FIVE YEARS ago the Palm Pilot, a new style of pocket organiser, arrived and grabbed a huge following. It eschewed the keyboard to produce a truly pocketable device. Shirt-pocket sized and efficient - you could search hundreds of addresses in a second, scribble on its screen to make a quick note, or flick between diary and address book as fast as you needed to.
Now there's a new device - unusually not produced by 3Com - produced by its original developers Donna Dubinsky and inventor Jeff Hawkins, who sold the Palm idea to get it to market. Called the Handspring Visor, it's heading toward upstaging the Palm by being incredibly expandable.
The core business is unchanged: the Visor is a neat way for teachers to keep track of appointments, phone numbers and things to do. Its built-in software is fast and wastes no time in asking you to, say, confirm a save, but gets on with it. With practice you can enter information by writing on the screen, but most will link it to Microsoft Outlook (connection software supplied) on a PC to extract whatever they keep in there. This was as transparent as was the machine - drop the unit into a desktop cradle, press one button and vital data is now stored on both computers.
The Visor can also help with email - you might pick up mail using the desktop machine, drop the Visor into its cradle to synchronise the messages, and handle replies during spare moments. Next time you connect up, mail will be queued, ready to send.
What is really new is that the Visor features a slot that can turn it into a camera, music player and more. Called a Springboard slot, numerous specialist modules were on show at its launch. There was the "Minijam" MP3 player that enables it to store and play music through headphones, while the "Ideo Eye module" turns the very same Visor into a digital colour camera. It captures (640480 dot) images which can be previewed on the monochrome screen, beamed by infra-red to another Visor or sent through its docking cradle to a PC.
If prices were unknown, some modules were clearly highly specialist - a barcode reader was aimed at stock control, but was just short of becoming a registration or library book system. More exciting was a modem to connect Visor to the Internet and wireless devices from Nortel to connect it to a network. Sailors or walkers would like the "HandyGPS" which uses satellite signals to tell you where you are. Most amusing was a full-size keyboard, the Targus Stowaway, that folds down to fit a pocket.
The Visor now stands beside the original 3Com Palm devices which come in different flavours such as colour screens or rechargeable batteries. It stands too beside devices based on Microsoft's new Pocket PC system derived from Windows CE. Among these are Hewlett Packard's Jornada 545, Compaq's iPAQ and the Casio E115 - all extremely sleek with colour screens that drain battery life. At much higher prices, there's a hit to the pocket too. The Visor is well priced and, with its translucent casing, ought to wear daily life well. Its ample 8Mb of memory, weeks of battery life and potential for expansion will tip the balance for some.
If that potential sounds expensive, the Visor can also call upon a great library of software accessories - and much is free on the Net.
Visor Solo 2Mb without cradle Price: pound;99 + VAT.Handspring Visor DeluxePrice: pound;169 + VATHandspring Visor Deluxe - expandable palmtop organiser with 8Mb memory, backlit screen, USB docking cradle, case, AA batteries, desktop software for PCMac. The Handspring catalogue is at www.handspring.com Palm Pilot Software at www.zdnet.comswlibpilotsoftware Available from retail outlets and online at www.handspring.com
Online star rating
Suitability for purpose ****
Ease of use ****
Value for money ****