Bill Gates’ proudest achievement with Windows XP is that his parents can use it. Mr and Mrs Gates could not be reached to confirm this claim, but it is certainly a useful marker of a technology’s maturity. My holiday in Chicago this year was marked by a similar milestone. I took a small handheld computer with me, a Palm Pilot m505, and a free piece of software, Vindigo. Using this, I navigated the neat streets of the enormous city. Within four clicks I could tell Vindigo my current street. One click later, it would tell the location of anything I wanted, and the way to get there. Bookshop? “Walk two blocks forward, turn left, and walk four blocks ahead”. That’s a quote from the software’s instructions. Coffee shop? A simple yet powerful map was the alternative for those who prefer to see their route. What time was Moulin Rouge playing? A complete listing of cinema locations and showing times was available.
It did not take my mother long to seize upon the utility of this. She’s looking forward to using the London version of Vindigo.
What is a PDA anyway?
Personal Digital Assistants (PDA’s) are computers small enough to hold in your hand. Initially they were designed as diaries on steroids. They could keep track of all appointments, contacts and other information you needed at your fingertips. Of course, as with all things IT, the hardware got better, and the software’s uses expanded.
As a junior doctor, I use my PDA in every aspect of my day, not just to arrange my social life. On the morning ward round, I keep track of the jobs to do and arrange them by ward, patient, and most usefully, priority. My diary contains all the appointments and teaching sessions I must attend that day. The contact book includes the phone numbers of all the wards and departments in the hospital. The way I got hold of these numbers is a further illustration of the machine’s power – a colleague beamed them to me.
Beaming is the process of transferring information from one PDA to another via the machines’ infra-red beams. Thus, when I bumped into an old friend on my first day in the hospital, I was delighted when he offered to give me the list of contacts he’d painstakingly entered. In one minute I had over fifty such records. When I leave, I shall beam the updated list, now almost doubled, to my successor.
Additional software can be downloaded to customise the machine to your needs. I thus have clerking software to keep track of my patients, medical textbooks for my reference, other books for my entertainment, and the latest news and journals.
Buying a PDA
With all this in mind, I have always advised my friends and colleagues that PDA’s are highly useful. Recently, there has been a considerable drop in prices meaning that the machines are also highly affordable. Once you’ve made the decision to make a purchase though, there is a dizzying variety of models to choose from. So where to start?
First, pick the price you’re prepared to pay. The cheapest models are a mere £80, while the priciest can set you back up to £500. All of these come with the same standard diary, contact management and note-taking software, plus ample memory for the data. In addition, for the two major platforms, Palm OS and Pocket PC, there is a huge variety of software to expand the capabilities of the handheld. It is thus much more sensible to pick the budget before the shop’s sales assistant tries to dazzle you with the latest and greatest features.
Next, you should pick your platform. Made by Palm, Handspring, Handera and Sony, Palm OS-compatible machines are considerably cheaper, occupying the £80-350 range. Pocket PC’s start at £200, and are made by Compaq, HP and Casio.
Perhaps more importantly, the operating systems’ designers have taken a different approach. Microsoft has taken the Pocket PC name literally – it is meant to be a PC small enough for your pocket. As such, the machines are delightfully powerful and highly integrated with Microsoft’s Office suite. However, it is a rather large pocket that can accommodate the machines. In addition, they carry too much of their desktop counterparts’ bad points – frequently crashing, power hungry and unnecessarily complex. Palm OS machines on the other hand tend to be small, elegantly simple, and robust. It’s like choosing an iMac over a PC, with one difference being market share. Palm devices are considerably commoner than Pocket PC’s, meaning more software and accessories are available for them.
Next you should decide whether or not you want colour in your device. This is not so much for the ability to play videos full Technicolor glory. Rather, think of trying to read text on your digital watch as opposed to your computer. The contrast offered by true black on true white makes for a much more legible experience. In addition, Pocket PC’s screens have twice as many pixels as Palm devices do, making for even sharper reading. Although I usually recommend taking the colour path for your handheld, this is the most expensive decision you will have to make.
Thirdly, you should consider the memory available on the device. This determines the amount of data you can store. This is not so much for the standard applications – with over 1000 contacts, and countless diary entries, I have used up less than 1 MB on my machine. Rather, the memory became a significant issue when I started adding books and software. Palm OS-compatibles have 2 to 16 MB’s or RAM, while Pocket PC’s are a heftier 16-32 MB. The difference is not as dramatic as the numbers suggest however, because Palm devices are more efficient in their. As a rough guide, the 32 MB Pocket PC’s are matched by the 16 MB Handspring devices, but easily outperform by the 8 MB Palm machines.
Fourthly, you should consider the extras for the handheld. Some devices can expand their memory. For example, the 16 MB expansion card I bought is currently storing over full-size 30 books. At £35, I count this a bargain. In addition, other hardware accessories such as keyboards or cameras are available.
Finally there is the software. My advice is to budget £60 for purchases you will make in your first 6 months as you find all sorts of extra uses for the machine. Handango.com is an excellent place to browse, try and buy for all your software needs. And for all those planning a trip to Chicago, may I recommend Vindigo.com.
Published Norvember 2001 as editorial in the newsletter
of the British Medical Informatics Society