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Personal Toolkit: Personalizing portable productivity

This article appears in the issue May 2004 [Volume 13, Issue 5]


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By Steve Barth

Last summer, I upgraded my PDA to what, at the time, was the latest iPaq from HP. Since then, I have become increasingly dependent on it as a way to stay connected, organized and productive.

Like most of the recent models, iPaq 2215 features a more powerful Intel XScale 400MHz processor and runs on Microsoft's latest handheld operating system, Windows Mobile 2003. With built-in Bluetooth and slots for both compact flash and secure digital memory and function cards, the 2215 still weighs only 5.1 ounces and measures only 4.5 inches by 3 inches by .6 inch.

Like most Windows-based handhelds, the iPaq comes with synchronization software and basic productivity applications such as scaled-down versions of Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel and Internet Explorer. With PDAs, it's important to be choosy about adding tools, because memory is limited. (The 2215 has 64-MB SDRAM and 32-MB Flash ROM.) The good news is that almost all PDA applications can be downloaded for free trial from vendors such as Handango. For me, portable productivity depends on this short list of applications and accessories—although, as usual, every knowledge worker will need to customize his or her toolkit.

Utilities

A few simple utilities can make a PDA much more useful. Possibly the most useful addition to any PDA, PhatWare CalliGrapher turbocharges handwriting recognition and correction, adding the ability to execute complex commands or text strings with a few squiggles.

Sbp's Pocket Plus adds functionality to the existing operating system, such as program and document shortcuts, enhanced control over open applications, improved Web browsing, more effective alarms and monitors on the Today screen for battery levels, memory usage, etc.

Microsoft's new Voice Command won't convert speech to text, but it will launch applications hands-free and execute a number of search commands, such as "show John Smith" or "play Hotel California." Ask "What are my appointments tomorrow?" and VC will not just look up your appointments, but read them to you in a synthesized voice. While it's an impressive tool, the first version misses some obvious conveniences, such as "check e-mail."

Connectivity

I use a Socket (socketcom.com) Wireless LAN Card in the CF slot (later models feature built-in Wi-Fi) to link my PDA to my own network and to stay linked via T-Mobile HotSpots at Starbucks and elsewhere.

When Wi-Fi isn't available, l can easily check e-mail and (slowly) surf the Web using Bluetooth or infrared to tap my Sony Ericsson phone's GPRS data feature, which works in most countries where GSM service is available.

Productivity

The PDA is not the ideal platform for writing. But there's no telling where inspiration will strike. New folding keyboards such as the Think Outside 6-ounce Stowaway XT make PDAs a serviceable alternative to laptops in a pinch. SoftMaker TextMaker is an incredibly powerful word processor packed into a very small space, with tables, formatting and everything else you would expect in a desktop office application. Although you wouldn't necessarily want to on the small screen of a PDA, you could lay out a newsletter with TextMaker.

Because knowledge work is so much about relationships and collaboration, one of the great ironies of personal knowledge management is that you can't do it efficiently without effective personal information management. The applications provided with Windows handhelds are fairly anemic. But Web Information Solutions Pocket Informant (pocketinformant.com) or Developer One Agenda Fusion add better calendar views, faster contact searching, categorized tasks and others. One of Fusion's strengths is fast Bluetooth dialing; you can send a phone number to your mobile phone with a single tap (PI takes 4 taps, which is a lot if you are driving). Otherwise, though, I really preferred the clean, informative screens and intuitive interfaces of Pocket Informant.

Adobe Acrobat Reader lets you read PDF files on Pocket PC devices. Transferring a PDF file from your desktop will automatically tag the document for easier reading on the small screen of the PDA.

Based on research conducted by the U.S. military, MobileDynamo Speed Reader Plus promises to accelerate the reading of messages and documents up to 1,000 words per minute by flashing them one at a time in the same place on the PDA screen and changing colors as a sentence progresses.

Other compatible applications extend desktop tools to the small screen. For example, Mindjet MindManager lets users create or edit brainstorming maps on PDAs. Microsoft Money has a Pocket PC extension for its desktop finance application.

Extras

There are lots of extras to accessorize any personal digital assistant. Oddly enough, using plastic screen protectors, I find that my favorite stylus is a dull Dixon Ticonderoga Number Two Pencil, for example. While I don't have much use for many of the available sub-gadgets, I have found some worthwhile.

Socket GPS Nav Kit includes a small Bluetooth cordless, rechargeable GPS receiver to place on the dashboard or in a backpack, graphical maps, routing software, a points-of-interest database and synthesized "turn-by-turn" voice instructions as you go.

I use an IBM1-G compact flash Microdrive to back up all of the active files on my laptop while traveling. Conveniently, that tiny hard drive also fits into the CF slot on the PDA. Many of those files can be read, worked on or e-mailed from the PDA. And there's still plenty of room left over on the Microdrive for music, so check out Koss Plugs for listening.

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Steve Barth writes and speaks frequently about KM, e-mail barth.km@global-insight.com. For more on personal knowledge management, see his Web site global-insight.com.


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