Comdex-goers size up budget PDAs

A deluge of handhelds are taking a bow at Comdex, promising feature-rich portable devices at lower costs for both consumers and business users.

Hardware makers including Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and a less traditional vendor, wrist-watch maker Fossil Inc., announced or released new personal digital assistants that aim to bring a little variety to the already flooded PDA market. Some run Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket PC software, while others run a version of the Palm Inc. operating system. Joining the parade in marketing handhelds are a host of partners hawking products such as software, leather cases, and add-on devices.

New Entry: Dell's Axim

While prices are dropping and features are improving, the onslaught of new PDAs is a bit overwhelming, noted Dana Frischer, a Comdex attendee who operates a small business selling liquidated computer equipment online.

"The PDA market is running along the same lines as personal computers. You've got two basic operating systems and the only difference you have beyond that is basic form factors and features," said Frischer, an avid user of HP's iPaq. "It's becoming a commodity market."

Dell Monday officially introduced its Axim X5 Pocket PC at Comdex. With its PDA priced at US$199, Dell is entering the market with one of the lowest cost handhelds yet running Microsoft's operating system. The Axim X5 features an Intel XScale 300-MHz processor, 48MB of memory, and 32MB of Flash ROM. It is also available with a 400-MHz processor for US$299, and all versions of the Axim feature expansion slots for CompactFlash and Secure Digital cards.

The X5 is but the first in a series of planned Axims, Dell executives say. Early in 2003, the company plans to launch a thin and lightweight Axim, the X3, and a wireless-enabled version, the X7.

Next Generations

Longtime Pocket PC vendor HP also made a play for the low-cost market with a US$299 version of its handheld. The iPaq H1910 is smaller than its predecessors and features only basic applications such as calendaring and a phone book.

HP also beefed up the high end of its iPaq line with a device for US$699 that includes built-in 802.11b wireless networking technology. The iPaq H5450 has the same body as previous releases, making it compatible with existing sleds, which can be used to add such components as a digital camera or global positioning device.

Contributing to the buzz around the Pocket PC OS, Samsung has announced at Comdex its plans for both a Pocket PC 2002 and a Windows Powered Smartphone. However, Samsung is showing its recently announced SPH-i330, a Palm OS 3.5-based PDA phone.

PalmSource, a division of handheld maker Palm, is backing a less conventional approach to selling PDAs. It announced here Monday a new licensee, Fossil, which plans to release a line of watches that let users store addresses and phone numbers, manage their calendar, and run other applications designed for the Palm OS. Due in mid-2003, the watches will feature a touch screen, a stylus pen integrated into the band, 2MB of memory, and an infrared port.

Palm itself showcased its two previously announced PDAs, the upscale US$499 Tungsten T and the US$99 Zire.

Sharp, meanwhile, showed the next-generation version of its Linux-based SL-5500. Announced last week, the SL-5600 sports a longer-lived battery, 64MB of flash memory (which preserves data even if the PDA runs out of power) and 32MB of SDRAM, Compact Flash and SD slots, and a microphone and speaker. The SL-5600 uses Intel's hot new XScale processor for handhelds. Pricing was not announced.

Accessories Abound

In other PDA-related news, Handspring officials said the long-awaited flash upgrade to make the Treo 180 and 270 work on GPRS networks should be available as a free download within weeks. GPRS is the faster data overlay to today's GSM networks, used by Cingular, T-Mobile, and other carriers.

Handspring is also answering customers who wish they had Graffiti, the Palm handwriting input system, on the newer Treos with thumb keyboards. The company announced a free app, RecoEcho Plus, which lets you use the entire touchscreen as though it were a Graffiti input window.

And on the software side, Iambic announced a Windows companion to its US$24.95 Agendus app for Palms, which upgrades the basic Palm datebook by adding new views, color schemes, and other features. The desktop version provides for full integration between Outlook and the PDA version. It comes in several editions--a standard version (US$29.95 for registered users of the Palm version, US$39.95 otherwise) and a Professional version that supports corporate Exchange servers (US$49.95 for registered Palm users, US$59.95 otherwise).

Customers Waver

The PDA announcements here reflect the attitude some consumers and business users have toward mobile computing devices, say various attendees. For consumers, the lower price tags are appealing to first-time buyers. And new concepts such as the Fossil watch computers could appeal to consumer gadget enthusiasts.

Some business users are gravitating to the new Pocket PC devices.

"The iPaq just works out better in an IT setting than the Palm," said Dan Pendergrass, Internet applications manager for the County of El Paso, Texas. Ten out of 30 county employees use iPaq handhelds, which are linked to the local government computer system, he said.

Michael Haas, a LAN technician for the Lenape Regional High School District in New Jersey, said his organization has also picked Pocket PCs. Teachers and administrators in his school district carry iPaqs for access to information such student schedules and district data.

"The Pocket PCs pretty much just won out," said Haas, while disclosing that he has an original Palm organizer for personal use. Application support was one main driver for choosing the iPaq for work, he said. "The application we need is only available for the iPaq. Either it is easier to develop on or there are just more developers because its Windows."

Still, some attendees here said they will remain on the sidelines of the handheld computer craze despite lower prices and more features.

"I've never had a PDA myself," said Rick Jenkins, who operates a small business refurbishing used PCs in Anaheim, California. "I'm still a pen-and-paper person."

-With additional reporting by Matt Berger

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