If you think notebook computers have yet to catch on, spend some time at the airport. Once, it was fun to see if anyone else carried a laptop, but now it’s hard to avoid being jostled by someone’s overstuffed Targus bag. Laptops have enabled people to free themselves from the desktop, work on the road, and stay connected via email and the Web from nearly any location. (For an extreme example, see Gideon Greenspan’s chronicle of preparing for his travels throughout Asia with his PowerBook strapped to his back.)
However, even a compact laptop weighs heavy on the shoulders when you’ve been carrying it all day at a trade show, or even when switching planes in a large airport where your gate is always as far as away as possible. An increasing number of people in search of a lighter alternative have asked me if it’s possible to leave the laptop at home and just carry a Palm organizer. While I was writing my latest book, "Palm Organizers Visual QuickStart Guide" (Peachpit Press, ISBN 0201700638), I had the opportunity to try several programs and technologies that make a handheld much more than just an electronic calendar. (However, I don’t recommend testing all these items simultaneously: there were a few times when the combined weight of the various Palm devices and accessories was heavier than my PowerBook.)
The verdict? Yes, it’s possible to replace your PowerBook with a Palm device, but depending on your needs, you may have to make too many sacrifices to do it well.
Getting Your Input — If you’re serious about leaving the laptop at home, definitely consider a keyboard for your handheld. After using various Palm organizers over the years, I’m proficient at Graffiti, the Palm OS shorthand for writing characters. But there’s a limit to how much I can write before my hand cramps up, not to mention the drastic decline in accuracy when I try to write quickly. As an alternative, I can recommend two keyboards available for Palm devices.
The GoType keyboard from LandWare was the first model designed specifically for the Palm. The clamshell GoType (and the newer GoType Pro) is light and relatively inexpensive ($70), and slips easily into a carry-on bag. It features Palm OS-specific keys, such as programmable function keys that launch the Palm’s built-in applications, plus Command-key shortcuts for activating onscreen buttons and responding to dialog boxes. The only downside is the small size of its keys if you’re accustomed to a full-size keyboard. The GoType works with Palm III and Palm VII devices; the GoType Pro is available for the Palm V and Handspring Visor, and also features the capability to synchronize the handheld with a computer directly from the keyboard.
The newcomer to the field is the Palm Portable Keyboard, which is the only Palm accessory I carry that consistently elicits "oohs" and "ahhs" from people. It also includes Palm-specific features like programmable function keys and shortcut keys, but the kicker is that it’s a full-size keyboard that folds up to roughly the size of the Palm organizer itself. Palm licensed the design from a company called Think Outside and sells the $100 keyboard for its line of organizers; Targus will offer a version for the Visor sometime in June.
Keeping in Touch — Unless I’m on a bona fide vacation, I need access to my email and the Web. It’s easier to stay connected now than with earlier Palm models, but your mileage will definitely vary.
On the hardware front, you’ll need a modem. Palm makes a series of clip-on modems for Palm devices, and Handspring offers a modem that plugs into the Visor’s Springboard slot. Depending on your location, you can also look into wireless offerings such as the Palm VII or the OmniSky modem. With Palm’s and Handspring’s modems, you use a normal phone line to connect to your ISP; the wireless devices require that you sign up with the respective wireless access plans, which can range between $30 and $45 per month.
Both simple and sophisticated email software is available for Palm devices. Using a program like Top Gun Postman, you can dial into your ISP and grab your email messages, which appear in the built-in Mail application. However, Mail is a bare-bones mail client with minimal filtering that truncates messages larger than 32K. Also, there’s no built-in support for synchronizing mail with your Macintosh; however, you can purchase MultiMail’s HotSync conduit, which synchronizes In and Out box messages with Eudora, Outlook Express, or Emailer.
Programs such as MultiMail Pro or One Touch Mail offer more robust filtering and even limited support for some email attachments. One unexpected advantage the Palm has over a PowerBook is the capability to receive email from an America Online account using PocketFlash, currently something a Mac can do only with AOL’s software, Emailer, or the mail component of Netscape Communicator 6 (currently available only as a preview version).
A (Small) Window to Your Data — The Palm organizer’s small screen works surprisingly well for checking a calendar and other bits of miscellaneous information, but for some applications it can be limiting. Word processing is no problem, and you can even do spreadsheet work using software like Cutting Edge Software’s Quicksheet 5.0 (though you’ll find yourself scrolling frequently).
So, you may not need a 14-inch active matrix color display for everything you do, but larger displays are easier on the eyes over long periods. You may also find looking at the small screen uncomfortable when typing. Laptops work well because you can sit up straight and have plenty of screen to view, but with a handheld it’s easy to catch yourself leaning ever closer to the screen or craning your neck, positions that are ergonomic nightmares and can be harmful over longer periods of time.
(In)compatibility — Perhaps the biggest limitation in terms of using a Palm device as a PowerBook replacement is that you can’t use common applications or file formats. There are some notable exceptions, however.
DataViz’s Documents to Go lets you read – but not edit – Microsoft Word and Excel files (plus a number of other formats, including AppleWorks) on a handheld. This is helpful for storing reference materials, or reading reports on a long plane ride. Quicksheet, however, includes a plug-in for Excel (currently in beta for the Mac) that lets you work with spreadsheets on both platforms.
If you’re looking to do word processing on the Palm, you can use the built-in Memo Pad application, but Memo Pad records are limited to 4,096 characters. You’re better off using a program like SmartDoc or QED, which are limited only by the amount of free memory on the organizer.
You can also use data from FileMaker databases on the Palm by enlisting some additional software to synchronize with Palm databases. Rick Holzgrafe’s HanDBase Desktop for Macintosh synchronizes with DDH Software’s HanDBase Palm application; the FMSync conduit from FMSync Software works similarly with Richard Carlton’s flat-file Palm database JFile.
If you’re a graphic designer, well, forget it. Although there are drawing and painting programs for the Palm OS (such as TealPoint Software’s TealPaint), they’re much more akin to MacPaint than to any graphics program on the market today. A minor exception, though, is the recent appearance of digital cameras available for Palm devices, which let you take photos using the Palm and transfer them to your computer. I don’t have hands-on experience with them, but if you need low- to medium-resolution color or grayscale images in a small package, check out the eyemodule for Visor or Kodak’s PalmPix cameras.
Portable Power — A last consideration is energy: for most Palm devices, you’ll do fine by tossing a package of AAA batteries in your bag – they’re significantly lighter than an extra PowerBook battery. However, rechargeable models such as the Palm IIIc and Palm V require the HotSync cradle and a power brick to top off their battery levels. Carrying these adds weight and awkwardness (a HotSync cradle’s rounded triangular shape refuses to pack well), so instead consider purchasing Palm’s travel chargers if you’re going to be away from the cradle for longer than a week or two. Other power alternatives include LandWare’s BattPac, a snap-on Palm V attachment that uses AAA batteries to feed juice to the handheld, and Tech Center Labs’ emergency chargers.
Handy Mobility — My solution for staying portable so far has been to carry both my PowerBook and my Palm organizer. Each has its strengths, and in some cases like word processing, I swap between them (especially when I’m flying, since most seats have barely enough room for me to sit comfortably, much less operate my PowerBook). However, it is possible to leave the PowerBook behind and do all your computing in your Palm, provided you’re willing to work within some limitations.