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Sorry, Pal. PalmPilots Just Don't Cut It for Me
An iconoclast's guide to smaller or more powerful devices than the cult favorite

Don't you hate the "I'm so cool" smirk that some PalmPilot users wear when they whip out that device in public? Well, here's some consolation: Despite the cult following that these shirt-pocket-size computers have engendered, not everyone finds them to be small or powerful enough.

For such fastidious users, there are alternatives. Bill Freitas' beef with the PalmPilot is its size. It's just too big. "PalmPilot is impressive, but I need something even smaller," says Freitas, who works out of his Alamo (Calif.) home as a regional manager for RLV Service Experts. "It has to fit in my [pants] pocket."

Freitas prefers Franklin's REX PC Companion organizer, a credit-card-size device that makes the PalmPilot look absolutely Brobdingnagian. Like the PalmPilot, it holds thousands of contact, appointment, and task records. You add information from your desktop computer by inserting REX into the included docking cradle, starting a program on your desktop PC, and clicking a toolbar button.

That's the only way to transfer information from Freitas' desktop to his REX, an older model. But the latest REX Pro that we tested lets you input new contacts, appointments, and tasks directly. To do that, you press a button to make an on-screen alphabet appear on REX's little screen. Then, you press buttons to cycle through the alphabet. When you come to the letter you want, you press another button to add it to the record until you have formed each word -- a process you repeat until you finish. We found this method satisfactory for occasional use, but it was maddening and time-consuming for adding lots of data. Still, REX and REX Pro are truly miniscule PalmPilot alternatives. The REX-Pro5-DS, which includes a docking station, lists for $240. The REX-Pro5, without the docking station, lists for $210. The REX-3 model sells for $140, with the docking station, and $110, without.

SERIOUS SUBNOTEBOOKS. If you're after more power than PalmPilot packs, you have two strong options. The various models of Toshiba Libretto subnotebook computers are full-fledged Windows PCs, yet they're the size of small telephone answering machines and weigh only about 2.5 pounds. We tried the 100CT model, which has a 166-Mhz Pentium processor, 32 Mb of RAM, and a 2.1 Gb hard drive. That means it has enough power for heavy-duty computing tasks, such as serious number-crunching and giving presentations. The downside is the 100CT's keyboard is tiny, designed with two-fingered Lilliputian typists in mind. And at $1,499, it's pricey, although less powerful Libretto models are available for as low as $999. The 100CT has other shortcomings: You must pay extra for software that synchronizes information with your desktop PC and for a modem to connect to the Internet. However, for maximum power in a minimal package, Libretto is the way to go.

Hewlett-Packard's new Jornada 820 Handheld PC has a less powerful processor than the Libretto and no hard drive. It's also about one-third larger in size than the 100CT, and it uses the Windows CE operating system, which is a dumbed-down version of Windows 98. So why did we fall in love with the HP Jornada during our test drive?

Unlike the Libretto, Jornada's keyboard is comfortable for touch typing -- even for people with large fingers -- and its screen is much larger. It has simple-to-use, built-in synchronization capabilities for sharing information with desktop computers, and it includes a built-in modem. Its battery works for an astounding 10 hours between recharges, and -- although it's slightly larger than the Libretto -- it's still smaller than standard notebooks. This combination of features makes the Jornada the best choice among tiny computers by far, especially if you're trapped in cattle-car class on a long flight and have to get work done. Plus, its $999 price tag is hundreds less than the Libretto 100CT.

Make no mistake, PalmPilot is a worthy device. And, at $300 to $400, depending on the model, it's a fraction of the cost of a notebook. However, if you're a contrarian who avoids the high-tech fad du jour or if you need either more power or less bulk, these three alternatives allow you to jump safely off the PalmPilot bandwagon.

By David Haskin in Madison, Wis.

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