Electronic organizers upgrade technology to work with PCs


July 01, 1991|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,Knight-Ridder News Service

You've probably seen one of those pocket-size "electronic organizers," if not in someone's hand, then in some newspaper ad. They're like hand-held calculators but for handling words and phone numbers as well as figures.

Unlike even the smallest computers, these machines weigh less than a pound and can run off their batteries for hundreds of hours. And of late, they've gotten much better. The latest models have more memory than the first PCs did, from 32 kilobytes to as much as 128K. The machines also have gone, in many cases, from alphabetical keyboards -- in ABCDE order -- to keyboards arranged in the typewriter QWERTY style. (The keyboards are still universally too small to actually type on.)

The displays are typically three or four lines, each line able to show 20 or so characters, although some have displays two or three times that size. None are large enough for real word processing, but all can handle simple phone directory listings and short memos, and a few can even deal with simple graphics. A few let you run programs that come on tiny plug-in cards.

But for my money, electronic organizers are only practical and worth the price if they efficiently replace several of your office accouterments at once: Rolodex, memo pad, calculator and calendar. And with the tiny keyboards on these things, the best way to do that is to match them up with a PC. Then you can easily keep your information up-to-date on the PC and download it into the pocket organizer when you're traveling. It's not so bad adding a few items while you're on the road, especially if you can quickly upload them to the PC again when you return.

Seiko's new Data Directory (Seiko Instruments, $169.95, (213) 517-7700) is one of the first organizers to treat the PC connection as vital, standard equipment. This little box comes with a cable and the right software to automatically move information to and from any PC or PC-compatible computer.

The Data Directory is about the size of two decks of cards side by side. The display and the keyboard are on one side.

The display is three lines tall, and each line can show 19 characters. It's easy to read in most lighting. Beside it is a set of four arrow keys, for scrolling through entries that are too big to show in the display at once, or for moving left and right when you're entering new information or editing old.

The keyboard is arranged QWERTY-style, though the keys are directly above one another, not offset the way a typewriter or computer keyboard is. They're far too small to type on, but if you're familiar with typing, this arrangement makes finding a key simple. There are also a few extra keys, such as an OFF key, and separate ON keys for Phone, Calculator and Memo modes.

When you press any one of those three keys, the Data Directory turns on instantly, and the display picks up where it left off last time you used that function. For instance, if you had searched through the phone number directory for a particular entry, then turned the Data Directory off (or let it sit for two minutes so it turned itself off), when you turned it on again, that entry would show on the display. This instant-on ability is one of the reasons electronic organizers are still more practical for phone work than the average computer can be.

The Data Directory lets you scroll through a list of phone numbers (it comes with a bunch of travel-wise 800 numbers), add new numbers, and change or delete numbers. You search by pressing a letter key -- which springs you instantly to the first listing that begins with that letter -- or by entering a search word.

You may also enter memos of up to 512 characters (approximately 80 words) and use the search word scheme with them, too. I found this memo function less useful than the phone directory.

You can choose a password and then make any phone listing or memo confidential, visible only to those who type the correct password.

The calculator is pretty limited. It handles only standard arithmetic and percentage problems, the sort of math you'd get in a basic $4 job from the drugstore.

But the real utility here is the PC-Link cable that plugs into the edge of the Data Directory and then into a serial port on a PC (it comes with adapters for all three popular serial port connectors). Plug the PC-Link disk into the PC, run the program and you're ready to move memos and phone numbers to and from the Data Directory.

The PC program also lets you edit and search through the information, bring in data from popular PC programs such as SideKick, R:Base, PC-Tools, Excel and dBASE, or export Data Directory files for use in those programs. Or you can print the data from the PC.

I like the Data Directory for its integrated PC-Link and simple operation. However, it needs a scheduler to make it a practical alternative to your office Day-Timer. I'm a little uneasy at buying such a weak pocket pod when there are more potent organizers for only $50 to $100 more and complete PCs available for only $400 to $900 or so (such as the Poqet PC, Atari Portfolio and H-P 95LX). I think I'd be tempted to cough up a few hundred more and get at least the Portfolio, where I could view and edit spreadsheet files and run a few PC programs.

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