In a world where the disconnected are increasingly viewed as disenfranchised, it's not unusual to see half a dozen digital devices clipped to belts and bags -- cell phones, pagers, portable MP3 players, digital cameras, and PDAs. While much of this gear is indispensable (wanna take odds on the chances of your car breaking down next to a pay phone?), is it all really essential?
To test the necessity of a digital helper for every occasion, I glommed onto Palm Computing's $149 m100 Handheld and measured its effectiveness against Mead's 99-cent Memo Book -- a 40 page, 4-by-6-inch spiral notebook. Here are the results of my tests:
At 4.66 by 3.12 inches, the m100 is significantly smaller than the Memo Book. However, with its two AAA batteries, the m100 weighs in at 4.4 oz whereas the Memo Book weighs no more than an ounce. The Memo Book is also far more physically flexible than the m100. After placing the Mead product in my back pocket and sitting at the computer for the better part of a day, the Memo Book remained functional. Fearing that I'd have to pay for the test unit supplied by Palm, I didn't perform the same test on the m100 (nor did I subject the m100 to the "Drop to a concrete slab from head height" test that the Memo Book passed with flying colors).
The m100 includes a fairly comprehensive suite of applications, including an address book, date book, clock, to-do list, memo pad, note pad, and calculator. The Memo Book includes no applications whatsoever. The m100 provides 2MB of memory that, according to Palm, allows you to store thousands of addresses, years of appointments, hundreds of to-do items, assorted notes and memos, with space left over for additional applications. The Memo Book includes 40 double-sided pages, each with 18 ruled lines. The amount of information you can permanently store within the Memo Book depends entirely on the size of your handwriting (for less permanent storage you can employ a pencil rather than a pen). Neither device offers expandable storage although the m100 allows you to move internal data to your Mac or PC via infrared, the included Hot-Sync cable, or an add-on Hot-Sync Cradle. (The only way I could create a link between the Memo Book and my Mac was to tape one of its pages to my Mac's monitor).
While you can use the Memo Book and m100 for many of the same tasks, the Memo Book isn't terribly helpful when you need assistance performing those tasks. For example, to carry out a mathematical operation on the m100, you simply need to call up the calculator, punch in some numbers and functions, and press the Equal button. The Memo Book requires that you actually know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Likewise, the m100 can tell you what time it is, whereas the Memo Book is helpful in this regard only to the extent that you might jot a note on its cover that reads, "Don't know the time? Try looking at your watch."
Although the m100's Note Pad application allows you to scribble characters into the device using your own handwriting, most of the time you'll use Graffiti, Palm's proprietary handwriting software -- software that demands that you draw number, letters, and punctuation the Palm Way or no way at all -- to enter data. While Graffiti isn't difficult to master, it's not nearly so forgiving as the pen-to-paper method where you can enter any character (cursive or block-lettering), doodle, or scrawl you care to create. Plus, with the Memo Book you can use a variety of readily available input devices -- a felt-tip pen, lipstick, crayon, quill dipped in motor oil -- rather than the somewhat flimsy plastic stylus supplied with the m100.
It would be difficult to find a more intuitive interface than the Memo Book. It looks exactly like a small, ruled notepad because, well, it is a small, ruled notepad. So successful is this traditional interface that it's found in the m100's memo pad. The other applications sport interfaces that are familiar to anyone who's used a computer manufactured in the last decade -- featuring drop-down menus and clearly defined fields.
The m100 surpasses the Memo Book in its ability to organize data for easy retrieval. Unless you plan carefully, you're likely to mix phone numbers, e-mail addresses, doodles, reminders, and your grocery list on the same page of the Memo Book. Although this can be helpful during those I-think-I-scribbled-her-phone-number-next-to-the-reminder-to-buy-broccoli moments, with the m100 it's virtually impossible to file information in the wrong place.
Finally, unlike the m100's backlit screen, the Memo Book is impossible to read in the dark. The m100's light-green-on-dark-green backlighting may not be nearly as clean and bright as the white screen found on the more expensive Palm IIIc, but at least you can see something when the lights go out.
Which is right for you? The Mead Memo Book is clearly the most flexible in both form and function and its price is hard to beat. For simple note taking and fly swatting, the m100 can't touch it. Plus there's a certain retro cachet in carrying a simple pad and pen rather than yet another electronic doodad.
But for those who would like to lend an air of organization to their lives, have important information available at the touch of a button, and have a device clipped to the left side of their belts to balance the cell phone clipped to the right, the m100 is the way to go.