Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) have been around since 1996 when Palm introduced the Palm Pilot. PDAs took the paper to-do lists and bulky address books into the digital age, storing all your most-needed information in one, portable place. Today’s PDAs are truly mobile computers. With a PDA you can stay connected to the Web, fetch email, as well as perform the functions of your cell phone, MP3 player, digital camera and GPS (Global Positioning System). With so many options available, shopping for a PDA can be overwhelming. Pronto’s PDA Buying Guide can help you narrow down the choices and select the PDA that best suits your lifestyle and needs (see also Smart Phone Buying Guide).
If you can do without the cell phone component, traditional PDAs cost less. PDAs are more compact than smartphones, come with larger screen sizes and feature higher quality displays.
Not all PDAs are Web enabled. If you plan to use email, you’ll need a Web-enabled PDA. If you are using the PDA for tasks, calendars, contacts, you can do without this feature.
Your operating system (OS) will be either a Palm OS or Windows Mobile OS. If you use a Mac, Palm OS will work out of the box, while 3rd party software is needed to run Windows Mobile (sometimes included). If you are a Windows-based PC user, both operating systems are compatible.
The more features and functionality your PDA has, the more memory, speed and battery power it’s going to need. Basic users will want 32 MB of RAM, while heavy application use requires 64MB or more. Look for battery life of 4 hours or more. External batteries can be purchased for emergencies. Buy the most memory, speed, battery life you can afford—you’ll be glad you did.
The choice comes down to tactile vs. touch. A touch screen uses “touching” to run the PDA. This can be accomplished with a pen like device called a stylus. A tactile keyboard is a miniature version of a PC keyboard and your fingers operate it. Tapping with a stylus or your thumbs? Your call, just be sure to understand difference before you buy.
Bluetooth is a wireless standard that allows devices in close proximity to connect to each other and exchange information. You will need a Bluetooth enabled PDA if you want to connect your PDA to other Bluetooth enabled devices like phones, printers, and keyboards.
Wi-Fi is a wireless standard that allows a device to connect to the Internet. A Wi-Fi enabled PDA can send and retrieve emails and also browse the Web without being physically wired to a PC or laptop.
Smartphones arePDAs thatare Bluetooth or Wi-Fi enabled and also combine the features of a cell phone, eliminating the need to carry two pieces of equipment.
This is where the removable memory card is stored in a PDA. Most PDAs have External Card Slots for storing music, videos and photos and in some cases they also let you add Wi-Fi adapters. Types of removable Memory Cards include: SD Card, CompactFlash, Multimedia Cards and Memory Sticks.
Smartphones, which combine PDA functionality with cell phone capabilities, are all the rage today, but that doesn’t mean standard PDAs are going away anytime soon. Do you need Internet and/or cell phone connectivity? If you don’t, traditional PDAs are the better and less expensive bet. Traditional PDAs are more compact than smartphones yet generally come with larger screen sizes and are more adept at displaying applications. If you choose a model that does offer Internet connectivity, Web pages will be bigger, brighter and easier to navigate and read. If the speed of your PDA is a concern, fear not: manufacturers have responded to competition from smartphones by improving processing speeds, offering more memory and in some cases, beefing up multimedia capabilities. If you’ve got your heart set on combining cellular telephone technology with your PDA, see Pronto’s Smartphone Buying Guide.
In order to determine which PDA to buy, the more detailed an answer you have to this question, the better. If you only want to manage contacts, track your tasks and manage your calendar, you should look for a PDA without Web access. The Palm Z22 is a good choice for baseline tasks that don't require Web connectivity. However, for most of today's PDA users, Web access is a must. Web enabled PDAs access the Internet via Wi-Fi just like a laptop computer. Web-enabled PDAs allow you to retrieve emails and surf the Web wherever you are (you won’t see full Web pages, but “clippings”, which deliver key information like stock prices, sports scores and headlines).
If you need mobile access and are away from your computer for long periods of time, higher-end PDAs feature a host of applications designed for road warriors. Expect to see GPS technology, MP3 players, video display, and built-in cameras. Keep in mind, however, the driver of PDA cost is functionality. Bells and whistles cost more. A good place to start your buying process is to prioritize PDA functionality with your own personal “Must Have”, “Nice to Have” and ‘Don’t Need” features. Will you really watch video on your PDA? Do you need Web access for email or do you also want a large display for surfing? Understanding how you use the PDA is an important first step.
|Type of PDA||Primary Functions|
|Basic||Contacts, tasks, calendar|
|Wireless||Contacts, tasks, calendar, Wi-Fi/Bluetooth for Web browsing & email|
|GPS||Contacts, tasks, calendar, Wi-Fi/Bluetooth for Web browsing & email, GPS receiver & software|
|Smartphone||Contacts, tasks, calendar, Wi-Fi/Bluetooth for Web browsing & email, cell phone|
Operating systems aren’t as controversial as they used to be when the only options were Palm’s OS and Windows Mobile. Almost all of today’s PDA applications work well in both environments. However, operating system choice is still important for syncing with your computer. Mac users take note: The Palm OS is the only PDA OS that can synchronize with Macintosh computers without the aid of third-party software. If you are a Mac user and have your heart set on a PDA that uses the Windows OS, you can purchase software for less than $50 that enables it to sync with your Mac.
As far as ease of use is concerned, the consensus largely points to the Palm OS as the easier to use operating system. If you use Windows, don’t worry: PDAs that operate on Palm OS usually come with software that allows use of Microsoft Outlook for email. If you’ll need to access other Microsoft applications, you’ll want to purchase third-party software like Dataviz’s Documents to Go which may come pre-installed on some Palm models. Companies like Hewlett Packard and Motorola ship their PDAs with a PDA-ready Windows Operating system. Still trying to decide on the best operating system for you? If you’re a budget-conscious shopper with a particular price point in mind, the Palm OS is less expensive than Windows Mobile.
It should come as no surprise that the more functionality your PDA has, the more memory and battery power it will need. PDAs work with two kinds of memory: RAM (random access or internal memory) and ROM (read only memory) to store actual data. If you run out of power, the data stored in the PDA’s ROM is still accessible. PDA memory ranges anywhere from 16 to 256 megabytes (MB) of memory. The most basic PDAs come with 32MB of RAM, and PDA owners who plan to play games or music will want to look for 64MB or more. Unlike Palms, PDAs that run on the Windows are capable of running more than one application at the same time which can use up a lot of memory. The newer Windows Mobile 5 PDA comes with at least 64MB of ROM and a similar amount of RAM. The bottom line on memory: buy a model with as much memory as you can afford.
Average PDA life ranges from 2-10 hours, depending on usage. Most PDA users recharge their PDAs nightly with an outlet charger, but many PDAs have replaceable batteries. While battery life may not be a major concern for average PDA users, investing in replacement batteries might make sense. If your cell phone runs out of juice a lot, you are probably the type of person who would benefit from the extra investment.
Much like a PC monitor screen, bigger is generally better so buy the largest screen you can afford. If you will be using your device primarily outdoors, the Palm is generally the best option for screen use in natural and brighter light. If you are using your PDA for heavy text use, the Pocket PC gets higher marks than Palm.
Different styles of PDAs have different modes of data entry: tactile entry and touch screen. A tactile entry screen in PDA parlance is called a QWERTY, much like a miniature key board, it is designed to operate with your thumbs. The second option, a touch screen, utilizes “touching” icons on screen to operate the PDA. With the touch screen, users tap out commands with a “stylus” (a pen-like device without the ink).
Finding the right screen size and data entry method is really a matter of user preference, but keep in mind that PDA models with tactile QWERTY keyboards will likely be larger and/or heavier than those with touch screens. As with all handheld devices, one of the critical steps in the purchasing process is holding the physical object in your hand. Because this is the case, most online vendors have generous return policies.