Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 164 / MAY 1994 / PAGE 60

How to choose a PDA. (personal data assistant) (Compute's Getting Started With: Portable Computing) (Buyers Guide)
by Thomas O. Mann

The world's first operating personal digital assistant, or PDA, Apple's heavily publicized Newton, hit the market last August, followed closely by PDAs from Sharp, Tandy, and Casio.

At the time of this writing, it's apparent that most of what we had been led to expect from these marvelous new tools remains a fairy tale--these PDAs work poorly, don't have many of the promised features, and have been roundly ridiculed in the press. And yet... The promise of what this compact tool could be--will be--is still breathtaking. The fulfillment of that promise just isn't here yet. We have its shadow, its prototype.

The Promise

PDAs aren't tiny notebook computers; they're personal information and communication devices--extensions to normal computers. They travel with you to accept jotted-down notes, make appointments, and wirelessly send and receive computer data, E-mail, and faxes from nearly anywhere. They run checkbooks, language and currency translators, online networks, and even games. You write on them with a special pen; the units recognize your writing and respond to it.

The Reality

Handwriting recognition has been the source of most of the hilarity in the press. It's notoriously poor at first; Apple says that the Newton learns your handwriting over a period of months. Few can stand to wait that long.

Communications, especially wireless communications, are still in the future. With a modem, you can access America Online successfully, but the vast promise of casual wireless communications is still nothing but promise.

The Products

The Newton MessagePad (Apple, 800-776-2333, $899) and the Sharp Expert Pad PI-7000 (Sharp Electronics, 800-993-9737, $899), both manufactured by Sharp in Japan, are identical except for the Sharp unit's larger, more protective plastic case. Both come with a serial port, an infrared port for communicating with other Newton and Sharp units, and a PCMCIA Type II slot. Both have a built-in notebook utility for handwritten and drawn material, an address book, a calendar, and to-do list.

One bright spot is the working Assist feature (found in both) that intelligently completes actions you describe or start. Write Fax Andy at 9 a.m., hit the Assist icon, and the Newton (or Sharp) gives you a fax cover sheet to fill out, then attempts the scheduled call--though it's as likely to go to Cindy at 7 a.m. as anywhere else. The handwriting recognition at the core of almost everything just isn't good enough yet.

The Tandy Z-PDA (Tandy, 817-390-3011, $699) and the Casio Z-7000 (Casio, 201-361-5400, $899), called the Zoomer, are also identical units. Like the Newton and Sharp, they have serial and infrared ports and a PCMCIA Type II slot, but add several Game Boy-type buttons for game playing.

After the initial specs, the Tandy and Zoomer are very different from the Newton and Sharp. Their built-ins include a complete personal organizer system, a note taker, a sketch pad, and the GEOS operating system which runs Pocket Quicken and an America Online front end (requiring the optional modem). They contain a wealth of additional information, including a dictionary, thesaurus, 26-language word translator, calculator with currency exchange functions, and much more--even a copy of the Constitution.

Their handwriting recognition is character based, resulting in less amusing but just as awful results as the Newton's word-based recognition. They have a pop-up onscreen QWERTY keyboard which can get things straight, if somewhat slowly. The pen is small and hard to use, and the system runs slowly.

The Bottom Line

PDAs hold magnificent promise, but the ones you can buy today are just not ready for prime time.