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Keyboards in hot demand as PDAs move to next generation 

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #666  July 20- August 6, 2002: GearGuide  column

Gone are the days of sharp sticks and alien alphabets

Remember Newton, Apple's pioneering but ultimate failure of a personal digital assistant? It promised to recognize users' handwriting, but its lack of accuracy (at least when first released; later versions were much better) made it the butt of a week's worth of 1993 Doonesbury cartoons.

While keeping Newton's stylus, used for on-screen input, Palm produced the first big PDA hit by turning the model around. Instead of training a little computer to recognize the user's handwriting, Palm users get trained to write in a way that their PDA can understand.

But a number of recent PDA models have moved away from handwriting recognition entirely, opting for something innovative: keyboards. Perhaps imitating the thumb-keyboard in the popular wireless Canadian RIM Blackberry are PDAs from Handspring, Sony, and Sharp.

Treo's affordable colour

Handspring Treo 90April's GearGuide looked at Handspring's Treo 180, which combines a cell phone with a Palm-compatible PDA. Initially, Handspring released two models, the Treo 180G with traditional Palm-style pen input, and the 180 with a little keyboard. With US-sales well over 10 to one for the keyboard model, the 180G was never introduced in Canada.

Now Handspring has released two new Treos. Both the Treo 270 (not yet available in Canada) and Treo 90 (about $500) offer nice colour screens while keeping the keyboards. The 270 includes the phone; the Treo 90 leaves it out. The result is among the smallest and sleekest of the Palm-powered units.

Like all the Treo models, it also turns its back on Handspring's innovative Springboard add-on slot, in favour of a smaller Secure Digital slot, also found on some Palm models, for adding memory, eBook content or devices such as GPS or Powerpoint presentation viewers. But it's the mini-keyboard that makes it stand out from the pack of basic colour-screen Palm-powered PDAs.

CliE pushes the envelope

Sony Clie PEG-NR70VSony's CliE series of PDAs also run the Palm operating system, but with the sorts of multimedia features that are more often found on Pocket Windows handhelds than on Palm-powered PDAs.

The $1,000 CliE PEG-NR70V continues in that tradition. Unlike the Treo 90, it's pretty big, but then again, it's got a lot of features in its clamshell case. Sony packs four times as many pixels as Palm or Handspring into its full-colour screen for better photo display. The 66 MHz processor is twice as fast as what's found in most Palm-type units. It can play MP3 audio or display video. There's even a 320x240 resolution digital camera built-into the case. Tiny Sony Memory Stick cards allow storage of up to 128 Mb of audio, video, or other documents.

And again, there's a keyboard. This time, it's on the bottom section of the two-piece clamshell; Graffiti fans can swing it up out of the way, letting them enter data into the CliE using a stylus. This CliE is expensive, but it's the most feature-packed Palm-powered PDA available.

Sharp's Zaurus goes its own way

While Handspring and Sony are both building their PDAs using the Palm operating system, Sharp's new Zaurus SL-5500 (about $700) uses the open-source Linux system, scaled down to work on a pocket-sized computer.

Once again, there's a keyboard. In this case, part of the case slides down, making the keyboard accessible when wanted. If your thumbs get tired, you can also use its built-in handwriting recognition. The 320x240 pixel colour screen, 206 MHz StrongArm processor, and both CompactFlash and Secure Digital expansion slots make its hardware specs the equal of most of its Pocket Windows-competition.

Sharp scores points for making Linux a competitor to Palm and Microsoft's Pocket Windows in the PDA market. Like Linux on full-sized PCs, this version is almost infinitely customizable. And there's a surprising amount of software available for such a new system. There are problems reported, however, synching its data with Windows PCs, no Mac support, and ironically, no software included to sync with Linux desktops.

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