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 Newton.

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 competition.

Of course, along with less cost and size come fewer features.

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 your handwriting.

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 included cradle.

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.*

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