The Folding Society

Portable Paraphernalia
Small Portable Computers - Handheld and Palmtop


Coming in due course: Handspring Visor Deluxe, Hewlett Packard Jornada 430se, Compaq iPaQ.



Science fiction writers have included 'miracle' hand held data storage devices in their books for many years. At one time they sounded like possible inventions in a very distant future, but a lot of what was being written about is here now. Indeed, you don't have to look back very far to see that we have gone well beyond what was being anticipated by people writing relatively recently. Fans of "The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy" can now carry around just about everything that the electronic book of that name purported to contain, plus the Douglas Adams books themselves (if copyright permitted this!) in something much smaller than the device featured in the TV series.

Despite their small size and supposedly limited capacity and features, for many jobs these small hand held devices are much better than a conventional desk top computer - for example, you can look up names and addresses and diary entries much quicker on a palm top computer than on most desk tops, not least because you don't have to wait several minutes for it to 'boot up' when you turn it on.

I've been an enthusiast for all sorts of gadgets for as long as I can remember - apart from the real practical use of folders, I guess they also fall into the 'gadget' category for me. When the first Hewlett Packard handheld programmable calculator, the HP35, was launched, I managed to get one at work, and a few years later, when the first battery powered Epson portable computer (forget the model, but it had a built-in strip printer and segmented memory) came out, I got one of these at work as well. When I moved jobs a few months later, I bought myself an NEC P8201, made by Kyocera, and similar to (but better than) the similarly source and better known Tandy TRS80 Model 100. Later I was to buy a Science of Cambridge Z88, then various Psion organiser II's, Atari Portoflio, MicroWriter Agenda, Rex and Psion Series 3's. Moving on to more current models, I've also got a Psion Series 5 (on extended loan to John Pinkerton at present), a Series 5mx, Palm III, HP Jornada 430se, a Handspring Visor deluxe, Palm IIIc and, unfortunately, a Compaq iPAQ H3630.

Pictures of some older portables

But it isn't just a gadget fad that has prompted me to get any of these machines - they all have got used extensively, and from the advent of the true pocket sized models, they have gone almost everywhere with me. All my address book entries were permanently transferred there, along with the diary, over ten years ago, and I stopped keeping paper records of these items. Various machines have travelled overseas with me over the years, and have been used on business trips for producing reports, generating databases and spreadsheets, and producing presentation material. Games don't appeal to me, but these machines have also kept me entertained, as I've usually got at least one book stored in memory. And these machines offer a lighter, more compact solution to carrying all the required information with me than would any other medium (except perhaps a photographic memory, and I certainly don't have that!). Some of these devices have in the past been referred to as PDA (Personal Digital Assistants), but many of them now contain the power and facilities to be properly regarded as small, portable computers - certainly all the machines I'll be covering here fall into that category.

So I'm definitely an enthusiast not just for folders, but also portable computers (amongst other things!). In meeting other folder enthusiasts, it's evident that at least some of them have an interest in this subject too (though some express a total aversion to computers), so I thought we might add a section on this subject to the web pages. As those with a total aversion to computers presumably won't look at the web pages anyway, I hope not to offend anyone with this digression.

Why use one?

Apart from the obvious attractions which they hold for gadget freaks, there are very real practical advantages in having and using these devices compared with their traditional equivalents. Their biggest benefit is probably as an address book, with easy searching, reindexing etc, where they are far better than any paper equivalent. They can also be kept synchronised with any address book in a desktop computer. In the early days, small screens and software limitations meant that diaries on computers were greatly inferior to paper ones, but nowadays they are highly usable, though a paper diary still makes it easier to flip over the pages looking to see whet is coming up over the next few weeks, and to find space of holidays etc. Brief notes and action lists can be handled quite adequately by these devices, though I must admit that for these (though not a diary) I still often use paper. But it's not just individual applications that matter, it's the sum of the whole.  In one small computer you can hold all of the following - or just the ones that interest you:

Games -  chess, puzzles, simulators, RPG or animated to choice 

And there is lots more - you can even get parts and software to allow you to use some models as cycle computers.

The convenience of being able to carry all of this in one small package is considerable, especially for those who use a bicycle, walk and use public transport, rather than travelling by car. The cheapest models are under 100 now, so for what they offer, they are not particularly expensive. If you have a PC, then you can back up everything on it, so if it does get lost or stolen, you can recover all the data. And most models provide some form of security (if you choose to activate it) so that the data cannot be readily accessed if the device is lost or stolen.

What's available?

We can broadly group portable computers under the headings

Naturally, it's not always easy to draw a clear line between these categories, and there are some grey areas. Laptops and notebooks generally have an A4 sized footprint, run a full version of Windows (just like a desktop) or of course the Mac equivalent, have rechargeable batteries with a life of 4 hours or (substantially!) less and have a hard disc. They are fairly bulky and heavy, and the limited battery life and fragility (due to the hard disc etc) mean they are not ideal portable companions for cyclists. We aren't going to discuss them here.

Hand helds are generally smaller, though there are a few models with large screens and  full sized keyboards. Some of these run an operating system called Windows CE Professional - this is not at all the same as desk top Windows, and desk top programs won't run on these machines. They have better battery life than notebooks, and and better keyboards and screens than the smaller machines, but their attraction is limited to certain types of users (authors and journalists perhaps), but for cyclists and many others they offer the worst of both worlds. The main hand helds, those of interest to us, are the smaller type with keyboards in the conventional QWERTY layout, but much smaller than on a desktop or notebook, and a correspondingly smaller screen. They fit extremely easily into a briefcase, and would fit into a jacket pocket, although creating a substantial bulge and adding some weight (usually under 1Kg). With good battery life and a full (if small) keyboard, and a reasonable range of software, they are of interest to cyclist, though perhaps on the upper limit of what we want to carry, and in danger of being left at home unless you are sure you are going to need one. However, quite lengthy reports can be produced on them, and the screen is large enough to work on medium sized spread sheets, and data can be copied between them and a desk top computer when required. The principal suppliers of these types of machine are Psion (Series 3, Series 5 and Revo models) and Hewlett Packard.

Palm top computers are typically 2/3 to half the size of the hand helds, and are small and light enough to carry with you all the time without making their presence felt in an unwelcome way. They don't have normal keyboards, but use some form of stylus (pen) input, which may include tapping a miniature representation of a keyboard on the screen. Although the screen is small, and input is awkward, they can hold all of the information mentioned above, and data can be transferred between them and a PC when required. There are two main types of palm top at present , those from Palm, and compatibles such as the Handspring Visor and TRG, and those using a version of the Windows CE (WinCE) operating system, from Compaq, Hewlett Packard and Casio.

In the following sections we'll describe the features of the different machines briefly, and make some comparisons. This is a complex subject, and we can't hope to cover the subject in detail - nor would our readers expect or want us to go into a lot of detail - you can find this elsewhere. We must also reiterate that, as in the case of choosing a folding or separable cycle, the 'best' machine depends on how you intend to use it, and what is ideal for one person may not be the right choice for another.

Pictures of some more current palmtops and handhelds


Psion was pioneer in this field, with its Organiser, Organiser II, Series 3 models, Series 5, Revo and the Series 7. The latter is a larger, colour machine, and due to its bulk we are not including it here (apart from the screen and keyboard, it is actually little different functionally from the Series 5). Only the Series 5mx and Revo are now available. The original Revo was a styled, cut down version of the Series 5mx, with distinctly limited memory and lacking expansion capability - so it looked good, but was rather limited. The new Revo plus has a more amount of memory, but still lacks the expansion capability. The 5mx is slightly larger than the Revo, but still easily put in a jacket pocket, and has a memory expansion socket (standard CF - Compact Flash - cards) plus connector to printers, PCs etc. The way the machine folds is very ingenious (Psion have always been good at this), if perhaps slightly more fragile than a less sophisticated form of 'clamshell', and results in a particularly good keyboard for a machine of this size, though far too small to touch type on. Perhaps because of the folding mechanism, the machine feels slightly less robust than the earlier Series 3, and despite the fact that the dimensions are almost the same as the Series 3, it feels significantly larger, though still easily pocketable. Although Psions are fully protected by the clamshell design, I would not carry one without some protective case - many are available, and a slim leather version with space for an expansion card or two and some credit cards (not a good idea to keep them in a case with a device containing speaker etc, though!) is quite adequate, and does not add much to the size.

Psion's built in application software is in most respects excellent - very fully featured, comprehensive and extremely easy to use. A possible problem for some users is that the spreadsheet is not three dimensional - there is only a single 'page', so if like me you have one spreadsheet file containing separate record pages for each of your bicycles (and an overall summary sheet derived from them), you have a problem - the Psion can import the Excel sheet from a PC, converting all the pages into one large sheet, but you can't then load back into the PC without losing the original structure. Transfer of data to and from a PC is slightly clunky, but generally works reasonably well, and data can be automatically transferred to applications such as Word and Excel. Diary and address book synchronisation with Outlook requires a specific synchronisation program to be run, and has a few quirks, and email synchronisation is a separate operation, which again is not as well coordinated as it might be. With a suitable modem, emails can be sent direct from the Psion, and there are two web browsers available (with some limitations though). There is a good range of commercial software and shareware to extend the Psion's capabilities, reasonably priced or in some cases free. The PC link is Psions weakest point, and is inferior to the WinCE equivalent and the particularly good Palm synchronisation system.

The Psion operating system and application software is all extremely easy to use, and the design makes nearly all operations intuitive. In addition, the operating system allows many applications to be active at once, and switching form one to another is very easy, does not cause delays, and uses internal memory efficiently. 

Screen legibility of Psion 5s is really rather poor indoors unless well lit, even with the backlight on. Visibility of the screen out of doors is much better, though hot sunshine will darken the display and call for adjustment of the contrast. While it can be argued that colour is not really necessary in a palmtop/PDA, backlit colour displays are much clearer indoors, and colour can certainly be used in even simple applications to improve legibility and information transfer. A handheld colour Psion is long overdue (the Series 7 is too big to be considered a contender), and despite the many good points of the Series 5, Psion are in serious danger of falling out of this market unless they can come up with an improved (colour, communications and 3-D spreadsheet) handheld, and a palmtop as well.

Psion use the EPOC operating system, which they originally developed, but has now been separated out into a company called Symbian, which is jointly owned by, amongst others, Psion, Nokia and Ericsson. EPOC development is concentrated on all forms of portable device, not just palmtops, handhelds etc, but also mobile phones. Few other products using it have yet appeared on the market, an Ericsson-badged version of the Series 5 being the main one. However, the mobile phone partners are actively investigating it for future products, and a few prototypes have been shown.


The Palm computers dominate the market, and have done for some years. The original models have been enhanced, primarily with more memory, but the basic concept and design has stood the test of time very well. They are compact machines which really do fit in the palm of the hand, and will fit in the proverbial shirt pocket (just!). They don't have a conventional built-in keyboard, and the screen is fairly small - though quite usable. If you need to do a lot of data input, the lack of a keyboard and larger screen will become a real problem, though normally you do most of your input on a PC (or Mac) and simply transfer the data to the Palm, or just copy existing data from the desktop to the Palm. To this end, Palm provide superb synchronisation of desktop diary, address book, action list and simple memos - just pop the Palm in a cradle linked to the desktop, and press one button on the cradle. You can synchronise with palms own desktop organiser package, or with Microsoft Outlook. But that's not all. The Palm system allows developers to automatically synchronise their products with other applications on the desktop, such as Excel, so that one simple synchronisation on the cradle updates everything, and also backs up the files. It's just as easy as it sounds, and it works beautifully.

Although the screen on the Palms is quite small, it is adequate for its intended use, and third party software even manages to implement some very respectable spreadsheets on it! For input, there is a stylus and an area below the screen on which you can either tap on 'keys' displayed on a screen which shows a very small representation of a keyboard, or you can use a from of input known as 'Grafitti'. This requires entry of input as individual letters/numbers etc (not joined up writing), and the letters must be entered in a particular style - it's a bit like writing in block capitals, so it is slow, and not conducive to creative writing, and the 'letters' are actually formed slightly differently from normal letters, though it is extremely easy to learn. There is one connector at the base of all Palms for connecting to the PC via a cradle or cable, and a few additional devices are on the market to connect via this connector, notably a modem and a folding, but full size when unfolded, keyboard! There is even a device available which allows the Palm to be mounted on the handlebars of a bike and used as a cycle computer - the BikeBrain.

The user interface is simple and intuitive, with four buttons to select the common applications, and a screen display of all the applications - just tap the program name you want to run. An additional rocker switch (or two buttons on some models) provides control over the screen and applications, for example scrolling down and up a document. The four main applications are Address book, Diary, Memo/notes and To DO list - though calculator, email management (synchronised with the mail program on the PC) are also provided. The applications are all exceptionally easy to use and completely intuitive in operation, but they are also very powerful.

Good though the hardware and built in applications of the Palm are, there is a HUGE amount of add-on software available for it as well. Indeed, the problem is choosing what to get and load. And due to the volume sold, it is nearly all very reasonably priced as well - most is available free for testing prior to purchase. There are enhanced versions of the four standard applications (though I've found the built in standards entirely adequate for my needs), scientific and RPN calculators, several very good spread sheets, databases, enhanced email and web browsing programs capable of being used with a modem direct to a service provider, without going through a local PC, etc. Book viewing programs are also available, and apart from thousands of older, out of copyright books which are available free, recent or even brand new books are being published in  computer compatible format (generally you have to pay for these though). AvanGo is a system which allows you to gather specially formatted news pages each day via the PC, and load them on your Palm - I log in each morning before going to work, and collect a version of the FT or Guardian and read it on the train (AvantGo and book readers are also available for the WinCE machines, but Psion users are less well served in this respect).

The original Palm company was bought by US Robotics, a modem manufacturer, which in turn was bought by 3Com. However, 3Com have now separated Palm again, and  it is independent. In the meantime, the founders of Palm have left and started another company, Handspring, which produces a fully compatible product called the handspring Visor - all amicable, and using the Palm operating system under licence. Another company, TRG, who manufacture add-ons for Palms, have their own version of the Palm, with the ability to use standard Compact Flash (CF) expansion cards; again it is an amicable arrangement, using the Palm Operating System under licence. Sony have also recently joined the Palm fold, with a machine which is generally similar, but using Sony's own memory sticks for expansion. All the Palm compatibles have slight differences from the originals, typically with slight enhancements to the applications and methods of expanding memory etc. 

Most models come in a simple black or graphite coloured case, though Handspring offer coloured case versions, and the new Palm m100 model can have the case changed to other colours (the front panel is changed, so you could change it to suit your mood!). The display was black and white on all models originally, but first the IIIc and then the new m505 model launched in March 2001 are colour, and Handspring now have a colour model as well, the Prism. Monochrome displays are reflective, with a switchable backlight, and visibility out of doors is good, and tolerable indoors (better than Psion). The colour models have a permanent back light. The colour models and the most diminutive (and expensive!) mono models (V and Vx and m500) have non-replaceable rechargeable batteries, but other models, including TRG and Handspring (apart from the colour Prism), use a pair of AAA batteries, with claimed life of around 2 months, or well over a week even with heavy usage.

The Handspring models are extendible via plug in modules, and after an initial slow start a very good and useful range of these is now becoming available, for additional memory, modems, games, MP3 music players, and even a mobile phone option. 

The Palm VII (now VIIx) offers wireless communication for a form of limited web and email access - at present only available in the USA, though it is expected to be expanded into Europe etc at some point. Palm have also announced an intention to extend connectivity and wireless operation in the future. At least some of this is likely to apply to the other suppliers of Palm compatible machines.

The latest Palm m500 and m505 models, launched in March 2001, provide can be extended via a new type of memory card, and they also have USB connectors for linking to PCs, which should give greater synchronisation speed. Some additional software is also being bundled with them.  

Windows CE

These are machines which use an operating system developed by Microsoft, and given the name Windows CE. This means the user interface is vaguely Windows like, but certainly not the same as the Windows on a desktop PC, and there are sufficient differences that it doesn't make the machines particularly easy to use.  In fact the design of the software and user interface is generally considered not at all suited to the small screens, limited memory etc of palmtop and other handheld computers. Windows CE has been through several versions, generally getting significantly better each time, but even the latest version, used in the new generation of 'Pocket computers' is considered inferior (at least from the user point of view) to that of the Palm and Psion machines. Windows CE machines now tend to include applications with names such as Pocket Word, Pocket Excel etc, but these main similarity between these and their similarly named counterparts on desktop computers is limited to the name. They lack many of the features of their desktop equivalents, and transfer of data from one to the other involves converting the files, done automatically during file transfer between a palm computer and desktop. If a desktop spreadsheet or Word document makes use of more complex features, these will be lost during transfer to the palm computer, and will then be lost if the file is transferred back to the desktop - ie no better (though no worse) in terms of compatibility than the Palm and Psion devices.

Windows CE is used on some hand held computers which have conventional, if very small (too small to touch type), keyboards, mainly from Hewlett Packard. There are also a few much larger machines, the size of conventional notebook computers, which use a version of this operating system (CE Professional). These larger machines have good battery life compared with conventional notebooks, but will not run normal desktop Windows applications - the commonality of the 'Windows' name is simply a marketing exercise - Windows CE in all its forms is entirely different from desk top Windows.

The big plus points of the Windows CE pocket computers are that the current generation are that they have higher resolution screens than the Palms (320 by 240 instead of 160 by 160), mostl current models have colour screens, most accept standard Compact Flash memory cards, and they have built-in facilities for replaying in stereo MP3 music files. There is also some capability for limited playing of video files. Most Win CE machines boast much faster processor speeds and far more memory than the Palm and Psion equivalents. However, this is very misleading, as the Windows CE operating system makes them much more memory and processor hungry, and a 32M WinCE machine with a 120MHz processor is equivalent in most respects to no more than an 8M Palm with 16MHz processor, or a 16M Psion Series 5. The main advantages of processor speed and memory expansion via CF cards are the ability to handle music files.

The colour screens of all the WinCE machines I have looked at are very clear and legible indoors (being backlit), but outside the legibility can be a problem in bright sunshine.

The range of third party applications software is tiny compared with that for the Palm machines, and substantially less than that for the Psion Series 5. One exceptional application which at present seems unique to the WinCE machines is the application Pocket Artist. This can read and edit JPEG files - a micro equivalent of Photoshop, but highly capable. If you use a digital camera with CF cards, in theory you can plug the card into your pocket PC, crop, change resolution and do other editing on the pictures, and then view them or send them to web pages. In practice this can present problems though, as there may be insufficient internal memory for the program to be able to handle JPEGs which were originated at higher resolutions. 

Add-on hardware is limited, with the CF card slot allowing additional memory to be fitted. CF-slot compatible modems are also reported to be available, though I've never seen one here in the UK. The Compaq iPAQ uses an extension cradle (adding significantly to the size when fitted) which is available at present in forms to take either CF cards or PC (PCMCIA) cards, as used in notebook computers. Generally PC cards are available in the form of memory, modems, network cards and SCSI cards, though an absence of software to sue them means that the network cards and SCSI cards are of no practical value in a pocket PC.

At the present time, the main suppliers of Win CE pocket computers are Compaq, Hewlett Packard and Casio. The lack of success of earlier Win CE palmtops has meant that a number of companies, including Philips, have dropped out of the market. Of these, the Compaq iPAQ seems to be rated the best, is prettiest, and on paper sounds good, although its size advantages are eliminated if the sleeve required for mounting a CF card is fitted. Unfortunately my own experience of the iPAQ has been very unhappy - for details of the story, click here. Prices of WinCE pocket computers are generally well over 300, so they are more expensive than at least some of the Palm and Psion machines.

Win CE pocket computers are much better than the earlier Win CE machines, and they do genuinely provide some serious competition for the Palm family of computers now, especially with their higher resolution screens and audio capability. However, they are bigger than the Palms (not much, but enough to be significant in terms of ease of holding and carrying in a pocket), more expensive, have less add-on software and hardware, are significantly more expensive, and the user interface is still not as intuitive and convenient as that of the Palms.

Replaceable batteries or fixed rechargeable?

Most colour machines use a built-in, non-replaceable rechargeable battery, while most non-colour machines use replaceable AA or AAA alkaline batteries. Within their life, rechargeables are cheaper in running costs, but combined with the current consumption of the colour screen, you need to recharge quite regularly if you use the machine much. Personally I would hesitate to rely on internal rechargeables for more than a couple of days without recharging, especially if I am reading books or playing music on the machine. Carrying the charging equipment is a nuisance, adds substantially to the size and weight, and relies on access to a mains socket. Some models allow changing the rechargeable battery, but extra batteries and chargers for them (unless you charge in the computer itself) are expensive. Although its not as environmentally friendly, and can be quite expensive financially as well, I think conventional replaceable batteries are a better bet for these machines, especially the palmtops. I generally get 2-4 weeks out of a pair of AAA batteries in a Palm, even with quite heavy use, and lighter use should see 1-2 months life. Psion Series 5's can be quite heavy on batteries if used extensively - I find performance with the rather more expensive Lion batteries is much more acceptable.. Unfortunately, most of these machines designed for alkaline batteries are not very happy if rechargeable equivalents are fitted. Since the rechargeables produce a lower voltage, they will require replacing sooner than alkaline batteries, and you will probably get premature warning of low batteries. Nicads also tend to 'die' suddenly, with the very serious risk of data loss.

Comparing specification

You need to be careful when studying specifications of machines, as direct comparisons are not always possible. Comparing models within families (eg comparing different Windows CE machines) is not too much of a problem, but trying to compare machines from different families can be quite misleading. For example:

Processor speed: A Palm family machine is generally equivalent in operational speed to a Psion machine with nearly double the processor speed, and equivalent to a Windows CE machine with a processor speed 6 times greater (ie Palm, Handspring etc with a notional clock speed of about 20MHz run at a similar operational speed to Psion Series 5 and Revo machines with a clock speed of about 36MHZ, and Windows CE machines with a clock speed of c 150MHz.

Memory: Due to the way the operating system works, program size etc, a Palm machine with 8M bytes of memory has around the capacity of a Psion with 16M (or rather more), and the capacity of a Windows CE machine with around 32M memory.

Even physical size and weight can be a bit misleading - the Palm III family with flip-top lids can be carried in a pocket with reasonable confidence without any additional case (though I would avoid carrying anything like loose change, keys etc in the same pocket). The same is true of the Handspring Visors with a cover which clips over the screen. However, the theoretically smaller Palm V models have no protective cover for the screen, and so need to be carried in a wallet for protection. Even slim wallets bring the size and weight of the Palm V back close to that of a Palm III, but at a much higher price. Windows CE machines generally feel in need of a protective wallet, and as they are generally larger than Palm models, this increases the differential. Psions have 'clamshell' cases - these offer protection when closed, but something about the current models makes me uncomfortable about carrying them without a protective cover or wallet - the older Series 3 and the original Organiser felt much less vulnerable without a case.

Portable computers and mobile phones

The logical solution here is for the palmtop and phone to be combined in a single unit. Nokia produced a rather bulky unit of this kind a few years ago. Psion and its partners (including Ericsson and Nokia) in the Symbian venture (Symbian develops operating systems for small computers, based on Psion's EPOC, used in the Series 5) have a major interest in this area, but although prototypes have been shown, nothing is on the market yet. There is an add-on in the USA for the Handspring which produces the Handspring phone - the add-on provides phone circuitry which can be accessed via the Handspring controls. palm has the wireless VII model in the USA - not a phone, but with a form of internet and email capability. The alternatives are a modem link to a conventional telephone line (card modems, or small portable modems, are available for all the palmtop and handheld machines mentioned), or, providing you have a suitable mobile phone, an infra red link from computer to mobile. Not all mobile phones have such a facility, and not all mobiles are compatible with all computers, so be very careful before buying such equipment that it really is compatible. Using such a mobile link, speed will be much slower than via a conventional modem and land line.

I'm sure that the combined unit (or something like the Handspring Visor phone) is the best solution - the keyboards, menus and display screens of mobile phones are totally inadequate for event their existing applications, and a Palm style unit for dialling, viewing messages etc, is the right answer, especially as it can be combined with all the other features of a palmtop. However, it may still be some while before such products are widely available at sensible prices.

Reliability and ruggedness

If you are going to rely on a palmtop or handheld computer to store your diary, addresses, and lots of other essential data, it's important that you can rely on it. Of course, if you have a desktop computer as well, all these machines can be (and should be regularly) backed up, so failure or loss is actually less critical than with a paper equivalent. All the machines offer reasonable battery life, and provide indications of battery status. The AA and AAA batteries used in those with replaceable batteries are readily available in most urban areas, and it is not much trouble (and a sensible precaution) to carry a spare set. When batteries reach a low level, most machines will fail to turn on, but will still keep internal memory and data alive for at least several days. During battery changing, a reserve battery or capacitor keeps the memory going, though this may only be for 30 seconds or so, so don't stop to make a cup of coffee in the middle of the battery changing operation. Some machines (notably Psion) use a replaceable secondary battery; while this can allow more time for battery changes and keeping the memory alive when the main batteries are low, if the secondary battery and main battery are low at the same time, there is a risk of data loss during a battery change - usually it is recommended that the secondary battery should be changed first in this situation, and if you have an external power unit, plug this in while making the change. In those machines with rechargeable, fixed, batteries, once the battery runs low the machine will stop operating, but memory will be kept alive for a while. Of course you can't do anything with the machine until you have access to a charger and mains supply (see earlier section).

Reliability depends not only on the hardware, but also the software - do programs 'crash', and if/when they do, is data lost? I've found all the machines except the Compaq iPAQ that I've used to be very reliable from a hardware point of view - I've only twice returned machines, and in neither case did the problem stop the machine working, or result in any loss of data. Obviously, though, I can't guarantee that you will have such good experience. The iPAQ has not only failed twice, but the ROM was apparently changed during repair, so that the backup could not be restored!

Software reliability is more varied. The basic operating system of the computer is the most important element. Psion machines I have owned have always been superb in this respect - any crash is a major surprise, and on all the Psions I have owned I think I can only recall two crashes of this kind, and they may have been related to particular add-on software I was using at the time. The old Atari Portfolio was definitely unreliable in this respect - perhaps one reason for its demise. The MicroWriter Agenda was another very reliable machine. Palm/handspring machines are pretty good in this respect, and a any crashes are likely to be months apart, and probably related to add-on software. Windows CE machines, however, do not inspire such confidence - they may not be nearly as bad as desk top Windows, but I would expect to have to reset around once a week when the machine is in regular use. Nearly all these machines have at least two types of recovery from a crash - a soft reset and a hard reset. the former clears faults but normally has no effect on data, but the second completely wipes the machine. I've never lost any data as a result of any type of crash on any of these machines. Only once have I ever had to perform a hard reset - on a Palm III immediately after replacing the internal operating system and activating one particular program - all data was recovered from the backup which formed part of the operating system backup process.

Ruggedness is difficult to assess, as one does not want to carry out testing which could result in damage. Suffice it to say, therefore, that although several of my machines have suffered the occasional knock, or a fall of up to half a metre onto a carpeted floor, none of them (so far!) has received any damage. I would expect them all to survive normal vibration etc on a bicycle - something I am much less confident of with a conventional notebook computer with hard disc drives etc. Some machines certainly give an impression of being less likely to be susceptible to knocks, vibration etc than others, though this is only an impression, and might be misleading. The basic Palm, Handspring, etc machines give this impression, for example, while the more sophisticated machines, WinCE and Psion, engender a feeling of being more fragile - but perhaps this also relates to one's awareness of what they cost!

Cases of one kind or another are available for all these machines, but they can significantly increase the size, and to a lesser extent the weight. The flip-top Palm III series do not really need any case at all, but all the other machines would benefit from some protection, at least to prevent scratching the screen. The most rugged designs of case would withstand anything you are likely to subject the machine to, but make the machine less portable, and of course slow down access to it as well.


As with folding bikes, choice is very much a case of horses for courses - you decide what features you want, and how important they are, and then find the machine that best meets your needs.

If you are a power user, and you need to carry Photoshop, full versions of Word, Excel, Access etc with you, then none of these machines will be of use to you. You will have to settle for a notebook computer running normal Windows (or a Mac equivalent) and live with the much larger size and weight, very limited battery life and less robust construction. Some of the Sony Vaio and Toshiba Portege notebooks are particularly compact and light, though at the expense of the floppy disc and CD drives being external. 

If you need to do a fair amount of data input on the machine - writing longer reports etc - then you would find stylus input slow and distracting, and a keyboard based machine has advantages. The Psion Series 5 machines are strong contenders in this field, although they do not have colour screens, and seem due now for an update. The colour Series 7 models are substantially bigger, and though they have superior battery life to conventional notebooks, they really only seem attractive for certain very specific types of user. The handheld Hewlett Packard machines (model numbers change frequently - Jornada 720 at present) have colour and run a version of the Windows CE operating system. The larger models (Jornada 820) which were near notebook size, and had the disadvantages of the Psion Series 7, now seem to have disappeared. The smaller versions compete more directly with the Psion Series 5. Colour is their big advantage over the Psions, but in most other respects (size, weight, price, availability of add-on software) the Psion still looks to have the edge. There is now another option in this field, in that there are add-on keyboards available for the Palm/Handspring/TRG palmtops. One of these folds into a package about the size of a Palm, and quality is very good. Furthermore, these are full size, or near full size, keyboards, so that it is possible to touch type on them - which is absolutely impossible with the Psion Series 5 and Hewlett Packard equivalents. The screen is still very small of course, and the software is a bit limited, but they are seriously worth considering if you normally would find a palmtop adequate, but sometimes on longer outings would like to be able to type up letters and reports. These folding keyboards are now becoming available for the HP and Compaq Windows CE Pocket PCs.

For total portability the palmtop models are all small and light enough to be able to keep with you all the time. They are far superior to paper based address books, and the software for note taking, action lists and diaries is good enough nowadays to say that they almost match paper systems in these respects. In addition, though, you can carry with you spreadsheets, other data files, books, games and lots of other data in a package smaller than many pocket diaries; you can transfer all the data between them and their desktop equivalents, and if you do lose the computer, then providing it is backed up, you can recover the data from a desktop computer, unlike a Filofax, the loss of which can be catastrophic. Password facilities also mean that the data can be made more secure than in a paper diary. Psion do not at present have a contender in this market (one may appear in due course), so the first choice in this sector is between the Palm/Handspring/TRG family and the Compaq/HP/Casio Win CE families. If the ability to play sound is important to you, or your application requires a higher resolution colour screen, you may choose to opt for one of the Win CE machines. Otherwise, the Palm/Handspring/TRG machines still look more attractive, especially (from a cycling point of view) as they are smaller and lighter, and give the impression of being more robust - and they are cheaper. Handspring Visor deluxe models are particularly good value, and have some expansion capability via the modules, though the new Palm m100 looks at least superficially to be as good value (but lacking a few features, and aimed more at a younger, student market).

This is a rapidly changing market, and choice depends on what you want to use the machine for, but for the record, my choice today is the Handspring Visor deluxe, in plain graphite colour, with an external Targus Stowaway folding keyboard - and the choice isn't influenced by the fact that the keyboard shares a name with a Moulton bike!

To summarise:


If you are interested in portable computer equipment and other electronic gadgetry, then you should visit the excellent web pages of The Gadgeteer. This is an excellent source of independent, intelligent comment, and contains a lot more details on the subject, especially on the Palm and WinCE machines.

There are lots of other resources on the web relating to palmtop and handheld computers, so we are limiting ourselves below to the principal manufacturers:


Hewlett Packard (Windows CE palmtops and handhelds - look for the relevant product page. Most are 'Jornada' models)




Finally, an invaluable source of informed comment on the Psion range is the magazine Palmtop, and its sister magazine on the Palm family, Palm User. Visit their web site at for further details.

If you have any comments, suggestions or additional input relating to this page, please contact us.

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Last updated: 28 March 2001