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Connecting | Hand-Helds

Psion Fine if Business Is on Your Agenda

November 23, 2000|MARK A. KELLNER |

A few years back, an engineer friend had feelings about his Psion hand-held that could be best likened to Charlton Heston's passion for a hunting rifle: You could only pry the Psion from his cold, dead fingers.

Such is the passion users have for the products of Britain's Psion. Since 1984, the firm's personal digital assistants have developed a cult following. The size of a checkbook, these items open to reveal a screen and miniature QWERTY keyboard.

The displays aren't meant for drafting programs, and the keyboards aren't designed for touch typing. But the devices offer more flexibility than some hand-helds because, in a pinch, they can be used to produce a quick e-mail. And Psion's devices have long had rather good programs for tracking appointments and contacts. The date book is called, in British style, Agenda, but at least it's formatted in American style. The contact list can include home and work information, down to multiple cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

These features now appear in the $399 Psion Revo Plus, sporting 16 megabytes of RAM. The same device is also sold by Sonicblue of San Jose as the Diamond Mako. Sonicblue used to be known as S3, and under that name inked a deal to resell Psion products in the U.S.

That doesn't knock Psion, which has had an American operation for several years, out of the box. Rather, it places the devices more easily in retail stores, thanks to Sonicblue's marketing muscle under the Diamond brand. It also lends some support to Psion's crusade to give its EPOC operating system, a 32-bit OS for hand-helds, a bit more traction on this side of the Atlantic.

But should you spend $399 on the Revo Plus as opposed to, say, a Palm IIIc, which offers a color display for the same price? Or should you spend $50 more and get a Hewlett-Packard Jornada 540, which runs the Pocket PC operating system and delivers a color screen and 16 MB of RAM?

It might well depend on your personal tastes as much as on your pocketbook. Using the Revo Plus, I got a sense of something very businesslike and no-nonsense. Yes, you can download games for this PDA. But this is first and foremost a machine designed to work with and for those in business and academia. You won't be able to play music or look at color photos. You can use the built-in speaker to generate dial tones for a touch-tone call, though.

The main applications--Agenda, contact list, e-mail and calculator--are straightforward enough and operate simply. In my testing, it took the contact program a while to load and search a 1,700-name list. Searching took about three seconds per name. I liked the built-in world clock program, which can be easily set to compare time at home with time overseas. The calculator is powerful without being overwhelming, and includes the electronic equivalent of a paper tape that can be scrolled up to review calculations.

Some glitches did develop. For reasons I can't figure out, about 50 names from my address book didn't make it from my PC to the Revo Plus. I couldn't fix the problem in several tries. Loading the phone-dialer software locked up the system and required a restart, a task not for the timid because it involves bending a paper clip to match two holes on the back of the device. Such hassles have not accompanied my synchronization between a desktop and either the Jornada or a Palm device.

The word processing and spreadsheet programs of the Revo Plus, designed to transfer files to and from Microsoft's Word and Excel, respectively, are largely compatible with the latest Microsoft file formats. Some special Word formatting do not move over easily. On the plus side, you can receive business cards beamed from a Palm device's address book via infrared link.

Perhaps the greatest improvement Psion has made over the years is in the desktop-to-hand-held software for the Revo/Mako device. PsiWin is as good as anything on the Palm platform, creating a seamless connection between PC and device.

If a fold-out device, a somewhat-usable keyboard and a businesslike approach fit your needs for a PDA, then this device might be worth investigating. But for the same money--plus $99 for an optional keyboard--users can buy a color Palm IIIc or HP Jornada and have access to more applications, features and overall ease of use.


Mark A. Kellner is editor-at-large for Government Computer News.


The Skinny

Psion Revo Plus/Diamond Mako

What it is: Portable organizer

Price: $399

Manufacturer: Psion/Sonicblue

The good: Efficient and comfortable design

The bad: Expensive for what you get

Bottom line: Spend your money on an HP Jornada or a Palm

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