Taking a PDA travelling

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001. First published in Vancouver Computes, February 2001

Among palm-type PDA fans, there are two kinds of people. Type A people are happy with their Palm, Visor, or Pocket Windows handheld the way it came out of the box. They use the appointments calendar, the address list, and the to-do list, and write themselves short notes. Maybe they keep their handheld synched up to their PC, but maybe not.

Type B people push the envelope. Like Type A people, they keep the gadget with them all the time. But unlike Type A's, they're always looking for new ways to use their toy. They buy hardware and software add-ons, and check out web sites like www.palmgear.com for new programs to try out.

Since getting a Handspring Visor Deluxe last year, I've got to admit to becoming a Type B person. My Visor (a popular Palm-clone most notable for the addition of a Springboard expansion slot) sports a 33.6 modem and a neat, fold-up keyboard. Software lets me calculate tides and currents at many popular spots along BC's coast or to shoot a few rounds of golf with Tiger Woods.

The Avantgo web site (www.avantgo.com) lets me get web-based content onto my Visor without the bother of getting the little-thing online. Palm, Visor, or Win CE users sign up (for free) for their choices from several hundred sites, ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Joke of the Day, or enter the URLs of their choice.

Afterwards, whenever they synch their handheld to their desktop PC, that computer goes online, brings back the desired web content all nearly formatted for viewing on the tiny handheld screen, and sends it on to the PDA.

Recently, my wife and I went for a holiday to New Orleans. My wife took a guidebook, but I loaded Lonely Planet's City Sync software (www.citysync.com) onto the Visor. New Orleans is one of twenty cities from New York to Bombay in the series.

The software comes in your choice of two formats: you can download a single city for US$20 or buy a US$50 CD with the whole set of cities and a license to use any four of your choice (with a license for a fifth city when you register online). Any city can be downloaded and tried out for free for a 24-hour period.

The software compares well to a typical guidebook. Each city gets an overview, with basic information. There's a section on safety?how to get help in case of an emergency. Then the good stuff; sections on where to go, what to do, and where to eat, shop, sleep, and hang out and party. Again, overviews, then details on individual attractions. The reviews are short and snappy but are pretty up to date, and don't hesitate to be negative when needed.

You can write yourself notes about your trip, or quickly add that restaurant reservation to your Calendar. The scrollable lists let you quickly search for restaurants or hotels or nightlife in a particular neighbourhood or city-wide.

There's a lot of information packed in a little space, but the interface took a bit of getting used to. Nice feature?each review has a link to a map, and it works in reverse too; clicking on a link on the map takes you directly to a review of that location.

Unfortunately, the maps are a bit hard to use. That's not the software's fault as much as a limitation of the small screen size on the PDA. You may have to do a lot of scrolling to figure out how to actually get to a location on the map. And it's especially confusing for a city like New Orleans, where the streets don't match up to any North-South axis, but rather follow the twists and turns of the Mississippi River.

Unlike most guidebooks, except for the maps there are no pictures?no doubt due to the tightness of memory on the PDA. Even so, if you've got a 2 MB Palm or Visor model, don't even think about it. You can be a happy Type A user with a 2 MB model. But right now, on my Visor, AvantGo (with seven web-channels loaded) takes up 721 KB of space, while the CitySync program and maps for three cities takes up about 1250 KB? too much for a 2 MB PDA, though on my 8 MB model, there's RAM to spare.

Not everybody gets accustomed to reading on the dull monochrome PDA screen. My wife never quite got the hang of it. Then again, she found she couldn't read the red print her guidebook used for restaurant reviews either, especially in the dim light of romantic French Quarter hangouts.

With its small screen and pen-input, my Visor isn't a replacement for a notebook or desktop computer. Then again, I can't carry either of those in my shirt pocket when I'm strolling down New Orlean's Rue Royal.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan