The Webb Chronicles

Pocketable Power: Windows Mobile, Palm OS, or Blackberry?

- 2006.01.27

The average college student today is on the go more than ever. Advances in the mobile PC market have made it possible to do pretty much anything you want from a park bench or at Starbucks - and things are only going to get better.

With Apple's introduction of the MacBook Pro and its Intel Core Duo technology, we're moving ever closer to blurring the line between notebook PC and desktop. But in some instances, we need even more portability, and this is the domain of the PDA (Personal Data Assistant), where there are several choices to make.

The question is, which is the best PDA for a Mac user?

PDAs are a ubiquitous staple of the corporate world, but they weren't always so successful and affordable. Developed in the mid- to late 80s, PDAs used to do exactly what their name implies - they kept your data organized.

Today they serve as much more versatile devices capable of a plethora of multimedia functions such as playing videos and music, taking pictures, accessing the Internet, and still more. We've come a long way from the monochrome screens and limited functionality of early PDAs.

Today we have two major camps in the PDA world: Microsoft Windows Mobile and Palm OS. Over the past few years I've been able to work with both platforms and have found advantages with each - and I've found an alternative to both.

Windows Mobile

My very first PDA was a Philips Nino, which I purchased in my sophomore year of high school back in 2000. At the time, I hadn't switched to the Mac yet, so a Windows CE (as it was known back then) device was the obvious choice. Other than the size of the device, I was very happy with it.

Lately I've been working with a friend's more modern Dell Axim X51, and frankly I am not impressed. The unit has a cheap feel and is still way too bulky. However, the operating system has improved very much, and I was even able to sync my PowerBook thanks to PocketMac by IAA, which allows for synchronization between OS X and Windows Mobile.

This platform has fantastic potential with multimedia applications. In general, these devices cost much more than a Palm OS device, but they have more powerful processors and more built in memory to go with the increased bulk. This gives the user enough power to run pretty impressive games and productivity tools - and interface with a Windows network (if absolutely required).

Overall, Windows Mobile delivers enough power to make any task bearable. However, at a typical price point of $300-$600, the cost isn't too attractive to budget-minded college students.

Palm OS

When I started college, I needed a better PDA. I wasn't looking for an expensive and bulky device, so Palm was my best choice. I bought a Palm Zire 71, and was blown away by the simplicity of the Palm OS. While it lacks some of the multitasking and computer-like feel of the Philips Nino, it makes up for it with its remarkably small body and a beautiful screen.

Palm has been a big part of the handheld market since the mid 90s and is still Windows Mobile's biggest competitor. Palm devices are slimmer, sexier, and overall smaller than their Windows counterparts, but they can deliver many of the same functions.

Palm also natively synchs to Mac OS X and OS 9, a big plus. Palms can do just about anything a Windows Mobile device can, but they lack some of the processing power. However, given its size you really have to ask why you would need a 600 MHz CPU in a PDA.

Price-wise, Palms range from $99-$400, a much better value and diversity.

The Third Option

About a month ago, I decided to upgrade my Motorola V635 Cell phone with a smart phone. I was looking for something that would combine my Palm Zire 72 and cell phone in one without sacrificing too much from each.

My first choice was the Palm Treo 650, but I couldn't find one below $299 and didn't like the fact that the new Treo 700w was Windows-based, so I looked elsewhere.

Nokia offers smart phones with the Symbian OS, but they lacked some of the PDA features I was looking for.

Finally, I discovered RIM's Blackberry, and I was hooked. I purchased a Blackberry 7100t from T-Mobile, and this device has made my life much easier. Thanks to IIA's PocketMac for Blackberry, I can synchronize with Entourage, iCal, and Address Book with ease.

The Blackberry lacks a digital camera, hi-fi ringtones, MP3 player, and multimedia functions in general, but it's excusable since it's primarily a business phone.

RIM's email pushing technology works remarkably well, sending my emails to the 7100t as the server receives them and allowing me to respond no matter where I am. I keep exam dates, appointments, and server maintenance reminders in the calendar, and it never miss a date.

I sacrificed some of the abilities of the Palm, but no features I really used, so all in all I'm very happy with this platform.

People are always asking me what PDA is right for them, but the real question is what they need to do with it. If you have power hungry applications or need maximum Windows compatibility, then Windows Mobile if for you. If you're looking for a sleek and small personal database manager with great multimedia capabilities, then Palm is for you. If you want a true organizer with email and Internet capabilities right off the bat, then take a look at Blackberry.

The important thing is that they all work with the Mac, so whatever platform you choose, you can't go wrong. LEM

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