an AC power adapter. The adapter costs an additional $29.95 – and you’ll need it.

That said, the Cassiopeia easily guzzled 2,000 contacts from my desktop computer’s personal information manager, plus a year’s worth of appointments – with plenty of room to spare. Casio bundles in a handy CD-ROM with several additional programs, including Quicken Expensable, which lets you create expense reports while you’re away from the office and works seamlessly with your desktop machine’s Quicken software when you return.

Coordinates: $399. Cassiopeia E-10, Casio Inc., 800-962-2746, www.casio.com

2. Everex Freestyle Manager A-15

Slightly smaller and lighter than the Cassiopeia, the Freestyle Manager delivers more value for your money. Though the two products cost the same and are capable of handling the same tasks, the Freestyle Manager packs 4MB more memory, it includes rechargeable batteries (rated for approximately 20 hours of use), and it comes with an AC power adapter/charger. One complaint: The Freestyle’s sharp edges never sat well in my hand. Its squared-off corners need to be rounded and countoured, so it feels less like a machine and more like a digital notepad. Favorite feature: a silent vibrating alarm (which none of the other palmtops include) that delivers appointment alerts without disturbing your meeting-in-progress.

If you opt for the Freestyle, I recommend coughing up another $100 for the Executive model, which includes a Mobile Cradle containing a 33.6Kbps fax/modem.

Coordinates: $329 with 4MB, $399 with 8MB, $499 with 8MB and fax/modem. Freestyle Manager A-15, Everex Systems Inc., 888-725-6724, www.freestyle.everex.com

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3. Philips Nino 300

The Nino 300 looks too bulky to be called a palmtop. However, the virtue of its larger design is that it accommodates many of the amenities the other models lack: The Nino has a tapered case that is easier to hold, and a palm rest for writing without torturing your tendons.

The standard Nino 300 includes just 4MB of RAM and comes with two AA batteries. The more expensive edition has 8MB of RAM and – like the Everex Freestyle Manager – comes with rechargeable batteries and an AC power adapter/charger. It can do just about everything that the Casio and Everex models can, but the Nino sucks power faster than the other two units. (Philips rates the rechargeable batteries for 10 to 12 hours.) On the upside, the Philips has a slightly sharper screen than the Everex and Casio models. Also, the Philips Nino’s curved rubber sides sit snugly in your palm, and all the application buttons are on the sides – so you can switch between programs without using both hands.

If you’re like me, you’ll insist on adding a fax/modem to the device. Philips offers a clip-on, 19.2 Kbps model for $39, or you can opt for a version of the Nino that comes with 8MB of RAM and the modem.

Coordinates: $399 with 4MB, $459 with 8MB. Nino 300, Philips Mobile Computing Group, 888-367-8356, www.nino.philips.com

Contributing Editor John R. Quain (www.j-q.com) appears regularly on CBS News’s “Up to the Minute” and can be seen on CNBC’s “The Edge.”