Q: Adult life’s gotten hectic to the point where it’s high time I invested in a personal digital assistant. From what I can tell, there are basically two types of PDAs out there—Palms and Pocket PCs, right? Which one should I go with?

Eighteen months ago, when Pocket PCs were brick-sized battery hogs that cost zillions, the answer would’ve been a no-brainer. But lots of kinks have been worked out in the interim, so handhelds running Microsoft’s PDA platform are no longer fit only for folks who speak Klingon and sport high-water pants. Palms are still the pick if all you’re looking to do is store phone numbers, keep a calendar, and jot down the occasional drunken revelation. If you expect a richer multimedia experience from your digital sidekick, though, you’ll want to give the Pocket PCs a gander.

The major brands running the Palm operating system include Handspring, Sony, and, yes, Palm itself. Most feature monochrome screens of varying crispness (Sony’s CLIÉs are tops), stellar battery life (two to four weeks with AAAs, or a week on a rechargeable), and plenty of basic apps, like address books and memo pads. This is definitely the choice for techno-neophytes, who will find the Palm OS’s one-tap interface simpler to master than a microwave oven. Plus, the Palm lines abound with inexpensive PDAs. Some stout performers, like the Palm m100, can be scooped up for under $100.

A Palm’s Achilles’ heels are power and memory. The standard processor speed is a paltry 33 megahertz, and even the fanciest Palms (which’ll set you back six bills) crank at only 200 MHz, all of which means that hefty lifting—say, viewing a short video, editing graphics-laden files, or satisfying your gaming jones—can be jerky slogs. Oh, and multitasking? Not with a Palm, which can open only one program at a time.

The names of note on the Pocket PC side are Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba. As you might guess, the Pocket PC platform looks an awful lot like Windows—all those menus and whatnot. The upside is that Pocket PCs beat the bejesus out of the competition on the power and memory fronts. Four hundred MHz? No problem. Sixty-four megs of RAM? You got it, pal. The extra juice gives Pocket PCs enough kick to handle tasks like viewing Adobe Acrobat documents, creating PowerPoint slides, or playing MP3s. Not to mention supporting full-color screens that make Palms look like tabletop Pong.

The Pocket PC’s drawbacks begin with size. Unlike Palms, these typically aren’t shirt-pocket contraptions, unless you’re a Big & Tall store habitué. All that power tends to shorten battery life considerably; if you squeeze out four hours per charge, you’re among the blessed. Then there’s the price, as most Pocket PCs are on the dear side of $300, with the high end at $700. That’s changing a tad, as Dell recently released a $199 version, the Axim X5. It’s a corner-cutter that’s sure to frustrate the Who Moved My Cheese? crowd of “power users,” but it’s a nice entry-leveler if you’re merely hoping to gratify your inner geek.

Whenever Mr. Roboto mentions a Microsoft product without referring to the company as “the Great Satan,” he receives a slew of irate e-mails. (Sample: “How much does Bill Gates pay you to be evil?”) So, in the interests of open-source fandom, note that Sharp offers a Pocket PC-like handheld that runs Linux. Aside from a few software hiccups, the Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 works great, and there’s a robust development community headquartered at Mr. Roboto’d be an even bigger admirer if he could dredge one up for less than $300, and entertainment apps (Galaga, please!) were easier to come by.

Since one of Mr. Roboto’s New Year’s resolutions is to abandon the “Do as I say, not as I do” logic of countless beer-swilling fathers, be advised that your humble narrator recently purchased a Palm-running Sony CLIÉ SL-10, a playing-card-sized steal from for only $116 (shipping included). Considering that you sent your question to lowbrow Mr. Roboto rather than a columnist for the Journal of Solid-State Circuits, the hunch here is that a Palm will do you right. At least until early 2004, by which point Pocket PCs should be comparably priced and suitably sized. Huzzah for capitalism.

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