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Everyday tales from the cradle;Palmtop devices

Need an electronic reminder of forthcoming events? Then try 3Com's pocket computers for size, says Roger Frost

The Palm organiser from 3Com has been a great success, selling millions in just a couple of years and easily grabbing two-thirds of the market for palmtop computers. It wins by offering an electronic diary, calculator and address book to fit a pocket without weighing it down. And this handheld computer is so simple to use that reading the manuals teaches you only a few new tricks. So much is "up front" that you don't need to search menus to find a phone number or change views.

As you add diary entries, you can use alarms to warn yourself minutes or weeks ahead of time or remind yourself of birthdays or monthly meetings. Although this is all common fare, a free search for, say, a name across everything on the machine is a valuable extra.

There is other software built in, such as a "to do" list for those boring daily tasks, but hundreds of programs from the Internet or shareware disks can be added. I settled on a clock, some novels, a Web browser, Space Invaders and a utility to put family photos on the screen.

What keeps the Palm III small is the absence of a keyboard. To enter text, you tap on-screen keys or write in an easily mastered alphabet. In practice, this is almost faultless, but it needs time to do without an embarrassing fumble in public. Many people simply use the Palm in conjunction with organisers on their computer, such as Schedule and Outlook. You just put it in its cradle, push a button and watch it synchronise the contents of both the computer and handheld. If they need to write long documents, they do so on the big machine.

The third generation of 3Com's electronic organiser lets you read and reply to email away from your machine, as well as "beam" data by infra-red connection to other Palm III users. The older Palm Pilot Professional has space for 6,000 addresses, 3,000 appointments and 1,500 "to-dos" - enough to make it more than adequate at pound;50 less.

To compare the Psion and Windows palm offerings with the Palm Pilot is to compare chalk with cheese. First, the applications run so fast it makes the rest seem sedated. Next, the idea of managing files is so simple you hardly need to think about it. Finally, if you do not need a portable word processor but value size and simplicity, the Palm III is ideal.

Palm III personal organiser with email, synchronising, network software and cable for PC or Mac, pound;299 or less.

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