It is now possible to spend as much as £600 on a handheld. Sony set this high-water mark with its CLIE PEG-NZ90, but others such as HP and Toshiba offer models that are almost as pricey. That's more than the price of a decent desktop PC (about £500) and even rivals some of the cheapest notebooks. At these prices, a handheld is no impulse buy. With a wide range of choices in terms of design, features and performance, you must do diligent research before investing in a handheld for business.
Palm versus Pocket PC
Like PC versus Mac in desktops, the handheld world remains divided. The first thing to decide is whether to go with Palm or Pocket PC. At one time, the differences were clear. Handhelds running Palm OS were less powerful and were primarily for keeping tabs on phones numbers and appointments, but they were also smaller, simpler and delivered longer battery life. Pocket PCs were bulky, complex and power hungry, but they also had beefier specs, better displays and a host of productivity and entertainment applications. That's all changed. Nowadays, you can find models on either platform in all shapes and sizes and with a range of capabilities. So the best way to choose is by first comparing the models in your price range on both sides. Handspring, PalmOne and Sony, are the primary players for Palm OS-based handhelds; Dell, HP and Toshiba all offer Pocket PCs. One key difference remains, however: Pocket PCs sync only with PCs, while many Palm OS-based models get along with Macs as well.
Comparing the hardware
The hardware is even more varied than the software. Handhelds are powered by so many different types of processors from Intel, Motorola, Samsung and Texas Instruments, at so many different speeds, that comparisons are relatively meaningless. The bottom line is, the higher the cost, the faster the chip. Memory is simpler -- the more megabytes the better. That goes for both basic types: the permanent ROM where the OS and core applications reside, and RAM used for storing additional applications and files.
With the exception of the £59 Palm Zire, nearly all models have colour displays, but they vary in terms of size, resolution and brightness. An integrated thumb keyboard -- once a novelty found primarily on the BlackBerry, is now prevalent in the Handspring Treo line, Palm Tungsten W and C, and several Sony models. Finally, most models include expansion slots, typically SD, CompactFlash or Memory Stick, for boosting storage or adding features.
Sizing up the software
Despite their advanced capabilities, most handhelds are still used primarily as digital Filofaxes. All handhelds have an address book, an appointment calendar, a task list and notes, which you can synchronise with Microsoft Outlook or other popular personal information managers. But handhelds are capable of much more. All Pocket PCs come with pocket versions of Word and Excel for viewing and editing documents, and many Palm OS-based devices also include DataViz's Documents To Go or other third-party applications that perform the same tasks -- in some cases, better than Microsoft's own software. When you're out of the office, many handhelds also include entertainment applications such as MP3 players, electronic photo albums, e-book readers and games. But the most recent advances in handhelds have been in the area of wireless communications. Bluetooth lets you synchronise wirelessly, exchange files or connect to other Bluetooth-enabled devices such as mobile phones. Wi-Fi lets you access a public hot spot or a LAN (local-area network) at home or at the office to check email and browse the Web. Finally, wide-area networking uses cellular networks such as GSM/GPRS to stay connected over broader areas, albeit at much slower speeds. Some handhelds in this last category also support voice communications, serving as both a handheld and a mobile phone in one. Some models look like handhelds with phone functionality (examples include the Orange SPV M1000, , BlackBerry 7230, Handspring Treo 600 and Palm Tungsten W); others are smart phones that add handheld features (Orange SPV E200 and Sony Ericsson P800). The bottom line: whether you simply need a handheld to get organised or are looking for a flashy conversation piece, you have plenty of models to choose from, at prices to suit any budget. Here are some of our top choices at each extreme and all points in between.