Many people believe that having a personal digital assistant like an iPhone/IPod Touch, Palm Pilot or Windows Mobile device greatly increases their productivity–regardless of whether or not it is true. These devices can be great, but they don’t help everyone. It is important to consider the cost of technology, not just in terms of money, but in terms of time. I’ve seen people spend hours and hours trying to get their calendar synchronized when their pocket calendar did the job much better for a fraction of the cost. This article should help give you some things to think about when it comes to deciding if a PDA would be beneficial to you. To start off with, lets look at some reasons you might benefit from a PDA:
- Easy access to calendar.
- Easy access to contacts.
- Mobile email (in some cases)
- Notes and other databases
From 2001 to 2004 I tried a number of devices and finally gave up. I just couldn’t find something that would work well for me. Once I started syncing my contacts and calendar with my phone, my use for a PDA dropped and I finally gave mine away and just stuck with my cell phone.
Here are some of the downsides I found in trying to use a PDA:
- Steep learning curve
A lot of devices require a decent amount of time to learn. This is particularly true of some of the ways you have to enter data. Some devices expect you to learn a special alphabet.
- Extra bulk to carry around
If you have a cellphone, wallet or purse, keys, and a PDA it can be a bit much to carry around everywhere with you. When are are traveling, the extra charger, and sync cables or cradle can add a lot of extra stuff to your baggage.
While there are a number of inexpensive devices, it is common to spend $400 or more for a well connected device.
- May be slower than paper based alternatives
This is something many people overlook. The speed of checking or modifying your calendar using a paper based planner is very difficult to beat with a digital device. You may save time by keeping multiple calendars synchronized, but depending on your workflow, there may be very little benefit in speed.
Having managed an IT department, I’m very aware of how often these devices are broken or dropped in water. A paper-based system offers a degree of durability that just can’t be matched with electronics. (I once had a conversation with the CFO about how expensive it was becoming to replace broken PDAs and the need to have some type of policy in place. The next day I chanced by him right as he accidentally dropped his Palm Pilot onto a tile floor. He sheepishly mumbled something about “needing that policy”.)
Around 2006, I got my first Blackberry and found that it gave me all the parts I wanted in a PDA in the same device as my phone. I tried out several different models by buying them off ebay or from friends and eventually ended up on the 8830 from Sprint. The dimensions of the device give it a physical volume comparable to other phones and the world wide connectivity and battery life is pretty much impossible to beat in other products.
Here is a list of the features I’ve found that are the most important to me:
- Mobile email
The ability to get pushed emails to the device wherever I am is vital. Even though I usually have my laptop with me, the ability to quickly check messages while running to the store allows me to stay in contact with my clients. My ability to respond quickly helps encourage people to use email for communication.
- Modem data service
My Blackberry allows me to start a Bluetooth connection from my computer and use the Blackberry as a modem. The speed of this connection is surprisingly good–comparable (and sometimes faster) to a basic cable or DSL connection. With a tethered connection and a good signal, I can get speeds comparable to a mid tier DSL plan.
- Full keyboard
One of the biggest problems I’ve had with other devices is trying to use their input methods. The stylus input is just too difficult and I found it extremely frustrating. When you spend 30% of data entry time just trying to correct what you wrote, it isn’t efficient. I have played around with the iPhone interface, and so far, I prefer the Blackberry keyboard because it is much faster and more accurate.
- Mobile web
For a few applications, the mobile web browser is a real benefit. This is particularly true of Google’s feed reader since it lets me read and mark feeds during the little spaces of unexpected downtime.
- Audio support
When someone leaves me a message on one of my telephone numbers, it is sent to me in an email. With the 8830 I can listen to these messages while I’m away from my computer.
There are a bunch of other features, but these are the five that I have found to be the most important. Notice that the traditional uses of a PDA (calendar and contacts) aren’t on the list. While I do use these features, they can be accomplished just as well (for me) with paper, so it would be difficult to justify the device based on those capabilities.
Steven Klassen says
I agree completely on the point of the blackberry keyboard vs the iPhone which is why I haven’t made the plunge. My current position affords me a free BB (although an older model). The wife wants an iPhone so we’ll see how she likes it first.
Grant D Griffiths says
I switched from the Treo to the iPhone and let me just say the keyboard on the iPhone is 1000 times better and faster. I type faster on the iPhone than I ever did in the Treo. The iPhone interface is not something you can just “play around” with and say you don’t like. After using the iPhone for a full 2 days, I felt more comfortable with it and was faster.
Don’t discount its interface. And certainly don’t discount how much better email, web and voicemail are either. Of course we all have our opinions.
Mark Shead says
@Grant – Can you time yourself typing:
and tell me how long it takes you on the iPhone? Try it a few times and tell me the average.
Grant D Griffiths says
I would, but that won’t show anything. Comparing what I type on the iPhone to what you type on the crackberry is not the issue. The issue is that I type faster on my iPhone than I did on my Treo. And since I no longer have the Treo, there is no way to compare the two.
Mark Shead says
@Grant – I was just curious. Most of the people I’ve seen that like the iPhone keyboard don’t type very quickly with a normal QWERTY keyboard anyway, so I tend to discount their experience.
With the Blackberry I know I use my fingers to “find” keys by feel so I don’t have to watch the keyboard as much — just like using a regular keyboard. I think this would be difficult to do with the iPhone.
I would like to try an iPhone some time to see what I’d think after a week of using it. If the iPod touch comes out with more memory, I might consider getting it to do development with.
The quick brown fox thing takes me 15 to 17 seconds to type on my blackberry. Average time is around 16.5 seconds. It might get faster if I tried it more than 4 times, but then it just starts becoming kinetic memory instead of giving a true idea of the typing speed.
Sean Long says
I just did your typing test 3 times on the iPhone and got times of (in seconds); 20,15,13.
Before the iPhone I had the BlackBerry 8830 through Verizon and I could not type that fast on it. I am a terrible speller and have fatter than average fingers, the iPhone’s predictive typing really helps me out.
I thought the BlackBerry 8830 was great until I got the iPhone, I have no regrets making the switch.
Mark Shead says
@Sean – Thanks. It sounds like you are just as fast on the iPhone as I am on the 8830. I’ll have to give it a try for a week or so sometime.
I just did it in 17 seconds on my Centro…
I have been using Palm devices for .. 10 years of so. I even have a LifeDrive.
First thing I missed was the keyboard from my Treo90 days.
I used the LifeDrive a fair amount, but it became more of an online/ebook reader than a PDA. Mostly because of it’s size I think. It just became too much to carry along with my phone and other stuff. (I still use it to do light surfing and reading on the couch, in bed, etc).
When I got my Centro just after they first came to Sprint… my use as a PDA exploded again. I think PDAs are basically dead, but a smart-phone, that’s a different story. I do use my Centro a LOT more than I would use a DayTimer I think. Yes, there are times where I jot notes in a meeting and such on paper, but then I end up transferring items to my Centro for my ToDo list and other apps, like maybe a summary of a meeting to memos for future reference and such.
Oh, just for laughs, I took the typing test using just my right hand… 32 seconds. That is one thing I like about the size of the Centro, I can do one-handed entry of items, or look up of things pretty easily.
I know Palm isn’t as flashy as the iPhone… but it does what I need it to do, and lots more.
I went through three different PDA’s and was planning to purchase a fourth one until I realized that I was using a PDA just to play with: I was downloading games, funny pictures and videos and all my notes, my contacts were still scattered all over the place. I ended up giving away my PDAs to other people, one of them got trashed by mistake. I was young and gullible, I was eager to carry one for flash more than anything.
I now have a Blackberry Pearl and I couldn’t be happier. This is my first smartphone and I am getting a LOT of mileage out of it. I always keep a small pen and paper handy for quick notes, and then immediately transfer it to my phone and throw away the paper. I take pictures of serial number plates while on site at work and email it to my work email. I am even getting on GasBuddy and getting the cheapest gas around my area.
I’ve gotten so much use out of Pearl to the point that I was able to take dictation on my phone when a paper wasnt available. I find that taking time to sort through the auto text helped me out a lot, on my idle time on the throne or walking the dog or waiting for oil to heat up on the stove.
Now if only Google would backup my contacts like their calendar, I’d be golden.
I think that handhelds are the way of the future.
After working exclusively online for the past 13 years, I recently chose to work for a company that makes enterprise IT software for handheld devices because I see it as the cutting-edge of where society is headed in mobile computing.
FYI, we are part of a movement called “Every Laptop Left Behind” which is an alliance of people and companies who believe that every laptop will eventually be left behind in favor of a mobile device.
A good read for those of you looking for mobile software that can help you in your productivity.