A PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) can be very useful and traditionally has served to remind us of things which need to be done and appointments we’ve got to keep; store people’s contact information; and record short memos to self before we forget that brillant idea we have while driving.

Today’s PDA does more than these functions and has become a… PDC (Personal Digital Companion).

Many of them are able to play movies and MP3 music to keep you entertained and relaxed. You can play games (cards, chess, video games emulator, etc.) while you wait to board the plane.

Many now even have a digital camera built-in that allows you to take pictures or short movie clips.

It is possible to surf the internet wirelessly, to do your banking, to buy and sell shares on the stock market.

Some can act as a GPS (Global Positioning System) so you don’t ever have to feel lost in a new city.

Sending and receiving email has become an essential feature for some of the higher-end PDAs. Making phone calls with a PDA is also becoming quite common. The line between a PDA and a computer and telephone has become blurred now that they share functionalities.

Note that not all PDAs have all of the above functions we’ve listed.

There are basically 5 operating systems (OS) in use: Palm OS, Pocket PC OS (Windows mobile), BlackBerry OS, Symbian OS and PocketLinux OS. The most popular are Palm, Pocket PC and Blackberry.

Blackberry OS

The Blackberry operating system is used exclusively by Blackberry devices and is undoubtedly one of the most successful story of the PDAs.

Its main feature is its ability to receive email wirelessly and instantly, and has therefore quickly become the de-facto standard for wireless business communication.

It can be integrated with almost any email account (POP, IMAP, etc.). Like a pager, a vibrator alert is activated when an email arrives. Basic PIM programs like calendar and tasks are included.

The Blackberry also operates as a mobile phone. So, typically you sign up for Blackberry service with a wireless provider, and they throw in the Blackberry PDA for free.

Surfing on the internet is also possible with the latest models. It is often used to send short messages (SMS) to mobile phones. It is however not able to run multimedia applications.

Its unique thumb-operated trackwheel with its QWERTY keyboard make it easy and surprisingly fast to use. Some people have developed thumb pain (“Blackberry Thumb”) due to excessive use of the device.

The device, although all the time on, consumes relatively very little power.

The system requires that all connections be encrypted and every application has to be cryptographically signed by the company before it can operate, thus making it relatively very secure against viruses and hackers. Furthermore, the data on a lost or stolen device can be remotely erased.

Blackberry devices are now so ubiquitous that any closure threat from predatory companies suing for potential patents infringement cause a panic among business and Governmental sectors. Many companies absolutely depend on the Blackberry devices to run their business and keep in touch with their employees.

Though Rim-In-Motion (the parent company that manufactures the Blackberry) has pledged a workaround technology, other high tech companies have smelled a potential crack in the armor and are feverishly working on an alternative to the Blackberry. Whether they will be able to dethrone the king of wireless email communication remains to be seen.

Palm OS

For many, Palm is synonymous with PDA. Its system was designed exclusively for this purpose, and it has worked hard to popularize its handheld devices.

It includes calendar, address book, tasks, notes, calculator, time, etc. Todate it has over 20,000 third party applications.

Palm Garnet (5.x) is the latest operating system. Under development is Palm Cobalt (6.x) which will run on top of a Linux kernel. PDAs using the Palm OS are Palm, IBM, Handspring and Sony.

The advantages of the Palm PDA is that it has a simple and easy-to-use interface, it doesn’t require too much memory or processing power, and Graffiti, its very practical handwriting recognition program, allows you to easily input information using a stylus.

Palm can be used with both PC and Mac. Synchronisation takes place when it is placed on the cradle. The backup is much faster compared to that of the Pocket PC.

The low end models with monochrome screen are quite inexpensive and put the basic PDA functionalities in the “palm” of everyone’s hand. The higher-end models include wireless phone and email functionalities.

Pocket PC (PPC) OS

The Pocket PC is a Windows OS designed for very small computers or PDAs.

If you run many of the Windows applications, then the Pocket PC may be the right PDA for you. It has the same feel and look as the Windows OS on a PC computer. Besides offering the traditional PIM (Personal Information Manager) functionalities like Palm, it also runs popular microsoft applications like Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Internet explorer, MSN messenger and Outlook.

The Pocket PC also has a handwriting recognition program similar to that of the Palm. It plays multimedia files (mp3, jpeg, mpeg 1, AVI and DivX). It has a memory card slot.

The latest models have infrared ports, WiFi and bluetooth capabilities, and can function as a GPS. In some models, the cellular phone is incorporated. It is possible to sync with a Mac computer using third party application.

PDAs using the Pocket PC OS are Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Toshiba and Casio. Presently Windows Mobile 5.0 is the latest OS of Pocket PC.

Symbian OS

This is the operating system for smartphones — phones which are like PDAs and have multiple functions. It often has an integrated camera, multimedia players, internet browser, email, instant messaging, PIM, games and office applications. It has infrared and bluetooth connectivity. Among the companies which use it are Nokia, Samsung, Sony, Siemens, Ericsson, Motorola and Panasonic.

PocketLinux OS

There are yet relatively very few PDAs using the Linux operating system. The most well known is the Sharp Zaurus. It is available mostly in Japan. PocketLinux intends to the the third alternative to Palm and Pocket PC.

Editor’s Recommendations

If you need only the basic functions of a PDA to remind you of appointments and events, and to remember people contact information, we would suggest you look at the monochrome palmOne Zire 21 and similar models. They are small and relatively inexpensive.

If email communication is very important to you, then you should go for a Blackberry. Remember however that you have to subscribe to a plan with a wireless provider. Consider the cost before you jump in. The RIM Blackberry 7100 series would be a good choice.

If you mostly make and receive a lot of phone calls we would suggest you select a smartphone. You would then not need to carry another device to keep track of your appointments.

If you like computer a lot (Windows OS) and enjoy everything in it, then check out the Pocket PC PDA.

The price might be a determing factor in your choice. One important consideration to pay attention to is how long your PDA can run before requiring a recharge, especially if you use it to listen to music or to surf on the internet.

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