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ISSUE 570: Alan Zisman- Sept 26 2000

The high-tech office


A few add-ons make handheld computers truly powerful

Like many people, my main computer these days is a notebook. It's close enough to a desktop that I happily use it for almost all my day-to-day computing tasks. And I can take it with me.

But it's really more than I need to tote around most times, so most of the time it stays on my desk. Instead, I've taking to toting a palm-sized gadget everywhere I go called a Handspring Visor Deluxe. Visors, finally available in Canada, run the Palm operating system and standard software.

I started to wonder whether I could get by using the Visor instead of the notebook, at least when I'm out on the road. Most of the time when I'm away from home or office, I need a computer for just a few tasks: checking and responding to e-mail, Web browsing, some writing, maybe a game of Solitaire or two and checking the address book and calendar.

For that, a full-sized notebook is overkill. But, on its own, a Palm or Visor-type unit doesn't quite cut it.

Part of what makes these devices more than electronic address books is that they can be expanded. My first purchase was a keyboard. Several companies make keyboards for handhelds. Perhaps the slickest model is the Targus Stowaway. It's impressive enough that Palm now sells them under its own brand. Either way, it starts out not much bigger than the handheld itself, looking like an old-fashioned cigarette case. But it opens up and unfolds into a full-sized keyboard, and has keys with about the heft of a notebook keyboard. The handheld clips onto the top, and you're ready to go.

Because it's quiet, it can be easily used to take notes at meetings. If you need to do more writing than just jotting a quick note, it makes the Palm/
Visor-type unit much more capable.

Note that it needs to sit on a flat, solid surface such as a table. You can't use it on your lap. And you'll find you still need to poke away with your stylus from time to time. At least, I haven't found a way to access menus or such with the keyboard.

You also need to match the model to your actual handheld. There are separate models for Palm III and Palm V-series handhelds, as well as for Visors. All sell for about $150. If you can't find one locally (Palm users will have better luck than Visor users at this), check online at www.
, the one-stop shop for all things Palm (and Visor), from shareware to commercial software to gadgets.

But once you're typing away, you'll probably discover that the only built-in application for entering text, the Palm's Memo Pad, is pretty anemic. For instance, each memo maxes out at 4 kb. When you hit that limit, it just stops. When I was typing, it died just before 700 words. (By comparison, this column is 716 words.) I opened a new memo and carried on, but that's a bit of a pain.

Pocket PC users may snicker, because their hardware comes with the more-capable Pocket Word. But I hurried over to PalmGear, and downloaded the more capable SmartDoc (US$20). It lets users edit documents of pretty much any length. And, as a bonus, it can be used to read any of the thousands of e-books, from novels to technical reference manuals, available in Palm Doc format, which isn't the same as Microsoft Word
doc files (also available at Palm-

But while it's easy to access standard Memo Pad documents on my PC for printing, forwarding via e-mail or what-have-you, working with these long doc files in the same ways is more awkward. In fact, I
had to go back online to get a copy
of PalmDocs (also US$20). This patches itself into Microsoft Word 97 or 2000, and allows Word to open and save in Palm Doc format. With that in place, I can send documents back and forth between my palmtop and my PC. (And while you're at PalmGear, get the SmallWare free Solitaire game.)

So with extra hardware and software, I can type away using a computer and keyboard, each of which fit in a shirt pocket. No spell-checking, but not bad. Next week, we'll see about getting it online for e-mail, the Web and more. u


n Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator and computer specialist. He can be reached at His column appears weekly.

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