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PDA or Smartphone: Adequate Substitute for a Laptop?

By: Paul Geraghty - Updated: 25 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Pda Smartphone Handheld Iphone Ipod

It’s the digital age. Technology has become all-pervasive. Many - perhaps most - jobs can’t be done properly without it. For those working abroad, this often presents a problem. If a computer is really indispensable to the work they have to do, unwieldy laptops are typically lugged around, hampering mobility. In recent years, miniature devices like smartphones and PDAs have become more powerful. But are they really adequate substitutes for a laptop?

Below we present an overview of the major smartphone/PDA systems and their capabilities.

Pocket PC

The Pocket PC was dreamed up by Microsoft and designed as a miniature version of Windows. The operating system includes cut-down versions of Microsoft favourites like Word, Excel and Outlook as standard.

Pocket PCs use a stylus-based input system on their touch-screen interfaces. Text is entered by tapping on an on-screen keyboard; some of the more recent models feature an integrated miniature physical keyboard instead.

Portable keyboards which can be folded up into a small size can be used in conjunction with Pocket PCs, connecting either via Bluetooth or infra-red. This increases the usability of the devices substantially for work-related tasks.

Although the Pocket PC is a little dated these days, it’s still a decent “home away from home”-style workhorse for basic business applications.

iPhone\iPod Touch

There is a wide range of applications available for Apple’s device, mostly not serious business applications, however.The device has a touch sensitive screen and uses an on-screen keyboard for text input. Most people find it fiddly and difficult to use. The on-screen keys are just too small in relation to fingers. It’s alright for the occasional email but you definitely would not want to type up a long report with it.

The iPhone\iPod Touch lacks serious business-level applications. Even basic file portability and viewability between the iPhone\iPod Touch is limited. For example, the general consensus is that the simplest way to get a Microsoft Word file onto the device is to email it to yourself.

Apple also imposes restrictions on what programs running on the device can do, some of which limit its utility for business purposes. For example, it would be impossible to have a program constantly running in the background checking to see if you had received new email. Although both the iPhone and iPod Touch have some built-in Bluetooth capability, access to it is heavily restricted by Apple. In practice, this means that the interesting ecosystem of third-party devices (such as keyboards or mice) which has emerged around the Pocket PC will not be there for the iPhone\iPod Touch.

The iPhone\iPod Touch is a sexy and fun little gizmo. Unfortunately, for most purposes, it doesn’t really cut it as a serious business tool.

Blackberry

For years, Blackberry has marketed its products as the devices for emailing on the move, and has carved out a large subscription base among executives and companies with large mobile workforces. Among the Blackberry’s more famous devotees are Al Gore and Barack Obama. The Blackberry was the first major handheld to offer what are called push-email capabilities. Conventional email works by checking with the email server – polling - every so often to see whether any new emails have arrived. This means you don’t get to know about new emails right away. With push-email, by contrast, you can be notified almost instantly.

Blackberrys have always been characterised by interface simplicity, an integrated keyboard and a focus on email and calendaring applications. That remains true today, even though the latest models have adopted the usual bells and whistles of any modern handheld, such as touch screens and web-browsing abilities. If email is critical to your work, and you need to deal with a large volume of it while on the move, the Blackberry remains a good choice.

Android

Android is the smartphone operating system developed by Google. Google doesn’t market any handhelds itself. It just makes the operating system available and the devices are brought to market by third parties. As yet, few real-world Android devices have yet appeared, because the whole thing is still so new. That said, Android looks promising and may eventually live up to its billing, which is as a kind of sexy iPhone-like device without the burden of Apple’s control freak restrictions.

Palm

Palm was one of the chief pioneers of handheld computing. Although it has been a stalwart of the PDA scene for many years, recently it has struggled to keep up with the hungry new competitors innovating around it. That said, the Palm interface has always won plaudits for its ease of use and its calendaring applications can compare with any. A wide range of different Palm form factors exist, offering a broad variety of capabilities, including integrated keyboards, Bluetooth and 3G.

PDA Substitute for a Laptop? – Conclusion

Laptops are becoming cheaper while PDAs are becoming more capable. Which is right for you depends on exactly which capabilities you need and what your portability requirements are.

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