Why A PDA?

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You may have already heard about Merlin's famous Hipster PDA (or Personal Data Assistant). There is a wealth of content on this wiki and the corresponding 43 Folders site celebrating the triumph of writing notes on index cards bound with a binder clip. It's a simple idea, and like many simple ideas, it's a pretty good one.

But what about Personal Data Assistants (PDAs) of the non-Hipster variety? What are they good for? Why would someone decide to use a Palm or PocketPC device when paper organizers can work just as well? What are the advantages of using a Personal Digital Assistant?

I'm going to take the road less traveled (on this wiki at least) and try to argue in favor of the little digital palmtops to help any would-be PDA buyers decide. Should they dedicate their effort (and money) to a PDA or to an extra large binder clip?

Let me say right off the bat that I don't personally think one way is better than the other. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. We've heard plenty about the Hipster advantage. I think it's time to hear what the other team has to say, too.

In any case, you don't have to pick one over the other necessarily. You might also note that David Allen seems to prefer the electronic PDA - and a PalmPilot at that. The Hipster is good for taking with you everywhere and anywhere - but the PDA can hold a lot more than those cards and more securely too.


[edit] Synchronicity

It is possible to keep track of your contact list, calendar, and to do lists without using your computer. It is possible to write it all down by hand, but there are advantages to keeping that information in a digital format. In fact, arguably the biggest advantage of a PDA versus paper organizers is the ability to synchronize it with the data stored on your PC.

The PDA extends this flexibility beyond the reach of the PC. Contacts can be sorted, agendas for the next year can be changed, and action lists can be updated all while away from your desk. And when you return to your desk, all the changes that were made can be quickly synchronized with your PC.

You can think of the PC as a central datastore, and the PDA as a remote client, helping you keep your life in sync regardless of location.

[edit] Size

There are people who have 200 or more contacts to keep track of. If you're one of those people, you know how frustrating it can be to not have the one phone number you most need while away from your Rolodex. Imagine trying to carry all 200 of your contacts' details in a paper system!

With a PDA, you can carry an enormous amount of information everywhere you go. Your PDA's address book will weigh the same regardless of whether you have five contacts or 500. Your PDA's calendar can keep track of your appointments, birthdays, and reminders for the next several years without occupying a larger space in your briefcase. Do you like to refactor a lot? How many action lists do you have? Ten? Twenty? What about your shopping list? Your packing list for the next conference? The list of things to get done before you go on vacation?

Fit all of that and much more on your PDA with no trouble whatsoever.

[edit] Remembering More Than Your Action Lists

[edit] Passwords and Encryption

There is one need that most of us have and we rarely acknowledge it. We each have passwords to email accounts, website logins, bank accounts, and computer systems at home or work. We are inundated with little strings of text that we can't forget without suffering some form of punishment or inconvenience. And of course the best passwords are virtually impossible to remember strings of random characters.

But you can't just write passwords on any old little piece of paper and expect them to remain secure. This is where PDAs have a distinct advantage over paper.

Password management applications for the major PDA platforms are available in abundance. Not all are created equal, but the good ones allow you to store your password list on your PDA in an encrypted format. This means that if you lose your PDA or if someone else gets their hands on it, they won't have access to your list of passwords. But when you're on the road and need to check your email from a cybercafe in Jersey you will be able to without performing an amazing feat of memorization.

[edit] Reference

That capacity for storing large amounts of information comes in handy in multiple ways. You can store diffferent kinds of data on a PDA, not just contacts and calendar items.

Going into a meeting and need that spreadsheet someone emailed you? Bring it -- and anything else you need -- on your PDA.

I remember fondly one experience where I had to meet with the board of directors at the company I worked for. I brought nothing to the meeting but a small notebook and my trusty HandSpring Visor while a coworker (another software developer) brought only his Clie. During the meeting, we needed to reference many different documents, memos, and spreadsheets, and we were expected to have brought this information with us.

Everyone else had brought a laptop or a briefcase full of paper or both. At one point, a participant mentioned a memo that I and several others had not yet received. He offered to pass his copy around. My coworker with the Clie had received the memo and beamed it across the boardroom table to my Visor before our executive friend could fish his copy out of his briefcase.

Bottom line is, if you want to carry around a lot of information and you want to be able to access it quickly and you want to do all of this with little hassle... and fit the whole mess in your jacket pocket, use a PDA.

[edit] Extra Advantages

There's more to life than Getting Things Done (sacrilege I know, but hear me out). Hipsterism aside, what is an HPDA good for besides organizing things? The nice thing about PDAs is that they have a myriad of uses that go beyond just keeping you organized. They're the Swiss Army knife of portable data appliances. Here is just a short list of some of the other things you can do with a PDA:

  • Calculators and Spreadsheets: I always have a calculator handy in my PDA. It's a pretty good one, too, since most PDAs come equipped with better-than-average calculator apps these days.
    • Pocket PCs feature not just a calculator, but Pocket Excel as well. You won't want to do your tax return on something that small, but you can keep track of spending, invoices, or just do some slightly more complicated calculations and what-if scenarios that are a step above what you can achieve with a calculator.
    • Spreadsheet applications are also available for Palm devices. Most Palm OS devices that are made by PalmOne now come with Documents To Go by default which gives you access to Word, Excel and Powerpoint files on your handheld
  • Electronic Books: Keeping with the reference theme, I have several ebooks on my PDA, including Getting Things Done. I have a few novels and other entertaining books for when I have free time and I'm not at home. And I have some reference books related to work and school for when I have a slice of discretionary time. You can, of course, read whatever you want.
  • Clocks: I always have a clock handy, and it's an accurate one too because it syncs with my PC regularly and my PC syncs with NIST pretty regularly. I can also set some loud and obnoxious alarms if I need to. The Palm even has a clock or two which comes on automatically when power comes on, then the Palm turns off automatically: the software is a hack called PocketWatch+ - very nice.
  • Pictures: I keep pictures on my PDA. I use it like most people carry wallet-sized prints. The advantages are: A) I don't have an abnormally thick wallet stuffed with pictures, and B) I can carry around a lot of pictures of friends and family and whatever else I like -- many more than I could if I carried wallet-sized prints. They're always in perfect shape, too, as long as my PDA screen isn't damaged. And if I do lose my PDA (heaven forbid), I still have those pictures on my PC (or I still have prints at home).
  • Games. This is a double-edged sword really, but it's hard to complain about being able to play Bejeweled on the bus or while waiting for a meeting (or in a really boring meeting).
  • Get yourself a portable keyboard (Think Outside's Stowaway is a very good one) and suddenly you have a small Powerbook that simply disappears in your pockets. Feel like writing a few paragraphs, just pull out your PDA and keyboard, and you're typing at full speed. The keyboards tend to be just a little bit smaller than a Powerbook keyboard, so there's no learning curve involved - well, unless you want to type in a lot of numbers: the keyboard dispenses with the numbers row and combines them with the QWERTY-row. To use numbers, you have to hold down a special function key.
  • Pocket Word comes standard with PocketPCs, but ironically is not so great at handling .doc files. Fortunately, Textmaker is a good substitute. You can create and edit .doc files and mail them from the road.
  • Metro is a cool piece of software that tells you how to get from A to B using public transportation in over 300 cities. And it's free.
  • You can add GPS - you won't ever be lost again.
  • Internet: with a modem, you can dial out of anywhere - and get email (using MultiMail, for example), read RSS feeds, read Usenet news, and many other things. You can even control your desktop remotely using VNC! All of these possibilities are even better when using Wifi. Modems are available for PalmPilots, and the Tungsten C comes with WiFi. Might even be possible to do all this with celluar modems too...

[edit] Disadvantages

  • Expense: A PDA is definitely more expensive than a Hipster PDA or most other paper-based organizers, although you can now find basic Palm PDAs for less than US$100 that are capable of most important PDA functions.
  • Carrying a PDA safely can be challenging at times. If you have a bag or briefcase, it's not as much of a problem, but if you're trying to carry your PDA in your pocket, you are taking a chance of breaking it.
  • Robustness: Drop your Hipster from a few feet in the air. Pick it up and continue using it without worry. Now, try doing that with your PDA.
  • Text Entry: Perhaps the biggest usage challenge of PDAs is inputting large amounts of text without a standard keyboard. Alternative input methods for PocketPCs and Palm devices are abundant, but many people just never get comfortable with PDA text input systems. Even those who do get comfortable with handwriting recognition or Palm's Grafitti systems rarely approach the same input speeds as keyboard users. Some PDAs (like Palm's Treo line or all of Blackberry's devices) now have thumb keyboards to help alleviate this issue, but not everyone loves those either. Carrying around a foldable standard keyboard along with your PDA is not always an ideal situation either since you'll need a bag or a case for your devices now and some would argue that you might as well carry a laptop if you're going to do that. All in all, it sometimes seems as though PDAs are the perfect portable reference device, but they're not ideally suited for taking lots of notes or performing a lot of text input.
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