Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 162 / MARCH 1994 / PAGE 104

Casio Z-7000; Tandy Z-PDA. (personal digital assistants) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Denny Atkin

Imagine a device about the same size as your schedule book that not only lets you organize your day, but will also send faxes and email, keep track of your finances, play games, and even translate languages. No, I'm not talking about a Star Trek tricorder (these gadgets won't warn out if your mother-in-law is actually a Klingon)--I'm describing Casio and Tandy's new personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Originally known as Zoomers (Tandy's unit still says Zoomer on the case, but Casio seems to have dropped the name), these devices weigh less than a pound and fit easily into a jacket pocket. Tandy's and Casio's offerings differ only in the case--functionally, they're identical, so price and support are the primary considerations in choosing which brand to buy.

To use the Zoomer, you flip its case cover to the back of the unit and pop a small stylus out of a storage compartment on the bottom. There's no keyboard, so all input is done by drawing directly on the 256 x 320 pixel LCD screen. You can print text or draw pictures; text can optionally be recognized and converted to ASCll data. Unlike Apple's competing Newton, the Zoomer recognizes only printing, not cursive handwriting.

While the Newton uses a custom operating system with a RISC processor, Tandy and Casio chose an Intel-compatible chip and the GeoWorks CEOS multitasking operating system. The choice of GEOS may make the Zoomer a bit more intimidating to those who haven't used computers, but the familiar interface actually flattens the learning curve for those of us already accustomed to PCs. The software applications built into the machine's 4MB of ROM include a calendar/to-do list, adderss book, calculator and measurements conversion tool, dictionary, thesaurus, notepad, a spelling checker, and three games. You'll also find some small but handy reference programs, such as a 1,000-word translator that features languages such as Serbo-Croatian, as well as listings of U.S. Holidays and telephone area codes. Travelers with expense accounts will love Pocket Quicken, a financial manager that can transfer its data to the fullblown desktop version of Quicken. Data and programs are stored in 1MB of RAM, 352K of which is available as a RAM disk.

One big advantage the Casio and Tandy PDAs have over the Newton is battery life. While Newton manages about 20 hours on a set of batteries, these units claim over 100 hours life off three AA batteries. After over a month of use, neither unit I tested has needed a battery replacement. The Zoomer has communications capabilities using three ports: An infrared receiver/transmitter for exchanging data with other Zoomers, an RS-232 serial port, and a PCMCIA 2.0 slot which can accept a standard or wireless credit-card modem. Basic file transfer software is built in. There's also a custom version of America Online built into the ROM, but it's limited to accessing email, the PDA support forums, and news services--you can't access general forums.

Not that you'd want to do much more than email with a current-generation PDA like this anyway--the Palm Computing PowerInk writing recognition just doesn't lend itself well to creating long notes. Apple's Newton recognizes entire words (or misrecognizes them, which can make for some amusing Newton party gamess); while this is great for creating long notes, this dictionary-based method means that many proper names and street names are going to be recognized incorrectly. PowerInk avoids this by attempting to recognize individual characters instead of entire words. It does a pretty good job--once I learned to concentrate on printing neatly, the PDA could recognize about 95 percent of the characters I wrote. When the Zoomer does get a character wrong, editing tools make it easy to correct your mistake. Nevertheless, after stopping every third word to fix a character when trying to compose an email reply, I eventually broke down and brought up the Zoomer's onscreen keyboard and "typed" the letter using the stylus.

However, if you're not transferring data to your PC, there's not necessarily a reason for having the PDA recognize all of your writing. (You can leave your writing in "ink" form, with the PDA storing it as a graphic image.) When i create address book entries, I have the PDA recognize the last name, so i can search for it, but I just leave the rest of the entry in digital ink format to avoid having to correct misrecognized numbers or characters.

Should there be a PDA in your future? Absolutely. I've found the Zoomer to be incredibly useful as a personal organizer, since features like to-do prioritization are unavailable in paper organizers. However, the Casio and Tandy PDAs represent the first generation of a new technology, and as such have problems like imperfect writing recognition (I have yet to get the thing to recognize a k). If you're not going to use the communication capabilities (along with AOL, wireless email and paging are on the way), these PDAs are essentially more expensive $630 to $700 street price) replacements for a $200 Wizard or $30 paper organizer. A couple of months with the Zoomer have convinced me that the technology is viable and attractive, but unless you're a "gotta have it now" technology nut, you might be better off waiting for the next generation.