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The REX and Psion 5 palmtops offer smart trade-offs between size and functionality

One of the great advantages of testing products is that I always have a choice of portable equipment. When I'm on the go, I choose the smallest, lightest piece of gear that will handle the task at hand. My one constant need is for a calendar and address book, and with the Rolodex REX from Franklin Electronic Publishers (800 266-5626), I think I've finally found one that's as small as it can get.

REX is just about the size of a business card and barely one-eighth of an inch thick. It weighs just 1.4 ounces, including two watch batteries that should power the device for six months. Notwithstanding its diminutive size, REX features a very readable display, 30 characters wide and 9 lines high.

UNILATERAL. Of course, REX's tiny size required sacrifices, notably the ability to enter information. REX is basically a one-way device. You download your address book, calendar, and to-do list either by putting it into a PC Card slot in a laptop or by using a cradle connected to a serial port on a desktop computer. Except for the ability to mark to-do items as completed, REX can't change data.

This is a significant drawback. You cannot, for example, change your calendar or jot down a to-do note. But you get a unit so small and light that you barely notice it in your pocket. REX holds about 750 items--addresses, appointments, to-dos, or notes--in the $130 REX-1 and up to 2,500 items in the $150 REX-3. The docking cradle for desktops comes with the $180 REX-3 or separately for $40.

Instead of the stylus used by most handhelds, you navigate REX's screens with five buttons that select a menu item, move up or down a level of menu, and maneuver through the choices on a level. It can take a lot of button pushes to bring up a contact's card, but the process isn't particularly onerous.

REX relies on a Windows 95 computer for its data, and Franklin made a good choice in partnering with Starfish Software to handle the PC end. The REX Information Manager is a version of Starfish's reliable and easy-to-use Sidekick 97. The included TrueSync software, also from Starfish, can also link REX to Lotus Organizer and Microsoft Schedule+ and Outlook. In addition, Sidekick 98, due in September, will synchronize data with REX, Palm Pilot, and Windows CE handheld devices.

If you want a less minimalist handheld, take a look at the Psion Series 5. Open it up, and the keyboard slides out over the base. The result is a keyboard that is bigger and easier to use than any other palmtop and a device that, unlike many competitors, doesn't tend to flop over backwards when set down.

In many ways, the Psion Series 5, at $599 for a four-megabyte version and $699 for the eight-megabyte model, is what the handhelds using Microsoft's Windows CE software should have been. Unlike CE, its main screen doesn't look anything like Windows, but it's easy to read even in fairly dim light. You navigate by tapping icons with a stylus. When you connect the Psion to a Windows 95 computer with a cable, your computer treats it just like another disk drive, so you can move files to and from the palmtop by dragging and dropping with your mouse. And the Psion does a better job of handling Windows files than Windows CE: Its built-in word processor and spreadsheet read and write the formats used by Microsoft Office, Lotus SmartSuite, and Corel WordPerfect Office.

E-MAIL, SOON. One weakness of the Psion is its limited ability to synchronize the data in its built-in Agenda calendar and Data address book with desktop information managers. It currently works only with Lotus Organizer and Microsoft Schedule+. The company recently made it easier for third parties to write their own sync software, and support for other information manager programs should be available early next year.

Psion offers Web-browser and fax software. An E-mail package is on the way, but there's no internal modem. Instead, there's a choice of an external unit for $199 or an adapter for PC Card modems for $139. An external modem is a bit awkward, but it avoids the severe battery drain caused by card modems. The Psion should get 36 hours of use out of two AA batteries.

REX and Psion represent opposite ends of the handheld computing world anchored by the popular Pilot. REX is more portable than Pilot, though some may find that the inability to make new entries on the run is too heavy a price. If you need more than Pilot offers for word processing, E-mail, and other functions, and don't mind a little extra bulk, Psion 5 may be an excellent choice.



PHOTO: Psion 5 and REX Palmtops


Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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