Buying a PDA

One of the most common questions you see on PDA boards is about how to choose a PDA. This is expecially true for first-time buyers. While I go through the processes I've used to buy on my main PDA web page, I thought it might be useful to write a dedicated article on the subject.

When all else fails, or if you remember nothing else from this article, remember Tanker Bob's mantra: "It's all about requirements." In other words, what do you need? What do you want to do with your PDA? Don't just think about it, write it down. Don't be constrained by what you think a PDA will do. If you need it to do something, short of a personal transport like on Star Trek, put it on the list. For instance, I needed something to maintain my complex schedule (a whole subset of requirements go with that) with reminders, todo list, and address lists. I also wanted to be able to create Word and Excel documents and have them hotsync right to the PC application w/o fuss. I also wanted the Bible on my PDA, a scientific RPN calculator, and to carry the news with me amongst other things. The PDA had to fit comfortably in my shirt pocket and support a modem as well. These are just examples. Your requirements may be quite different.

Next, get out on the web boards and out in the stores that let you play with their PDAs on display. My favorite plundering store is Circuit City, but choose your own temptation. At this point, LEAVE YOUR CREDIT CARD HOME! You are researching now, not buying. Don't forget the major software sites (see my computer links page) because any computing device is just a paperweight without software. I have a list of virtually everything on my Sony T665C with a brief description and assessment of each on my PalmOS homepage. Compare your requirements list against the capabilities of the various devices and their associated available software. Don't just price the devices in the box. A true comparison includes cost of the software and peripherals you need to meet your requirements. It's a package deal.

Beware of requirements creep! That's when your eyes see pretty, shiny things that are nice to have but not in your original requirements. This tendency can drive up your costs quickly and dramatically, and should be limited to chipmunks. It takes discipline to stick to your requirements and not guild the lily, but the payoff can be large. I see folks on the boards all the time who bought a very expensive PDA with all the bells and whistles, only to return or sell it after a short time. The shine can wear off quickly with daily use, and it's how well a device elegantly fulfills the underlying requirements that you'll interface with every day that determines your long-term satisfaction. This is especially true of form factor, weight, and screen quality. If you need a device for your shirt or suit jacket pocket, but buy the latest heavy device with a large form factor, you'll soon tire of lugging it around all day and start leaving it behind.

So, what are examples of requirements and how they can be fulfilled? I'll use my situation as an exemplar. When I was upgrading from my Palm Vx, I wanted to add color to aid in uncluttering my cluttered calendar in Datebk4, more than 8 MB of RAM plus external storage to hold my growing application collection (and individual apps putting on weight) and references, and improved display quality and contrast for reading text. It still had to fit comfortably in my shirt pocket. I already owned a lot of software, so that wasn't a player, and the only peripheral I used was a modem, but that wasn't a requirement for the new device. I also wanted to stick with Palm OS because I already spent a tidy sum on software and really like its leanness and ease of use. Looking across the spectrum of available devices, the Sony T615C popped up on the radar. It was one of the few color, hi res 320x320 pixel screens on the market. The contrast was great, providing a crisp text display. Other Sony color hi res devices had an MP3 player, which I didn't need. However, as my reference library grew, the memory stick access speed became a new driver. When the Sony NR-70/V and T665C came available with 66 MHz processors and twice the memory stick access speeds of the T615C. The color was also improved, which made discernment between similar colors much easier in the calendar. The NR had more features--thumb keyboard, virtual grafitti, etc.--but those weren't on my requirements list. The NR's size and weight were also too great for shirt pocket carry. So, I sold my T615C and upgraded to the T665C, eschewing the larger NR. Six months later, the wisdom of that decision in my circumstances reinforces itself every day.

My last note on requirements must emphasize that they are ultimately individual. The beauty of a free market is the wide variety of choices. If you are heavily invested in software and/or peripherals, you'd have to have a pretty strong reason to pitch the whole lot for a different platform. There are even those who run both PPC and Palm OS platforms, opening up almost the whole gamut of choices. The bottom line for this, as with all purchase decisions, is what works for the individual user. The web can be extremely helpful in researching choices and getting recommendations and others' experiences, but you are utlimately the one who must pry the card from your wallet and live with the outcome.

So, you've stuck to your requirements and picked out one or a couple of PDAs and associated software/peripherals, if needed. Time to warm up your credit card. I'm a big web buyer, so I'll hit places like Price Watch to find the low prices. However, I won't buy from a place that isn't well established or whose prices are too good to be true. The boards are repleat with examples of people taken by fly-by-night operators promising bargain-basement prices. I also hit the Sunday sales fliers. I bought my T665C from Circuit City after negotiating a sweet deal armed with some web and local prices. Many web boards have conversations or forums on great deals available, so keep your browser exercised. Good places to check are PDA Avenue, ClieSource, PocketPC Thoughts, PDA Live, PalmInfoCenter, Brighthand, The Gadgeteer, and many others. There are also online auctions at places like Yahoo! and eBay. I bought my Palm Vx through a Yahoo! auction. It works great for most people, but be sure to research the seller's record. Be extra careful of those with no track record.

Rebates. They seem all the rage these days. Tanker Bob holds to the personal opinion that rebates represent attempts by retailers and manufacturers to hold a sale and get full price all in one, neat, tidy package. The bottom line is that most rebates are never exercised by customers. Many rebate offerers design them to be intentially difficult to redeem. I had one particular rebate that required multiple product purchases, but somewhere during all the shipping delays I lost one of the UPCs. I wrote a note to the company with other solid evidence of the purchase, but was politely declined. That's on what they are counting, after all. I've personally had mostly good experience with them, but prefer a straight sale or instant rebate. YMMV, but if you choose the rebate approach, be diligent!

That's about it for my perspective on the overall buying process. This process works equally well for cars and other major purchases as much as PDAs. Once you have your PDA in hand, be sure to charge it completely (about four hours) before taking it out of the charger. Enjoy the adventure!