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Handheld computers: A guide

Stuart Ball, ICTco-ordinator for Monmouthshire says: "When we were thinking about an alternative to desktop and laptop computers, we developed a number of criteria which would give children access to ICT whenever they wanted, at school and at home."

The device needed to have: Word-processing, spreadsheet, and graphics programs. These enable primary children to use ICT to develop and support the majority of their work.

A keyboard. This seems to be the most effective means of data entry. Thumb pads are usually too small for children.

A simple way of transferring data, for example an infra-red port. This is extremely useful as it allows children to work collaboratively by beaming work to one another and enables the teacher to beam work to pupils.

A simple cable connection which easily links to a PC. This enables work to be uploaded to a PC and worked on in more complex ways.

Portability (pocket-sized ideally) and robustness. The classroom is hard on electronics and children will be using these devices every day.

Economy. Llandogo's palmtops cost less than pound;200 for each palmtop.

The device should come with all the necessary applications and be cheap to maintain, for example it should have good battery performance.

The Psion series of handheld devices clearly meet these criteria, they also have additional useful features. For example, email (the modem costs about pound;65), a diary, a jotter and voice recorder. There is also a wide range of software available on the net.

Psion's main education computer is the NetBook, a super-light laptop with wireless networking. Unfortunately Psion has no plans to continue making handheld devices, though some distributors still have some in stock.

So the search is on for a suitable replacement. The latest devices are pocket PCs, such as the iPAQ 3760 and HP 565. These have all the necessary windows compatibility and a range of add-ons that include digital cameras.

They are sophisticated devices, perhaps unnecessarily so, though multimedia applications and PowerPoint could be useful in the primary classroom. But they have a small screen, require a detachable keyboard (about pound;80) and start at about pound;350 (without the keyboard).

Palms, such as the Palm m500 are cheaper but again you would need to buy the optional detachable keyboard. They have a small screen, and require additional software to make them compatible with Word etc. Although initially cheaper, the price quickly rises with all the extras required.

This is a fastmoving market and these mobile computing devices will continue to develop and become more affordable.



Also look at the websites of manufacturers such as Hewlett Packard, Nokia and Palm.

The magazine PDA Essentials (Paragon Publishing) published a buyer's guide to handhelds in issue 9.

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