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Comparing the Pocket PC With the Palm

You're either a Chevy Suburban fan or a Honda Civic lover. You enjoy being able to drive up over your neighbor's mailbox and lay waste to their tacky three-foot tall hedge and extended family of lawn gnomes. Or, you like smaller bills at the gas pump and the ability to park on city streets. The same distinction can be made between PDA owners.

Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) has a nitro-burning, off-road handheld operating system that has garnered a lot of press for taking market share from competitor Palm (PALM). Meanwhile, the Palm OS still dominates the PDA market with its simple design, great gas mileage and good handling. If you're in the market for a handheld, you'll have to pick sides.

If you want a PDA that is a mini version of your PC, Pocket PC devices suit you best. Be prepared to pay a bundle for all that functionality, however. If you find your PC horribly overequipped and would rather carry around a light, elegant device that you can expand to fit your needs but doesn't immediately assault you with features, the Palm OS is right for you. For most people, that makes Palm the obvious choice.

The Palm OS is found on Palm handhelds, obviously, as well as Handspring and Sony devices. The Pocket PC OS is available on Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, Casio and AudioVox consumer PDAs.

In October Microsoft updated its operating system, announcing an even more powerful version called Pocket PC 2002, as well as several new Compaq iPaq and Hewlett-Packard Jornada devices built just for the new OS. The devices have fabulous screens, tons of memory and hefty price tags ranging from $499 to $649. Typical Palm-based devices currently top out around $399, illustrating the big difference in the Microsoft and Palm slants. Pocket PC is counting on companies to foot the bill, while Palm OS-based devices are geared for corporate and individual customers alike.

It is more than a matter of who is expected to buy the handheld. It is a contrast in corporate goals. Redmond, driven by the need to expand Windows beyond the PC, offers an OS studded with features and tie-ins to Microsoft products. By contrast, Palm's OS is far more focused on the strict task of managing daily life, not on replicating your desktop box.

Luxury or Economy? A Breakdown
Both systems come up short in wireless
Operating System Pros Cons
Palm OS Simple. Thoughtful. Not overloaded. Waiting for a new version with more up-to-date wireless features.
Pocket PC 2002 High octane; Tightly integrated with your Microsoft applications. Overkill. PC-like, except when it comes to connectivity, where wireless still lacking.

Pocket PC 2002 added and enhanced several features that illustrate the Microsoft promise. The new OS has all the Windows applications you need in smaller PDA format. Your handheld can be connected through your company's virtual private network to allow you access to email and other files in a more secure environment.

The OS riffs off of Windows XP's extra-friendly icons and gimmicky graphical helpers. There's a lot of stuff packed in that little device, and if you're the kind of person who likes more options than you know what to do with, you'll be pleased.

For the person who wants to avoid distraction, Palm's OS is focused more on ease of use. Palm's got a few simple information-management tools such as contact-management and calendaring, and it does them well. More complicated undertakings can be added from third-party developers.

New Palm handhelds ship with Multimail email and DataViz for spreadsheet capability, and as always there are hundreds of applications available from Palm's partners to cover your specific software needs. That means you're going to have to take an interest if you'd like a more full-featured PDA. The applications don't come to you.

One place where both operating systems fall down is in wireless connectivity. Palm followers have been waiting for a revision of the Palm operating system that will handle wireless communication better, which is expected to come out next year. Pocket PC 2002 made big improvements, integrating wireless into the OS, allowing tasks such as email to update from your PC to your handheld more rapidly.

But current-generation devices need add-ons to give you wireless access -- be it through a Handspring Springboard wireless-modem module, or a snap-in modem for an iPaq. The Pocket PC 2002 OS caters to spiffier ARM chips -- which allow for better wireless connectivity and multimedia processing than your average chip -- something Palm announced plans to do in the summer and will deliver in the future.

Your decision most likely will boil down to two issues: your price range and the trials you have in store for your device. If you want a cheaper PDA, aren't a big Microsoft fan or really enjoy a simplified OS, you'll love the Palm OS. If your PC gets your engine revving with its endless options, you're content with your Microsoft applications and want to take them on the road and you've got the budget for a pricier device, think Pocket PC 2002.

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