Electronic date book for gadget-lovers

Personal Computers

April 22, 1996|By Stephen Manes

Gadgeteers, rejoice! A handsome little device called the Pilot is almost certainly the cutest $300 pocket organizer ever produced.

Low-tech cheapskates, stifle your chuckles! With the help of a couple of AA batteries now and then, the Pilot might not only supplant your traditional address book, but eliminate the cost of annual appointment books for the next 36 years.

If, of course, it lives that long. The Pilot, from US Robotics, weighs less than 6 ounces and is not much bigger than a tape cassette box, so it can fit comfortably into most pockets. But beware. "Do not carry the Pilot in your back pocket," warns the manual. "If you sit on it, the glass may break."

How did this thing get so cute and tiny? It left out the keyboard. You interact directly with the Pilot largely through the unprotected touch screen and a stylus that fits into the case. Aside from the power switch, there are just six buttons, one each for the date book, phone, to-do list and memo programs that are the main functions, plus two that move things up and down the screen. A dial adjusts the liquid crystal display, which lacks a back-light and makes you squint in dim settings.

You can also interact indirectly via software on your real computer. The Pilot minimizes some of its limitations by thinking of itself as a pint-sized helper for your full-fledged Windows (or, by summer, Macintosh) computer, provided it has a serial port to spare.

A little cradle plugs into that port and uses Windows software that mimics the Pilot's own. When you place the unit on the cradle and press its one button, software running in the background on the Windows machine wakes up and swaps data between the computer and the unit to keep them in sync. It could hardly be simpler.

The Pilot's basic operations are almost as easy, and the machine is surprisingly fast. Touch a function button, and the unit wakes up instantly. Although a simple calculator takes up the whole screen with virtual keys big enough to press with your fingers, that can make the screen greasy. Besides, the other functions demand the stylus.

You can make a typewriter-style keyboard appear on the screen and use it to peck in your data on the tiny keys. But true gadgeteers will use the hand-printing alphabet known as Graffiti, originally developed by the Pilot's makers for other machines.

Graffiti is a classic case of a computer dictating how you must work rather than adapting itself to you. It prescribes how you must form your letters, down to the way you move the pen, so a simple downstroke produces a lowercase I, but an upstroke invokes uppercase mode.

Most letters are fairly simple to master, but Q's and V's require peculiar tails, and my perfect o's often went unrecognized. Making the number 4 requires breaking years of habit and producing just a simple L-shaped stroke, with no downstroke: Graffiti repeatedly interpreted my standard 4 as a 9 followed by a 1.

Although a game that comes with the unit can help you practice, it makes you start at the beginning each time rather than continuing from your current level of expertise. Curiously, the game offers the only on-line help for using Graffiti. Stickers provided for the back of the unit omit some alternative letter forms shown only in the manual.

The date book performs many of the tricks computers are good at, like letting a single entry take care of recurring dates, like that pinochle game every third Thursday, and any item can have a free-form note attached. Set an alarm for an entry, and the Pilot will wake up and beep at the proper time; if you do not respond, the machine will turn itself off to save power and a reminder will appear the next time it turns on. But the date book suffers from the limitations of the tiny screen; the weekly view can show you only appointment times, not details, and a monthly view is not available.

The phone book allows a generous combination of five phone numbers and E-mail addresses per entry , plus snail mail addresses and notes. The to-do and memo programs are likely to be most useful with material entered from a keyboard at a real machine. A "find" icon, always available, lets you track down information in any application fast.

The Pilot is the first pen-based electronic device that is small, light and fast enough to be worthy of consideration as a full-time companion. The $300 model 1000 is said to hold about a year's worth of data, the $370 model 5000 about four times as much.

A $149 upgrade, oddly, expands either unit to the same one-megabyte capacity. That upgrade might be necessary to run forthcoming software, something to consider when choosing a base unit.

Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 4/22/96

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