Get organized: PDAs for any budget

Palm or Pocket PC? It’s a question that anyone in the market for a new palmtop must face. Today, new models from Handspring Inc. and Toshiba Corp. make the decision that much tougher, and Casio Computer Co. Ltd. also weighs in with an economical colour-screen PDA that relies on an old standby OS.

Versatile Visors

If you’re shopping for an easy-to-use organizer at a reasonable price, a monochrome device based on the Palm Inc. OS remains your best bet. Handspring Inc.’s new Visor Neo and Visor Pro stand as strong contenders, though they improve on existing models only to a modest extent. The US$199 Neo, with its 8MB of memory, is essentially a zippier Visor Deluxe (its CPU runs at 33MHz, in contrast to the Deluxe’s 16MHz) with a better display (16 shades of grey instead of 4). Oh, and it’s available in a trio of trippy, translucent new colours: smoke, red, or blue.

Meanwhile, the silver-cased Visor Pro offers all the Neo’s benefits together with double the Neo’s memory. The US$299 Visor Pro also has a built-in rechargeable battery, which eliminates the need for AAs.

Both the Neo and the Pro sport Handspring’s Springboard slot – a boon because modules are made for everything from MP3 music playing to wireless Web access.

The weak backlights of the Neo and the Pro offer little help in dim environments, and their pop-off covers seem easier to lose than to use. Neither model comes bundled with the leather slipcase that accompanies the Visor Deluxe.

Even so, the Neo is the best entry-level, Palm OS-based unit currently on the market, and its specs easily outshine those of the US$149 Palm M105. The pricier Pro is most attractive if you plan to stuff your palmtop with programs and data – it can hold the equivalent of 35 copies of Great Expectations. But if you’re willing to invest US$300 or more in a monochrome PDA, I recommend looking at a couple of sleeker 8MB handhelds, too: the US$299 Handspring Visor Edge and Palm’s US$329 M500.

Casio Contender

Alternatively, you could spend about US$300 on Casio Computer Co. Ltd.’s Cassiopeia Pocket Manager BE-300, which relies on Microsoft’s Windows CE operating system, the creaky precursor to today’s Pocket PC OS.

For US$299, the BE-300 offers a remarkable array of features, including bundled software for e-mail, personal information management, Web browsing, MP3s and audio books, and photos and videos – as well as a respectable colour display. It’s one of the few handhelds with a handy flip-up cover, and it has a CompactFlash slot for more memory and other add-ons. (That’s a necessity, since the included 16MB of memory is exceedingly skimpy for pictures, videos, or tunes.)

Unfortunately, the BE-300 has more than its share of rough edges: Its handwriting recognition couldn’t cope with my scrawls, and both its built-in applications and its PC synchronization software lack polish. I spotted some typos in the user interface, and the PC-based video-conversion software crashed when I tried to convert QuickTime movies.

On top of that, this PDA is powered by Windows CE and doesn’t run applications written for the Pocket PC or Palm OS. Although third-party software written for the OS is available, this PDA is certainly less versatile than its rivals. Hey Casio, listen up: Give the device better software, and you will have a real winner.

Top-Line Toshiba

In contrast, the US$569 Toshiba Corp. Pocket PC E570 offers the full-blown Pocket PC experience, with all its virtues and vices. Like Pocket PCs from Casio, Compaq, and HP, the Pocket PC E570 boasts a high-resolution colour screen and low-calorie versions of Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and other Microsoft apps, giving it the feel of a squooshed-down notebook PC. It also doubles as a capable electronic-book reader, voice recorder, and MP3 player, though its 64MB of memory holds only a moderate number of tunes.

Compared with its Pocket PC competitors, the sturdy-feeling Pocket PC E570 provides impressive expandability: Despite being trim enough to slip into a pocket, it comes with both CompactFlash and Secure Digital slots for memory, modems, and more.

The screen is front-lit, so it remains visible outdoors even in bright sunlight. But like other front-lit PDA displays, the Toshiba suffers in typical indoor settings. One other minor quibble: The door that shields the slots leaves one slot a bit unprotected. (I stuck the PDA in my pocket, and a quarter lodged in the SD slot.)

Ultimately the Pocket PC E570 is defined more by Microsoft’s software than by Toshiba’s hardware. The Pocket PC 2002 OS packs plenty of power, but under an interface that lacks the elegance and efficiency of Palm’s sensible but less-ambitious alternative. Gadget lovers should consider Toshiba’s Pocket PC E570 along with other Pocket PCs; casual users will likely be happier with the greater simplicity of either the Visor Neo or the Visor Pro – and with their substantially lower price tags.

Casio Cassiopeia Pocket Manager BE-300

Colour screen and a budget price offset by crude software.

List: US$299

Handspring Visor Neo

Speed, good monochrome screen, and expandability make for a strong entry-level PDA.

List: US$199

Handspring Visor Pro

Midrange model comes with a rechargeable battery and 16MB of memory; a bit pricey.

List: US$299

Toshiba Pocket PC E570

Highly expandable, mostly well-built Pocket PC; its screen is a bit dim when used indoors.

List: US$569