Palmtop paradise

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Computers which fit in your pocket, now popular in schools, are not small on clever features says Roger Frost. They say that we are living in a divided society where only some of us welcome what technology offers. The rest, they say, are scared witless by it or just do not see what it can do for them.

They are not just talking computers here. There is plenty of useful technology that people are pausing over - from the fax machines that people puzzle over, to the mobile phones that others pose over. When technology is this hard, or just plain irritating, it's easy to empathise.

They also say that we will use it if the benefit outweighs the hassle and they are so right. When there is a queue for train tickets, I can teach myself to use the ticket machine. Or if a school outing goes awry and I need help, a mobile phone is a lifesaver that I could soon learn to pose with.

Many have discovered the benefits of a portable computer which has such a tiny keyboard and screen while others pass over them in the wait for something better. But schools which have bought them in job-lots say they use them daily to take notes, record data and do data-logging.

Small though it is, Psion's Series 3 computer, known also as Acorn's Pocket Book gives no short measure on clever features. And today there is a Psion 3c version which makes transferring data to other machines unusually easy.

The new Psion has the same kind of infra-red transmitter as a TV remote control. It allows pupils to "zap" or "beam" their work to a printer without the need for a cable. With a range of a few feet, you cannot yet beam your register to the office, but you can beam homework to the class.

While these new features will gain recruits to palmtop paradise, Psion has not done existing users any favours as the printer cables for the old machines will not work with the new. Even Acorn is cautious about giving the new version an open welcome. Infra-red-compatible printers are still rare in schools and Acorn reassures its education customers that supply, and support for, the 3a will continue. That the palmtop fits into a pocket endears the 3a to the one million people who have bought it. They like the electronic diary and address book - things they need when they're miles from a desk or power socket.

There is no comparison with paper: does anyone have an address book written in just one colour and with no names crossed out? You've got one? Well, then how about one that searches for contacts when you can only remember their first name, their job title or where they live? Or one that finds who called when you dial 1471?

The diary is a diary-plus. Schools where all the staff have palmtops say they have a school diary file that people merge with their own. The teachers say they set alarms to remind them of when homework assignments are due back, of irregular meetings or just to call someone back at a certain time. Everyone seems to have their own special uses - from alarms that warn about parking meters, to phone-like alarms that go off and get noisy pupils checking their pockets.

Apple also has a hand-held portable. Apple's Newton needs a bigger pocket. Instead of typing you write on the screen with a "pen" and it turns the writing into text. Though it costs around Pounds 500, the Newton 130 is as powerful as some desktop machines, and with everything driven by a pen, it is arguably easier to use. It has the diary, notepad and address book features that make it a personal organiser worthy of a trial.

As with the Psion, you can beam stuff around, but it also has a slot that takes a "PC card" modem to send faxes or handle mail from the Internet. The Psion can do this too, but less elegantly and for an extra Pounds 100.

While we are talking money, another Pounds 400 will buy you a modern GSM mobile phone and a special PC card, so you can enjoy total mobility and send electronic mail from the car or even the beach. At today's prices this seems a frippery, but Apple is already selling these to hospitals and the police. They say that people can take notes at the bedside or roadside, and save time by not having to write things up back at base. If your day is peppered with too much "down time" to waste, this is technology to help.

For the wealthy it is a tough choice - they are sure to want Apple's latest, the Newton 2000, with its graphical Internet browser. Or for just Pounds 850, the Nokia 9000 gives them a phone, fax, diary and Internet connection all in one pocket. Make no mistake, being able to go surfing from anywhere in school is seriously useful, but those with style should head for the beach.

The next attraction is Apple's eMate 300, a designed-for-school Newton laptop with a proper keyboard, gadgets to connect to almost anything, costing $800. So, the truly portable computer is here, with technology that works most of the time. The only scary thing left is the phone bill.

* The Pocket Book from Xemplar, The Quorum, Barnwell Road, Cambridge CB5 8RE Tel: 01223 724724

* Psion, Alexander House, 85 Frampton Street, London NW8 8NQ.Tel: 0171 258 7248

* Newton from Apple, 16 Roundwood Avenue, Stockley Park, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB11 1BB. Tel: 0181 569 1199

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