10 Great Ways to Use a Palm (or Other Handheld/PDA)

June Liebert is the Director of Internet Initiatives at the University of Texas School of Law. Ms. Liebert has been the Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Texas and UCLA. Prior to becoming a law librarian, she designed and built litigation management databases at a consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio. She holds a BS in Management from Case Western Reserve University and a JD and MLS from Indiana University-Bloomington.


Now that you finally own a Palm (or other handheld or PDA device), what can you do with it?  I asked myself this question when I acquired a Palm Vx about a month ago.  Yes, a PDA is great for scheduling and keeping track of addresses, but what else is there? 

There are many different options for expanding a PDA. A wide variety of hardware add-on's (or modules) are available, such as MP3 players, digital cameras, voice recorders, cell phones, wireless Ethernet, modems and Global Positioning Systems. Many of these are currently only available for the Handspring Visor series which has an expansion slot, but Palm, HandEra, and other companies have recently released new devices that have two standardized expansion slots. The HandEra is especially promising, since it incorporates many new innovations.

New PDA accessories are also making it possible for you to leave your laptop at home more often. For example, portable keyboards and the Seiko SmartPad allow you to easily take notes at meetings.

Installing software is the more common (and less expensive) method of increasing the capabilities of any PDA. You can buy and download software from a variety of sources, including the sites I've listed in Appendix A. They range in price from a few dollars to over $50. There is only one program that I have been tempted to actually purchase, however - Documents to Go from DataViz ($49), which allows users to view and edit Microsoft Word and Excel files on a PDA. A similar program, WordSmith ($29) allows you to manipulate Word files only.

Fortunately, there are also a lot of freeware programs available. Since the Palm operating system (or OS) still dominates (around 90% of the market), my quest was to find 10 free and practical software-based uses for a Palm OS handheld or PDA - beyond the factory-installed programs.  Some of the software, such as Vindigo, have proven to be invaluable.  Others, such as Avantgo and WebLog for Palm OS, sound promising.  Along with my list of recommended software programs for the Palm OS (some are also available on the Pocket PC platform), I have also included a list of websites where you can download more software (Appendix A) and electronic texts (Appendix B).

A word of warning: make sure you read all directions and notes before installing any new software, particularly if you have an older or a brand-new-just-released PDA. Not all software programs are compatible with all versions of the Palm OS, and may not work on all hardware.

Here are 10 great (and free) uses for a PDA:

  1. Get travel information:  The ability to carry maps, guides, yellow pages with me at all times has made my PDA indispensable.  Whenever I am looking for a good restaurant or need directions, I can usually count on Vindigo and JunglePort to find what I need. These are not the only two services available, but these are free and well done. 
       
    1. Vindigo: http://www.vindigo.com/ -Tell Vindigo where you are, what you are looking for, and Vindigo will list every restaurant, store, bar, club, and movie theater in the area. It will tell you what movies are playing where, at what times, give you movie reviews and directions to the theater. You can find out what restaurants are closest to you, get directions, and read reviews. The reviews are from local content providers such as Zagat, Washington Post, and New York Times. The information is automatically updated every time you synchronize your PDA with an Internet-enabled computer.  Drawback:  only 20 cities are available so far.
    2. JunglePort: http://www.jungleport.com/ - Similar to Vindigo, but the content is not as rich (there are less listings and reviews). However, JunglePort has 60 cities available.
  1. Read a book (or electronic text):  This would seem to be an obvious way to use a PDA, but I was dubious given the small screen size.  I was pleasantly surprised at how readable it actually was.  It’s certainly easier than carrying around the equivalent number of pages in paper.  There are thousands of free e-books available from the Web, or you can upload your own documents. The biggest drawback is the lack of a single standard document format, which means you will have to install different reader programs to read different formats.  Although the DOC format is relatively standard, many e-books are in proprietary formats that are only accessible with specific reader programs.  Here are a few of the many free readers available:
    1. CSpotRun: http://www.32768.com/bill/palmos/cspotrun/index.html  - A simple, compact, and popular reader for documents in the DOC format.
    2. I-Silo Free: http://www.isilo.com/  - Another excellent reader that will allow you to view DOC and I-Silo formatted files.
    3. Adobe Acrobat Reader: http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readerforpalm.html - Displays PDF documents on your PDA.
  1. Get the time/date
    1. Big Clockhttp://www.gacel.de/ - Turn your PDA into a clock with an alarm, world time, calendar and a timer/stopwatch. Everything is displayed in large, easy-to-read numbers. The timer even works while your PDA is turned off. 
  1. Turn your PDA into a mirror or flashlight
    1. Mirror+ 1.1:  http://freewarepalm.net/misc/mirror_.shtml - Although this may seem a bit frivolous, you may find it to be useful in a pinch. This program turns the whole screen of your PDA black - making it an effective mirror. You can also use your PDA as a flashlight or nightlight just by turning on the backlight while Mirror is running.
  1. Keep track of lists with a database
    1. List: http://www.magma.ca/~roo - A simple database with multi-language support. Allows you to keep lists of anything you wish - shopping lists, CD collections, etc.
    2. My Listhttp://grandlake.net/mylist/index.htm - Another simple database.
  1. Access a dictionary
    1. Noah Lite English Dictionary: http://www.arslexis.com/ - Noah is the biggest English dictionary for PalmPilot. It contains comprehensive definitions of up to 122,000 words in a compressed format.  Besides Noah, there are many different foreign language dictionaries available also.
  1. Read the latest news:  These programs are similar to Vindigo, but they provide news and other content to your PDA. If you have a wireless modem on your PDA, you can get your news in real time. I had to wait for a doctor's appointment recently, and I used the time to read the news I had downloaded to my PDA from AvantGo earlier that day.
    1. AvantGo: http://avantgo.com/ - Provides free interactive and personalized content through a wireless, real-time connection or via desktop synchronization, Over 1,000 content channels that are optimized for mobile devices, including news, stock quotes, flight schedules, movie listings, restaurant reviews, maps, and weather. Some of the content providers are Yahoo, Wall Street Journal, Fodors, CNet, MapQuest, Northwest Airlines, Hollywood.com and Expedia. You can even download your travel itinerary from VirtuallyThere, which is part of the Sabre system used by many travel agencies. For many of the services, you must request information first, and and then it is downloaded the next time you synchronize. AvantGo is particularly useful if you have a wireless modem, so you can look up information whenever you want.
    2. Sitescooper: http://www.sitescooper.org/ - If all you want is news, then Sitescooper is a good alternative. It automatically retrieves stories from news websites and converts them into different formats that can be viewed on your PDA. It is written in Perl. Many people prefer Sitescooper because it doesn’t track your downloading activities, unlike AvantGo.
  1. Create a weblog or blog: “A blog is a web page made up of usually short, frequently updated posts that are arranged chronologically….[I]nstead of hand-coding your blog posts and frequently uploading the newest version of your page, you make posts to your blog by submitting a simple form on the Blogger web site, and the results immediately show up on your site, with your design.” – from the Blogger website at http://www.blogger.com/. You can also go to Weblogs.com for more information. See how the Redwood City Public Library and Librarian.net are using blogs to post news items.
    1. webLog for Palm OS http://www.handx.net/index.phtml?page=products&subpage=weblog - Allows you to use your PDA to create weblog (or blog) entries for a website. You can jot down entries for your weblog from practically anywhere and then upload the created entries to your web server later when you synchronize your Palm with your PC.
  1. Jot down notes. Although graffiti (a type of shorthand writing used by Palm to input information) is relatively easy to learn, sometimes all you want to do is jot down a quick note or drawing. Once again, there are many different programs that will do this, but DiddleBug is a pretty good (and free) one.
    1. DiddleBug 2.15: http://blevins.simplenet.com/diddlebug/index.htm - an electronic reminder note that allows you to quickly jot down notes, drawings, etc.  You can also set an alarm by scribbling something on the screen and selecting the alarm time from a pop-up list. You can then use another freeware program called DiddleEx to graphically extract and view images from DiddleBug onto your desktop or laptop in .BMP format.
  1. Play a game. There are thousands of games available from a lot of different sites. Although it may seem frivolous, games could be handy the next time you have a long layover in an airport. Some games can even help you learn specific tasks. For example, Giraffe (included with all PalmPilots) teaches you to write better Graffiti. Here are just three of the more popular games available:
    1. Backgammon: http://www.palmgear.com/software/showsoftware.cfm?sid=93761120000612104132&prodID=9509 - "This is a well featured, lightweight and free Backgammon game. Play against your Palm or another human player. Learn basic strategy by making your Palm playing against itself." - from the PalmGear website.
    2. Vexed: http://spacetube.tsx.org/ - "Vexed is a puzzle game where you must move blocks around and try to match them up, which eliminates them. The laws of gravity apply also making things even more tricky. Features full animation, sound." - from the PalmGear website.
    3. Spacetrader: http://go.to/spacetrader - "Space Trader is a complex game, in which the player's aim is to amass enough money to be able to buy a moon to retire to. The player starts out with a small space ship, armed with one simple laser, and 1000 credits in cash. The safest and easiest way to earn money is to trade goods between neighboring solar systems. If the player chooses the goods to trade wisely, it isn't too difficult to sell them with a profit. There are other ways to get rich, though. You might become a bounty hunter and hunt down pirates. It is also possible to become a pirate yourself and rob honest traders of their cargo. Beware, though: pirating is a way to get rich quickly, but the police force will go after you." - from the SpaceTrader website.

Appendix A

Appendix B

You can download electronic books online at:

Bartelby - http://www.bartleby.com/ 

BlackMask Online - http://www.blackmask.com/

Electronic Text Center (Univ. of Virginia) - http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/

Etext Archives - http://www.etext.org/index.shtml

Free ePress - http://www.free-epress.com/

FictionWise - http://www.fictionwise.com/

Mad Cybrarian (Mostly text) - http://www.fortunecity.com/victorian/richmond/88/index.html

MemoWare - http://www.memoware.com/  *highly recommended

Online Books Page (Univ. of Penn.) - http://www.digital.library.upenn.edu/books/

Peanut Press (not free) - http://www.peanutpress.com/ 

Pocketbooks - http://pocketbooks.freeservers.com/

Project Gutenberg  (Text only) - http://promo.net/pg/

Udownload.com - http://www.udownload.com/