PDAs at 30 Paces

In this corner, a Palm fanatic. In the far corner, a recent Pocket PC convert. Two editors, two handhelds, one question: Which is the better machine?

Senior Editor Mathew Schwartz is a Palm fanatic who swears by his new, monochrome Palm IIIxe (from Palm Inc. at a street price of $215). Senior reviews editor Russell Kay, a recent convert to the Pocket PC, much prefers his Jornada 545 (from Hewlett-Packard Co. at an estimated street price of $499) and its Windows CE 3.0 operating system from Microsoft Corp. Computerworld asked these two for a calm, balanced appraisal of their handheld companions. Instead, they made passionate arguments, but each failed to convince the other.


Schwartz: First, some ground rules, Russ. If I buy a gadget, I have two guidelines: Will I carry it? Will I really use it? When I first checked out handhelds by talking to friends and searching online, I picked the Palm. After a year, that device still satisfies my two criteria, and it's great at keeping me organized.

I've looked at the new Pocket PC devices, and they just don't meet my requirements. They're too big, and their operating systems are a pain. I don't care how much memory they have or about playing MP3s. I want something inexpensive to keep me organized. The proof is in the pudding: For more than a year, I've used the Palm religiously, tracking phone numbers, appointments, story ideas and movie times and even writing stories on it using the portable keyboard. The Palm still beats the Pocket PC in just about every category I find useful.

Kay: Will I carry it, and will I really use it? Those are great questions, Mat, but my answers are different. I also carried a Palm for more than a year, and it was no more useful to me than the $30 organizer it replaced. In fact, it was harder to use in low light. I stopped carrying the Palm.

Power Me This

Schwartz: Two words, Russ: battery life. My Palm IIIxe goes for more than six weeks on two AAA batteries. No recharging, no fuss. Even with the color Palm IIIc, which has built-in rechargeables, I got more bang for my buck. The Pocket PC only lasts a matter of hours, especially if you're playing MP3s.

Kay: But what good is long battery life if you can't read the damn thing? And comparing monochrome with color battery life doesn't wash; you have to compare color vs. color.


Schwartz: Batteries aside, the Pocket PC has a fatal Microsoft flaw: It's bloated! The Palm does a few things very elegantly. The Pocket PC tries to be everything - and you pay for that functionality even if you don't use it. For me, the Pocket PC's dictation feature is worthless. I never transcribe voice notes.

Kay: I don't record interviews on my Pocket PC either, but it's great for capturing directions or quick notes to myself.


Schwartz: Out of the box, I had my Palm set up with free synchronization links to my favorite e-mail program, Eudora, and to the Palm desktop program that lets me type appointments and memos into my PC and sync them with my Palm.

Guess what? This isn't the world according to Gates. I can't stand Outlook, but it's the only organizer the Pocket PC integrates with out of the box.

Kay: Sure - out of the box. I'm not crazy about Outlook, but I don't like Eudora either. Just like the Palm, there's lots of third-party software for the Pocket PC - and it's from the same companies that write connectivity applications for the Palm.


Schwartz: At least the Palm isn't built by Microsoft. Think about this: The Palm has been the most successful handheld for four years. Clearly, its design strikes an intuitive chord with users. Yet after successive versions of Windows CE, Microsoft still has less than 10% of the handheld market. Palm is doing something right.

Kay: Your argument is specious, Mat. Apple Computer still has less than 10% of the desktop market, so by your reasoning, Microsoft Windows is clearly doing something right on the desktop, something that "strikes an intuitive chord with users."

Schwartz: And there's the Palm's cultlike following.

Kay: Geez, Mat, first you complain about Microsoft, then you brand the Palm as a cult object.

Schwartz: Yeah, but what about when you want to add a particular function to your Palm? Odds are good that someone else has already built a solution, one you can download. And thousands of other users are out there trying the same program.

Kay: This sounds an awful lot like the open-source debate.

Schwartz: Power to the people, Russ. Heaven forbid that Microsoft should let users reshape an application for their own ends. I can show you a passionate Palm user base that creates the programs it needs. Consider Aportis Technologies Corp.'s BrainForest, a third-party to-do and list program that puts Microsoft Word's outlining function to shame. The Palm gives you options. Competition creates excellence.

Kay: It certainly does - excellence like my HP Jornada Pocket PC!

Schwartz: Hardly! The collective, grassroots nature of Palm devotees will continue to make the Palm evolve and surpass Windows CE devices.


Schwartz: The part reveals the whole, Russ. Take the screen. When Palm started, the designers must have said, "The screen is small, so we have to keep the interface clean and simple." And it is. Give me a task to add or a preference to change, and it takes me 10 seconds, tops. Each of the Palm's four main functions has a corresponding hardware button.

But Microsoft, with each successive version of Windows CE, says, "Let's take our great Windows interface and repackage it for handhelds!" Excuse me - reality check! The Windows interface has never been great, and in Windows CE it has run amok. Who knows what's where? The Pocket PC control panels are so overloaded that you can hardly find anything intuitively. It takes a lot of screwing around just to make basic adjustments or launch an application. And the voice recorder and MP3 playback software aren't integrated with the other applications.

Kay: Mat, you whippersnapper, your argument reminds me of the Mac vs. PC religious disputes. Face it: Both interfaces have problems, and the Palm is intuitive only because you're used to it. When I carried a Palm, I often couldn't remember how to get to something. You may hate the Windows interface, but I find it pretty useful, and in the current Pocket PC, Microsoft has interpreted it really well for the small screen. OK, the company needed three tries to get it right. So what? General Motors has spent seven decades trying to build a decent car.


Kay: The Pocket PC hardware and software are just plain better; they're more useful and usable than the Palm ever was. The 16MB of RAM, plus the add-in compact flash (CF) slot, lets me carry a lot of information. It's a great travel companion.

For a recent trip, I downloaded a detailed map into Microsoft's Pocket Streets, complete with restaurant and hotel information and pointers to where I was going. The Media Player software let me listen to tunes via headphones.

And the electronic-book software - Microsoft Reader with its ClearType font rendering - made it easy and pleasant to read a book on-screen during a long evening bus ride.

Schwartz: ClearType makes for nice reading, but it's Microsoft all over again: So far, it only works with the electronic books it creates. How useless. Is the company scared someone will steal the application if it's built into its insecure operating system?

Kay: Sure, ClearType belongs in the operating system, but this is its first release. And I think it will be in the operating system before long. Oh yes, Reader works with any electronic book created to the new standards.


Schwartz: I've tried the new color Palm, the $450 IIIc. It's a lot easier to read than the Palm III that I love. But you know what? I don't need it.

Kay: Well, I do need it. I can't tell you the number of times I've strained to read the Palm in middling light. Its backlight is useless except in total darkness. Mat, wait 20 years until you're wearing bifocals, then see how useful the Palm is. I don't need color, but I do need a decent screen image. And no monochrome handheld - Palm or Windows CE - has it.

Schwartz: Addresses, checklists and phone numbers - that's me. I look at my Palm for bursts of 10 or 20 seconds. Same for local movie listings, which I capture using the free program AvantGo. Same for recent e-mail. I'm not reading the latest Stephen King novel on my Palm; I've got enough computer-related eyestrain, thank you. To edit a document, I print it out. To type in text, I use the add-on keyboard.

Power When You Need It

Kay: I wouldn't use either a Pocket PC or a Palm for capturing or editing text if I had any other choice. But the Pocket PC's power and convenience can, on occasion, be really helpful.

Schwartz: By that logic, Russ, I should spend lots of extra money to make sure my new TV is HDTV-ready. Palm gives you options, but Microsoft has abandoned the less-expensive end of the market and cares only about corporate users. I guess it gave up on individuals.

Kay: Yes, Microsoft has opted to focus on the high-end personal digital assistant. That's a marketing decision. In fact, it's a good example of not trying to be all things to all people.

Schwartz: But their worldview is all wrong! Need to edit a document? Use a laptop or just print it out.

Kay: Try to fit a laptop or a printout into your shirt pocket!

Schwartz: Well, if you need an address or movie time, you can use a Palm. For $250, I get 8MB of memory, plus the 2MB that stores the core applications. That's plenty of power for me to do a lot of different things.

Kay: Yeah, and for $100 I can get any number of dedicated organizers that will store just as much and work as simply.

Schwartz: Hardly! You're selling the Palm short. If you want audio, buy a Palm and an MP3 player. You'd save money to boot.

Kay: It all depends on what you're willing to give up. To me, the Pocket PC's strength isn't in being a better organizer; if that's all you want, you don't even need a Palm. But the Pocket PC will spark some good handheld mobile applications. You stick to your Palm organizer, Mat. As for me, I want to do more, and with the Pocket PC, I can.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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