Palm vs. Pocket PC: Two Mobile Challengers Improve in 2002

Portable computing devices based on the Palm OS have long dominated the market, thanks largely to the simplicity of the underlying software and a wealth of available add-on software and hardware products. But devices based on Microsoft's competing mobile platform, Pocket PC 2002, recently have made strong gains in the market, especially with enterprises. The Pocket PC is known primarily for its powerful Windows-like environment, its compatibility with Microsoft Office applications such as Word and Excel, and digital media features such as video and music playback. To counter Microsoft's gains, Palm and its OS licensees have advanced the Palm OS platform to include many of the most popular Pocket PC features. So as we move into the second half of 2002, let's evaluate these products to see which platform is best for the connected home.

Palm OS

Palm first launched the Palm OS and the original PalmPilot devices in 1995. At that time, Apple Computer's Newton sales were fading, triggering fears that handheld computing was dead. But the PalmPilot was a huge success, and when Palm began licensing its OS to other companies, such as Handspring and Sony, the market expanded dramatically. Today, the Palm OS is still the dominant handheld platform, although the best innovations, arguably, are coming from Palm OS licensees, and not from Palm.

Handspring, a company the ex-founders of Palm started, addressed the platform's biggest problem by adding an expansion slot called the Springboard. Since then, however, other Palm OS licensees have added expansion solutions as well, unfortunately using a confusing array of incompatible technologies. Palm opted for the Secure Digital (SD) card, a stamp-sized, wafer-thin technology with blazingly fast speeds. SD cards can add memory, functionality such as Bluetooth wireless connectivity, and add-ons such as digital cameras. Sony, meanwhile, uses its proprietary MemoryStick expansion, which adds similar features. Handspring, however, is moving away from organizer-oriented devices toward phonelike PDAs such as its new Treo, so the outlook for the Springboard, ironically, is poor.

Functionally, the Palm OS is simple, simple, simple. However, Sony provided the best multimedia enhancements, and if you're looking for digital media functionality in a Palm OS-based device, I recommend Sony's CLIE devices. I use a CLIE PEG-T615C (about $300), which offers a vibrant, full-color screen that out-performs any but the latest (and most expensive) Pocket PC screens, thanks to the screen's superior transflexive technology. And Sony devices offer much higher resolutions than other Palm OS devices, often at 320 x 320 pixels or 320 x 480 pixels, making the 160 x 160 Palm-based devices look like toys by comparison. These screens make viewing photos and even short movies viable, and reading e-books equal to, or even superior to, the experience on a Pocket PC. Sony's bundled multimedia applications (e.g., gMovie, PG Pocket, PhotoStand) are first rate.

Sony also does music playing right. My CLIE PEG-T615C requires a $100 add-on to play MP3s, but newer models, such as the CLIE PEG-T665C (about $400), include this capability out of the box. And Sony's best Palm devices, the NR series ($500 to $600) offer flip-around screens, integrated keyboards, and—in one model—a built-in camera.

Pocket PC

After a rough start, Microsoft's Windows CE-based handheld devices found great success with the Pocket PC line, mainly because of the Compaq iPAQ, which Hewlett-Packard (HP) now sells. Pocket PCs tend to be more expensive than most Palm devices, and few noncolor models are available. Pocket PCs also offer a much wider range of functionality, although whether that functionality is beneficial in such a small form factor is debatable. In fact, the Pocket PC's biggest problem is that it too closely resembles a desktop PC, with far too much information onscreen, too many confusing or hidden choices, and a hard-to-discover interface. However, the Pocket PC is successful with businesses because of this PC-like interface, I suspect, and its compatibility with Microsoft's desktop applications.

Pocket PCs expand in a variety of ways. HP iPAQs (about $500 to $750) require a bulky sleeve to add PC card or CompactFlash (CF) expansion, but newer models include SD expansion right on the device, which is a step in the right direction. All sorts of add-ons are available for Pocket PCs, but many are model-specific, so be careful when considering which add-ons to buy. Toshiba recently entered the Pocket PC market with a stunning line of products (about $400 to $600) that offer thin form factors, transflexive screens (for indoor and outdoor use), and even integrated Wi-Fi wireless capabilities, a first for any handheld device.

From a digital media standpoint, all Pocket PCs can play Windows Media Audio (WMA) and MP3 files, and can play Windows Media Video (WMV) movies through the bundled Windows Media Player (WMP). The devices display still images in Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) by default, which is weak, although some manufacturers bundle small image-viewing applications as well. Overall, the Pocket PC's digital media support blows away anything from Palm or Handspring, but lags behind what's available on the Sony devices.

Making the Choice

These days, you can't go wrong with either a color Palm OS-based device or a Pocket PC, although the price of a decent Pocket PC will probably scare away a lot of people. I recommend the Sony devices above all, but if you want a Pocket PC, take a look at the Toshiba and HP iPAQ models.
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