The Reasonable PDA

After a recent bout of meetings made it plain that carting around a full-blown laptop isn't always a good idea (if the issues have no direct impact on your field, you tend to start doing something else and miss one or two points), I've been considering carrying a PDA around again.

My 7650 has an excellent contact list, to do list and calendar (and syncs nicely with both Outlook and Mac OS X), but lacks a way to input reasonable amounts of data, so the PDA would only need to be a good digital notepad.

With the recent demise of my Palm m505 (which, despite earlier attempts at repair, is on the blink again), and having a healthy dislike for the iPAQs we have around (they're simply too bulky and heavy), I've reverted to my good old Palm V. It is extremely slim compared to the current crop of PDAs, is encased in solid metal, has an extremely readable screen (can't beat 160x160 solid black on green, even under direct sunlight) and lets me beam notes to anything. Thing is, the Mac doesn't have an infra-red port. Bummer.

Besides, Bluetooth has finally gotten to the point where (at least on Mac OS X) it just works, which is, to me, the only point where a technology is really worth using - otherwise, it's just added hassle.

And, even though the Palm V has been working flawlessly, the Geek in me would probably like to have some way to catch up on e-mail and news - for which I'd like a bigger screen, Bluetooth connectivity to my 7650, and a few more sensible features.

So, purely as an exercise (yeah, right), I've been looking at available PDAs. My initial requirements were simple, and can be summarised in the usual bulleted list:

  • Very thin, light and resilient (preferably with a metal casing)
  • Bluetooth (for syncing and GPRS access)
  • A decent IMAP client (preferably with SSL support).
  • A decent resolution (not necessarily color) screen
  • A week of battery life (at the very least)
  • Easily replaceable (available, serviceable, reasonably priced)

I don't need Office compatibility (other than basic contact and calendar management), third-party applications or a kitchen sink. I just need a good, reliable digital notepad with Bluetooth connectivity.

Of course I've looked at the PEG-UX50, but given that the chances of it reaching Portugal are slim to none (Cliés, for some reason, are not part of Sony's portfolio here) and the obvious fact that the passing of such an unlikely event would carry a ludicrous price tag, I've decided to aim a bit lower. After all, I'm looking for something I can use fully, and I got a lot of mileage out of my original PalmPilot. Anything too complex would simply be a waste of money, and I'm not looking for the latest, greatest Geek fashion/ego accessory.

It didn't take me long to figure out there are only two reasonable options at this point: the 2215 and the Palm Tungsten T2, either of which does most of what I need. CPU speeds, RAM and the like are mostly irrelevant (and comparing PDAs based on stuff like that is utter stupidity), so I started looking at what I needed in real life.

The 2215

The 2215 is around Eur. 600 over here (thanks to the utter cluessness of local retailers, who keep hiking up prices), and is one of the first Pocket PC 2003 machines around. It is also one of the few iPAQs you can hold in your hand properly, being smaller (and much lighter) than the other metal bricks HP calls PDAs.

After reading through a few reviews and looking at one for a while, I came up with the following list:

  • Pluses:
    • Pocket PC 2003 (version 4.0 or 5.0 of the OS, so most of the utterly idiotic bugs have been ironed out, except the unbelievably stupid "Connections" screen)
    • Has both Compact Flash and SDIO slots (which means I can use a few of the cards I already have and add Wi-Fi later)
    • Built-in Bluetooth (and ActiveSync via Bluetooth actually works very well, especially if you use Outlook)
    • Has an excellent IMAP client (sadly, I don't think it supports SSL, which is a big flaw)
    • Has an excellent browser (Pocket IE can be useless at times, but it still renders better than most other PDA browsers)
    • Has PPTP support as part of the OS (not as an add-on)
    • Has the closest thing to original Graffiti (see below)
    • Has a Remote Desktop client in ROM (it has saved the day for me more than once on other Pocket PCs)
    • Removable battery
  • Minuses:
    • Usability. Pocket PC still sucks in general usability terms, and the 2003 edition didn't bring significant improvements.
    • No easy way to sync to the Mac (but then I'd only need to swap the odd vCard or vCal, and OBEX support is usually excellent)
    • Has a 240x320 screen (ClearType helps, but it can be small)
    • Battery life is laughable when compared to a Palm
    • Is still rather thick
    • The casing is mostly plastic

The rest (stereo jack, Media Player 9, cradle, etc.) is irrelevant crap that I'd never use. Besides having plenty of other (much better ways) to listen to music, I've stopped using PDA cradles ever since I got my first Palm working with infra-red.

The Tungsten T2

This is a revamped version of the Tungsten T, essentially the same but with more RAM. Being a Palm, it is cheaper than the Pocket PC, at around Eur 480 (the original T is Eur 100 lower now).

  • Pluses:
    • Bluetooth (and great OBEX support)
    • A 320x320 screen (wider than the iPAQ)
    • Usability (the Palm interface is now far beyond the just works level and requires zero training for anything)
    • Metal casing (even though the screen remains relatively unprotected)
    • VersaMail supports IMAP over SSL
    • Better battery life than the iPAQ (twice).
    • I have an m505 keyboard that should work with it
  • Minuses:
    • Still bulky
    • Internal battery
    • No way to expand other than SDIO
    • No VPN support
    • Graffiti 2 (thanks to the Xerox patent suit, Palm has ruined their input method)
    • An extremely shitty browser (based on their proprietary proxy technology, and one of the reasons why Palm GSM models aren't taken seriously by most operators)
    • Rumors of new models on October 1st

Wi-Fi or Bluetooth?

I currently do a lot of Wi-Fi work (far too much, actually), and before anyone complains, I did look at the Tungsten C. But the plastic casing feels crappy, and I quickly understood that the Wi-Fi support is still primitive (no 802.1X support, no real choice of Wi-Fi features, etc.). That's one of the areas where the 2215 shines, since I can simply pick whatever CF card I want and be confident it will work with the new Pocket PC 2003 features.

Besides, the Palm browser (assuming I bought an absurdly expensive SDIO Wi-Fi card) simply does not work in some Wi-Fi hotspots since it requires access to its proprietary proxy - which means I can't consider the Palm a truly Wi-Fi-capable PDA (or even a GPRS-capable one, unless I use another browser).

As to Bluetooth, my experiences using the top-of-the-line iPAQs with my 7650 were pitiful. I have no end of crashed iPAQ photos, and even though the 2215 runs a new OS version, my gut feeling tells me it's still going to be fiddly. I spent almost a year using the Palm Bluetooth card together with a number of GPRS phones and setting up anything on the Palm is usually a no-brainer, so I'm confident the Tungsten will shine in that regard.

There is one area where Bluetooth on the iPAQ makes a real difference, though - ActiveSync works extremely well over a Bluetooth connection, to the extent where I can be confident of picking up the iPAQ when a meeting reminder sounds, force a re-sync and be out the door in seconds with my latest e-mail and notes. Palm's HotSync becomes extremely slow with some conduits (such as the Outlook plugins it ships with now), so it loses on syncing.

So the iPAQ wins on overall connectivity - not only can I use Bluetooth more efficiently, but I can upgrade to Wi-Fi in the future (besides having PPTP built-in. Sure, the battery won't last long. But it's bound to crash more often than it needs to recharge anyway...

And the winner is...

Surprisingly enough, if I had to choose between either of them, it would probably be the iPAQ. It fits better with my corporate environment, has a better browser, and can use "real" Wi-Fi. It would be fiddly, crash a bit and occasionally run out of battery, but it would work better where I need it the most - in the office.

Outside the office, the iPAQ and the Palm are pretty much the same (except usability, where the Palm has the edge). And no matter what, I always have my 7650. It works very well with GPRS, and lets me access my e-mail over IMAP (with SSL support) and do some web browsing.

Yes, real web browsing, not the WAP crap - there are several decent browsers available for Series 60 devices, even with the smallish 176x208 screen size. The only two I've given up on are AvantGo and Opera, which are two of the most bloated pieces of Series 60 software I've yet come across.

But back to PDAs. The ideal PDA for me would be slimmer, more metallic and would work in tandem with my 7650. Something like a Zire 71 with Bluetooth (instead of the silly camera) would be perfect (or one of the smaller Cliés, if Sony started selling them here). I'd even put up with the cheap plastic casing of the 71.

Nevertheless, there are interesting rumors about new Tungsten models on October, ranging from a T3 with a 480x320 screen to a smaller, cheap Tungsten E (that, for some dim-witted reason, apparently lacks Bluetooth). We'll see.

After all, the Palm V is still working just fine (PalmWiki is simply brilliant for note-taking), and I have a lot of stuff to do.