As a semi-reformed gadget geek, it's hard to look at today's line of handheld computers with an objective eye. I still remember the euphoria with which I brought home my Apple Newton and the slow realization that the device was not going to make me more productive -- or even more organized.
Of course that was nearly a decade ago. One of the primary reasons my Newton didn't have the organizational effect on my life that I'd expected was because I never purchased the hardware that would have allowed it to become a communications device, effectively cutting its potential in half.
Ten years ago, the card I would have needed to make the device wireless cost almost as much as the machine itself. But advances in communications technology since then, coupled with a drastic reduction in its cost, have made owning a handheld computer almost worthwhile. Without this communications capability, a handheld computer is little more than an electronic pad of paper, which leads to a caveat emptor: if you're not one to take notes, enter addresses and phone numbers in an organizer or record your daily expenses, a PDA will not make you more productive or more organized, it will only make you about 200 grams heavier and at least US$300 lighter.
For the undeterred, the first step in choosing the handheld device that best suits your needs is deciding on one of two main operating systems: Palm or Pocket PC. Palm, which pioneered the handheld market with their Pilot PDAs, helps you organize your information and synch it with your main computer just as you'd expect, but also looks beyond your computer, often trying to integrate an MP3 player or maybe a wireless telephone in the device. Microsoft's Pocket PC ships with its own version of Excel and Word and will synch almost flawlessly with Microsoft's Outlook organizational software, making it an obvious choice for Microsoft lemmings who want plug-and-play performance. What's more, Pocket PC devices usually offer more RAM and greater processor speeds and are generally more expensive than their Palm counterparts.
The next decision to make is whether you want wireless connectivity built in to the device or if you want to add it on later via a wireless LAN card or Bluetooth card. (To understand why going without communications capability is unwise, see the earlier remark on electronic pads of paper.)
The main difference here is that buying communications technology already built into the unit adds as much as US$200 to the price tag whereas adding it later defers that cost at the expense of having a plastic nub protruding from the unit. One benefit of adding a communications card later is that you can choose if you want LAN or Bluetooth, each of which carry their own benefits. A wireless LAN card allows you to browse the Web, access POP 3 e-mail accounts and synchronize your data with your main computer. Sony's LAN card for its Clie brand handhelds costs US$150. For half that price, Bluetooth enables your PDA to communicate with any similarly enabled device, including your computer, telephone and printer.
The choice here is easy: if nothing you own is Bluetooth-enabled, you don't want to start with your PDA.
Beyond these two main decisions, buying a PDA is really a matter of taste. A few of the machines that have garnered the most praise and subsequently sold the best are Hewlett-Packard's iPaq H1940 (US$320) and the Toshiba e750 (US$520), both of which run Pocket PC operating system, and the Palm Zire 71 (US$280) and Sony Clie models, which run the Palm operating system.