Choosing a portable computing device is getting trickier with the proliferation of PDAs, mobile phones, tablets, notebooks, and more. We take a variety of devices for a spin and weigh up the pros and cons.
Just when mobile phones were getting so ridiculously small that users were in danger of losing them--even when the appropriate shirt pocket was known, they have suddenly become a little larger again. No, we haven't returned to the brick! This size increase comes from incorporating a PDA in the same housing. So now you only need one electronic gadget instead of two. There is also the additional advantage of being able to disguise the cost of your new PDA. The 3G mobile carrier 3 can offer you a Motorola A925 "free"--if it comes with a AU$55-per-month plan (US$42) over 24 months.
Yes, it's time to look at mobile devices again. PDA phones and slim-line notebooks are on the menu this month.
So which PDA/phone is the best? If you ask David Berlind from ZDNet US, he will tell you it's the one attached to the right network. Make sure your carrier has got you covered wherever you roam. Indeed, even if you don't roam, as such, if your workplace is away from the big city lights, certain networks will be of no use to you. Obviously, the greatest device in the world looks pretty hopeless when it drops out at a critical time. On the other hand, if you are used to a Wireless LAN or WAN device, then any standard mobile network is going to seem good in terms of coverage.
Getting back to the machine itself, some have a QWERTY keyboard and others use up part of the touch-screen with a virtual keyboard--you have to consider what is most practical for you and your staff. Are 3375 colors enough, or do you really need 65,536? Is your IT department more comfortable with a particular operating system?
If your company needs a fleet of PDA phones, standardize! Your IT people won't thank you if they have deal with the idiosyncrasies and security risks inherent in a heterogeneous collection of new devices.
Perhaps you need serious computing power rather than audio communications, or perhaps you just hate tiny keyboards (real or virtual). You might try one of the latest tablet or notebook PCs. Obviously a device with a 12in screen is not exactly a pocket device, but at less than one and a half kilos they are definitely portable. You would have no trouble at all getting one into your briefcase. While they may not be anything special in terms of speed or other features when compared to a desktop PC, the manufacturers do manage to squeeze a lot into a small package.
For me, one of the most critical issues is battery life. I don't want to be constantly thinking about how long the power will last when there's a job to be done. There are two basic solutions to this problem: get more power, or use less of it.
Ensure that your new device has replaceable, rechargeable batteries. Often the available replacement batteries will have higher capacities than the standard ones supplied. Also, make a point of using mains power when it is available, or even 12V if you spend a lot of your time in the car. Generally you should be able to get adaptors to connect your phone into a car's electrics.
Certain functions are far more energy-consuming than others. Wireless communications are worth minimizing, whether it be a wireless or a mobile network. Extensive Net surfing will seriously compromise battery life. In dark environments, a backlit screen is great, but again power hungry. Beware also of unnecessarily fast processors: extra features require extra energy.
For a PDA or phone, the OS along with basic applications will be stored in ROM. RAM is for your extras. If you are only looking for a communications device and diary then you will not be too concerned about memory; even 8MB of RAM will be plenty. More would be advisable if you wish to store video or MP3 files. Additional applications that might be required will, naturally, further increase RAM requirements. Just remember not to use your entire RAM for data storage. Like your desktop PC, a certain amount of RAM is required for working space. You will pay in terms of application speed if insufficient memory is available. Actually some devices will not allow the user to get at all the RAM. Remember that you are still in contact with the Internet. Files can be stored on a server and downloaded as required. Not only that, some PDA/phones have memory expansion slots for further storage by using memory cards such as SD or Memory Stick and other devices.
Remember that a faster processor means faster battery drainage. Decide how much of a priority you place on computational speed. Can you afford to wait an extra second or so to process image files? Do you plan to do complex spreadsheet, document, or image manipulations? Typically PDAs will be in then 120-400MHz range. By contrast the Portégé notebook and Stylistic tablet we looked at have 1GHz processors.
The greatest security risk with PDA Phones is loss. Requiring passwords on power up offers some protection, but chances are you will leave the device on--after all, it's a phone as well. Also, such features will not protect data kept on removable media which might be present. Consider encrypting valuable data. Better still, avoid storing valuable data on your PDA at all. Can you afford to have your address book in the hands of your competitors? How much data you store on a mobile device is likely to vary with the capabilities of the machine. Detailed documents may not be present on a device without capacity to edit them, unless they are imported for inspection.
Malicious code is not a serious risk as yet, but manufacturers of hardware and security software are taking the possibilities seriously. A Trojan called Backdoor Brador A has been discovered that affects ARM processors, which are used by a wide variety of devices, including those from Handspring, Motorola, Palm, and Texas Instruments. The Trojan can take complete control of a PDA and allow files to be stolen.
A virus, known as WinCE Duts A, has also been discovered (actually it was sent to antivirus software manufactures to illustrate a security flaw in Windows CE). It has no payload and won't spread without the user's express permission, but it proves the point that viruses on portable devices are at least theoretically possible.
There is definitely potential for viruses to become as serious a threat to PDA security as they are to PCs today. The threat is likely to be realized as PDA use becomes more widespread.
Fujitsu Stylistic ST5010
The Fujitsu tablet PC's character recognition program was the best at recognizing our handwriting. This little machine is portable and flexible. Back at the office you can settle it into a docking station complete with DVD drive, three more USB 2.0 ports, FireWire, and VGA. (We should note here that the docking station is an optional extra--an extra AU$1000 (US$762.80).) Additionally there is a wireless keyboard.
If you plan to use your Tablet PC outdoors you should consider the ST5011. Although the 5011 has a smaller screen (10.4in TFT as opposed to 12.1in TFT), it is a reflective, front-lit design much better suited to full sunlight. The screen can be used in portrait or landscape mode. The weight is about one and a half kilos.
It has an Intel or Atheros 802.11 wireless chipset built in, but if you want Bluetooth you'll need to attach it externally via PC card or USB. Ethernet and 56K modem are included.
|Product||Fujitsu Stylistic ST5010|
|Price||AU$3,999 (US$3050) (excluding keyboard and dock)|
|Phone||1800 288 283|
|Windows for Tablets operating system, wireless LAN connectivity|
|Excellent potential for expasion, particularly with dockling station; up to 2GB memory|
|Many feautres but very expensive|
HP iPAQ H5550
This is a powerful little device; more PC than PDA, and it still has a microphone and speaker. It happily runs Word and Excel, though it takes a little getting used to the differences from the standard editions of these programs. The screen is large and clear and has some very nifty handwriting recognition software. The alternative is the virtual keyboard, which is very easy to use.
You don't need to password protect the H5550, it comes with a biometric fingerprint reader. This does take some getting used to. GPS is also an option, if you wish to pay another AU$1000 for attachments and software.
We found it all too easy to hit the volume control buttons, thus causing the volume dialog box to appear over our work at all sorts of odd times. (At least the keys are convenient when you need them!)
|Product||HP iPAQ H5550|
|Phone||13 23 93|
|Windows-based Pocket PC operating system, wireless LAN connectivity|
|Biometric ID, plenty of memory built in.|
|Powerful, compact, and reasonably priced.|
This machine has been labelled as the A920 with patches, which is it has various software upgrades to prevent the crashes the A920 was susceptible to. It also has Bluetooth and IR connectivity. The camera can be swivelled towards or away from the screen. In theory global positioning system (GPS) is supported by the device, but unfortunately 3 doesn't seem to support GPS at this stage. We guess Motorola is making allowances for future possibilities, and advertising them ahead of time.
The A925 has a virtual keyboard. While the keyboard is only a click away when needed, it seems to me that it would better for the keyboard to appear automatically in situations where it likely to be used (eg, writing notes or e-mails).
|Uses the Symbian OS, which has limited application support|
|Struggles in some areas, but includes Bluetooth|
PalmOne Handspring Treo 600
This device is the most like a modern mobile phone in appearance. It is fairly small for a PDA and not as wide as some. Unfortunately the keys are a little small and close together; hitting two keys at once is a real danger. We would have liked to have seen virtual keys, at the very least for Home and Menu. Certain functions, such as the calculator, do make greater use of virtual keys. The calculator is quite impressive actually; it is a full scientific calculator with statistical and financial functions. A belt-clip on the pouch would have been handy, but it fits in a coat pocket well enough. The machine is otherwise very intuitive and easy to use. A camera is built in.
Transferring data to and from the desktop is very easy once the relevant software is installed. We do, however, suggest that you read the instructions before attempting this, much as we hate to use instruction manuals.
|Product||PalmOne Handspring Treo 600|
|Phone||1800 350 535|
|Uses the popular Palm OS, which has excellent application support|
|Plenty of built-in memory, but has a small screen|
|Bluetooth would have been nice for the price|
RIM Blackberry 7730
There are currently two BlackBerry models available in Australia, the 7230 and 7730. The 7230 has a smaller screen--240 x 160 as opposed to 240 x 240. They are quite easy to use, although we would have preferred a second Enter/Select key beside the side-mounted scroll wheel and escape key. This extra key would enable the user to hold the device and navigate through menus with only one hand; as it is the user's thumb has to really stretch. Too bad if you have small hands.
The size of these machines is great. They easily fit into a shirt or jacket pocket and they come with a solid, plastic case and belt clip. The BlackBerry uses a real keyboard; there is no virtual keyboard or stylus. Although the keys are fairly small, we didn't encounter the same problem as with the Treo of hitting more than one key at a time.
|Product||RIM Blackberry 7730|
|Vendor||Research in Motion (available through telcos such as Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone)|
|Proprietary OS; very limited application support|
|Adequate memory with a decent screen size|
|A fair price for what's included|
Toshiba Portégé R100
A little over a kilo in weight the Portégé is an ultra-thin notebook. It would take up very little room in a briefcase, being barely 2cm thick (More if you add the higher capacity secondary battery, which more than triples the running time.) While portable, it is not really an out-door device. The 12.1in TFT display is rather hopeless in sunlight; you'll need to stick to the shade.
Ports include USB 2.0, video, Ethernet, and fax/modem. The touch pad works very well. External USB drives are available.
Ports include USB 2.0, video, Ethernet, and fax/modem. The touch pad works very well. External USB drives are available.
|Product||Toshiba Portégé R100|
|Phone||13 30 70|
|Ships with Windows operating system, wireless LAN connectivity|
|Reasonable expansion facilities and larger hard disk available|
|Powerful at a reasonable price|
|Product||Fujitsu Stylistic ST5010||HP iPAQ H5550||Motorola A925|
|Phone||1800 288 283||13 23 93||131 683|
|Warranty||3 years||1 year||No information supplied|
|Form factor||Tablet PC||Pocket PC||PDA/Phone|
|Price||AU$3999 (excluding keyboard and dock)||AU$1199||AU$756|
|Processor type and speed||Intel Pentium M, 1GHz||Intel PXA255, 400MHz||N/A|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi||Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||GSM/GPRS, Bluetooth|
|Services||E-mail, Internet||E-mail, Internet||Videotalk, E-mail, Voice/SMS, Internet, GPS where available|
|Ports and expansion slots||IEEE 1394, Video, USB 2.0, Ethernet, Modem, flash memory||Sychronisation port, PC card, flash memory||USB|
|Input devices||Stylus||Shortcut buttons, stylus||Stylus, navigation keys, camera|
|Display||12.1in XGA TFT||3.8in TFT touchscreen||2.8in touchscreen|
|-Resolution||1024 x 768||240 x 320||208 x 320|
|Dimensions (mm||324 x 220 x 22||138 x 84 x 16||148.5 x 60 x 24|
|Operating system||Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition||Microsoft Windows Pocket PC 4.2||Symbian|
|Battery||Removable, rechargable lithium ion||Removable, rechargable lithium ion||Removable, rechargable lithium polymer|
|Battery life (vendor estimate)||4 hours||3-4 hours for a power user, up to 12 hours without using wireless||2 hours talk, 90 hours standby|
|Product||Handspring Treo 600||RIM BlackBerry 7730||Toshiba Portégé R100|
|Vendor||Palm||Research in Motion (available through telcos such as Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone)||Toshiba|
|Phone||1800 350 535||Contact your carrier for details||13 30 70|
|Warranty||1 year||1 year||3 years|
|Form factor||PDA/Phone||PDA/Phone||Ultraslim notebook|
|Processor type and speed||Texas Instr. OMAP 1510||N/A||Intel Pentium M, 1GHz|
|RAM||32MB||16 MB + 2MB SRAM||512 MB|
|Hard drive||N/A||N/A||40GB EIDE|
|Services||E-mail, Voice/SMS, Internet||E-mail, Voice/SMS, Mobile Data Service, Calendar, Internet||E-mail, Internet|
|Ports and expansion slots||Expansion card slot, USB||USB||IEEE 1394, Video, USB 2.0, Ethernet, Modem, CardBus (Type I/II), Flash Memory|
|Input devices||Backlit keyboard, stylus, camera||Backlit keypad, trackwheel||Keyboard, touch pad|
|Display||2.5in LCD touchscreen||Backlit TFT||12.1in TFT|
|-Resolution||160 x 160||240 x 240||1024 x 1536|
|Dimensions (mm)||112 x 60 x 22||121 x 77 x 18||285 x 230 x 20|
|Operating system||Palm OS 5.2||BlackBerry Desktop||Microsoft Windows XP|
|Battery||Rechargable lithium ion||Removable, rechargable lithium ion||Removable, rechargable lithium ion|
|Battery life (vendor estimate)||6 hours talk, 10 days standby||5 hours talk, 9 days standby||2 hours|
How we tested
What operating system does the device run and how easy is it to find applications that run on it?
How easily can the device be expanded to meet with your future needs for storage and functionality?
Do the features, usability, and performance justify the price?
How long is the warranty? What service and maintenance contracts are available?
What to look for
- Battery life: the longer the better.
- Robustness: do the products bounce well?
- Ease of input: do you have sausage fingers that press four keys instead of one on the device's mini keypads? (If so you may have trouble with the Treo 600.)
- Removable memory: pick one type and try and ensure all your devices have the same type; there is nothing more annoying than having five devices with five different removable memory card types.
The devices reviewed here serve more than one purpose. While a PDA/phone might be ideal for your needs if you are simply looking for good communications between the office and roaming reps., more powerful computing needs would be better served with separate phone and portable PC (whether it be a pocket PC or a full laptop).
In terms of value, it's a competitive market and so you generally get what you pay for, whatever the brand. If you pay for a lot of features you don't need, that's where you lose out on value for money. Also make sure that your network actually supports all the features your device's hardware is theoretically capable of.
Editor's choice: RIM Blackberry 7730, Toshiba Portégé R100
On the PDA/phones combo side of the fence the BlackBerry 7730 wins the Editor's Choice, though all had many excellent features (and faults). While it does not have a camera, it does have an excellent range of features and does not suffer from the compressed keyboard of the Treo 600 (which otherwise would have been our favourite).
On the Portable PC side all three devices had their merits, but I must finally select the Toshiba Portégé for being above average! This mini-notebook is at home on the desk at work and on your lap in the field. It has all the power of the Stylistic, without the bells and whistles (and price). If you already have a decent notebook and need a smaller, yet still powerful machine, I highly commend the iPAQ, which has handwriting recognition even if it can't compete with that of the Stylistic. The Stylistic is a great machine, but it’s very hard to justify the price tag.
IT Test Labs is an independent testing institution based in Melbourne,
Victoria, performing IT product testing for clients such as IBM,
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