Productivity Tools To Go

It’s possible some people can switch off their electronic work tools when they leave the office and still get everything done that they need to do. The rest of us, to be truly productive, need to keep connected, whether we’re down the hall or around the world. And that means taking our digital help mates with us. Here are some of our picks for best new traveling IT tools.

Pocket PC Goes Wireless

The Pocket PC platform, now based on Microsoft’s much-anticipated Pocket PC 2002 operating system, has definitely made up some ground in its titanic struggle against the Palm juggernaut, but remains a distant second in terms of market penetration – 18 percent worldwide compared to 52 percent for Palm OS devices.

The Pocket PC has some unique advantages, though – most notably, easy integration with Microsoft productivity applications. All Pocket PCs come with pocket versions of Word, Excel, Outlook and Internet Explorer. They also typically sport more powerful processors and better colour screens and deliver better multimedia performance. The Toshiba e310 Pocket PC features a 206 MHz Intel StrongARM processor and a 3.5-inch A-Si TFT reflective colour LCD with 65,000 colours. Most Pocket PCs, including the e310, also function right out of the box as voice recorders, something few Palms do.

What really sets this unit apart are the storage, expansion and data communications options. It comes with Wi-Fi (802.11b) broadband wireless connectivity built in. So if you have a wireless LAN in the office, you can connect to it with the e310. More important, you can use public Wi-Fi access systems in airports, hotels, convention centres and coffee shops to connect to the Internet. Wi-Fi “hotspots” are still relatively few and far between in Canada, but are a burgeoning micro-industry in the U.S.

The e310 also has both CFII (Compact Flash, Version 2) and SD (Secure Digital) memory slots. The CFII slot accommodates an IBM MicroDrive, a tiny hard disk on a card smaller than a matchbook with capacity to 1GB. The SD slot takes postage-stamp-size memory cards with capacity up to 64MB. Despite the rich feature set, the e310 is a sleek 80 x 125 x 12.4 mm and weighs only 140g.

Suggested list price: $549

Phone/PDA a Fast Web Surfer

If you see carrying the tiniest, lightest cell phone available – the kind you can lose in your ear canal – as an important status symbol, forget the Treo 180. Tiny, by modern cell phone standards, it’s not. But then the Treo, available in Canada from Rogers AT&T, is more than a cell phone. It’s also a full-function Palm-compatible PDA. Made by Mountain View CA-based Palm clone maker Handspring, the Treo may be the first true smart phone.

It comes with a fairly standard (for Palms) 16 MB of memory and the usual array of built-in Palm OS mini-apps: Date Book Plus, PhoneBook, To Do List, Memo Pad, plus the Blazer Palm Web browser for accessing the Web over Rogers AT&T’s fast GPRS network. The Treo will also run any of thousands of other available Palm OS applications, including downloadable shareware programs. This is the beauty of a platform with deep market penetration.

We found the Treo more comfortable to use than many smaller phones. It’s a flip phone with a window in the flap to view the monochrome screen when closed. To dial, you flip it open, display an onscreen number pad and tap in the numbers. It feels slightly awkward at first, but may actually be easier than pushing tiny buttons with fat fingers. And there are stored number and speed dial functions, of course.

There are a few compromises on the standard Palm PDA interface. The monochrome screen (16 shades of grey) is a little smaller than most Palm screens at 50 x 50 mm. And below the screen, instead of the usual dedicated area for drawing letters and numbers to be recognized, the Treo 180 has a tiny Blackberry-style QWERTY keyboard.

The bottom line: the Treo, at 108 x 71 x 21 mm and 147 g, is smaller and lighter than phone plus PDA. And with Rogers AT&T’s new GPRS network, you can use it to surf the Web at speeds fast enough to make it relatively painless.

$700 to $800 (depending on service)

Keep Connected While On Campus

You may not find the NetLink DS phone from Boulder CO-based SpectraLink Corp. on many handheld personal productivity tool lists. Nevertheless, we would argue that it belongs, even though it’s not something you’ll take traveling and it’s not something you can pick up at FutureShop and start using right away. Nor, we concede, are you likely to find it beneath the tree on Christmas morning.

The wireless NetLink DS phones are designed for on-the-go executives and other key personnel who need to keep in touch as they wander around large corporate offices, campuses, plants, retail outlets and warehouses. The phones work over virtually any 802.11b-based wireless local area network (WLAN), but therein lies one of several catches. You need to build a WLAN first if you don’t already have one in place.

Furthermore, if you don’t already have an IP PBX – an office phone system that digitizes voice in IP packets and sends it over your wired or wireless Ethernet infrastructure – you need to purchase a gateway device to connect the NetLink system to your legacy PBX.

The final catch: if you intend to run data over the WLAN as well as voice, you’ll need to ensure the network equipment comes from one of several vendors that support SpectraLink’s proprietary SVP quality of service (QoS) protocol. Otherwise spikes in data traffic will degrade voice quality. SVP ensures voice packets get priority.

Now the good news. The NetLink DS phones, though slightly larger and heavier than many cell phones – more the form factor of a home cordless phone – are elegantly simple in design and very comfortable to use. In our tests, they worked flawlessly.

Admittedly, you will need to develop a business case for a NetLink system. The need to keep your personnel in constant contact through the day has to be strong because a complete system with phones can run to about $1,600 per user. But then, there are no monthly service fees after that.

PDA with Panache

With the Tungsten T, Palm is taking aim at the very high end of the PDA market – demanding and status-conscious executives and professionals. It’s offering sleek, innovative design and crafting, and spiffy new business applications and Bluetooth communications features.

The Tungsten T is one of the most compact Palms ever, thanks to its unique slide extension design. When closed, the front face shows the screen and a solid bottom panel with buttons for selecting the most-used built-in applications, plus a new omni-direction selector. In this “data retrieval” mode, the unit measures a petite 75 x 100 mm. But the bottom panel slides down, lengthening the unit to 122 mm and revealing the standard Palm handwriting input panel plus four smart buttons. Very slick.

With the built-in Bluetooth networking, Palm is serving notice that it doesn’t think this high-end market will buy into the all-in-one smart phone concept. The idea is that you use the Tungsten T in conjunction with a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone to access the Internet or the corporate network. The unit comes with all the Bluetooth software to, theoretically, make this easy – although we were unable to test it. The Tungsten T also includes Web browser, e-mail and WAP browser software.

Beyond the standard personal information and note-taking applets, Palm is bundling 19 additional applications in all, including the communications programs, and business tools such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, Handmark’s MobileDB database, and Copytalk, a voice-to-text application and service (service sold separately) for replying to e-mail by voice.

Palm is also, to some extent, taking aim at the Pocket PC with this model, although it’s careful to differentiate itself by being all – or mostly – business. The Tungsten T features the Texas Instruments OMAP1510 (ARM) processor, the fastest yet in a Palm, and a very bright – and full-size (55 x 55 mm) – colour screen, claimed to be the “sharpest” screen yet on a Palm PDA.

This Palm also comes with a voice record function, which works quite nicely, and it even has a headphone jack. But the only “entertainment” application in the bundle is a photo viewer.

Suggested list price $799

Smart Phone Easy On The Eyes and Fingers

Nokia invented the “smart phone” a few years ago with the 9000 Communicator, which combined cell phone and PDA functions for the first time. The 9290 Communicator is a significant evolution. However, as innovative and appealing as it is, the 9290 has a tough fight ahead against current and future Palm and Pocket PC-based communicator products.

In Canada, moreover, the 9290 is not available on any nationally-branded cellular network. It’s only supported by SiMPRO Network (Toronto) and Cityfone Telecommunications Inc. (Vancouver), two regional resellers of Montreal-based Microcell Telecommunications Inc.’s GSM/GPRS network services. Microcell owns the national Fido brand, but Fido doesn’t currently support the 9290. Cityfone and SIMPro, however, do have the same geographic coverage as Fido.

Measuring 158 x 56 x 27 mm and weighing in at 244 g, it’s heavy and clunky, at least compared to today’s tiny, featherweight phones. It looks like a cell phone – tall and narrow with conventional buttons and a conventionally small LED screen for displaying phone call information.

But the 9290 Communicator opens up lengthways to reveal a bright, generously proportioned colour LCD – an unconventional 105 x 25 mm, able to display 4,096 colours – and a surprisingly spacious QWERTY keyboard. Where the Treo (see pg. 19) requires you to hunt and peck on its tiny keyboard, the Communicator keyboard is big enough (about 145 x 50 mm) that you can see the keys better and get more digits involved.

Based on the Symbian operating system and Java technology, the Communicator comes with a familiar range of built-in applications: word processor, spreadsheet, contact list, e-mail, calendar, notes, to-do – and one, a presentation viewer, that Palm doesn’t typically offer out of the box. More applications will come, Nokia says.

Better, the 9290 integrates with enterprise applications from Oracle, Citrix and Lotus. Best of all, with the right firmware upgrade, you can browse the Internet over the GPRS network with the built-in HTTP browser or using WAP (Wireless Application Protocol).

Suggested list price: $999

PC Drive For Your Pocket

The Pockey USB 2.0 portable hard drive from Chatsworth CA-based Pocketec is a sleek external PC hard drive about the size and weight (127 x 76.2 x 12.7 mm, 156 g) of an eye glasses case. It comes in 20, 30, 40 and 60 GB sizes.

The Pockey plugs into a USB (1.1 or 2) port on a PC or Mac and requires no other power to operate than what it gets from the USB cable. (It does not appear to like being plugged into USB hubs, however.) If you plug it into a standard USB 1.1 port, it will only transfer data at 12 megabits per second (Mbps). But if you have a USB 2-enabled port, Pocketec claims Pockey will transfer at “up to” the maximum 480-Mbps rate. Lickety split.

Why would you want one? The reasons, Pocketec says, are as various as its customers. The essential benefit is that you can carry large amounts of data – and programs too – without having to carry a PC. And you can access the data from virtually any computer you encounter. Just plug the Pockey into a USB port, install the driver and you’re ready to go. Pocketec even puts the driver software on a 3.2-inch mini-CD-ROM disk to make it easier to carry around.

Use it for back up, to tote work from office to home, or to store MP3s or digital snaps. IT departments can use the Pockey to transport disk images to upgrade or restore remote workstations. Pocketec is now developing a purpose-built digital photo saver device based on the Pockey that will incorporate a small LCD and video out to make it possible to view pictures on a TV.

List prices for Pockey USB 2.0: about $210 to $625

Convertible Tablet Lets You Draw, Write, Print or Type

Microsoft calls the tablet PC “the next generation of computing”. Time will tell. Certainly new models like the TravelMate C100 from San Jose CA-based Acer America, designed to use Microsoft’s new Windows XP for Tablet PC, ring some startling changes on the conventional notebook PC. Tablet PCs support pen-based computing and “digital ink” – you can draw and handwrite or print with a plastic stylus on the touch-sensitive screen and save your jottings as graphics or convert them to text.

This is not entirely new of course. It’s really PDA-style computing with a larger screen. And even the larger screen is not that new. Tablets have long been used in niche applications such as inventory control. With the release of Windows XP/TPC, though, Microsoft is hoping to take the concept mainstream.

There are two styles of tablet PCs. Pure tablets have no keyboard but can be plugged into a docking station. Convertibles like the TravelMate come with an integrated keyboard and can function as a conventional notebook. To turn it into a tablet, you swivel and fold the screen back over so it’s flat against the keyboard and facing out.

Tablet screens are typically smaller than modern notebook screens – 10.4 inches in the case of the C100. The whole package measures 251 x 208 x 25.4 mm (9.9 x 8.2 x 1-1.16 inches) and weighs 1.4kg (3.2lbs). You can easily hold it in the crook of an arm and write with the other hand, or even hold it by the edge with one hand.

Windows XP/TPC is a superset of Windows XP with support for pen-based computing. We were impressed with the resolution of the digital ink on the 1024×768 screen – it looks like real writing. The handwriting recognition also impressed. It did a pretty good job of interpreting even my messy semi-cursive printing. It works. The question is, do you need one?

Street price: $3,650 to $3,880, depending on disk size