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Palm vs. Pocket PC: which one is for you?

-by Lisa Gade Editor in Chief, updated June 2004

Folks often write to us asking which they should choose, a Palm OS PDA or a Pocket PC. I'm not going to tell you that one is better than another, they each have their strengths, and after all, I'm a PDA geek-- I love them all. Instead I'm going to outline several key considerations that usually help folks decide which will suit their needs. Palm OS PDAs are made by Palm, Sony and Handspring, though Palm bought Handspring in 2003, and the Treo 600 Palm OS smartphone was Handspring's only product at that time. Pocket PCs are made by many companies, including HP, Toshiba, Dell and ViewSonic.

1. Price. Palm OS devices tend to be cheaper than Pocket PCs, unless you want the Palm Tungsten C or the Sony Clié UX50 which are fairly expensive. Though there are now a couple of entry level Pocket PCs priced at $249 to $299. Palm OS devices run from $99 for the entry level Palm Zire 21 and $199 for the Sony Clié TJ27 to $599 for the Sony UX50 with lots of RAM, Palm OS 5, WiFi, Bluetooth and integrated VGA digital camera. The super low-end Palm Zire 21 is cheaper because it has a black and white display, lower screen resolution and doesn't have much memory or an expansion slot. Why are other Palm OS PDAs generally a bit cheaper than Pocket PCs? They often have somewhat slower processors and less memory. That doesn't mean they're slow, rather the Palm OS is a highly optimized and low frills OS that doesn't need much horsepower to run. Pocket PCs cost $249 to $699, but you get a very nice color display, audio playback and recording (MP3 too!), an XScale or other ARM family processor running at 200, 300 or 400 MHz and 32 to 128 megs of RAM (memory). The iPAQ 5555 and Toshiba e805 are the only Pocket PCs with 128 megs of built-in memory, while most mid-priced Pocket PCs have 64 megs of RAM. The Pocket PC OS is based on MS Windows, so it's resource demands are higher, and it needs all that processor speed and memory to run speedily.

2. Pocket PCs integrate with MS Word and Excel ( Microsoft makes all those products, after all). Pocket Word and Excel can read and write your existing desktop files- just copy them to your Pocket PC, and back to your desktop as needed. You won't get all the advanced features on Pocket PC Office that you get with desktop Office though-- you won't be able to do table of contents or headers and footers in Pocket Word, for example. You may also lose your fonts and table formatting. Palm OS doesn't have built-in Word and Excel support. However, there are some great 3rd party Office programs available that do let you work with Word and Excel files (see our Palm OS Office Apps review). Documents To Go is a popular Office suite for Palm that's bundled with many Palm OS PDAs. Documents to Go actually offers more advanced features than does Pocket Office! Documents To Go Professional also supports PowerPoint and offers charts for Excel, which the Pocket PC does not. While working with Excel spreadsheets can be challenging on a small screen, most all Current Sony Clié and Palm Tungsten models as well as the Zire 71 do have a higher resolution 320 x 320 (or 320 x 480) pixel displays which Docs To Go 5 does takes advantage of. This means you'll enjoy more screen real estate than on the Pocket PC which as a 240 x 320 pixel display. If you're content to view a few docs and spreadsheets on your PDA for reference, the standard resolution 320 x 320 resolution Palm or Clié models will do just fine, as will the Pocket PC. If you want to do more serious work, consider the Toshiba e805 (the only Pocket PC with a 640 x 480 VGA display) or one of the 320 x 480 Palm OS PDAs such as the Tungsten T3 and Sony Clié UX50. If you want to do a great deal of editing and document creation, get an external keyboard for your Palm OS PDA or Pocket PC!

3. Both handle contact management, calendaring and to-do lists quite well. If this is the main reason you're getting a PDA, get a Palm OS model. Several of them are small, cheap and they all excel as a PIM tool. Most people still find Palm OS PDAs the best for these tasks because it takes fewer clicks to get to the info you need and they are quite fast for these tasks.

4. If you need to integrate with Outlook, the Pocket PC does it out of the box (again, both are Microsoft products). The Palm and it's Palm Desktop software can't do this. There is a program called Pocket Mirror, by Chapura, that allows you to sync your Palm to Outlook. It used to come with most all Palm and Handspring models. These days, Palm brand PDAs come with their own Outlook syncing software. Sony Clié PDAs come with Intellisync Lite which syncs to Outlook. Otherwise you have to buy one of these applications separately. While Palm's syncing software, Pocket Mirror and Intellisync aren't perfect, they do an excellent job. For both Palm and Pocket PCs, if you need to sync to other applications such as Lotus Notes, Outlook Express, Novell Groupwise, and ACT, get a copy of Intellisync full version, not Lite) from pumatech.

5. Size and weight: many people want something that slips unobtrusively into their pocket or purse. Nothing beats the Palm Tungsten E and iPAQ 1940. These are slim, super-light and very elegant looking. If you're looking for something more high end, the iPAQ 4150 is the same size as the iPAQ 1940 but adds more features, and the Palm Tungsten T3 is quite compact and lightweight yet has features power users will love such as a large display, lots of RAM and processing power along with Bluetooth. Generally Pocket PCs are larger and heavier than Palm OS devices, but that's beginning to change as Pocket PCs get smaller.

6. Battery life: Pretty much all Palm OS and Pocket PC PDAs have rechargeable lithium ion batteries. Palm PDAs used to run on two AAA batteries several years ago, but the demands of today's fast processors and color displays are too much for AAAs to handle. Lithium Ion batteries vary in capacity, but most standard batteries are around 1,000 mAh. These batteries last an average of two years before you'll need to replace them due to significantly diminished run times.

Palm OS PDAs with 200 MHz or slower processors will last a few days of average use (about 8 hours actual use) per charge. Pocket PCs last around 3 hours of actual use per charge. These runtimes will vary, depending on what you do with the PDA: games and multimedia are much more demanding than PIM and Office apps. Wireless networking such as WiFi and Bluetooth also consume power and can cut battery life by 40%. A few Pocket PC models have user-replaceable batteries, which means you can swap in a spare by opening a battery door (rather than taking the PDA apart), but not all current models offer this. All current iPAQs have user-replaceable batteries, and as do the Dell Axim X5, X3, and the Toshiba e805. The Clié NZ90 was the first Palm OS PDA to have a user-replaceable rechargeable battery (it needed it because that 2.1 MP camera with flash consumes a lot of power when taking photos and videos). So far, no other Palm OS PDA has a user replaceable battery. You can buy 3rd party batteries to replace your non-user replaceable battery from

7. Music, MP3 and Multimedia . Many PDAs double as MP3 players. While the sound out of the speaker isn't great, you'll be amazed what you hear through a pair of stereo headphones (all these models have a stereo headphone jack). All Pocket PCs have MP3 players, as do most Sony Cliés. The Palm Tungsten models and the Zire 71 have MP3 players as well. Speaking of audio, Pocket PCs and most Cliés also double as voice recorders. If you are into watching movies, the a mid or high end Pocket PC or one of the Cliés (other than the intro level TJ27) is the way to go for best performance.

8. Simplicity: the Palm OS wins this one, hands down. The interface is so intuitive, you'll be a power user in no time. While Microsoft has greatly improved the Windows CE interface over the years, it is a little cousin to Windows, which means while it's quite powerful, it also has a bit more of a learning curve. Palm's simplicity, combined with its low price are what got it the lion's share of the PDA market. However, the Pocket PC 2002 and Pocket PC 2003 models are much friendlier, and they are gaining market share. In sum, if you mostly need calendaring, to-do's and contact management, the Palm will be your best buddy.

9. Modems and Internet connectivity. Both can use modems to connect to the Internet, so you can choose either one for email and web browsing. One of the easiest solutions for 56k dial up modems is the Pegasus IR modem for Palm and Pocket PC. If you're looking for a wide area solution that will provide you with access in most all major metro regions, there are several Smartphone models that combine a PDA with a mobile phone.

WiFi and Wired Ethernet: While recent Sony Cliés are coming on strong with WiFi, Pocket PCs still have the edge. There are several Pocket PCs with built-in WiFi, and there are add-on CF and SD WiFi cards for Pocket PC that cost around $100. The Toshiba e805 has built-in Wifi (US model), and the Dell Axim X30 wireless models, HP iPAQ 5555 and iPAQ 4150 have both built-in WiFi and Bluetooth. The Palm Tungsten C and Sony Clié TJ37, TH55 and UX50 models have built-in WiFi .Currently, there are no add-on SD WiFi cards for palmOne brand models except the Zire 71 which is supported by the SanDisk 2.1 revision SD WiFi card announced in June 2004.

Pocket PCs with CF expansion slots can use wireless (WiFi), wired Ethernet and 56k dial up modem Compact Flash cards, which the Palm OS devices can't do since they don't have CF slots with the exception of the Sony NX and NZ models which do have CF slots that can ONLY use Sony's WiFi card. SD WiFi cards are perfect for Pocket PCs that don't have CF slots but do have SDIO slots. The Socket and Sandisk SD WiFi cards work well with Pocket PCs, and Sandisk hopes to offer Palm OS 5 drivers for some palmOne brand PDAs with an SD slot sometime in 2004.

Bluetooth: All current iPAQs have built-in Bluetooth with the exception of the iPAQ 1935. The Palm Tungsten T, T2 and T3 have built-in Bluetooth as does the Zire 72. The Sony Clié UX 40 and UX50 have built-in Bluetooth. Palm brand PDAs running OS 4 and the Handspring Treo 90 have SD card slots that can accept Palm's optional Bluetooth card. There are no add-on Bluetooth networking options for other current Clié models other than the Bluetooth Memory Stick that's not sold in the US. Likewise, there are no Bluetooth SD cards for Palm OS 5 PDAs.

10. Handwriting Recognition: Both Palm OS and Pocket PC PDAs have handwriting recognition and on screen keyboards too. Palm OS PDAs use Graffiti handwriting recognition, and you'll enter characters block printing style, with some letters being written differently than "normal" pen on paper style. This means you'll have to learn the letters of the Graffiti alphabet, but this only takes about an hour. The latest devices, running Palm OS 5.2 or newer feature Graffiti 2, which uses a natural print alphabet. It's based on a software product called Jot. You can buy Jot separately for pre- OS 5.2 Palms if you prefer it to the original Graffiti. Both systems work well. The Clié UX50, TH37 and TH55 also come with handwriting recognition software called Decuma. Decuma is a natural language input system that allows you to print words or even sentences in the same fashion you'd print on paper.

Pocket PCs offer 3 different handwriting recognition options: Block Recognizer, which is the same as Graffiti (great for long time Palm users who switch to Pocket PC), Character Recognizer, which uses natural alphabet printing similar to Jot and Graffiti 2, and Transcriber which allows you to write in cursive/script. The first two work well, and Transcriber does a very good job, though it isn't as accurate.

11. Integrated digital cameras: Sony Pioneered the integrated digicam a few years back with their NR70V. Sony continued to offer many models with cameras over the years, and the UX40, UX50, TJ37 and TH55 all have integrated VGA cameras. The now discontinued NZ90 had an amazing 2.1MP digicam with flash! Cameras are catching on, and a few other manufacturers offer models with digicams. The ViewSonic V36 Pocket PC and the Palm Zire 71 have VGA digicams. You can buy add-on CF and SD digicams for both Palm and Pocket PC such as the Veo. Since camera phones are all the rage now, several smartphones such as the Palm OS Handspring Treo 600 and the Hitachi G1000, Samsung i700 and XDA II Pocket PC Phone Edition models also have integrated VGA cameras. Though we're not discussing Symbian OS in this review, note that the Sony Ericsson P800, P900 and Nokia 3650 smartphones also have integrated digicams.

12. Backup: Both Palm and Pocket PC desktop software can backup your PDA (but not storage cards in your PDA). Backing up is a good idea because if the battery runs down completely, your data will be lost and you'll need to restore it from a backup. Palm OS PDAs automatically backup each time you sync, and the process is very fast and transparent. Should you need to restore your Palm OS PDA, just sync it (keeping the sam HotSync name you'd used prior to data loss) and it will automatically restore the PDA in less than 5 minutes.

Pocket PCs don't automatically backup when you sync. You'll need to select the Backup/Restore option from ActiveSync on the desktop. This process takes considerably longer than does Palm backup, and depending on how much data you have on your Pocket PC, it will take from 10 to 30 minutes to do a complete backup. Once you've done a complete backup, you can set ActiveSync to automatically do incremental backups each time you sync, and these typically take less than 5 minutes.


In sum, if simple, quick and easy contact management, calendaring and reminders are what you crave in a small and affordable package, go for a Palm OS PDA. If you have greater demands, and want to play MP3s, watch movies, connect to Ethernet or Bluetooth networks and record voice notes, consider Pocket PCs or the high end Sony Clié and Palm brand PDAs.

Also see:
Our PalmOne Page
Our Pocket PC Page
Our Sony Clié page




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