What to look for in a handheld

If you're considering buying a handheld device, here are some key factors to consider before parting with your cash.

Operating system
Choose Palm OS 4.1 if you want an affordable, easy-to-use electronic organiser with long battery life. In autumn 2002, look for the introduction of Palm-based handhelds running the new OS 5.0 -- Palm’s Tungsten product should be among the first to ship. Pocket PC 2002 has lots of powerful features beyond a personal information manager (PIM), but handhelds that use the OS tend to be more expensive, have shorter battery life and work with only Windows host computers. Other options include Windows CE, Symbian and Linux. For more information, read our comparison of Palm and Pocket PC features.

Installed RAM
More RAM allows you to store more applications and files on your handheld. For Palm OS devices, look for 8MB or 16MB. For a Pocket PC, you must have at least 32MB or, better yet, 64MB.

Dimensions and weight
A smaller, lighter handheld is easier to carry everywhere you go. Look for models that are less than 150g in weight and 1.5cm thick.

Colour support
Colour screens are generally easier to read, although they are more expensive and use more power, thereby shortening battery life. It's often difficult to see the difference between 12-bit and 16-bit colour screens, but the latter can display more hues – 4,096 versus 65,536 respectively.

Display type
Be sure to check our reviews or look at the handheld yourself, rather than getting caught up in the particular technology used. Any given screen type can end up looking great or unreadable depending on the manufacturer's implementation.

Maximum resolution
Higher-resolution screens tend to look better, with smoother text and more detailed images. Most Palm OS devices have a resolution of 160 by 160 pixels, although some offer 320 by 320, 320 by 240 or 320 by 480. All Pocket PC handhelds have a screen resolution of 320 by 240 pixels.

Expansion slot(s)
Expansion slots are becoming important, especially for Pocket PCs, several of which now have two built-in slots. Memory Stick, Secure Digital (SD), and MultiMedia Memory (MMC) cards are good for adding more memory. CompactFlash Type II, Memory Stick, SD and Handspring’s Springboard slots also allow you to add either memory or an input/output device such as an Ethernet card, a modem, a Bluetooth adapter or a Wi-Fi card.

Battery type
Most new handhelds come with rechargeable lithium-ion or lithium-polymer batteries. Drop the device in its cradle when you're at your desk so that it will always be charged up. However, if you go on an extended trip, you'll usually need to bring the charger with you – a few models use (expensive) replaceable rechargeable batteries, while others can be charged via a cable. Inexpensive monochrome handhelds tend to use alkaline batteries, which provide power for a month or more. You can buy replacements almost anywhere.