Rethink that PDA purchase… for now

4 Jan

January 4, 2007

By Geoff Meeker

Just over a month ago, I wrote about the new generation of handheld personal data assistants (PDA’s), specifically about their improved Internet functionality and file handling capability.

Because I am considering a PDA purchase of my own, I’ve been shopping around and asking a few questions. I have identified some problems with the latest generation of PDA’s, and suggest that people hold off buying until these are worked out.

Also known as smart phones, PDA’s should not be confused with those cheap trinkets you receive for renewing a magazine subscription. True PDA’s include cellular phone, address book, calendar, email and more. Until recently, however, PDA’s were suitable mainly for email applications and even then could not open attachments.

That has changed with the newest line of PDA’s, which offer Windows Mobile software and full access to the Internet, along with high resolution screens, and the ability to receive and view documents, spreadsheets and presentations. This is exactly what PDA’s require in order to win me over, since I send and receive so many files.

The problem is, this dramatic increase in functionality has not seen a corresponding increase in random access memory (RAM). RAM is the operating memory that drives your programs, and should not be confused with storage memory, which is much larger.

The standard desktop PC comes with 256 meg’s of RAM at a minimum, and most people upgrade to a gig or more, to more effectively run programs like Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, your Internet browser, and more (often simultaneously).

The latest PDA’s have between 32 and 64 meg’s of RAM, which begs the question: Is this anywhere near enough?

The programs in the Windows Mobile software are presumably ‘smaller’ but how much smaller can they reasonably be? Is it realistic to expect reliable and efficient performance, working on spreadsheets while checking email and downloading web sites, with no more than 64 meg’s of RAM? At least one salesperson I spoke to said no, not at all. That person’s advice was to hold off and wait until the manufacturers addressed the problem.

What’s more, the PDA with the most RAM – the Motorola Q – has other problems that will no doubt be ironed out in the short term. The battery does not hold its charge for a full day, which is not acceptable when you are on the road and need breakfast to bed reliability. I was told that the menu system for the Q is complex and counter-intuitive, and does not provide a user-friendly interface with the device’s many features. Give the Q a pass until these issues are resolved.

Of course, the small keypads on a PDA make them impractical for writing anything but brief emails and text messaging. Would you realistically want to work on a spreadsheet or compose a long report on a keypad that measures just 2.5 inches wide (a little wider on some models)? And even though you can buy wireless keyboards that synchronize with your PDA, how long can you work on a screen that tiny?

The fact is, you will need a laptop if you need to work extensively in documents while on the road. And you can easily download files received on the PDA to the laptop, and back to the PDA when done. Which raises the question: are we expecting too much of a PDA? And is all this convergence of functions – from telephone to web browser to camera – into one small device really a good thing?

Think carefully about your technology needs before locking yourself into a purchase. For example, it’s great that we can download video to our cell phones, but do we really want to watch movies on a two inch screen? And that camera in your smart phone is useful at times, but it won’t replace a dedicated 5 megapixel camera (as you will discover the first time you try to enlarge an image).

My reservations about insufficient operating memory in PDA’s stand, but where the device will fit into my technology regime is still undecided.

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