Many people don't use a handheld organizer for anything but tracking their calendar appointments and contacts lists. For them, there's no reason to spend more than $100, in the form of Palm's Zire 21. This small device, with its unremarkable 16 shades of gray display, won't spark any gadget hound's envy, but it will do those tasks with minimum fuss.
Even if you do want to get fancier -- to store photos and listen to music -- there's no need to spend more than $200. Palm's Tungsten E, despite its age, remains the general-purpose handheld organizer to beat. It has dominated Palm's sales for a good reason: It does everything it has to and nothing it doesn't. My only complaint: Its battery life falls short of what newer Palm handhelds deliver.
If you want a handheld that can surf the Web around the house and around town, however, you might have to jump ship and adopt one of the Dell or Hewlett-Packard handhelds that run Microsoft's Windows Mobile software. Only these models offer WiFi wireless built in, while Palm (with the exception of the aging, expensive Tungsten C) unwisely makes customers add WiFi with a costly expansion card. The latest Windows Mobile handhelds add extremely sharp screens and a second flavor of wireless, Bluetooth, that lets them use cell phones to go online from anywhere there's a signal.
So-called smart phones also offer on-the-go Web browsing, but their bigger appeal is the way they fuse organizer and phone in one device, freeing up space in one's pockets or purse. PalmOne's Treo 600 is now quite old -- its replacement, the Treo 650, should start arriving in Sprint stores in the next few weeks. The Treo is still the best, elegantly wrapping Palm's software in a package no bigger than most cell phones.
Phones running Microsoft's Smartphone edition of Windows Mobile, such as Cingular's Motorola MPx220 and Verizon's Samsung i600, are a close second. Unlike most other Windows Mobile devices, they're as simple to work with as a Palm.
Should the expense of either a Treo 600 or a Windows Mobile phone put you off, look at T-Mobile's Sidekick II, a slim clamshell device that can be used to store your contacts and calendar without ever being plugged into a computer.
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