Travelling light: replacing your notebook with a Palm

Do you find even an ultraportable notebook too much to carry? We set out to discover how feasible it is to restrict yourself to a Palm OS handheld on your travels.

Do you find even an ultraportable notebook too much to carry? We set out to discover how feasible it is to restrict yourself to a Palm OS handheld on your travels.

Palm's handhelds have come a long way since the grainy, monochrome displays of their first few years. Today’s high-resolution colour gadgets are genuinely capable of being almost all you need in an on-the-road computer. The software discussed here was evaluated on a Palm Tungsten C with its original 64MB of memory and no additional memory card. The larger amount of memory available on the Tungsten C of course makes it much easier to use a Palm as your only computing device on the road. But even on less well-endowed devices you can add enough memory via expansion cards to make them do the job. The one thing the Tungsten C doesn’t support is Bluetooth, but you can still connect to a mobile phone via infrared.

Palm Tungsten C: is this all the computer you need on the road?

The key, of course, is in the ability to successfully synchronise data between handheld and desktop so that you can seamlessly shift from working on one to the other. This is an area where Palms generally shine. Even more important is the ability to ensure that all your data is backed up, so that in case of loss, theft, or dropping the device down the toilet, your data can be fully restored as soon as you can get your hands on replacement hardware. Here, too, Palms work well -- as long as you remember to synchronise or make backups frequently (and we speak from sad personal experience).

The big items -- contact manager, address book, to-do list -- are all built into the Palm. Most Palms also now come bundled with DataViz’s Documents To Go, which converts Word, Excel and PowerPoint files for use on the handheld device. Once you've transferred a file to your Palm, you can work on it in either location and the software ensures that the latest changes are synchronised. Whole (published) novels have been written on Palms using this type of software. The $29.99 (~£16.50) Standard Edition converts just Word and Excel, while the $49.99 (~£28) Premium Edition handles PowerPoint, Outlook email, Excel-style charts, images and PDFs too.

Documents To Go (Premium Edition): converts Word, Excel and PowerPoint files for use on a Palm.

However, what really makes Documents To Go work well for such lengthy documents (at least on the Tungsten C’s thumb keyboard), is CIC Software’s WordComplete, which costs $24.95 (~£14) and is available in a full demo version. Once you’ve typed a couple of letters, this utility pops up a pick-list of three suggested matching words. If you keep typing, the list changes to suggest more matches. The software vastly improves typing speed both by dramatically improving accuracy and by filling out words. The functionality in the DataViz software is necessarily limited. The presumption is that you’ll want to do the complex stuff on a PC. The Palm versions allow basic formatting, such as setting paragraph indents and choosing among a few standard fonts (Times, Arial, Courier, Helvetica), line spacing, justification, plus find and replace. About the most complex thing the word processor does is tables. Still, this is certainly enough for finishing letters and simple reports without further work on a desktop or a notebook. Similarly, the spreadsheet has basic formatting for worksheets and workbooks, and incorporates the most important formulas and functions. The presentation portion allows you to type up slides and move elements around, but you can’t (and probably wouldn’t want to anyway, given the Palm’s small screen) add graphics. The expectation certainly is that you will want to finish the presentation on a fully-fledged computer (even if, ultimately, you will use the Palm to deliver the presentation using Margi's Presenter-to-Go, discussed below). One of the most useful facilities is the Acrobat Reader for Palm OS, which comes bundled with newer Palms or can be downloaded here. Most downloaded or self-created PDF files are easily converted for reading on the Palm. There are some that don’t translate well -- such as bus schedules -- because their formatting makes it impossible to display the type in a font large enough to be readable. Others, such as those with complex graphics, may overtax your handheld's display capabilities. But most files are eminently readable in the Palm Reader’s default font, to the point where it’s comfortable reading whole novels digitised by the Gutenberg Project or lengthy Word documents and reports converted to PDF.

A key reason for travelling with a notebook for many business-folk is the need to give presentations. Margi's Presenter-to-Go, which is a steady seller at £156.45 (inc. VAT) for Expansys, allows you to use your Palm to drive presentations.

Margi Presenter-to-Go: convert PC-based presentations to Palm format and connect your handheld to a monitor or a projector.

The package consists of: software to convert PowerPoint and other formats into Palm files; software to display the converted files on the Palm; a small adaptor box with a standard VGA connector that attaches to the Palm via an SD card; a power supply for the adaptor box; and a credit card-sized remote control. You install the software (Windows or Mac) onto both desktop and handheld, and thereafter any presentation you create can be turned into a Palm-compatible file by printing to the Margi driver, which automatically adds it to the list for transfer at next synchronisation. Once a presentation is on the handheld, you can display individual slides for review, rearrange the order, choose which to use, set them to advance automatically at a speed of your choice and add annotations.

Personal finance
There are many shareware packages that will do personal finance on the Palm platform, but the best of the lot seems to be Landware’s Pocket Quicken, which works seamlessly with Quicken on the computer to let you update expenses, cash withdrawals, credit card expenditures and other details while you're travelling.

Pocket Quicken: track your finances while you're on the road.

There is one caveat. Pocket Quicken, which costs $39.95 (~£22) only works with versions 2002 or later of Quicken UK (although it works with earlier US versions). The software generally works extremely well, but it has a few quirks. The Quicken file you’re synchronising with has to be closed on the host computer before you start. In addition, the software occasionally gets confused about passwords, demanding one where none has been assigned. However, this is easily solved by entering a password into the desktop file, and then deleting it. Similar products, such as Ultrasoft Money, exist for Microsoft Money.

Internet & communication
The email software, VersaMail, that comes bundled with current Palms is extremely good. It handles ordinary POP3 connections and makes it easy to display, read and reply to email messages from multiple accounts (although each account has a separate display and mail has to be collected separately from each one). The Tungsten C also has Wi-Fi built in that’s very easy to set up, making it possible to collect mail using your handheld from the increasing number of public Wi-Fi hotspots. For detecting Wi-Fi hotspots reliably, the $10 (~£5.50) Netchaser does a terrific job.

Netchaser: for reliable detection of Wi-Fi hotspots.

The big problem -- at least with the Tungsten C -- is the Web browser, which is buggy, crash-prone, and unable to handle pop-up windows (or any other windows when pop-ups are present). You can bookmark your favourite pages, and the interface is nice, but given the browser’s propensity to crash, it doesn’t matter. If you want to read a page regularly and all you have is the built-in browser, use Avantgo: this is the service that automatically pulls down new content from specified sites whenever you synchronise and formats it for easy reading, giving the Palm a built-in and constantly updated magazine. PalmOne does sell another browser, the $34.99 (~£19) Web Pro, which reportedly works much better. Unfortunately the division of Palm into PalmOne and PalmSource seems to have left the company unable to produce review copies of software. There are many other third-party browsers, including the one in Qualcomm’s free Eudora Internet Suite, although it may take a little searching to find one that meets specific needs such as secure log-ins. If your Palm does not have wireless built in, or if you frequently stay in Ethernet-cable-only hotels, iGo makes a $199 (~£110) charging cradle that takes advantage of the Palm Universal Connector to add a cable Ethernet connection. Using the Tungsten C’s built-in VPN, it's even possible to synchronise back to your office over the Internet. Besides these basics, almost anything you could possibly want to do on the Internet is available in a Palm version, from AOL client and Instant Messenger software to Internet Relay Chat to FTP and HTML editing. The one drawback is you can’t multitask.

The high-resolution colour screens on modern Palms can free you from carrying maps around. Several companies make software that puts street maps and maps of the underground rail systems on the Palm in an eminently readable fashion. For London, the two main contenders are Westering’s $20 (~£11) London Tube Guide and Street Map and Visual IT’s Tube. Visual IT also makes underground railway and street maps for many other cities around the world -- Amsterdam, Toronto and Tyne&Wear, to name a few -- at prices varying from £7 to £14.

London Tube Guide and Street Map: ditch those paper maps.

The street maps in Tube are much more detailed and covers all of Greater London, whereas the Westering product simplifies the street map so that many smaller streets are left out, and the map itself ends at the Circle Line. But Westering’s user interface is better, making it easier to get the software to find routes and estimate travel times. However, Tube is a little more expensive: the underground map plus the full A-Z maps of Central and West London cost £16.49. The complete set of nine A-Z London maps plus the underground map cost a little over £30.

As the amount of memory in handhelds increases (the Tungsten C ships with 64MB), the ability to delete unwanted programs in ROM becomes less important. However, if you do want to do such a thing, the $8 (~£4.50) program JackSprat can help. Its companion program, the $20 (~£11) JackFlash, allows you to move applications and databases into the unused portion of the Flash ROM that ships with your Palm, ensuring that they will survive a battery failure. If you are not travelling with a notebook (the whole point of this exercise) and you don’t want to rely on being able to synchronise over the Internet, then JackFlash will also back up your data onto an SD card. The other useful facility not bundled with a Palm is the ability to print directly. PrintBoy, at $39.99 (~£22), connects via Wi-Fi to any printer with its own IP address on your network, by point-and-shoot infrared, or via Bluetooth if your handheld and printer support it. PrintBoy works with most printer models from HP, Epson, Lexmark, Canon and Ricoh; it also supports PostScript and Documents To Go, as well as QuickOffice and Wordsmith and other productivity software.

Finally, something to keep you occupied while waiting for the train. Try Astraware’s selection -- probably the most addictive games are its renderings of PopCap’s interactive games.

Astraware's PopCap Games Pack 2: while away the time waiting for trains, planes or automobiles.


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