Why you need a PDA <- Technology <- Home

Why you should have a handheld computer

[This document dates from 2005, approximately. I present it here unedited]

It has come to my attention, time and again, that the marketing people selling PDAs (those cute little handheld computer things that apparently only business people can use, if you look at the ads) are by and large incompetent, and unaware of their market. Time and again people ask me, at the most random of places, what I'm using, and they're almost always impressed when I tell them all the possibilities the tiny little computer in my hand has for a myriad of tasks. Here are a few of the more obscure markets the PDA companies have missed completely:

Graduate Students
PhD and Master's students often do a lot of work with books, either in libraries or in archives (or in coffee shops). Most of them don't like carrying a laptop around, and usually the battery life is terrible, which means bringing a cord, plugging it in, etc. When my girlfriend told me she was going to be working in a cramped library with lots of really old books, I told her she should get a Palm and a fold-up keyboard. They fit easily in her purse, but set up to a very effective word processing station when opened up. We have an old Stowaway keyboard, and it has been absolutely amazing for doing research in cramped spaces. From the looks of it, their keyboards have only gotten thinner. Why carry around a computer when you can carry a palm?

News Hounds
The killer app that sold me on the palm was not email. It was not the address book. It was not even the memo pad, which allowed me to blog anywhere, before I knew what blogging was. No, it was the newspaper. I discovered an app for the palm called AvantGo which allowed you to download the newspaper (lots of them, actually) for free, and read it anywhere. I tend to read multiple sources, especially about big stories, and being able to download the New York Times and the Times of London, as well as the Bombay Times, was a dream come true. You download all the papers in the morning, and as you go throughout your day, you can fill those empty moments you spend, for example, in line at the supermarket or ATM, reading the days news.

Avid Readers
I know, noone is that impressed with the e-book. I'm not really impressed with the e-book. But I have discovered that the palm is an amazing way to carry two or three books at a time. Especially on long journeys (car trips, plane flights, whatever) having the ability to finish your book and immediately go to the next one is great! And the format actually works better than you think. It's still not paper, but it's still much better than reading something on a computer screen - you can curl up with a palm. The size is perfect.

Public Transit Commuters
I ride the metro about 45 minutes each way to work. Although the trip might be interesting the first time you take it, by the 45th you're done being interested and ready to do anything else. The Palm on a subway or bus is amazing, and not just because it has all the reading material you could ever want. It's also small enough to use one handed, which means you can hang onto the bar if you're standing. It is also small enough that if the train/bus is packed all the people jammed in like sardines won't stop you from reading. Try that with a newspaper, or even some of the larger books. As soon as you hit the place where everyone gets on, all you can do is stand there all scrunched up and try not to look at anyone. Unless you have a Palm, in which case you'll be too busy reading to notice how crowded the train is.

Forgetful people
I forget things. all the time. All the old clichés - I would forget my head if it wasn't attached, etc. Having the ability to write everything down, any time, any place, is amazing. Hear a good song in a bar? Jot down the name (or some lyrics), and you'll be able to find the album later. Shopping? No problem! Never forget the eggs again! And if you're an artist (of any kind) jot down those amazing ideas you have before you forget them. AND you'll be able to find them again later!

And, on top of all this, the newer models come with things like digital cameras and MP3 players, as well as telephones and wireless internet, thus adding to their appeal as an 'all-in-one' device if you like that sort of thing (or if you've ever wished you had a camera when you didn't). Heck - some even take movies, so you can film the bank robbers (or your neighbor's dog eating the radishes. Again).

Of course, you don't need to but the camera model, or the one with the color screen, or any of that. I bought my most recent palm at a garage sale for $20, and it has been invaluable to me. I've never paid more than $100 for any of the palms I have owned. I am every company's nightmare. But it proves that these devices need not cost a lot, and the basic functionality goes all the way down the ladder - any palm on the market will do the basic stuff I've listed (MP3s and movies and photos not being defined as basic, of course!). Everything most people will find themselves doing on a PDA works just as well in black and white as in color.

As a final note, I have used PDA and Palm interchangeably in this document - I myself have a palm OS device, have always had one, and love them to death. But I'm sure the Pocket PC and whatever else is out there (a linux model, i think?) are just as good. It's not important which one you get. Just go get one!

Recommended models:

Handspring Visor (no longer made - buy it on ebay, if you want) - I liked the visors because they were nice solid square things that took AAA batteries. You always knew where you stood with them, and if the battery died, you went and got another.
Sony Clié (I have the oldest model there is, also no longer made) - nice and slim, with a wheel on the side which worked well for 'turning the pages' when I was reading.

I most recently purchased a Palm Zire 72, which came with a digital camera, mp3 player, and all the extras. I have to say that I love it, but would recommend skipping it in favour of the Palm T|X, which comes with a larger screen and integrated wi-fi.

I also recently had the opportunity to play with some of the windows machines. The one I had was quite nice - and had a removable battery, something Palm seems not to do (for reasons which escape me).

Questions? Comments?
Drop me an email and let me know what you think. I'd love to hear other interesting/innovative ways people are using their PDAs, or think they might. Heck, I'd even love to hear why you think I'm a misguided fool!


Why you need a PDA <- Technology <- Home