Personal Digital Assistant Use: Practical Advice for the Advanced Practice Nurse

Andrew E. Craig, MSN, FNP


Topics in Advanced Practice Nursing eJournal. 2002;2(4) 

In This Article

PDA Basics

All PDAs have some common features. They are handheld devices, roughly the size of a deck of cards, powered by either rechargeable or alkaline batteries. They have liquid crystal displays that may be either monochrome or color, with varying degrees of clarity and sharpness. All PDAs come with a stylus, a small pen-shaped tool used to tap on the screen to select characters and functions. All PDAs incorporate various types of handwriting recognition; this allows the user to tap, draw, or write on the screen, using the stylus to input and/or select data. In addition, PDAs come with preinstalled programs such as a date book, calculator, address book, and a memo pad.

Most PDAs come with a cradle or a special cable used to connect with a desktop computer. Regular synchronization of the PDA with the desktop computer ensures optimal PDA performance. Synchronization is accomplished by placing the PDA in its cradle (or attaching it to the special cable) and pressing a button. Most PDAs also have an infrared (IR) port that can be used to send files to other PDAs in close proximity; this port can also be used to transmit data to other infrared devices, such as an IR-equipped printer.

Most PDAs have some sort of expansion slot, though the type of slot can vary, even within different models of the same brand. Expansion slots are used to plug in optional accessory modules that give the PDA additional capabilities. For example, memory modules provide additional memory for program storage; other types of modules allow for use of the PDA as a cell phone, Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, or digital camera. If a PDA is equipped with a wireless modem, you can access the Internet from almost anywhere!

It may be easier to understand the differences between PDAs by examining them systematically, looking from the general to the specific. The most general way to classify a computer is by its style, or architecture. When discussing home computers, most would recognize the 2 basic styles: the personal computer (PC), referring to a computer based on the original IBM PC and its successors (including PC-compatibles); and the "Mac", referring to the Macintosh made by Apple Computer.

Similarly, with PDAs, there are 2 basic styles: the "Palm," based on the original Palm Pilot by 3Com, and the Pocket PC. The major differences are based on the OS platform used in each.

Like desktop computers, PDAs require an OS to run. There are 2 different PDA OSs in common use. Palm-based PDAs use Palm's OS (Palm OS), while Pocket PCs operate under Windows CE, a scaled-down, mobile version of Microsoft Windows. The OS used by a particular PDA is important to consider when purchasing a handheld device, because PDA software is designed for use with a specific OS. If a program you desire is not available in a version made for the OS your PDA uses, then you will not be able to use that program on your handheld device.

There are significant differences in the features of these 2 OSs. These differences need to be considered carefully, even before deciding on a brand or model. Palm OS is an OS designed specifically for PDAs. While Palm-based devices can (and do) interact with your desktop computer's environment, they only do so by way of an interface program running under the OS on your desktop PC. There is no desktop version of Palm OS.

The Palm OS is generally compatible with Apple's Macintosh OS (Mac OS); however, there are specific requirements that differ between PDA brands running the Palm OS, including which versions of Mac OS are compatible. Most PDAs also require that the Macintosh desktop have an available universal serial bus (USB) port for connecting with the PDA. It is important to note that some PDA models using the Palm OS are not compatible with Mac OS. Readers who desire to use a Palm OS device with a Macintosh desktop computer are strongly advised to check the model's specifications closely before making a purchase decision.

The Palm OS is thrifty on memory; one source indicates there are more than 7000 programs available that will run under it.[1] That same source claimed that there were less than 200 compatible Pocket PC applications to choose from when the Pocket PC was first introduced. The author recommends Palm OS-based PDAs for this reason; more medical programs can be found in versions written for Palm-OS than for Windows CE, the OS that Pocket PCs use.

Windows CE is a scaled down, mobile version of Microsoft Windows. All Pocket PCs use this OS, known for its dazzling graphics and sound capabilities. Because of this, Pocket PCs require faster processors and more memory to operate efficiently. They run Microsoft Office programs such as Word and Excel in versions very similar to the ones on a desktop PC. Since these same programs exist on both the desktop PC and the Pocket PC, you can transfer files back and forth without having to first alter them with a third-party product so that they can be read (which you would have to do to use Microsoft Office files with a Palm OS-based device).

Since Pocket PCs are, by definition, mobile platforms for the Microsoft Windows OS, they are not designed to interface with Mac OS. The method used by Mac OS to organize file names with programs is completely different from the method used by Microsoft Windows.[2] There are third-party products available that claim to overcome this incompatibility (see Table 1 for details).

Palm OS
-Based Brands

Once you have decided on an OS, the next thing to consider is brand. If you've chosen a Palm OS-based product, the brands you could choose from include Palm, Handspring, and Sony. Palm is the original company that invented the PDA, and they designed Palm OS. Their gear is also fairly expandable, though some options are not interchangeable between all models. This may become an issue if you upgrade to another model of Palm later and wish to keep using your previously purchased optional devices. Handspring is a spin-off company headed by Jeff Hawkins. Hawkins invented the original Palm Pilot in the early 1990s while working at 3Com.[1] Handspring has made some minor improvements to Palm OS. For example, Palm-brand products come with "Date Book," while Handspring-brand products also come with "Date Book Plus," which has some additional features.

One of the biggest advantages with the Handspring product line is that they offer quite a few expansion options. There are close to a dozen different modules you can buy to plug into the expansion slot of a Handspring. This expansion slot is also the same across all models of Handspring PDAs, so an optional device bought for one model will work in a different model, should you upgrade at a later date.

Pocket PCs
and Other Brands

Pocket PC devices all use the same Windows CE OS, so the functionality across brands is very consistent. Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, and Casio are a few of the more well-known companies that make Pocket PCs. These devices are known for their superb graphics and sound. The Sony Clie also deserves mention. Somewhat of a hybrid, it uses the Palm OS and has all the functionality of a Palm-based device, but it also has superior graphics and sound, comparable with what is available on the Pocket PCs. For this reason, the Sony Clie is a bit more expensive than other Palm OS-based devices. According to Sony's Web site (Table), none of the Clie models are compatible with Mac-OS.


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