BOSTON — Picking a portable computer is like sampling a smorgasbord. So many entrees, so many flavors, it's hard to choose. Just when you've seen everything, some company brings out a new device. At times like these, the only sensible thing is to check out what other users are doing.
Take John, who sat next to me at a party a few months ago. When he found out I wrote about computers, he started talking excitedly about his PalmPilot. I hadn't heard such enthusiasm for a new computer device in years.
At the recent Winter Consumer Electronics Show, a salesman was demonstrating a new hand-held device. Several visitors came by, intrigued not with the device but the accompanying fold-up keyboard, he said, which they wanted to attach to their PalmPilots. At the same show, Microsoft unveiled its new hand-held computer specification - the Palm PC - which looks suspiciously similar to the PalmPilot from 3Com (formerly USRobotics).
When people rave about something and competitors start to emulate it, it's a breakthrough product. Three weeks with the PalmPilot convinced me it can be extremely useful to many mobile workers. Its shirt-pocket size, long battery life, and simple layout make it a winner.
What's best about the PalmPilot, however, is what it doesn't do. It doesn't try to be a miniaturized desktop computer, where you can enter lots of data. It's a device to view data, such as your calendar, address book, and To Do list.
"The beauty of this product is its simplicity," says Ed Colligan, vice president of marketing for the device. "We don't want a spreadsheet [on a mobile computer]. The vast majority of the marketplace wants a simple, easy, seamlessly connected device that organizes their life."
The idea here is to enter the data on your main computer then transfer it to the PalmPilot. The transfer process is straightforward. Plug the device into its cradle (which is hooked to the computer), then punch the "Synchronize" button. Special PalmPilot software you install on your desktop computer updates the files both ways so each machine reflects the latest changes.
Also, you can usually continue using your own scheduling software, since many companies sell packages that let you transfer data to the PalmPilot.
You can enter data directly on the PalmPilot with a stylus or the on-screen keyboard. The unit even has its own alphabet system that turns handwriting into computer text. The easy-to-use system was highly accurate and had me writing within minutes.
Two caveats. Data-entry is fairly slow, so you aren't likely to write a novel or even a long e-mail on it. Second, if you're only occasionally mobile, a paper-based organizer may be faster and more flexible.
But if you already keep must-carry information on the computer, the PalmPilot is a great way to go. It works with either Macintosh or IBM-compatible computers and sells for about $230. A professional version includes expense tracking, e-mail, and a backlit screen (highly recommended) for about $330. With an optional modem, you can link the unit directly to a telephone line.
Prices will likely decline as manufacturers bring out new machines based on Microsoft's competing Palm PC standard. 3Com has the lead in the marketplace, and Microsoft's previous versions of hand-held computers haven't been big hits there.
Still, at least seven companies plan to make machines based on the Palm PC platform, heating up the competition and adding lots of spice to the smorgasbord of portable computing.
* Send comments to email@example.com or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at www.csmonitor.com