Picking the Right PDA

By Marge Brown  |  Posted 2003-04-18 Print this article Print

Looking for a PDA that suits your lifestyle? From $100 to $799, one of these models will fit just right. We tested 13 PDAs and 8 with built-in phones.

Already hooked on a handheld? If not, chances are you know someone who is. The only downside to owning one is eyeing with envy all the new models that hit the market every few months. With the prices of basic models in free fall and manufacturers dreaming up all sorts of features to pack into high-end units, now is a good time to buy or upgrade. The past year was an exciting one for PDA technology, with the arrival of faster processors, improved displays, built-in wireless capability, more combination PDA/phones, and better audio and video support.

User Profiles To help you sort through all the options, weve tested 13 standard PDAs and 8 PDAs with built-in phones. And for the first time, weve evaluated their audio and video capabilities to determine whether you can really play music or watch movies on them. We also detail the service plans of several wireless carriers for easy comparison. Finally, we report on emerging wireless and handheld technologies.

Despite the technology strides, in 2002 U.S. PDA sales declined 12 percent, to 5.76 million units, according to research firm Dataquest. Analysts attribute the drop to slowed adoption by enterprises. Yet consumers are still the backbone of the U.S. PDA market, purchasing three-quarters of the devices sold. Consumers use PDAs to manage their appointments, contacts, money, music, photos, recipes, and other reference material—and, of course, to play games. We list the most popular ones throughout this story.

The proliferation of PDAs has resulted in a more stratified market, with prices for every pocketbook. You can buy a simple Palm Zire for $100 (street) or a color Dell Axim 5 for a mere $249 (list). Dataquest reports that just over 6 percent of PDAs sell for more than $600, and roughly the same proportion are priced under $100. Over a quarter cost from $200 to $299—the sweet spot for the consumer market.

Whatever the packaging, inside all of the PDAs we reviewed is serious technology. Intel XScale processors running as fast as 400 MHz recently surfaced in several PDAs, including models from Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba. And manufacturers are shifting from monochrome LCDs with 160-by-160 resolution to TFT color displays with up to 320-by-480 resolution. Analysts at research firm DisplaySearch predict that more than 90 percent of PDAs will have color screens by mid-2004.

Handheld operating systems are also on the fast track. Palm OS retains its hold on the market; 55 percent of units worldwide shipped with it in 2002, compared with 25 percent that come with Pocket PC. Whats PalmSource doing right? It continues to focus on personal information management (PIM) tools and Palm OSs legendary ease of use. The company isnt sitting still, however; it has extended the OS to be more versatile and improved audio and video playback. The new Palm OS 5.0 also does voice recording, a long-overdue enhancement.

Meanwhile, Pocket PC 2002, which includes Windows Media Player, remains better designed for multimedia. But in our jury testing, the two high-end Sony Clié PDAs (which use Palm OS 5.0 and their own multimedia software) earned top scores for audio and video playback quality.


Marge Brown, a PC Magazine Contributing Editor, has worked in the technology field for twenty years, as Director of Technology at The Travelers Companies, as an independent Managed Health Care technology consultant, and as owner of Brown Consulting Associates, the family's freelance technology writing business.

Since 1998, Marge has worked on a full-time basis with her husband, Bruce Brown, also a PC Magazine Contributing Editor, writing reviews for PC Magazine and analytical articles for ExtremeTech.com.

Marge is the mother of Rich Brown, freelance writer, Liz Brown, employee of Text100, a technology public relations firm, and Pete Brown, freelance writer and aspiring Web site designer.

In her spare time Marge enjoys reading, swimming, boating, and taking walks with Bruce and their two Giant Schnauzers, Katama and Pepper, who are about to launch their own brand of salsa and hot sauce.


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