Business-ready handhelds

Handhelds are becoming ever more powerful and feature-rich. But are they ready to replace the mobile professional’s notebook yet?

Back when they first hit the market, handhelds were neat little gadgets that replaced your printed personal organiser. But they aren't necessarily neat or little any more. We've still got low-end, consumer-focused gadgets. But we've also got more powerful (and expensive) models, from Toshiba, HP, Palm and others, designed (and priced) with the professional market in mind. With bigger screens, faster CPUs, more memory, better wireless connectivity and input options, and more sophisticated software than their more consumer-orientated siblings, these business-ready handhelds can do much more than simply keep track of your appointments and contacts. At the same time, they may not include some of the entertaining extras -- such as built-in MP3 players or cameras -- that you'll find on more populist models. Take, for example, the recently released e400 and e800 from Toshiba. The e800, Toshiba says, was designed with the ‘connected professional’ in mind, while the e400 is for more cost-conscious buyers. Among other things, that means the e800 comes with a 4in. rather than a 3.5in. screen, 128MB rather than 64MB of memory, a 400MHz CPU (not 300MHz), a CompactFlash slot (in addition to the SDIO slot found on the e400), integrated Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and dedicated ATI video. The latter feature is nice because, in conjunction with an optional add-on video pack, it lets you plug the e800 into a projector to give on-the-road presentations. The e800 lacks a keyboard. Keyboards add bulk, and Toshiba has decided to prioritise portability ahead of input options. Instead, Toshiba's working with accessory partners on portable keyboards and looking at infrared-based keyboard technology (and there's always the pen). Given all those features, what can you actually do with a handheld like the Wi-Fi-equipped e800? The typical user scenario might go something like this: you sync up your handheld with your PC before leaving the office, so you can read email on the way to the airport. Once you're on the road, you find Wi-Fi hotspots where you can check your messages (by first downloading headers, then selecting those you want to view in full) and browse the Web. Because the e800 has no keyboard, you can't reply to those emails at length -- you can only tap out short replies. And you can't connect when you're not at a hotspot. If you've signed up for the optional voice-over-IP service, you can also use the e800 to make phone calls over the Net -- but, again, only when you're at a hotspot. If you'd rather not have to find a wireless network, you need a handheld with built-in Bluetooth, which can use a similarly equipped mobile phone as a wireless modem (Toshiba’s e800 can be purchased with integrated Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi). Or you need a device that really is a phone (such as Handspring’s Treo 600 or the Sony Ericsson P800). If you want to use your handheld as a primary email device (and maybe even leave your notebook at home), then you need one with a keyboard either built-in (as in the Sony CLIE PEG-UX50) or as an accessory. Here are some other features you should consider in a business handheld:

Good battery life and/or a replaceable battery. For ‘spot’ use (looking up contacts or checking your calendar), battery life isn't critical. But if you're planning on emailing for hours at a time, you want a battery with a capacity of 1,000mAh or more. Replaceable batteries are best, especially if the recharging cradle lets you charge a second battery at the same time. Microsoft Office compatibility. Pocket PCs offer native compatibility with Microsoft Office documents, but newer Palms (such as the Tungsten T3) ship with a utility that lets you create, view and edit Word and Excel files, and to view PowerPoint files. One other note on software compatibility: if email access is critical, make sure your handheld's email system is compatible with your company's. The RIM BlackBerry and Pocket PCs are most likely to be compatible, but Palm devices are catching up. Most smartphones are, too, and have the added benefit of being able to deliver your mail wherever there's a mobile signal. All these new capabilities don't come cheap: business-ready handhelds start at around £350 and can cost well over £500. This is not an impulse buy. All of which means that you need to think carefully about how you're going to use one of these things before you buy it. Do you want to replace your notebook? Cut down on the number of gadgets you're hauling in your carry-on bag? Or do you just want something that'll fit in your jacket pocket or purse and remind you of appointments? At this point, the latest handhelds are close to replacing notebooks, at least if you plan your usage carefully (i.e. you know you'll be near a Wi-Fi hotspot) and your company's IT department has approved the email client. But they aren't quite there yet. For the time being, handhelds are still notebook-complements, not replacements -- good at filling in the gaps when notebooks can't be used (in meetings or taxis, for example). At the same time, smartphones have evolved enough to make the ‘either/or’ issue of mobile phones versus handhelds almost moot. By this time next year, it's quite possible that a fully functional smartphone, with a notebook in reserve for applications that demand a full-sized keyboard and bigger screen, will be your best solution.

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