Understanding Handheld Computers

The main purpose of a handheld computer is to help you organize your life. All handheld computers include applications that allow you to

  • Manage and organize appointments using calendar and datebook software. This is one of the most important handheld applications. You can enter meetings, appointments, and much more in a format analogous to a "Day-Timer" or similar book-style engagement calendar. Handheld calendar software also allows you to enter repeating events, a great way to track standing appointments, birthdays, and more.

  • Enter notes, memos, or even random poetic musings with a memo pad application.

  • Perform mathematical operations with a calculator.

  • Track the things you need to do with a task list application.

  • Manage your contacts and their information with an address book application.

Besides these core applications found in some form or other on all handheld computers, most handhelds also provide a fair number of games and interesting (or useful) applications. Some of the applications ship with the device, but others must be downloaded onto it, usually when the device is attached, or "synched" to a desktop (or laptop) computer, usually via a so-called cradle that is connected using a USB connection to the desktop computer. For example, I can use my Palm PDA to track the phases of the moon and?perhaps more usefully in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live?take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) schedule with me.

Many people also use handheld devices to

  • Send and receive email.

  • Play music.

  • Play games.

  • Use mapping software and GPS features to navigate.

  • Surf the Internet (depending on the handheld, due to display limitations, your experience of the Web won't be as rich as it is when using your desktop).

It may state the obvious, but sending and receiving email, and cruising the Internet, can only be achieved with a handheld device if the device is connected to the Internet. This is one place where Wi-Fi comes in.

You can manage email in a delayed fashion when a handheld is synched to the desktop. The process works like this: You compose your email wherever you happen to be, and then it gets sent when you connect to your computer (which has an Internet connection). The reverse also works: You can download accumulated emails when your handheld is synched to your computer, and then read the emails wherever you happen to be with your handheld.

But to send and receive emails in real time with your handheld, the handheld must be connected to the Internet using wireless transmissions. Although some devices, such as the BlackBerry, use a proprietary protocol to connect to proprietary network, mostly this means equipping your handheld with Wi-Fi and connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot (for more about connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot, see Chapter 3, "Hitting the Road with Wi-Fi").


The BlackBerry from Research in Motion is a popular wireless handheld that includes a small integrated keyboard. BlackBerry devices are primarily used by mobile professionals for secure wireless access to email, corporate data, telephone communication, and the Web.

BlackBerrys do not use Wi-Fi to connect to the Web. Instead they use private, subscriber networks on parts of the radio spectrum that are licensed.

For the most part, use of the BlackBerry is an enterprise thing. In other words, you may well be given one to use for business purposes by your company, but most people don't go out and sign up for one as individuals.

Handhelds themselves differ from laptop PCs in a number of important areas:

  • Operating system (which I'll be getting to shortly)

  • Size and quality of display

  • Input devices (keyboards or handwriting)

In terms of input devices, some PDAs provide a miniature external keyboard that you can type on like a regular computer if your fingers are sufficiently deft. Other PDAs require that you learn a special kind of handwriting (called Graffiti on Palm OS devices) or provide written character recognition (Pocket PC). In addition, PDAs such as Palm OS devices that expect you to enter text using specially formulated characters and a special stylus also provide an alternative: an onscreen "keyboard" in which "keys"can be tapped using the stylus. Many of these devices also have the option of adding a physical keyboard, either thumb-board or collapsible full keyboard, usually manufactured by a third party.

Comparing Operating Systems

The two dominant operating systems for handheld computers are Pocket PC OS (Operating System) from Microsoft and Palm OS from PalmSource. Both operating systems are available on a wide variety of handhelds from various manufacturers.

Your preference between these two operating system is a matter of personal taste?and also, for some, just as much a "religious" issue as the choice between Mac and Windows.

It's risky to generalize in the context of a choice about which different people have strong opinions. But, treading where angels fear to go, here are my thoughts on the comparison of the two:

  • Pocket PC is, well, a version of Windows, so to a great extent it looks and feels like Windows.

  • Both Palm OS 5 and Pocket PC are capable of multitasking, and Palms and Pocket PCs are indistinguishable in their capabilities at this point.

  • Pocket PCs are generally more expandable and can be more easily configured for wireless capabilities.

  • Pocket PCs are generally somewhat larger and more expensive than Palm OS PDAs.

  • Software for the Pocket PC OS has been specially created for the handheld device. It's not the same software that runs on desktop and laptop Windows computers, and tends to be a little more expensive than Palm OS software.

  • Palm OS PDAs have the benefit of a sort of elegant simplicity. Although they may not have as many optional features, they can be easier to learn, and some people think they are more stable.

The Right Handheld for You

If you like Windows, and expect to try to use your handheld device in much the same way you would use a laptop, probably a Pocket PC OS is best for you. But don't expect a handheld to have the ruggedness or functionality of a full-fledged computer.

If compactness and simplicity are what is most important to you, and you realize that you will be using your handheld primarily as a portable organizer, a PDA running the Palm OS would probably suit you better.

Ultimately, when all is said and done, the best thing you can do is play with each kind of device to see which you like best. If you don't have friends who carry these, a trip to a store is the best way to try out different kinds of handheld devices.