Handhelds buying guide

Choosing the right handheld is all about finding the perfect balance of size, weight, performance, features, and cost.

Colin Duwe
21 min read

Choosing the right handheld is all about finding the perfect balance of size, weight, performance, features, and cost. From there, a PDA can become an indispensable tool for staying organised, connected, productive, and entertained. This guide steps you through the decision-making process.

What handheld fits my needs?
Handheld manufacturers offer dozens of models, each targeting a slightly different user. Your first step should be to decide which of the following profiles best suits your wants and your lifestyle.

User types: Budget buyer/student | Businessperson | Road warrior | Trendsetter | All-in-one fanatic

Budget buyer/student
For students and those on a budget who need a pocket-size device to keep their address book, their calendar, their to-do list, and their notes organised, as well as synchronise that information with a PC, a basic handheld will suffice. By adding software and other accessories later, when their budgets permit, they can easily enhance their PDA's functionality.

In order to get the job done, you need a tool that can keep you organised and has software that works with Microsoft Word and Excel. To accommodate such features, look for models that have ample memory or expansion slots and a sharp colour screen. Staying connected is also a key factor, so be sure it works with your company's e-mail.

Key features Palm OS Windows Mobile
OS Garnet 5.4 5.0
Processor 200MHz 300MHz
Battery Rechargeable Rechargeable
Picks Palm Z22 HP iPaq rx1950

Road warrior
For those who get most of their work done on the go, a handheld can stand in for a full-fledged laptop in many situations. In this category, connectivity, battery life, and size are key factors. Integrated Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity lets you check and send e-mail outside of the office, while the right software lets you edit Word and Excel files. If you plan on typing away a lot of short e-mails or memos, a PDA with an integrated keyboard will come in handy. Many models are powered by batteries that are both replaceable and rechargeable, so you can swap in a fresh cell when needed. You'll also appreciate a device that's truly pocketable.

Key features Palm OS Windows Mobile
OS Garnet 5.4 5.0
RAM 32MB/expansion slot 64MB (user accessible)
/expansion slot
Processor 200MHz 300MHz
Display 65,000 colours 65,000 colours
Connectivity Bluetooth Wi-Fi/Bluetooth
Battery Rechargeable Rechargeable
Picks Palm Tungsten E2 HP iPaq hx2790

If you're a trendsetter, you always want the latest and greatest technology. For handhelds, this means models that let you listen to music, watch videos, play games, surf the Web, and snap photos. You will get the most out of high-end handhelds with fast processors, lots of built-in memory, high-resolution colour screens, graphics accelerators, expansion slots, and other bells and whistles.

Key features Palm OS Windows Mobile
OS Garnet 5.4 5.0
RAM 64MB/expansion slot 64MB/expansion slot
Processor 300MHz 400MHz
Display 65,000 colours 65,000 colours
Connectivity Wi-Fi/Bluetooth Wi-Fi/Bluetooth
Battery Rechargeable/replaceable Rechargeable/replaceable; extra cell
Picks Palm TX Dell Axim X51v

All-in-one fanatic
If you prefer to only carry a single gadget, a smart phone that combines the features of a traditional handheld with those of a mobile phone is the right choice. Striking the balance between size, ease of use, and convenient data entry is especially important with these devices. You'll find some models that are more phone-centric and others that are designed for those who can't be separated from their e-mail.

Key features Palm OS Windows Mobile
OS Garnet 5.4 5.0 Phone Edition
RAM 64MB/expansion slot 64MB/expansion slot
Processor 400MHz 416MHz
Display 65,000 colours 65,536 colours
Connectivity Wi-Fi Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/GSM 900/1800/1900
Battery Rechargeable Rechargeable/replaceable
Picks Palm LifeDrive O2 Xda Atom

Choosing the right handheld is all about finding the perfect balance of size, weight, performance, features, and cost. From there, a PDA can become an indispensable tool for staying organised, connected, productive, and entertained. This guide steps you through the decision-making process.

Key features Palm OS Windows Mobile Symbian
OS Garnet 5.4 5.0 Phone Edition 7.0 (Series 80 platform)
RAM 32MB/expansion slot 64MB/expansion slot 64MB/expansion slot
Display 65,536 colors 65,536 colors 65,536 colors
Input QWERTY keyboard Touch screen/keyboard Touch screen/keyboard
Connectivity Mobile phone/Bluetooth Mobile phone/keyboard Mobile phone/keyboard
Network/data network GSM 850/900/1800/1900; GPRS GSM 900/1800/1900 GSM 900/1800/1900
Battery Rechargeable Rechargeable/ replaceable Rechargeable/ replaceable
Picks Palm Treo 650 O2 Xda Atom Nokia 9300

Should I choose Palm or Windows Mobile?
For years, these two handheld operating systems have competed fiercely to woo handheld buyers. Both do an admirable job with the core applications: address book, calendar, to-do list, and memos. And since the release of Palm OS 5.0, they're nearly evenly matched in terms of processors, screen resolutions, and multimedia functions. There are, however, still some key differences.

Operating systems: Palm | Windows Mobile | Palm OS 5.0

With the release of OS 5.0, the Palm operating system made some major improvements yet retained its ease of use. The new multithreading OS supports ARM-based processors, which keeps Palm competitive with Windows Mobile products by increasing overall computing performance and enhancing multimedia features.

To input letters and numbers, Palm uses Graffiti 2.0, an updated version of its original handwriting recognition system, where you write in block characters that are similar to traditional letters but are easier for the handheld to recognise.

Many Palm OS devices still have a designated Graffiti area below the display, which limits the screen size. Newer models offer a virtual Graffiti area that can be minimised to give you more visual real estate, a feature that's been found on Microsoft-based handhelds for years.

The Palm OS has some distinct advantages over Windows Mobile when it comes to PC synchronisation. First, it's compatible with Apple and Windows-based computers. Palm also offers an e-mail program called VersaMail, which works with a variety of similar applications such as Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Microsoft Exchange, and Lotus Notes. Be sure to check and see if VersaMail comes bundled with the handheld; otherwise, it'll cost you extra.

Third-party apps such as DataViz's Documents To Go allows you to work with Microsoft Office files on your PDA.

The Palm platform also benefits from the enormous library of third-party applications. For example, if you intend to work with Microsoft Office files on your handheld, the Palm OS doesn't provide built-in support. However, many models come bundled with DataViz's Documents To Go Professional Edition, a tool that not only lets you work with said files but does a better job synchronising with your PC and maintaining formatting than Windows Mobile Pocket Word and Pocket Excel. Check out CNET.com.au's Download.com for other apps, from games to expense-tracking tools to media players.

Windows Mobile 5.0
In early May last year, Microsoft revamped its mobile OS and introduced Windows Mobile 5.0, focusing on productivity and the multimedia experience, as well as giving manufacturers a platform to build new devices. The company touts the fact that Windows Mobile resembles desktop versions of Windows, and is therefore easier to use. However, we feel the learning curve is actually steeper than Palm devices. Don't get discouraged -- anyone can quickly master the OS.

Where Palm offers just a single handwriting recognition system, Windows Mobile has three choices: Block Recogniser, which is similar to Grafitti; Letter Recogniser, which imitates the act of printing letters; and Transcriber, a system that recognises either printed or cursive handwriting, provided you write neatly. And as noted, Windows Mobile devices have a virtual input area that appears onscreen only when needed. When it's hidden, you have nearly 1/3 more screen real estate.

Windows Mobile 5.0 is intended to mesh with all of Microsoft's software. It comes with a copy of Outlook Mobile, and the synchronisation is top notch. All the fields from your Outlook contact list are sent to the handheld, and you can even access Hotmail and MSN in-boxes within Outlook. However, if your business uses Lotus Notes or some other e-mail system, you're in a bit of a pickle. And if you're on a Mac, you'll need to purchase third-party synchronisation software.

In addition to Outlook, Windows Mobile 5.0 replaced the old Pocket versions of Word and Excel with Word Mobile and Excel Mobile, which now support tables, lists, embedded images, and charts. And finally, you can now view (though not edit) PowerPoint presentations on your handheld.

There's a respectable library of third-party software available for Windows Mobile evices. Gamers and multimedia fans, in particular, will benefit from the collection of entertainment apps and media players that let you view native MPEG files and music composition tools with built-in software synthesisers. Again, CNET.com.au's Downloads is a good resource for add-ons to your Pocket PC device.

Choosing the right handheld is all about finding the perfect balance of size, weight, performance, features, and cost. From there, a PDA can become an indispensable tool for staying organised, connected, productive, and entertained. This guide steps you through the decision-making process.

What features should I look for?
The right handheld has to be small enough that you enjoy toting it around, but the battery needs to be big enough that it has some juice left when you need it; plus, it must have a decent-size screen. The variety of handhelds for sale these days attests to the fact that there isn't one ideal design. Here are the features to consider.

Features: Size | Display | Memory | Processor | Battery | Data input

As handhelds have evolved, their overall size hasn't changed dramatically. Most current models are between 100 and 140 millimetres long and about 80 millimetres wide, and they weigh between 115 and 200 grams. Examples of extremely compact PDAs are the
HP iPaq rx1950 and Palm TX. Ideally, they should ride comfortably in a coat pocket or a purse and have a screen large enough for on-the-go viewing. To determine if the size and shape of a particular PDA works for you, take a trip to your local retailer, as you can't know for sure based on the published specs. You'll want to see how it feels in your hands -- light or heavy, sturdy or fragile -- and if you're comfortable with the button layout for one-handed navigation.

PDAs with monochrome screens are definitely on the decline as colour models proliferate. For bargain shoppers, the monochrome screen still might be an option. Even so, entry-level models, such as the
Palm Z22, now incorporate colour screens.

Colour displays are easier to read, thanks to their higher contrast ratio, and they're a must for viewing digital photos and other multimedia functions. Pay attention to screen resolution; all Windows Mobile handhelds will have at least 240 x 320-pixel resolution. You can still find Palm devices with 160 x 160 resolution, but our recommendation is to opt for a model with at least 320 x 320 pixels. Regardless of which OS you choose, selecting a model with higher resolution shows off images to their best effect.

Another consideration is the screen's performance in sunlight. The first colour screens were practically illegible outdoors, but newer liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) have solved the problem. In particular, transflective thin-film transistor (TFT) screens are one of the best performers indoors and out, due to their reflective properties, which cause sunlight to bounce off the screen. For indoor use, a backlight provides illumination indoors or in the dark but drains battery life.

PDAs typically have their operating system stored in ROM (read-only memory) and use built-in RAM (random access memory) for processor memory and as file storage space; thus, while you're shopping, pay attention to how much RAM is installed in the device. As the name implies, ROM can only be read and is nonvolatile, so data won't be lost if the handheld loses power. On the other hand, RAM is used for temporary storage of data to optimise performance. Every handheld has more than enough memory for basic handheld tasks. Models such as the Palm Z22 come with a minimum of 32MB of RAM, which can still store thousands of contacts and calendar entries, with room for additional programs.

Throwing multimedia apps into the mix, however, requires more RAM but not necessarily huge amounts, so long as you seek a handheld with an expansion slot. Handhelds support three kinds of expandable memory: Sony's Memory Sticks (for the older CLIE models), CompactFlash cards (older Pocket PC models), and SDIO/MMC media. (Note: Some of the latest PDAs come with miniSD expansion card slots.) Store PIM data, applications, and other small files on the PDA's internal RAM, and leave some space for processor headroom. You don't want to jam 31.5MB of data onto a handheld with 32MB of RAM. The handheld will slow to crawl, taking a noticeably longer time to launch apps or open files. Instead, keep your MP3s, video files, and other big files on a memory card.

If you intend to use your PDA primarily as an electronic day planner and, occasionally, an MP3 player, 16MB of memory will suffice. Multimedia buffs, gamers, and those who like to crunch databases on the go should opt for models with at least 32MB. Palm devices that support MP3 playback are available with between 16MB and 128MB of built-in memory (except for the LifeDrive with an onboard 4GB hard drive), while Windows Mobile devices run all the way up to 128MB. Even then, you can't store a plethora of MP3 files on the device.

One final note on RAM: Some PDA models have a portion of the built-in RAM dedicated to the operating systems and other manufacturer-installed data. For example, you may see a handheld advertised with 16MB of RAM, but only 12MB are available for data storage. In our hands-on reviews, we try to identify models where this is the case.

Like desktop PCs, a handheld with a fast processor is critical for tasks such as playing games, music, and videos or for sifting through large amounts of data quickly. Palm OS devices with multimedia features or integrated wireless communications use a variety of processors from Intel, Motorola, Sony, and Texas Instruments and are available with maximum clock speeds of between 127MHz and 400MHz. The slower models will satisfy those who use their PDA for Day Runner tasks and don't mind waiting a second after snapping a digital photo.

Windows Media for Pocket PC handhelds use StrongARM or XScale processors with maximum clock speeds of between 200MHz and 624MHz. For wirelessly streaming video to a Pocket PC and other processor-intensive tasks, the faster models are better choices.

All the latest processors regulate clock speed and power consumption based on processor load; this way, they extend battery life while improving performance. But keep in mind that faster processors tend to consume a bit more power, thus reducing battery life.

Like any mobile gadget, a PDA is only as useful as its battery life. When levels are low, the PDA is just weighing you down. On some models, you also risk losing data if you completely run out of power. Thankfully, you can typically turn your off PDA and avoid this scenario. However, take the manufacturer's published specs with a grain of salt; we've found many claims to be highly optimistic. (Note: Some of the latest Windows Mobile 5.0 handhelds come with persistent storage, which means the data stays even when the battery is flat.)

There are a few dusty old models left on store shelves that use standard alkaline batteries, but we recommend rechargeable batteries (lithium ion, nickel cadmium, or nickel metal hydride) since you won't have to replace them after they die. Even better, look for a PDA with a cell that is rechargeable and user replaceable. You can then carry a spare or swap it out for a higher-capacity unit, which typically offers double the battery life.

In most cases, you use a handheld in minute-long spurts, so it's easy to go several days on a single charge. It's when you start listening to music, watching videos, or connecting wirelessly to the Internet that battery life is at risk. Some devices can last only a couple of hours performing those tasks.

One solution is to select a model with aforementioned user-replaceable batteries, though some handhelds come with internal backup memory to protect your information if the main cell dies. The trade-off is that these models tend to be more expensive and larger. Alternatively, pick a model that comes with a compact wall plug, or buy a travel charger or a third-party USB charger if you're on the road a lot.

Data input
The various handwriting recognition systems found on PDAs have their pros and cons. Graffiti, Block Recogniser, and Letter Recogniser all depend on how well you adapt to the software's rules. If you do that well, they are extremely accurate. Transcriber, a system found on Windows Mobile 2003, attempts to recognise natural handwriting, but it's easily thrown off by less than perfect script. If these options frustrate you, call up the onscreen keyboard and tap out a message one letter at a time with the tip of the stylus.

Handwriting recognition has its limitations, so there are a number of handhelds with built-in QWERTY keyboards. Those who adjust to the small keys can bang out an e-mail quickly. For the best of both worlds, buy an accessory keyboard.

Choosing the right handheld is all about finding the perfect balance of size, weight, performance, features, and cost. From there, a PDA can become an indispensable tool for staying organised, connected, productive, and entertained. This guide steps you through the decision-making process.

Do I need wireless connectivity?
If you want your PDA simply for organisation, you may not need any special wireless connections. But it seems like everyone today wants to stay connected. Here are your options.

Wireless connections: Infrared | Bluetooth | Wireless LAN | Wireless WAN

Infrared (IR) ports are built in on most mainstream handhelds and are useful for short-range (less than 30 feet), low-bandwidth data transfers, but you will need a clear line of sight for the two devices to communicate with each other, as with TV remote controls. If your laptop has an IR port, for example, you'll be able to synchronise without a cradle or a cable -- a particularly handy feature for road warriors. And if your handheld is equipped with the proper software, you can even use infrared to control your TV and other home entertainment devices.

This short-range radio frequency (RF) technology operates on a 2.4GHz spectrum and allows PDAs to communicate with other Bluetooth-enabled gadgets such as some mobile phones; thus, you can dial numbers straight from your handheld's contact list or use your mobile phone as a modem to check e-mail. You can also transfer files, print to a Bluetooth printer, or sync with a Bluetooth-equipped computer. Unlike IR, Bluetooth's RF signals can travel through clothing and other barriers, meaning you can leave your phone in your pocket and still be connected to your PDA. If the handheld doesn't come with the technology built in, Bluetooth cards are available for the expansion slots -- just be sure it supports Secure Digital Input Output (SDIO), a mandatory feature when using a Bluetooth SD card.

Wireless LAN networking
With a Wi-Fi-enabled handheld, you can connect directly to the Internet at high speeds to check e-mail, browse the Web, and even access servers via secure virtual private network (VPN) connections. Like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi runs on a 2.4GHz spectrum, and you need to be near (typically 75 to 300 feet from) an access point in order to connect. If your PDA doesn't come with built-in Wi-Fi, you can purchase Wi-Fi networking cards (usually in the form of SDIO cards) to get connected. Additionally, Wi-Fi requires a lot of power and quickly drains most PDA batteries.

The majority of handhelds use the 802.11b standard, which is the same one found in most common public hot spots, such as cafes, businesses, and universities; it also transmits info at a speed of 11Mbps.

Wireless WAN networking
Wi-Fi works great when you're close to a hot spot but not if you wander far and wide. Instead, you should consider handhelds that use cellular data networks, although not a lot are currently available. As with traditional mobile phones, these provide broad coverage, although you should expect more dead spots in the data network than the voice network. Smart phones typically employ this method to keep the device connected. Alternatively, a Bluetooth PDA with a separate data-capable mobile phone can achieve the same end. Downsides to consider are the fact that you'll need to have a service contract with a wireless provider, and download speeds are slower than on a wireless LAN (115Kbps vs. 11Mbps).

Sony Ericsson P910i

Smart phones, such as the Sony Ericsson P910i, stay connected via wireless WAN.

Choosing the right handheld is all about finding the perfect balance of size, weight, performance, features, and cost. From there, a PDA can become an indispensable tool for staying organised, connected, productive, and entertained. This guide steps you through the decision-making process.

How can I have fun with this thing?
As long as you can stomach the geek stigma attached to playing with a handheld, there are a lot of ways to stay entertained with a PDA.

Entertainment: Games | Digital photos | Music and movies | E-books

There's a huge library of games for both Palm and Windows Mobile (a.k.a. Pocket PC) devices, from basic puzzle and word contests to first-person shooters and real-time strategy titles. Sporting a high-resolution VGA screen, a multimedia accelerator, and a gaming bundle, the
Dell Axim X51v is a hot pick for gamers. We'll plug CNET.com.au Downloads one last time here as a good source for further information on software.

The addictive Jawbreaker game.

Digital photos
More and more PDAs today have built-in digital cameras so that you can take snapshots on the fly. Typically, handhelds have 1.2- or 1.3-megapixel cameras; you won't get the same image quality as with a dedicated digital camera, but they're good if you want to take a quick shot to e-mail to family or friends.

Even without a camera, you can transfer files from your PC and convert your handheld into a portable electronic photo album. The Palm LifeDrive even lets you create slide shows with background music, and Windows Media 2003 for Pocket PC Premium Edition even comes with image-editing software for the PDA.

O2 Xda Atom

Today, more PDAs, such as the O2 Xda Atom, sport integrated cameras for on-the-go snapshots, but don't expect the same quality as digital cameras.

Music and movies
Load up a memory card with tunes, and plug in headphones -- you've turned your organiser into an MP3 player. If you have the Plus Digital Media Enhancement for your Windows XP machine, you can load your home videos onto your Pocket PC device to watch anytime. Palm OS, too, supports applications such as Kinoma Video Player to let you watch videos you've downloaded to the device. One note: Not all Palm OS handhelds have digital audio and video players, so if having multimedia capabilities is important to you, make sure to check for audio/video support before purchasing the PDA.

Both Palm and Windows Mobile support e-book readers. Reading on the screen of a PDA is naturally a different experience from doing so on a paperback, but a good story can pull you in, no matter what the format. You should also take a look at services such as AvantGo, which delivers Web sites to your handheld or your smart phone for free. Each time you sync, AvantGo will load the latest version of your favourite Web sites such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, or CNET News.com.

Choosing the right handheld is all about finding the perfect balance of size, weight, performance, features, and cost. From there, a PDA can become an indispensable tool for staying organised, connected, productive, and entertained. This guide steps you through the decision-making process.

What else do I need?
Your handheld may work just fine straight out of the box, but adding a few extras will help make it feel more like your personal digital assistant.

Extras: Software | Expansion cards | Cases | Batteries | Chargers | Headphones | Keyboards

Added applications elevate your handheld to being more than a glorified Day Runner. We've already mentioned Documents To Go as a tool for working with spreadsheets and word-processing documents, but there's also Margi's Presenter To Go so that you can give PowerPoint slide shows right from your handheld (it requires a VGA adaptor). FileMaker, among others, offers handheld database software, and road warriors will appreciate expense-, time-, and mileage-tracking software such as BillQuick Palm and BillQuick CE that tie in with their office billing and accounting software.

To keep from getting lost, try MapQuest-style applications such as Mapopolis (alternatively, you can use a Bluetooth GPS receiver add-on to navigate to your destination). And once you've reached your destination, you may still need help with the local language; electronic phrase books such as EasyTalk are ideal for the situation.

Expansion cards
You'll find a variety of different expansion slot types in PDAs: CompactFlash, SDIO, MultiMediaCard, and Memory Stick. A memory card is a great way to store more applications and files as well as to back up RAM data, which can be lost if your battery dies. Other than the price per megabyte, all the form factors are roughly equivalent.

Other expansion card options include Wi-Fi networking cards, Bluetooth cards, digital cameras, FM tuners, and bar-code scanners. Handhelds such as the HP iPaq hx2490 have two expansion slots so that you can simultaneously use a memory card and a wireless networking card. As noted earlier, if your PDA has an SD slot, see if it supports SDIO, a necessary feature when using peripheral devices rather than mere memory cards.

Handhelds endure rugged lives as they get tossed from pocket to bag to desk. Some protection is in order, but even pricey PDAs come with decidedly cheap cases. If you know you're hard on your gear, check out metal and rubber cases. For gentler folk, a soft case is all you'll need -- perhaps in leather to suit your business attire. And don't forget the most fragile component on your PDA: the screen. Inexpensive plastic overlays are available to protect it from scratches or inadvertent taps with a real pen rather than the stylus.


Road warriors will need to have an extra battery for their handheld, provided the handheld has user-replaceable cells. When you miss a connecting flight and have to call all your contacts to alert them of the schedule change, it's no time to run out of power. Likewise, heavy Wi-Fi users will appreciate the extra juice.

If you don't have an extra cell or if your PDA's batteries aren't user replaceable, then invest in a travel charger. Most manufacturers supply wall chargers with their devices, but some are too big to ever leave the house. If you spend a lot of time in your car, a car charger may be the best solution for adding juice to your PDA. Alternatively, if you have access to a PC, a third-party USB charging cable may be worth considering, though it will take a relatively longer time to recharge the batteries.

Considering the multimedia prowess built into handhelds, it's a shame that so many models come with subpar earbud headphones -- or none at all. The good news is that many handhelds today come with standard stereo jacks so that you can plug in better 'phones to really hear what your PDA can produce. Some models, such as the
Bose QuietComfort 2, are designed to passively block ambient noise so that all you hear is the music. Still others feature active noise cancellation, a technique that can subdue outside sounds.

Bose QuietComfort 2

Plug in and listen to your favourite tunes with a pair of headphones such as the Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones.

If you want to send e-mails from your PDA or take notes during class, adding a keyboard is a good option. There are several types to choose from: plug-in minikeyboards to foldable models to ultracool virtual keyboards. However, if you plan on typing out a lot of e-mails or notes from your device, a handheld with a built-in keyboard may be better suited to you.