Handheld Computers versus Electronic Organizers
Simplicity & Flexibility
Just about anyone who has worked in the business world for the last ten to fifteen years has used or seen an electronic organizer. The battery-powered equivalent of the date-planner booklet, an electronic organizer gives the traveling professional the ability to store, edit and search for a name, address, phone number or other information. Built-in calculators, currency converters, world clocks and other features made these devices quite useful. However, none of the electronic organizers on the market at that time were truly expandable.
Furthermore, while some organizers could communicate with a host computer through a serial port, they could not easily share their data with other host-system applications. These distinctions created the market niche for the handheld computer.
Features of Handheld Computers
To make a modern handheld computer's expandability worthwhile, some products must exist with which to expand it. Even systems as old as the PalmPilot Professional and HP Jornada had expansion slots, and optional devices such as modems and text-paging receivers were available for them.
Memory Cards & Communications
Software expandability is only one-half of the picture when comparing an HHC to an electronic organizer. Carrying forward from their root products, both PalmOS and PocketPC products have very flexible hardware upgrade possibilities.
Handhelds & Memory Cards
Developed at about the same time as digital cameras, handheld computing products take advantage of the same non-volatile memory modules as cameras. One simple technique which saves a lot of time in creating a document is to snap a digital-camera picture, swap the memory card into a handheld, edit a text document and integrate the picture right into the document. The saved document, picture in tow, may then be synchronized with a host computer and worked on with a word-processing or desktop-publishing program. No need to carry a notebook computer around to work with pictures and text.
Using Memory Cards
The one key difference between the two handheld platforms is in the file types which can be stored in a memory card.
The Active Sync application used on Windows CE and PocketPC based devices will automatically convert many file formats during the transfer process. Conversion of Microsoft Office documents between the desktop and the pocket formats also changes the file extension in the same step. File transferred directly to and from a memory card are translated by the application as they are opened.
Infrared and Bluetooth are the most common mechanisms for wireless communications amongst handheld computing products. In a clever dual-use twist, some Mobile Media Companions use their infrared ports to simulate an entertainment system's remote control. Thus, the same device which changes the channels and chooses the audio tracks can carry some of the audio, still-picture and video content for on-the-road.
Wireless LAN and GPRS round out the available options for handheld wireless communications. Either built-in or plug-in, a wireless LAN adapter allows an HHC user to access the same e-mail servers as they would with a notebook computer, and view Internet sites (within limitations of display size) anywhere within 90 meters / 300 feet of a wireless-network access point or router.
USB connections are typically used to synchronize an HHC with a host computer, while Ethernet connections are most often used to allow an HHC to access resources in an office network.
Sharing & Synchronization
Enter information in one place, work with it in many places
One limiting factor of electronic organizers was that they could only share their data with a "species-specific" application on a host computer. With so many relying on Personal Information Management ("PIM") software, the ability to work in the office and in the field with up-to-date information is very important. Both PalmOS and PocketPC HHC's are designed to share information easily with their office- or home-computer hosts, and synchronize the information in both, making it unnecessary to enter the same information twice.
Connecting Your Handheld Via USB
With the appropriate software installed in the host computer, synchronizing can be started from either the host or the handheld. NOTE: Most PalmOS handhelds can "relate" with one host computer only, while PocketPC handhelds can "relate" to two hosts, so long as the same handheld user ID is used.
A digital-camera can often upload pictures from their camera faster by swapping the memory card into a card reader. When moving large files between a host computer and a handheld, a card reader works in the same way. One example of how this works is when performing an operating-system or firmware upgrade: the upgrade file is written directly to a memory card, the card is swapped into the handheld, and the upgrade installer is executed.
PalmOS User Interface
The Palm Computing HHC's are generally considered to have "originated the species" of the Personal Digital Assistant ("PDA"). From the earliest PalmPilot models to the current Ziré and lower-cost Tungsten models, the lower 30% of the touch screen is dedicated to the handwriting area, along with four fixed tap-to-launch icons. Palm models running PalmOS Garnet or Cobalt have a convertible screen, selectable between the traditional handwriting area and a new "full-screen writing" user interface.
Palm OS Garnet Screen
Palm OS Cobalt Screen
The second version of the Graffiti handwriting interface allows the user to enter characters such as I, k, t and x with two stylus strokes, more akin to the way one writes these letters with a pen and paper.
Even without adding applications, HHC's will sport a larger gamut of pre-loaded applications than electronic organizers.
Adding Handheld Applications
For the programmers, Microsoft uses the 2002 version of Embedded Visual Tools (Visual Basic and Visual C++) available in the downloads section. Search for Embedded Visual Basic, Embedded Visual C++ or Embedded Visual Tools to locate the download links. With these visual compilers, programmers can create applications that are compatible with their Windows CE and Pocket PC devices.
Pocket Multimedia - Audio and Video Unleashed
From the early days of broadcast radio, portable entertainment has been a part of everyday life. Later, portable cassette and CD players allowed users to carry higher-quality audio with them on their travels. And now, fully digital audio and video content can rest in your hand with the latest Pocket Multimedia devices.
The Mobile Media Companion
For digital media portability, without carrying an HHC for their business tasks, the Mobile Media Companion integrates both into one device.
Several applications are available for converting video and other media files for playback on HHC devices. The quality of the playback will be limited by the available storage space, processor speed and player compatibility, but full length DVD movies can be downloaded or converted to fit in as little space as a 256MB flash memory card.
One of the output options of the Windows Media Encoder (another free download from the Microsoft site) is to convert and encode MPEG, WMA or WMV file formats to PPC (Pocket PC) compatible resolution and frame rates.
The Portable Media Center
If you don't need a full-featured HHC, but still desire digital media portability, the Portable Media Center fills the bill. Especially when allied with a Windows XP Media Center system, this device offers an easy and effective way of carrying a digital entertainment wherever they may go.
This class of device is limited to the Sony PlayStation Portable.
An MP3 Player "Multitasks"
While not directly considered an HHC, high-end MP3 players such as the Apple iPod can perform some extra handheld functions.
Wireless capabilities often include TEXT or INSTANT MESSAGING (IM). In turn this has spawned a whole new shorthand language that bears resemblance to some custom license plates.
HHC Phones and Smart Phones
These devices serve the same basic purpose: combining communications and information management in a single handheld unit. Both provide voice and data communications over cellular telephone networks. The distinction lies in which function is preeminent. In the HHC phone, computing is the main task, and the size and form factor of the device is the same as a standard HHC. In the Smart Phone, communications takes precedence, and the device is sized and shaped like a standard cellular telephone.
The Smart Phone
To a cellular-phone user, the Smart Phone offers the same features and functions of their familiar phones, with a small-screen version of an HHC operating system built in. Usually, two or four "soft keys" are positioned below or above the display, and visual cues let the user know what functions they perform. As you move from function to function, the key labels change to show what the keys do at that menu level.
Smart Phone Distinctions
No "learning curve" for cell-phone users
No touch screen, stylus or alphanumeric keyboard
Text must be entered through numeric keypad
The Handheld Computer (HHC)
For access to a lot of information on-the-road, and does not want to carry around and HHC and a phone, the HHC Phone meets the need. It is important to be sure that an HHC Phone is compatible with a cellular-service network. Therefore, some cellular companies sell "service-specific" versions of HHC Phones, and other companies accept "generic" HHC Phones.
HHC Phone Distinctions
Stylus & larger touch screen make text entry easier than on Smart Phones
May be less comfortable in a user's hand when talking for long periods
The Ultra-Mobile PC
Ultra Mobile PCs are a fairly new addition to personal computing, but differ from handhelds in that they run full versions of the Operating System. They are technically a small format Tablet PC. The UMPC operating system is built on the foundation of Windows XP, with a Touch Pack suite of software for easy selection of program tasks. A stylus is used for data entry and program commands, similar to a Tablet PC.
Between HHC Phones, GPS handhelds, and wireless-LAN handhelds, the selections available are quite varied. When shopping for a handheld device ask yourself what are the two most common tasks it will be used for, find a HHC device which does them both "built-in", then add-on the accessories to fill in the lesser capabilities.