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.
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.
Nearly all of the PDAs we tested have infrared ports for exchanging data, but thats childs play. Several models now integrate Bluetooth for personal area networks and 802.11b (Wi-Fi) for local area networks. Wi-Fi also lets you connect your PDA to hotspots like the ones at Starbucks. Setup for both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi needs to be painless, and we are pleased with the ease of use for both, though theres certainly room for improvement (see the sidebar “Wi-Fi in Your Pocket”). PDA/phones offer wide area network capability via phone; most conventional PDAs can be configured to work with a separate cell phone for WAN access.
Only 8 percent of the PDAs shipped in the U.S. in 2002 had these integrated wireless communications features. But as the infrastructure matures, data security issues will be resolved, transmission speeds will finally equal advertised speeds, costs will stabilize, and network configuration will become truly seamless.
One popular trend is the combo PDA, with a built-in phone, a camera, maybe even a remote control. (Just 6 percent of consumers carry both a PDA and a cell phone, according to research firm The Yankee Group.) The Handspring Treo 300, for instance, uses phone carriers high-speed data networks for fast Internet browsing, wireless games, and of course, phone calls. Look for combo devices to gain a bit of popularity once Microsofts Smartphone interface, recently announced in Europe, make its U.S. debut by midyear.
Several PDAs offer built-in cameras, but the 2-megapixel camera on the Sony Clié PEG-NZ90 surpasses all the rest. For a PDA/remote, look for a device with built-in Consumer IR, such as the HP iPAQ h5455 Pocket PC, and the remote-control application Nevo, from Universal Electronics.
Despite the strides made in the past year, PDAs still have a ways to go, especially in the wireless department. Satisfying Internet browsing and streaming video are still just promises, though recent developments are encouraging. Bitstreams Web browser ThunderHawk, for instance, enables near–desktop-quality Internet surfing on select models equipped with Pocket PC 2002. So its only a matter of time before browsing on your PDA is as easy as on your desktop.