Burney's Legal Tech Reviews: Helpful Handsprings and Agile Acrobats

Brett Burney is the Legal Technology Support Coordinator at Thompson Hine in Cleveland, Ohio. He regularly reviews products for Law.com's Automated Lawyer and Law Office Computing Magazine. Feel free to e-mail Brett with your legal-technology questions at bburney@bburney.net.

Having Fun with a Handspring

Reviewing PDAs or Handhelds can always get a little dicey because almost everyone has already picked a side – either with the Palm OS or Microsoft’s PocketPC. My general overview is that if you want a quick and simple PDA, go with Palm. If you’re looking for a mini-computer to play games, music files, and more, than spend some extra cash on a PocketPC. Your choice should depend on your needs.

With that said, I had a chance to review a PDA that’s a few months behind it’s prime but still has a lot to offer the Palm OS user of today. Handspring Inc. was one of the first non-Palm Inc. companies to produce PDAs based on the Palm Operating System. Up until then, Palm Inc. was the sole producer of PDAs like the Palm Pilot that used the Palm OS. Once all the licensing issues got worked out, Handspring developed their widely popular Visor handhelds. Since then, other companies like Sony and Handera have developed PDAs built on the Palm OS.

Go with a Pro ...

One of Handspring’s offerings is the Visor Pro. On the outside, the Visor Pro is identical to the other models from Handspring such as the Visor Prism and Visor Neo. The Visors all have a no-frills casing, usually plastic, with the four application buttons on the front that are typical of any Palm-based PDA.  All Visors also provide the Graffiti Writing area along with four shortcuts that you can tap for certain applications.

The Handspring Visor Pro’s screen is monochrome which will admittedly turn a lot of people away. In today’s tech-age, everyone wants the glitz of color. But there are some out there that have meditated upon my words of wisdom above and have decided that in fact they only need a device to store contacts and appointments. They need fast access and don’t care about bells and whistles and really don’t have a NEED for color. It’s for these people that the Handspring Visor Pro shines.

Big Memory in a Small Package

The biggest draw with the Visor Pro is the 16MB of memory. Most Palm-based PDAs only provide 8MB of memory. And while 8MB is usually plenty for the average user, 16MB is very exciting for those of us that have big fat databases full of contact information that we want to take with us everywhere we go. Not only that, but 16MB can help out with storing extra pictures or information gathered with the help of third party software applications. And now that Handspring recently lowered the prices on all their Visor models, the 16MB Visor Pro is a fantastic deal at $229.

I consider the Visor Pro to be lightweight and easy to hold although the casing just seems to be a little “clunky” and squarish to me. The only component on the left side of the unit is an IR port. The stylus has its place on the right of the unit and most of the back is reserved for the Springboard expansion slot.

The Springboard expansion slot is a proprietary invention of Handspring. The slot sort of looks like a PC card slot that you would find on laptops but PCMCIA cards are not compatible with Springboard slots. Which reveals a bigger issue that I feel the need to speak to – compatibility is becoming all-important. I understand why Handspring went with their Springboard form factor. It is a smart marketing move to keep customers from going out and buying add-ons from other manufacturers that Handspring doesn’t directly work with. But in today’s world we want to be able to use the same Compact Flash memory card that we use in our digital cameras with our PDAs. Or be able to take the modem out of our laptop and slip it into our PDA. Proprietary form factors like Springboard are quickly becoming unpopular.

Springboards for Handsprings

Even after saying all that, Handspring has done a good job of providing a many add-ons for the Springboard expansion slot. There are about 50 modules you can purchase that range from digital cameras to wireless ethernet modules. I received the Targus Digital Voice Recorder add-on with the Visor Pro that I reviewed. I was very surprised at how fast the module plugged in and was ready to be used. There was no software that I needed to install, I simply plugged the card in and I was recording messages in the next minute.

The Visor Pro also has a rechargeable battery which is a big improvement over other Visor models that use AAA batteries. And since the Visor Pro does not have a power-hungry color screen, battery life is incredible. When you do need to charge the batteries, you simply place the unit in the cradle, which doubles as the connector between your PC and the PDA.

The cradle is used when you need to install software on the Visor Pro. A USB connection plugs into your PC and transfers data via the HotSync software supplied by Handspring. Right out of the box, the Visor Pro and supplied software are compatible with Microsoft Windows 98, Me, and 2000 as well as Mac OS 8.5 and up.

One of the greatest features with the Visor Pro that I found wasn’t with the simple to use software or the easy-to-navigate user interface, but it was the stylus. It looks simple and plain enough – a plastic tip and top with a thin cylindrical metallic body. But twist the tip off and you’ll find a pin that fits the hole for the reset button on the back. Unscrew the top of the stylus and you’ll find a very small Phillips head screwdriver which can be used for disassembling the casing if you should ever have that need. I found that it was also perfect for a quick repair on eyeglasses.

Once a Palm User, Always a Palm User

Two last things about the Visor Pro that just don’t make a lot of sense to me. First, Handspring included a “silent alarm” into the Visor Pro which is an LED that will flash instead of an audible sound. This is a great concept but the LED is a tiny speck of a light down at the bottom of the unit that is hard to see and not very noticeable – which sort of defeats the purpose of having a silent alarm. Second, Handspring decided to go with a slightly older version of the Palm OS when they released the Visor Pro. That’s not a big deal so much as the fact that there’s no way to upgrade the operating system. There are many PDAs out on the market that are not upgradeable but it would have been nice to see that functionality in a great package like the Visor Pro.

If you are already a Palm devotee and have found yourself needing some extra storage space on your PDA, purchasing the Handspring Visor Pro is a brilliant move. The Visor Pro is a great product that’s extremely functional for quick access to your information without a lot of unnecessary luxuries that you can find in other PDAs. But with the thousands of extra and third-party programs available for the Palm OS, plus the expandability options available with Springboard modules, you’ll find that the Visor Pro can become everything you need it to be.

PDF Files and Adobe Acrobat 5.0

If you’ve been hearing the letters “PDF” a lot and you’re not entirely sure of their significance, then this review is for you. PDF stands for Portable Document Format and it is a very functional file format. It was developed several years ago by Adobe Systems Inc. and it has quickly caught on as a standard for the creation and distribution of electronic documents.

Here’s a common scenario ... you spend a couple of hours developing a nice newsletter in Microsoft Word where you include a picture of your firm’s logo, an outline, and a small data table. You’re so proud of your work that you want to e-mail the document to a client or friend. Unfortunately, they don’t use Microsoft Word at their office. When they open it in something like Corel WordPerfect, your logo is missing, the outline is all messed up, and the table isn’t recognizable. This is exactly where PDF help.


Don’t Mess with the PDF

Using a program called Adobe Acrobat, you can convert your Word document into a PDF file. A PDF file preserves the exact look and feel of your document including the fonts, formatting, colors, and graphics. I like to think of it as basically taking a snapshot picture of your document.

Once the PDF file is created, you can send it by e-mail just like any other file.

On the other end, your client or friend will still need special software to read the PDF file, but the goods news is that the Adobe Reader software is a free download for anyone from the Internet. Once your client or friend installs Adobe Reader on their computer, they’ll be able to open and view your document exactly how you intended them to view it.

The Agile Acrobat

I’ve always been a big fan of PDF in my “paper-less” quest so it’s no wonder that I wanted to get my hands on the newest version of Adobe Acrobat. As I alluded above, Adobe Acrobat is the application that will allow you to create and make changes to PDF files. The creation part is done through other programs such as Word or WordPerfect. When you create a newsletter in Word, you “print” your document into a PDF file just like you would normally print your documents. But instead of something coming out of your printer, a PDF file is created.

Once you create a PDF file, you can use Adobe Acrobat to modify the settings of the document, create navigational bookmarks, mark up the text with highlighting or sticky notes, or even digitally sign the document.

Adobe has made some great improvements in Acrobat 5.0 over the previous version. First, the whole user interface is much better and more intuitive. I’ve always considered Adobe software products to be superior in their categories like graphics manipulation and video editing, but their applications have always been just a little “different” when they’re used in a Windows environment. It’s not that Adobe products are developed specifically for Mac platforms or anything, but shortcut keys and file menus sometimes don’t follow the un-written rules of the Microsoft “norms.” Examples include a non-Windows help file for Acrobat and putting the “preferences” menu selection under File instead of Edit or Tools. Admittedly, these are nit-picky issues but once you’re used to doing something one way, it’s a bit of a pain to change your habits for one or two programs.

With Acrobat 5.0, it looks like Adobe has finessed the program a little to make it more user-friendly for Windows environments. I feel a lot more comfortable in Acrobat 5.0 than I did in 4.0. It’s one of those “look and feel” things that you have to experience to understand.

Adobe has also added some substantive functionality with Acrobat 5.0. First, in the “Save As” selections, users can now save a PDF as a Rich Text Format file which means you can quickly and easily extract the text from a PDF file. You could do this in earlier versions of Acrobat but it was a tedious process. Second, Acrobat is even more friendly with graphic format like JPEGs, BMPs, and GIFs. Not only can you view these graphic formats directly in Acrobat, but you can extract these files right out of a PDF file.

Another way that I use Acrobat a lot is to preserve Web pages. Sure you can create a shortcut to a Web page that you find helpful, but what happens when that URL goes dead or changes? If I want to archive a Web page exactly the way it looks, I’ll import it into Acrobat and save it as a PDF file. All the hyperlinks on the page are kept intact as outside links or I can set Acrobat to also grab pages that are linked. Acrobat 5.0 is much smoother in grabbing Web pages than earlier versions. I love this feature of Acrobat and I have several PDF files where I gather a bunch of relevant online articles and columns so they’re all saved in one easy to use interface.

Add PDF to your Electronic Document Repertoire

More and more people are realizing the true potential of using electronic documents in everyday business. Adobe provides a lot of tips and information through a Web site devoted to their ePaper initiative. And with professions such as law where everyone lives and dies by the tangible signed document, electronic initiatives are slowly but surely taking hold.

The one caveat with creating PDF files using Adobe Acrobat 5.0 appears to arise on the reader side. The person reading the PDF file will need to upgrade to the Adobe Reader 5.0 in order to read the PDF file. This isn’t a problem since Reader 5.0 can be freely downloaded from Adobe.com, but you will need to keep this in mind when the reader of your document may be using version 4.0 or lower.

Otherwise, Adobe has done an excellent job with Acrobat 5.0 and I would highly recommend purchasing the program for anyone that takes PDF and electronic documents seriously.