ISSUE 397: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE--Alan
Pilot cheaper, smaller than competing products but
smaller memory does limit its capabilities June 3 1997
Over the past few weeks, we've been looking at
the new go-anywhere, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand generation of tiny
computers, known variously as Personal Assistants, palmtops, or
handhelds. We've focused on the Windows CE units, with their familiar,
scaled-down Windows 95 interface, and the innovative but bulky Apple
Sometimes, however, less is more -- especially when
you're dealing with technology that's meant to be portable. The
smallest and cheapest of the models I've looked at, the U.S.
Robotics Pilot, tries to do less than the competition. They've
produced a computer that's one-third the size and price of the
Of course, along with less cost and size come fewer
Like the Newton, the Pilot relies on pen computing:
you write on its screen with a plastic stylus. Unlike the more
sophisticated competition, however, it makes no attempt to understand
Instead, you're forced to learn to write in a language
the computer can understand, using a simplified alphabet called
Graffiti. Letter 'A' is indicated by an upside-down "V," and "F" by an
upside down "L."
Capitalization is accomplished with an up-stroke of
the stylus. While it sounds complicated, it took me about 20 minutes to
get reasonably competent, and there's a game to let you practise
Graffiti writing. U.S. Robotics claims that with a little practice,
users can become nearly 100 per cent accurate, and can enter text at
speeds of up to 30 words per minute.
Still, it's clearly designed more for taking short
notes than for trying to create long files. I entered the first couple
of paragraphs of this column onto the Pilot, then gave up, and went
back to typing on a larger machine.
But once you're familiar with its style of writing,
it's an easy way to store basic information. The Pilot comes with a
memo program, address book, calendar, to-do list, and calculator. Newer
models add an expense-account report and e-mail. Of course, to use
Internet mail, you may need a modem; the Pilot lacks the PC-Card slots
used by its larger competitors. You can either buy a special add-on
modem ($189), or connect to an external serial-port modem using the
More often, though, you'll leave the cradle plugged
into your main computer's serial port. That way, by simply dropping the
Pilot into the cradle and pressing a button, you're connected to the
big computer, able to transfer files back and forth. Third-party
companies have rushed to enter the market, selling add-on software to
make use of this capability. There are numerous extra programs for the
Pilot, and even shareware games. While you won't be able to play Doom
on the tiny black-and-white screen (at least not yet), I found Chess,
Blackjack, and Solitaire.
Buttons on the face of the unit instantly call up the
calendar, address list, to-do list, and memo pad. A tap on an on-screen
icon brings up a screen with other applications. Another button brings
up the menu for whatever application is currently on-screen. The result
is an easy-to-learn interface.
As with other handhelds, there are no disks -- no
floppy drive and no hard drive. As a result, all your data is stored in
memory, which is finite; that means that more stored addresses leaves
less room to store games.
U.S. Robotics has tried to address this problem with
recent model upgrades. Initial models came with either 256 kilobytes or
512 kilobytes of RAM; these have been replaced with models with double
those capacities, also featuring a backlit screen for easier viewing in
dim light. Owners of older models can upgrade the RAM to one megabyte
for under $200 and get the new expense account and e-mail applications,
but they are still stuck with their original screens.
While this maximum of one megabyte of RAM on the
newest Pilot compares poorly to two to four megs on the Windows CE
models, or five megs on Apple's Newton MessagePad 2000, it helps keep
the price down. Pilot models sell for $350 to $550, compared to $700 to
$900 for the CE models or $1,200 for the Newton. And as the only one of
the lot that would easily fit in a pocket, I found I was more likely to
carry it around.
Does that make it enough computer to earn its keep?
You'll have to decide whether the Pilot (or any of its bigger, more
expensive competitors) provides enough features to justify something
more expensive than a $50 electronic address book -- or its lower-cost
pen and paper equivalent.*