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New handhelds get a grip on Palm OS

Though debuting devices from Sony and Acer both run on the Palm operating system, they're poles apart when it comes to features--and price.

Both Sony and Acer have recently unveiled new devices based on the Palm operating system, but the gadgets are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to price and features.

Sony began selling a new $199 Clie model in the United States on Monday. Its PEG-SJ20 is meant for consumers looking for a simple, relatively inexpensive handheld. Meanwhile, Acer introduced its first handhelds using the Palm OS late last week: the fancier $299 s50 and $359 s60. The Acer devices will be available worldwide starting in September.

The devices entered a slumping handheld market. According to research firm Gartner, worldwide handheld shipments declined in the second quarter by 3.5 percent compared with the second quarter of 2001, dropping to 2.7 million units. Analysts have said some buyers are waiting on new units that will incorporate Palm's beefed up OS 5--released to developers in June--but many handheld company executives still see growth potential in the market for low-end devices.

Sony appears to be headed in that direction. The consumer electronics giant launched in late July an entry-level device, the $149 PEG-SL10, which the PEG-SJ20 resembles in terms of features.

The new PEG-SJ20 offers 16MB of memory for storing data--8MB more the Clie PEG-SL10--and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Two AAA-alkaline batteries power the PEG-SL10.

Both devices include a backlit monochrome screen with a resolution of 320 by 320 pixel screens, the Palm OS 4.1 operating system software and Memory Stick expansion slots.

Sony is the third largest PDA manufacturer behind Palm and Hewlett-Packard. It accounted for 9.6 percent of the worldwide PDA unit shipments during the second quarter, according to IDC.

Acer is not a major player in the handheld market, and its initial high-end efforts are probably not aimed at increasing market share. The heart of the market beats fastest for devices that cost $200 or less, analysts say.

Acer's s50 and s60 come with color screens, 16MB of memory and Memory Stick expansion slots. The s60 also comes with an integrated digital audio player and audio recorder.