The Gadget Showdown: Palmtops go fisticuffs

...in the red corner, weighing in at 6oz is the iPaq. And in the blue corner, weighing in at 4.9oz is the Palm m505...

...in the red corner, weighing in at 6oz is the iPaq. And in the blue corner, weighing in at 4.9oz is the Palm m505...

Maybe the best way to start this review is by asking what a PDA is? Until recently personal digital assistants were just electronic filofaxes, but the bar has been raised. Colour screens are, or will soon be, the norm and most high-end handhelds support video players, dictaphones and MP3 players. The ultimate gadget just upped the gadget stakes. Today's challengers are a Compaq iPaq H3635 and a Palm m505. Both boast colour screens and a host of new features including the option to include upgrade cards, boost memory or add wireless modems through expansion slots. Both have lithium batteries that recharge when plugged into their cradles. Will the iPaq get whacked or will the Palm get slapped? Seconds out... Round one: HARDWARE The slim, lightweight (4.9oz) Palm fits nicely into any pocket. The iPaq is slightly heavier (6.0oz) and bulkier - especially with the carry case which is essential to protect the large screen - and won't fit in anything other than a jacket pocket, unless you happen to wear a sporran. In hardware terms the iPaq leaves the Palm dead in the water with a 206MHz Intel StrongARM 32-bit processor and 32MB of RAM (compared with a 33MHz chip and 8MB of RAM on the m505). However, what really sets the iPaq apart from the Palm is the quality of its screen. The iPaq's TFT liquid crystal display is a thing of beauty with ultra-crisp colours and adjustable brightness levels - the latter being something the Palm sorely lacks. The m505's screen is a bit of a damp squib, unless you turn the backlight on which burns through battery life. Next to the iPaq's screen, the Palm's display is about as inspiring as a dodgy photocopy of Monet's water lilies. The iPaq goes back to its corner the TFT-clear winner... Round two: APPLICATIONS The iPaq comes bundled with an excellent range of software including established favourites like Pocket Outlook 2000, Pocket Word, Pocket Excel and Internet Explorer 5.0, with plenty more apps bundled on the accompanying CD-ROM. The Palm also has a broad range of apps and boasts the added advantage of having an enormous range of third party software available to it. It also comes bundled with a rather neat little program called DataViz, which lets you edit Word and Excel documents. In short, an even round. Round three: GETTING CONNECTED The m505 comes with USB as standard and setting it up to a notebook computer was a cinch, taking less than five minutes to plug everything in, install the software, and start HotSyncing memos and doodles between PDA and computer. On the PC, the Palm Desktop interface is clear, concise and available in a range of themes if customisation is your cup of tea. Synchronisation is quick. The iPaq took a lot longer to get connected - about 60 minutes to get everything hooked up to a desktop PC (also a Compaq) install all the software and fiddle about with the pesky settings. Synchronisation is not so quick. Then again, maybe the set-up process took so long because the user manual was tucked inside the packaging so effectively I didn't find it for about a week - which is actually quite an effective metaphor for the Pocket PC experience. Which, with m505 making a strong recovery and taking the points in the round, lets us segue nicely into... Round four: INTERFACE TO INTERFACE Whack! It's in this round the Palm throws its sucker punch - leaving the opposition, for all its high-end specs and dazzling screen, on the ropes. The iPaq's main weakness is that Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system is so ugly it makes you want to throw up your own pelvis. Microsoft has insisted on passing on the Windows paradigm to Pocket PC and the result is a counterintuitive system that takes all the worst bits of Windows, ignores all the good bits and bundles it onto a device that ends up screaming out for a mouse. It's a navigational nightmare. The colourful icons look real purdy on the iPaq's big screen but a PDA is meant to simplify your life, not surreptitiously slip in another level of complexity. "Windows to go" isn't a marketing push, it's a call to arms. THE VERDICT In a year's time the PDA market is likely to be very different to what it is now. Former market stalwart Psion has already exited stage right and Palm is struggling to clear inventory. According to research from analyst house Canalys sales of the iPaq in western Europe rose by 1,018 per cent in the first quarter of 2001 compared to the same period last year. Sales of Palm rose a respectable 61 per cent. There's obviously enormous interest in super-powered PDAs like the iPaq and HP Jordana. After all, the PDA will be have to ensure it can prove a compelling alternative for third generation (3G) mobile phones when they finally hit the scene sometime in 2002. In 12 months or so the Palm will look incredibly dated and it may be that the level of hardware offered by Compaq (and competitors like HP) will become the industry standard to throw down the gauntlet to all-singing, all-dancing 3G mobile devices. Palm remains the market leader but it needs to wake up to the threat the opposition is posing. In an ideal world someone would build a hybrid of the two and put the Palm OS on an iPaq: Compaq has the hardware, Palm has the operating system. Get them together and it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. For the time being it comes back to the original question: what is a PDA for? If you just want your PDA to be an address book and organise your calendar, synchronise files and emails with your PC and read AvantGo pages, then opt for the Palm. These features, combined with sleek, slinky design - and most crucially - ease of use, offer a near-perfect PDA. In hardware stakes, the Palm slopes in a sad second to the iPaq but in terms of user experience the Palm can't be beaten. Hats off to Compaq - it's built the PDA version of a Ferrari. It's just such a shame Microsoft forced it to put the steering wheel on the roof. Final verdict: Palm m505 wins by semantic knockout.