Buying Guide to PDAs

You need to get your life together. “In” papers in the “Out” pile, “Out” papers in the circular file, and your sanity is lost somewhere underneath another pile. It sounds like you need to take some help from the digital revolution: it’s time to buy a PDA.

In a hectic age where “Rolodex” sounds more like a watch than an organizer, the PDA has become king of the businessman’s pocket. But handhelds have become much more than simple organizers. Nowadays, they can also keep you online, store your memories, and keep you entertained.

But which PDA is the right one for you. With handhelds available at almost every price point these days, finding a cheap one is relatively easy, but finding one that will serve your needs can be a different beast all together. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you begin the hunt for a new assistant.

Do I really need a PDA? This might sound like a silly question, especially if you’re reading this buyer’s guide, but many are the executives who go out and buy the latest $400 handheld only to find that they still do things the old fashioned way. Figuring out how badly you want or need a PDA at the start can help keep you from making a costly mistake that takes up valuable real estate in your pocket.

What do I really need? The baseline PDA, at its roots, is nothing but a slick-looking organizer. At least, it used to be. Now, organizers, calculators, clocks, alarms, and even basic word processing software is standard fare on most handhelds. PDAs can usually keep several hundred contacts handy, besides keeping your calendar up-to-date.

But your needs, especially if you’re a traveler, a student, or a heavy user, may go beyond the standard software. Many PDAs offer mobile versions of Microsoft Office that you can use to modify documents on the go, and handfuls of other software titles are following suit. Some of these packages might add extra cost or take up valuable space on your PDA, so knowing what you need in your handheld will help keep it as sleek and useful as possible.

Do I need wireless connectivity? One of the biggest, baddest things to hit handhelds in the past few years has been the integration of Wi-Fi connectivity into the common man’s PDA. No longer is it a terribly expensive thing to include, and assuming you’re sitting at a Wi-Fi hotspot you can access the web, email, and even instant messaging (on some handhelds) in seconds.

As cool as the Wi-Fi feature is, and as much as its price is coming down, it does still come at a cost, and on some models, specifically the Palm handhelds, that integration will cost you around $100. If staying connected is a must, that price will likely seem negligible. If it’s not, it may seem a little steep. That’s your decision to make.

What other features do I want? Anymore, PDAs are not just organizers, but game consoles, music and movie players, phones and digital cameras all in one. The tough part of knowing this is trying to decide what you really want and what you should leave out.

Even in the earlier days of PDAs, some sort of gaming was available on handheld systems. Even if it was the venerable Tetris, companies realized that these little organizers need some stress relief built in to them. Nowadays, tons of software packages can be purchased for PDAs, even big name titles, in some cases. While some may use cards inserted directly into the handheld, many also use PC synching which transfers the software to your computer and then to your handheld, so make sure you have a computer handy when you’re first venturing into PDA gaming.

One of the hottest features for handhelds (and phones) right now is multimedia capacity. While prices are coming down on PDAs that can play music and movies, they often require extra memory be purchased for installation into the handheld. Music and video are huge files, after all, and memory is usually short on PDAs. Handhelds with multimedia capacity can also be a little pricier than their less hip counterparts, but many will argue that the ability to take their music with them is all the convincing they need.

Cameras are also making a big splash on the PDA and cell scene right now, although such phones are decidedly of poorer quality than a stand alone camera. These may be worth passing on, especially as many inexpensive phones now have them as standard features. But if you’re an absolute shutterbug and are willing to take on the extra cost, PDA cameras are out there waiting for you to start snapping.

**Side note: Many of the features available on PDAs and phones are available together on what the industry has named “Smart Phones.” Smart Phones combine cell phones and PDAs into one unit, making it decidedly less cumbersome to stay on top of things during the day. While few Smart Phones come cheap, the combination of phone and handheld could conceivably save you money when compared with buying each unit separately.

How much does it cost? As always, price is a big consideration, especially when dealing with tech toys. Solid PDAs can run anywhere from $100 on up, so it’s not impossible to get a good organizer on a budget. The great thing about most PDAs nowadays is that they are usually quite expandable, so those who can only spend a little today can add memory, hardware, and software beef up their handhelds when it fits their budget.

Whether you’re a world-weary road warrior or a bright-eyed college student, having a PDA at your side can help keep your world in order, not to mention add a little fun to your day. Whether it’s the latest feature-filled handheld or a budget-minded fixer-upper, most all of today’s PDAs are worlds ahead of their Rolodex grandparents. Having an assistant has never been this much fun.

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