First look at budget PDAs

Dell, preparing a pair of budget handhelds for debut at Comdex this month, is joining the growing ranks of both Palm and Pocket PC vendors reaching out to those of us with more modest budgets for our personal digital assistants.

Four newcomers are attractively priced and are available now, or wlll be soon, for a close look. They include Dell's first entry into the personal organizer market, its Pocket PC-based Axim X5; ViewSonic Corp.'s Pocket PC V35, also its first PDA; and Royal's Linea16, which runs a proprietary operating system.

Also, Palm Inc. released in October its Zire, a no-frills PDA that launches a new line for the vendor.

Pocket PC Bargains

The devices running Pocket PC 2002 are especially outstanding deals.

ViewSonic's US$299 V35 makes no significant compromises to achieve its breakthrough price point. It's lightweight (4.2 ounces), petite (4.8 by 3.0 by 0.4 inches), and powered by a zippy new 300-MHz Intel XScale CPU. My preproduction unit featured a handsome 64K-color transflective LCD (as you'd expect from a company best known for its displays), as well as 32MB of ROM, 64MB of SDRAM, and a slot for Secure Digital media.

Dell offers two sturdy-looking models of the Axim X5, priced at $349 or $249, depending on configuration, with a $50 rebate currently available for either. This PDA either matches the V35's configuration, including screen, or exceeds it--with, for example, a 400-MHz XScale CPU, and both SD and CompactFlash slots.

In its first PDAs, Dell offers a design innovation that will appeal to users who need the longest possible battery life: A spent rechargeable and removable battery may be replaced with a spare (not included), which has its own dedicated slot in the syncing-recharging cradle that comes with the higher-priced version. This convenience does require a trade-off in the device's size and weight, however: The Axim X5 checks in at 5.0 by 3.2 by 0.7 inches and 6.5 ounces.

I looked at a preproduction version of Dell's cheaper model, which substitutes a sync cable for the recharging cradle, a 300-MHz XScale for the 400-MHz CPU, and 32MB of RAM instead of 64MB.

PDAs Drop Under $100

Based on the older, capable Palm 4.1 OS, Palm's Zire is a monochrome unit with a chic white plastic case that has two application launch buttons (for addresses and datebook) instead of the customary four. It has no cradle--you get a USB cable to hot sync data (to either Palm's desktop organizer or Outlook), but you do get a rechargeable internal battery.

The unit's 2MB of memory (with no expansion slot) is sufficient for a reasonable number of contact entries and some apps, but skimpy by current PDA standards. And I was bothered by my shipping unit's lack of a backlight. While the units are available, I'd rather spend $99 on the older Palm M105 (which has the backlight and 8MB of memory, but uses Palm OS 3.5 and AAA batteries and requires a serial port for syncing).

The main selling point of Royal's Linea16 is a built-in 56-Kbps modem for sending and receiving e-mail from a dial-up POP3 account (but not AOL, MSN, or Web-based mail).

Slightly bulkier than the other units, the Linea16 also runs its own OS, so you miss out on thousands of Palm or Pocket PC apps. However, this PDA does boast a hefty 16MB of memory (enough for lots of e-mail since it won't download messages larger than 16K). It also has 2MB of flash RAM in reserve to keep your contacts if the rechargeable battery runs down. The Linea16 syncs with Royal's own desktop software, as well as Outlook, Goldmine, ACT, and Lotus Organizer.

You enter data either by a software keyboard or by natural characters in a pop-up handwriting input area, and its backlit monochrome screen is slightly larger than a Palm's. However, I found setting up e-mail with a preproduction unit tricky, and in my tests, the modem was prone to disconnects.

Assessing the Deals

Clearly, would-be handheld users are gaining more choices--in operating systems, configurations, and price tags.

For entry-level PDAs at price points previously unheard of, both the Zire and Linea16 are attractive. But I can't recommend either wholeheartedly--the Zire because of its lack of backlight and skimpy memory, and the Linea16 because of its proprietary OS and lack of support for the most likely e-mail services for its target audience.

But the ViewSonic V35 and either version of the Dell Axim V5 are exceptionally worthy models for any prospective Pocket PC owner, not just bargain-hunters.

This story, "First look at budget PDAs" was originally published by PCWorld.

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