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Q: Should I buy a PDA?

A: Only if you need one

by Andrew Shuttleworth

In this brief article I hope to provide enough information that it will take you a long way to answering the above to questions for yourself--you are the only one that can!

If you are considering buying a PDA, (Personal Digital Assistant) first ask yourself--why?

If it is for the novelty I'd say seriously consider before you go and more than likely waste a significant amount of money that could be better spent on many other things. If you want to access, edit and add to your personal data store from the convenience of one small, portable digital device, then a PDA sounds like it may be for you. I think it's a key to remember that today's PDAs evolved from devices that had two or three key functions: calendar, contacts and notes. Indeed for most people today these are still the core functions of PDAs, the key supported functionality being that you can synchronize them with a normal personal computer so that your data is up-to-date on both systems . There is a lot more that PDAs can do. Here's a list of just some of the things:

  • Handle documents, spreadsheets, databases and presentations.
  • Access the internet and read e-mail with wireless or wired connections.
  • Take photographs and edit graphics
  • Be used as games devices
  • Take voice memos
  • Play back video and music
  • Show your coordinates anywhere in the world using GPS and function as a car navigation device.
  • Access data such as dictionaries, train timetables, maps, books and recipes ... in fact almost any data that is available digitally.
Before you decide to get a PDA because it can do one or two of the above things, think twice and think back to what PDAs were originally designed for. If you only want one of the peripheral functionalities and are not bothered about the core ones, you'd be much better off buying a dedicated device to do one of the above, e.g., a laptop for handling office documents or an MP3 player for listening to music. PDAs can do the above but they are not designed to do this and if you expect them to perform as well as a dedicated device you are likely to be disappointed.

If you are still reading here and still think you need a PDA then the next question is how to choose one of the many devices available. Here are the key considerations:
  • Cost: Consumer PDAs now range from as little as 10,000 yen for older models to around 70,000 yen for the latest and greatest. Not all this functionality you need or can afford to pay for. Also factor in the additional cost of accessories such as spare cables, chargers and batteries, additional memory or communication modules and perhaps a nice carrying case to keep the PDA protected.
  • Size and weight: The best PDAs are easily pocketable. Some of the higher spec PDAs had to settle for increases in size and weight although as technology improves higher spec PDAs are getting smaller and lighter.
  • Battery life: Will you need to take your PDA away from power sources for long periods or will you be near a power supply at least once a day. Also check whether batteries can be replaced if you want to replace the battery after one charge and/or at the end of the battery's life. The length your PDA can go without being recharged mainly depends on the next two factors.
  • Screen: The last thing you want is a PDA that you can't comfortably see. Think about the screen size, resolution, what you are going to be using it for and where you are going to be using it--indoors or outdoors can make a huge difference.
  • Processing power: Do you really need a fast processor for the uses you have planned? Again, technology is improving but a faster processor can seriously reduce the battery charge length from more than one week to less than one day at the extremes.
  • In-built storage, functionality and expansion: Unless your needs are very modest you are almost certain to need some form of expansion either to store more data or to connect your PDA to the internet. Compare your planned use of the PDA with the accessories available for the PDAs you have short listed. Luckily there are only a few standards. A Compact Flash slot will offer you the greatest range and best priced accessories at the current time. If you think you will need to access large amounts of data AND have a communication module in at the same time then you need to think about getting a PDA with two expansion slots.
  • Compatibility with PC Operating System: Most PDAs can commicate with Windows PCs but if you are using a Mac or Linux OS you may need to research whether the PDA will be able to communicate with your PC.
With all these considerations in mind you know have to decide which PDA you want. To complicate things there are a number of different operating systems for PDAs. The two main ones are Palm and Pocket PC. Although these devices are getting more similar in general Palms are cheaper, lighter and have a longer battery life but have lower resolution screens and less memory and less processing power. Pocket PCs generally have the reverse of all these things. There are an enormous amount and variety of third party applications for both Palm and Pocket PC PDAs. Sharp have a good range of Zaurus devices but at present these are only really widespread in Japan so the software is in Japanese and does not quite match the number and variety of applications as Palm or Pocket PC. A new much acclaimed Linux version is being released in the US and Europe around this time but it is too early to say whether this will be able to capture a significant portion of the market and whether the same range of software and compatible expansion devices will become available.

Finally, a word about buying PDAs in Japan. PDAs with English language operating systems are relatively hard to find here. Unlike laptops, the main manufacturers are not selling English language models direct.

They can be found in the duty free sections of the largest electronics stores in Akihabara, but there is no guarantee these are the latest models and you are sure to be paying a premium for having them imported. There are also some concerns and in many cases restrictions about ordering PDAs online from abroad and having them shipped to Japan. If at all possible the two safest options are either to buy one when you are on a trip abroad or find someone who can receive the device from and online shop and ship it to you in Japan. The bad thing about getting a device from overseas is that some of the most innovative applications such as software or wireless connections deals may only apply abroad.

In contrast Japanese PDAs come bundled with some applications you may find useful here such a Japanese English dictionaries and train route planners as well as the ability to handled Japanese text, of course.

Therefore if you think you can get by with a Japanese interface and you are planning on staying in Japan for a while I would recommend a PDA with a Japanese OS bought locally. One final thing to consider is that most Japanese makers release their devices in Japan before the US/Europe and vice versa. Keep this in mind as technology changes quickly and you don't want to be paying good money for a device which is already old technology.
Hopefully this article has been useful in helping you decide whether you really need a PDA. If there is enough interest I will write a future article on some of the interesting and useful tools and applications available once you have you PDA, so send your feedback via the web site below.

Andrew Shuttleworth loves his Pocket PC and just wishes he could make a career out of it. In his spare time his blogs about the latest Pocket PC happenings in Japan at . He can be contacted through his website.

Compact Flash: A standard for memory and expansion modules.
Expansion slot: Just what it says. A slot in the device which can hold card which 'expand' the PDA in terms of additional memory, connectivity or functionality.
PDA: PDA is most commonly use to describe palm sized devices with touch screens for input and control. In comparison handheld computers usually refers to devices with keyboards.

© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

June , 2002

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN