Shifting life to a handier device

January 10, 2002|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SUN STAFF

Blame a shoulder tired of hauling a bulky organizer. Blame one too many airline flights with an extra carry-on to accommodate all those essential phone numbers, appointments and shopping lists. Blame a baby boomer's yearning to become something more than roadkill on the Information Highway.

Whatever. Sometime in 2001, I resolved not to let another New Year pass without a gadget to streamline that part of my life.

The hunt began somewhat tentatively last spring, when I discovered that a handheld device in my chosen color - green - was available with a $50 mail-in rebate, dropping the price to $199.

Not bad for a Handspring Visor Deluxe, but not yet tempting enough. I waited.

The rebate offer expired and the regular price dropped to $199, but I held firm, continuing to quiz every handheld owner I ran into.

I soon discovered a pattern. Younger people seemed to take to these devices, turning them into true personal digital assistants, or PDAs. PDA is the generic term for Palms, Handsprings and other products that run Palm's operating system, and for handheld computers that run a version of Microsoft Windows, a somewhat different animal with more pocket power than I need.

Other people liked the idea more than the reality. More than one PDA owner born before 1960 confessed that their initial fascination never blossomed into true reliance, leaving them with one more under-used, guilt-producing electronic device. One non-PDA owner happily acknowledged that he had a pocket organizer that couldn't be beat - a piece of paper.

My sample was small and unscientific, but demographically I seemed to be on the cusp. My bulky organizer might be a pain in the shoulder but like my friend's piece of paper, it worked. I didn't want to fall for a simplify-your-life gimmick that wouldn't serve me at least as well.

As the year wore on, fancier and more powerful devices came on the market, while prices for older models dropped. Then, a few weeks ago, I discovered that the Visor Deluxe, one step up from Handspring's plainest model, was available for $129, shipping included.

I pounced.

A few days later it arrived, small, green and not nearly as intimidating as I had feared.

At the sight of my new "assistant," I felt confident - absurdly so for someone who is decidedly less than gifted with computer-driven devices. Did I study the "quick reference guide" that came in the box? Heck, I barely got past page 1.

Instead, I simply pulled that cute little stylus out of its convenient nest and tapped the Visor on.

I found the "home" screen filled with icons representing each of the PDA's functions, all conveniently labeled - Address, Date Book, etc.

Down at the bottom was an icon of an open door with the label "Welcome."

I tapped myself in and discovered a Setup program that even I could understand. Screen 1 told me to remove the stylus, with a picture pointing out the stylus storage place I had already discovered. Clearly, I was ahead of the game.

The next prompt brought a series of targets, which I was supposed to tap to practice "accurate stylus entry."

Piece of cake.

I proceeded to set the correct time, date and country. Then the program walked me through Graffiti, a method of handwriting on PDAs. In case I needed another way to enter data, it showed me how to locate the onscreen keyboard.

With that, I was ready to explore. I accessed the address book, tapped the "New" box and followed the prompts for entering an address. That can be a time-consuming process, but for a first-time electronic-organization person, it's a good way to practice Graffiti. Luckily, my enchantment with my little green assistant made the job less tedious.

The real challenge lay ahead - synchronizing the PDA with my desktop computer, a more intimidating machine. This was my make-or-break test, the key to whether the PDA would replace that bulky planner or turn out to be little more than a holiday toy.

I retrieved the quick reference guide, this time for a close read. Then I sat down at the computer, inserted the CD that would install the Palm desktop and synchronization software and moved easily through each step - until it was time for actual synchronization.

As instructed, I placed the PDA in the cradle linked to the USB connector - and before I could touch the "HotSync" button, the computer turned itself off.

I imagined the worst, but the only damage was to my nerves. After consulting with a couple of veteran techies, I decided the crash was a fluke and forged ahead.

I placed the PDA in the USB cradle, pushed the HotSync button, waited for a minute or two, then got a message that synchronization had failed. Two more tries brought the same result. "Check your setup and try again," the message said.

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