The Personal Digital Assistant

Palm Tungsten E2 Product Review

PDAs are used to inventory par level supply rooms throughout the University of Michigan Health System.

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are handheld computers that were originally designed as personal organizers, but became much more versatile over the years. PDAs are also known as pocket computers or palmtop computers. PDAs have many uses: calculation, use as a clock and calendar, playing computer games, accessing the Internet, sending and receiving E-mails, video recording, typewriting and word processing, use as an address book, making and writing on spreadsheets, use as a radio or stereo, and Global Positioning System (GPS). Newer PDAs also have both color screens and audio capabilities, enabling them to be used as mobile phones (smartphones), web browsers, or portable media players. Many PDAs can access the Internet, intranets or extranets via Wi-Fi, or Wireless Wide-Area Networks (WWANs). One of the most significant PDA characteristic is the presence of a touch screen.

The term "personal digital assistant" was coined on January 7, 1992 by then Apple Computer CEO John Sculley at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, referring to the Apple Newton. In 1989, the Atari Portfolio, although technically classed a palmtop, was an early harbinger resembling the form of many modern pocket devices. Earlier devices like the Psion and Sharp Wizard of the 1980s already had the functionality to be considered as PDAs. In fact, PDAs by other names were available as early as the mid-1970s -- first as very advanced calculators, then as electronic organizers, and later as palmtops.

PDAs are some times referred to as "Palms", "Palm Pilot" or "Palm Tops" after an early PDA created by USR and Palm Inc. This usage is a case of genericized trademark./p>

Currently, a typical PDA has a touch screen for data entry, a memory card slot for data storage and IrDA port for connectivity. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are often integrated in newer PDAs.

Many original PDAs, such as the Apple Newton and the Palm Pilot, featured touch screens for user interaction, having only a few buttons usually reserved for shortcuts to often used programs. Touch screen PDAs, including Windows Pocket PC devices, usually have a detachable stylus that can be used on the touch screen. Interaction is then done by tapping the screen to activate buttons or menu choices, and dragging the stylus to, for example, highlight. Text input is usually done in one of two ways - tapping the letters on a virtual keyboard shown on the touch screen or using letter or word recognition, where letters or words are written on the touch screen, and then "translated" to letters in the currently activated text field.

Despite rigorous research and development projects, end-users experience mixed results with this input method, with some finding it frustrating and inaccurate, while others are satisfied with the quality.

Although many early PDAs did not have memory card slots, now most have either an SD (Secure Digital) and/or a Compact Flash slot. Although originally designed for memory, SDIO and Compact Flash cards are available for such things as Wi-Fi and Webcams. Some PDAs also have a USB port, mainly for USB flash drives.

Many PDAs have an IrDA (Infrared) port for connectivity. This allows communication between two PDAs, a PDA and any device with an IrDA port, or between a PDA and a computer with an IrDA adapter. Most universal PDA keyboards use infrared technology because all PDAs have it, and infrared connectivity is low-cost to manufacture. Most modern PDAs also have Bluetooth wireless connectivity, which is used by many mobile phones, headsets and GPS devices.

An important function of PDAs is synchronizing data with a PC. This allows up-to-date contact information stored on software such as Microsoft Outlook or ACT! to update the database on the PDA. The data synchronized ensures that the PDA has an accurate list of contacts, appointments and e-mail, allowing users to access the same information on the PDA as the host computer.

The synchronizing also prevents the loss of information stored on the device in case it is lost, stolen, or destroyed. Another advantage is that data input is usually a lot quicker on a PC, since text input via a touch screen is still not quite optimal. Transferring data to a PDA via the computer is therefore a lot quicker than having to manually input all data on the handheld device. Most PDAs come with the ability to synchronize to a PC. This is done through synchronization software provided with the handheld, such as HotSync Manager, which comes with Palm OS handhelds, Microsoft ActiveSync for older versions of Windows or Windows Mobile Center on Windows Vista, which comes with Windows Mobile handhelds.

These programs allow the PDA to be synchronized with a Personal information manager. This personal information manager may be an outside program or a proprietary program. For example, the BlackBerry PDA comes with the Desktop Manager program which can synchronize to both Microsoft Outlook and ACT!. Other PDAs come only with their own proprietary software. For example, some early Palm OS PDAs came only with Palm Desktop while later Palms such as the Treo 650 has the built-in ability to sync to Palm Desktop and/or Microsoft Outlook. Third-party synchronization software is also available for many PDAs from companies like Intellisync and CompanionLink. This software synchronizes these handhelds to other personal information managers which are not supported by the PDA manufacturers, such as GoldMine and Lotus Notes.

As with personal computers, it is possible to install additional software on most PDAs. Software can be bought or downloaded from the Internet, allowing users to personalize their PDAs to their liking. An example of this would be the display theme for the PDA. Almost all PDAs also allow for adding some form of hardware. The most common is a memory card slot, which allows the users to get additional and exchangeable storage space on their handheld devices. There are also miniature keyboards that can be connected to most mainstream PDAs for quicker text input. PDAs with Bluetooth use Bluetooth-enabled devices like headsets, mice and foldable keyboards.

Many PDAs are used in car kits and are fitted with differential Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers to provide realtime automobile navigation. Most systems can also display traffic conditions, dynamic routing and roadside mobile radar guns. This information is usually downloaded from the Internet prior to travel, or can be downloaded on the fly with PDAs equipped with GPRS technology. Popular software in Europe for this functionality is TomTom software showing road conditions and 3D environments.

In medicine, PDAs have been proven to aid diagnosis and drug selection and some studies have concluded that their use by patients to record symptoms improves the effectiveness of communication with hospitals during follow-up. The first landmark study in testing the effectiveness of PDAs in a medical setting was conducted at the Brigham & Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospitals in affiliation with Harvard Medical School. Led by the team of Sandeep Shah & Steven Labkoff, MD, the Constellation project used Apple's Newton (first PDA in the market) to cater to the demands of the medical professionals. Today, the company evolved from the effort Skyscape offers a wide range of resources including drug information, treatment options, guidelines, evidence based information and journal summaries including the drug & safety alerts. Other entrants include Epocrates and ABX guide, which supply drug databases, treatment information and relevant news in formats specific to mobile devices and services such as Avantgo translate medical journals into readable formats and provide updates from journals. WardWatch organizes medical records to remind doctors making ward rounds of information such as the treatment regimens of patients and programs. Finally, Pendragon provides tools for conducting research on mobile devices, with a connection back to a central server allowing the user to enter data into a centralized database using their PDA. Recently the development of Sensor Web technology has led to discussion of using wearable bodily sensors to monitor ongoing conditions like diabetes and epilepsy and alerting medical staff or the patient themselves to the treatment required via communication between the web and PDAs.

As mobile technology has become almost a necessity, it is no surprise that personal computing has become a vital learning tool by this time. Educational institutes have commenced a trend of integrating PDAs into their teaching practices (mobile learning). With the capabilities of PDAs, teachers are now able to provide a collaborative learning experience for their students. They are also preparing their students for possible practical uses of mobile computing upon their graduation. PDAs and handheld devices have recently allowed for digital note taking. This has increased student’s productivity by allowing individuals to quickly spell-check, modify, and amend their class notes or e-notes. Educators are currently able to distribute course material through the use of the internet connectivity or infrared file sharing functions of the PDA. With concerns to class material, textbook publishers have begun to release e-books, electronic textbooks, which can be uploaded directly to your PDA. This eliminates the exhausting effort of carrying multiple textbooks at one time.

To meet the instructive needs sought by educational institutes, software companies have developed programs with the learning aspects in mind. Simple programs such as dictionaries, thesauri, and word processing software are important to the digital note taking process. In addition to these simple programs, encyclopedias and digital planning lessons have created added functionality for users. With the increase in mobility of PDAs, school boards and educational institutes have now encountered issues with these devices. School boards are now concerned with students utilizing the internet connectivity to share test answers or to gossip during class time, which creates disruptions. Many school boards have modernized their computer policies to address these new concerns. Software companies such as Scantron Corp. have now created a program for distributing digital quizzes. The quiz software disables the infrared function on PDAs, which eliminates the element of information sharing among individuals during the examination.

PDAs are used by glider pilots for pre-flight planning and to assist navigation in cross-country competitions. They are linked to a GPS to produce moving-map displays showing the tracks to turn-points, airspace hazards and other tactical information.

Many PDAs run using a variation of the ARM architecture. This encompasses a class of RISC microprocessors that are widely used in mobile devices and embedded systems, and its design was influenced strongly by a popular 1970s/1980s CPU, the MOS Technology 6502.

Perhaps, more than any other computer devices, the PDA lacks the fully-blown infrastructure of a Wireless Broadband network. This could be offered in future by WiMax. Nowadays prices of laptops are coming down. Though somewhat bigger in size, laptops have better visibility & are more powerful. However, the OQO Model 2 has been released as an IBM-PC compatible PDA with a USB port so that people can be able to play computer games from ubiquitous operating systems such as Windows XP and connect typical PC peripherals.

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