Notes from the Technology Trenches : Gadget Lust: MP3 Players, PDAs and Technology Convergence

Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C. , and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.

‘Tis the Season for Gadget Guides

I admit it, I have gadget lust. I want an iPod. I especially wanted one when I found out that there is an adapter that allows you to use it to store images from your digital camera. Full of excitement and anticipation, I looked at all the options. I decided if we were going to use an iPod for storage, we should get the one with the largest possible memory. And for long trips, we’d need the longest lasting, lightest possible battery. And maybe a few other accessories: a charger, and a case. Oh! And a dock so we could sync up with our laptop, and a FireWire connection so that data transfers wouldn’t take forever. Did you know that iPods now also have calendaring and address software? No need for that handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) I’ve been eyeing. Maybe.

Turns out that at this point what we wanted would have cost us about $800 after rebates and coupons. Hmm. Time to rethink the iPod thing. Did we really need something that almost cost as much as a laptop? Um, no. (Editor’s Note: See also this December 20 Washington Post article, Battery And Assault When His iPod Died, This Music Lover Tackled Apple. Stay Tuned, detailing the significant additional costs of iPod maintenance.)

Last year it was digital cameras, and we actually did get one, though I found the cost horrifying and we have yet to print more than a handful of photos. This year, it’s iPods and handheld organizers that have us in a dither, but we probably won’t bite.

Gadget Ambivalence

Here’s the thing. There are many reasons to want all kinds of gadgets including:

  • Having all that data at your fingertips is fabulous — addresses, calendar entries, pictures, music, games, audio books and radio programming, internet access, software. Darned convenient.
  • The communication options — Wi-Fi, e-mail, photo transfers, cell phones, etc. — give users loads more ways to reach out to each other for both personal and business reasons.
  • All the information can be manipulated. You can edit your photos, make playlists of your favorite tunes, get actual work done.

And there are very good reasons NOT to get them:

  • They are expensive — especially the newest, coolest items.
  • They require that you learn how to use them which takes time and effort.
  • They make YOU reachable.
  • They aren’t as good or as cheap as they will be if you wait just a little longer.

Well, it’s that last one that’s really getting us. We know that we don’t really need much of what’s out there, and we already have some frustrations with the gadgets we own now. We can wait until the shiny new things get a little less expensive. The trick, evidently, is to be educated about the available features, know how you would be using them and balance all that against the cost. With luck, you won’t be paralyzed by every new wave of choices that comes at you so that you never actually commit to purchasing anything.

So, even though I’ll be waiting on the iPod/PDA question, I’ve been doing my homework. I appealed to a group of highly organized sensible people — librarians — and asked them for feedback about their experiences with handhelds. The complete details of their responses are available online, but here’s the nitty gritty in case you are also struggling with a decision about whether or not to leap into the handheld arena.

To Buy or Not to Buy

The Pros

  • If you are already a person who uses an extensive time-management calendaring system, a PDA will probably work for you. The consensus seems to be that they work best when you carry them with you all the time, and you have the discipline to enter absolutely everything in. Most people who gave me feedback used their PDAs for both personal and work purposes and had paid for their PDAs themselves, a testament to their perceived value.
  • If you lose or break a PDA, all your data should still be available on your PC or laptop as long as you sync up regularly. If you have the discipline to enter every item you should, you probably won’t have any trouble remembering to sync. Many people emphasized that the data is the key, and that it was worth the expense of the PDA not to have to enter the same information in several calendars and address books in order to have it be accessible wherever they were and to have a backup in case they lost a paper copy.
  • The weight of a PDA is significantly less than an extensive paper organizer. This may seem like a minor point, but if your backpack is anything like mine, you get the picture.
  • PDAs don’t have to be terribly expensive. People seem to mainly use the most elementary features: the address list, the calendar and to-do list, and the event alarm. Some folks swear by color screens, some love having e-mail and Web browsing and cell phone and digital camera features, but pretty much everyone agrees that the basics are what help them most. Buying a simpler PDA makes the cost drop like a rock — reputable brands are available for $100 or less. Several people had purchased refurbished or used PDAs and seemed very happy with them, so that may also be a potential cost-saving option.

The Cons

  • Can you easily picture your PDA crashing to the hardwood or cement floor in your office or onto the street? Do you see yourself leaving it on the train? Dropping it in a toilet by accident? These things and more happened to folks who responded to my query. If any of that seems likely, a PDA may not be for you, or you may at least have to invest in a hard case and should maybe consider getting one of the less expensive models. Some people were on their third or fourth PDA, and not because they had opted to upgrade. Sometimes they were able to get a replacement for free or at low cost from the manufacturer, but sometimes the replacement cost was entirely out-of-pocket.
  • Are you a half-hearted record keeper? If you are not committed to entering new data regularly into your PDA, you will be buying an expensive paperweight.
  • You can lose the the data in your PDA. If you don’t have the discipline to sync regularly with your PC or laptop, it happens. One person I know lost his data entirely, twice, because he was traveling and lost battery power at around the same time that he was changing computers and hadn’t synced recently enough. If you travel extensively without a laptop, that’s a point worth considering.

Related Issues

Peripheral Hardware

  • I have a laptop now, but before I bought it I had wondered whether it would be reasonable to buy a PDA with a keyboard instead. I’m very happy now not to have done that. With one exception, every person who had tried using a portable keyboard with a PDA had found it cumbersome and would not recommend it.
  • If you get a PDA and have a PC or laptop at home and one at work, invest in a cradle for both locations. Syncing up will be much simpler and will happen more regularly.


Almost everyone who responded had purchased at least one additional piece of software for their PDA. What they purchased ran the gamut:

  • Financial management software was a big item.
  • Games were also very popular — heavily endorsed for long waits in airports.
  • Upgrades to the calendar features also had their place.
  • No one liked using a PDAs to read or edit documents, and everyone seemed to think it was a waste of space and effort to load any word processing software.

Basically, there are many software options out there, but you should try before you buy if at all possible. What works for one person may not for another.

Technology Convergence

One last thought. If you have gadget lust and want it all — the phone, the digital camera, gobs of data storage, address and calendar functions, Internet access, and so on, and so on — hang in there. It’s coming. The iPod (which, again, offers calendar and address features) with the adapter for transferring large media files (as from a digital camera), is far from the only cross-media product out there. Palm now also offers .mp3 players. A company called Archos makes a handheld video player with a nearly four inch screen (the same size or better than what you might find in the seatback of an airplane) that can also work as a digital camera or VCR. Obviously, that’s progress, but we’re not quite there yet. While you can use the iPod for storing those photos, for instance, you can’t view them. So, if you haven’t bought anything yet, take heart. There’s always more and better on the horizon. And if you find that prospect depressing, go get an inexpensive PDA and try it out, or buy a simple .mp3 player. Get over your electronic paralysis. You might find that gadgetry suits you.

Happy holidays from the Trenches!

Posted in: Gadgets, Gadgets/Gizmos, Notes from the Technology Trenches