Some like them small;Hand-held systems

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Mobile computing has loads of street cred. Merlin John looks at the options Hand-held computers are an unsung success story in education. In schools, they provide additional technological experience at a fraction of the price of a desktop machine. Teachers and advisers who use them have been amazed by their versatility.

They have already proved their educational worth in successful ventures such as the Docklands Literacy Project ( Charlie Griffiths is project director for the National Literacy Association 99 by 99 (it has a target of 99 per cent literacy). She has used Acorn Pocket Books (based on the Psion Series 3) with young people in residential homes in Hampshire and hopes to start a project with schools in Croydon.

She says their size makes them non-threatening and cultivates a sense of ownership. Young people think they have "street cred". They are robust and portable. Students can work on them at their own pace. The machines come with a spellcheck and thesaurus to make work more presentable.

There are plenty of hand-held machines around but Psion has led the way with its well designed, easy-to-use and pocketable little computers. Its partnership with Acorn gave the Psion a tweak for education and a new name - Pocket Book. Nearly 30,000 of these have since been sold into schools. Psion's range now includes the Series 5 (from around pound;350 plus VAT), with probably the best keyboard on any hand-held, more sophisticated software and a touchscreen, though it is not quite as convenient to pocket.

Xemplar does not consider this robust enough for schools. Instead, it offers its Pocket Book 3 (from around pound;220), based on the Psion MX (also sold by RM) - an upgrade of the Psion Series 3a. As with other Psions, it offers excellent facilities for word processing, spreadsheets, databases, diary, and even fax and email. And the educational technology community has come up with a range of curriculum applications, including data-logging with sensors. The commercial sector offers even more - such as Autoroute (for finding your way around) and Halliwell's Film Guide for the media studies buffs.

The competition is hotting up for Psion with Windows CE hand-helds and palmtops such as the Philips Nino - handy if you really don't need a keyboard. You download from your desktop PC (the Psions also connect to Macs and Acorns). Then there are the new CE Pros (see below).

RM has adopted Hewlett Packard machines, which it has renamed the Satellites (priced from pound;400). These Windows PCs are improving, although they are not as easy on the pocket in both size and price. The Windows CE operating system isn't slick, unlike the main rivals, but they have a similar range of features such as infra-red for sharing files and zapping them to printers.

Sticklers for so-called industry standards will be re-assured by the familiar Microsoft icons, but Psion users are not yet likely to be swayed as the the CEs lack the sophistication, portability, usability and sheer good design of Psion. But they can only get better.

Neither of these types of machines is the market leader. That accolade goes to 3Com's PalmPilot, now appearing in its Palm III version (pound;275 ex VAT). This works on the same principle as the Nino but is more useful (again, if you don't need a keyboard).

Given that most education users will need keyboards, Xemplar's decision to base its Pocket Book on the Psion MX is sensible - it's robust, light, powerful, relatively cheap and the battery life is astonishing - up to three months. Diehard PC users, however, will probably opt for Windows machines like the RM Satellite.

While these rivals platforms slug it out in a highly competitive marketplace, one thing is sure - there should be plenty of bargains for education.

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