Cool Yule Tools

Portable IT-based productivity tools just keep getting niftier and niftier. Hands-on reviewer Gerry Blackwell once again offers up his pick of the litter.

Portable PDA keyboard uses infrared

The Targus IR keyboard is a portable folding keyboard for PDAs, but with a wrinkle — it connects not via the PDA’s proprietary hardware connector, as the first generation of these products did, but by infrared (IR). And it works. Which raises the question, why didn’t they do this in the first place?

The keyboard, which folds to 5.6x4x1 inches and weighs 12.1 oz., is one of a few now on the market. It works with most PDAs, but, of course, test before you buy. It has a universal clip to hold the PDA above the keyboard at a good viewing angle. There’s a moveable arm with IR sender, making it easy to connect, no matter where the IR port is on your PDA. I had no trouble getting it to work with a Toshiba e740 Pocket PC.

The main keys are full size, and with one tiny exception felt surprisingly good to this touch typist. The exception: my right thumb sometimes failed to depress the space bar when typing quickly. Touch typists will have to practice to overcome this tendency. Hunt-and-peck artists need not worry.

The software (Palm and Pocket PC) was easy to install, at least on the e740. If you use your PDA a lot, you want one.


Create your own talking GPS

The tiny Pharos GPS (Global Positioning System) device fits in a lightweight plastic sleeve that doubles as a Bluetooth transmitter. The whole thing measures just 60 x 85 x 25 mm and weighs only 85 grams. Couple it with a Bluetooth-enabled Pocket PC and Pharos’s Ostia GPS Navigation and Routing Software (which comes with the kit) and you’ve got a talking in-car directional system to rival systems now being installed in luxury cars.

The Bluetooth transmitter is not essential, though it makes the system easier to set up and handle. You can also plug the GPS unit into the CF (Compact Flash) adapter in some Pocket PCs, or connect it via cable. You will also need a power adapter to plug the Pocket PC into your car lighter, and a mounting kit so that the PDA sits on your dash where you can see it without looking down.

Without the GPS unit, the Ostia software works much like MapQuest on the Web. Key in an origin and destination (or destinations) and it calculates a supposedly optimum route. When it’s coupled with the GPS device, which locates your car within a few meters, you can see your progress along roads and streets on the Pocket PC screen – and the device will speak, telling you when there’s a turn coming up.

This GPS kit doesn’t just work, it works well. And for those who drive a lot and often need to find new addresses, it’s a very practical tool.

About $490.

Versatile tablet PC

The tablet PC continues to evolve. The Fujitsu LifeBook T Series Tablet PC new convertible unit offers the best of two worlds. It works as a conventional sub-notebook (12.1-inch XGA TFT screen, 11.5 x 9.3 x 1.1 inches, 4.2 lbs.) with a keyboard. But when you swivel the screen on its pivot hinge and fold it back over the keyboard, it becomes a slate. It’s a little bulkier than dedicated tablets — you can’t easily hold it in one hand — but it fits comfortably in the crook of your elbow.

The unit we tested includes a 1.4 GHz Pentium M (for mobile) processor, a 40 GB hard drive and 256 MB of RAM. It comes with Intel Centrino technology (rated battery life of 4.5 hours) with built-in wireless LAN connectivity, plus two USB ports, and Ethernet and external monitor jacks. The LCD screen, while small by the standards of desktop replacement notebooks, is crisp and clear.

As with all recent tablet PCs, the T Series LifeBooks run under Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and include the Windows Journal program, which lets you take notes by hand writing with the supplied stylus on the unit’s touch screen. It’s remarkable how accurately it can translate even a fairly messy scrawl into computer text.

One quibble: touch typists may have to practice a little to get the hang of a slightly cramped and unfamiliar keyboard layout.


Sleek PDA/phone combo

The market will ultimately decide whether it makes more sense to combine a PDA and cell phone in one unit or carry separate devices. In the meantime, the Siemens SX56 Pocket PC Phone makes a persuasive case for the former.

The device is a full-size, full-function Pocket PC with a 206-MHz Intel StrongARM processor, 32 MB RAM, 32 MB ROM and a SD/MMC slot for adding extra memory. Plus, it’s a multi-band GSM/GPRS phone that works overseas and provides mobile wireless Internet access at up to 40 Kbps. Yet the SX56 is a particularly sleek Pocket PC, weighing just 6.93 ounces and measuring .70 x 2.86 x 5.08 inches.

The one drawback, as with all PDA/phone combos, is that if you sometimes need to be able to look at the screen while talking on the phone, you’ll have to invest in a separate plug-in phone headset. Some users may miss a conventional keypad – you dial by tapping on the onscreen virtual keypad. Though it’s bigger than most dedicated cell phones, the SX56 fits comfortably and naturally in your hand for phoning.

The bundled software includes Microsoft Pocket PC Phone Edition Office modules, plus Microsoft Active Sync and Media Player – so the unit doubles as an MP3 player. It also lets you record short audio notes using the built-in microphone.


Wireless handheld ‘pushes’ e-mail

Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) keeps going from strength to strength with its BlackBerry line of wireless handhelds. Now BlackBerrys do quadruple duty — e-mail, SMS (Short Message Service), wireless Internet browsing and voice. The Blackberry 6210, available on the Rogers AT&T network, is a beauty.

Measuring just 4.4 x 2.9 x 0.8 inches and weighing 4.80 oz, it fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. RIM has carried forward the popular interface from the very first BlackBerry unit with its versatile thumbwheel selector and tiny but surprisingly easy-to-use QWERTY keypad.

The thumbwheel lets you scroll quickly through the bundled applications – e-mail, contacts, calendar, to-do, memo pad, alarm, WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) browser and phone. But the heart of the BlackBerry and the platform’s principal appeal is still its unique approach to e-mail. You don’t have to check for e-mail, it’s ‘pushed’ to you from your office mailbox automatically. And now you can receive attachments, which you couldn’t before.

The phone and browser work fine despite the obvious limitations of small screen, no conventional phone number pad (you key in numbers on the QWERTY keypad) and having to use an earbud phone attachment. The screen is bigger than on past BlackBerrys, though – 2.25 x 1.5 inches, 10 lines by 35 characters.

The 6210 also has more memory (16MB Flash plus 2MB RAM) than past models. Altogether a better mousetrap.

$400 to $550 depending on airtime package.

Digital pen stores handwriting

The Nokia Digital Pen is a real ballpoint pen that writes on real, albeit specially formatted, paper. The trick is, it also stores pen strokes, up to 100 5×8-inch notebook pages-worth, in its 1MB of memory. The pen can send its handwriting via Bluetooth to a compatible cell phone or to a PC via USB.

One of the appeals of tablet PCs is that you can handwrite notes in situations where it’s impossible (or impolite) to type. How much easier and more unobtrusive, then, to write with a pen in a notepad? The PC connection means you can take extensive notes in meetings and later transfer them to a PC for long-term storage and transcription. What you can’t do — yet — is translate handwriting into text.

The Bluetooth phone connection lets you do e-mail on the road while carrying only a lightweight phone plus the pen – which weighs just 38.5g and is not much bigger than a regular pen. Jot a note in one of the notepads and tick the ‘Send’ box on the formatted page. The message pops up automatically on the screen of your Bluetooth-connected cell phone. Then with a few button clicks on the phone, you can e-mail the message as a graphic attachment. Very cool.

Price unavailable.

Webcam a breeze for conferencing

Webcams have come a long way since they first appeared a few years ago. The Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks Pro was a revelation.

Designed for portability, the QuickCam for Notebooks Pro hooks over the raised lid of any laptop when in use — providing perfect framing for videoconference calls — and plugs in to a USB 1 or 2 port. For travel, it folds away in a hard-shell plastic case that takes up little more briefcase space than a PDA.

It’s all you need for video — or audio — conferencing, or even audio note-taking, as the unit includes an excellent built-in microphone. It can also take still photos at 1.3 megapixels, which is good enough for e-mailing or making prints up to 5×3-inches.

But its best use is for video conferencing. We tested it in overseas Web calls between computers with high-speed access. Set-up using the supplied software and Windows audio/video utilities was a breeze. Because we were using the public Internet, we didn’t get anything like the 30 frames per second of which the QuickCam is capable, but it provided surprisingly good images at about two frames per second. This is by no means motion video, but it definitely adds a dimension to conference calls, or even instant messaging sessions.

You can also use the QuickCam to make movies – highlights of a conference session, demos of new products at a trade show. It even comes with video editing software.


Gerry Blackwell is a freelance writer specializing in information technology and IT management. He is based in London, Ont.

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