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PDA Update – ASUS eee PC1000 and iPod Touch

Once upon a time, many years ago, I wrote a column for PC Pro (UK PC magazine) on “Mobile Computing”. The editor wanted me to write about Windows CE PDAs, which were then and are now extreme crap – and I submitted columns on what worked – which, back then, meant mainly Palm, and I expored mobile phones and laptops, which meant the early Mac OS X machines from Apple. Good stuff, and I was happy to see recently that Stephen Fry validated all my opinions in his blog. I was booted, and replaced by a guy who owned a PDA business, and wanted to write about what made him money – which, incidentally, was exactly contrary to the concept behind the Realworld Computing section in PC Pro (but then my column didn’t fit either, as it wasn’t my primary business, or even a secondary one for me).

Time for an update…

I have stayed away from hand-helds. Frankly, the market niche sucks. Palm sold out to Windows CE, and couldn’t recreate their (bought in) OS; they may (or may not) have held on to their original purity of UI, but didn’t have a platform to sell. Apple laptops, as everyone knows, hold their market – high price, good feature set, great UI, and good overall value. But I’m typing this on an ASUS eee PC (running Linux).

This trip has been an interesting one. I’ve been using an Apple iPod touch for some time, and my wife an iPhone, but this is the first long trip with one. For various reasons we decided not to take a laptop (staying with hand luggage only in both directions was a big part), and took the iPods to give them a good test.

At home, walking to a local cafe with an iPod/iPhone in the pocket is a trivial decision. They work very well for casual email and web browsing, although the iPod Touch shows up the problems of finding WiFi access in the UK; with the iPhone, the 3G data access makes that a non-issue.

The obvious weaknesses are the the small screen size; pinching to zoom every single page gets old, very quickly. Outdated sites that refuse you access because you aren’t running IE are a well-known problem, but less obvious. Lack of copy and paste is a big issue for us, as is the inability to do anything meaningful with Notes documents – I’d at least like to be able to edit them on the machine synched to.

The inconveniences turn out to be big when on a real trip. I wasn’t writing long enough emails back home, which I usually do to act as a form of trip diary for me. In the past, I have done the same with an Apple Powerbook and iWeb, very successfully – but there’s nothing close enough on the iPhone/iPod. Twitter really doesn’t match the requirement, having always a transient feel.

I concidered buying a 13.5″ Powerbook – that would cost approximately $1,000. It would fit the bill very closely, although battery life could become an issue. I have often thought about buying one for travel in the past, but the relatively large overlap with the 17″ Powerbook that I use for training classes and semi-portable development has been off putting. However, the new Linux netbooks are attractive – all the required ports and interfaces, good battery life and inexpensive. A white ASUS eee PC 1000HE (I think the suffix is correct, although it doesn’t mention it anywhere on the box) lasts me for a day mostly sitting in coffee shops, connects effectively to free WiFi (if I can find any), and handles mail/web/chat well – much better than the small screens and quirky software of the iPhones. With data roaming turned off (due to cost) on the iPhone, that kills the one advantage it has. Netbook price? < $300; no addons or upgrades are required. What you are buying is substandard from both the hardware and software point of views, when compared to the Apple offering, but at what saving? By substandard I mean the entire inconsistent Linux UI (that’s right, I wouldn’t consider Windows), and minor details like how hard you have to hit the trackpad button to make a click, and the balance when the screen is tilted back, and a myriad other tiny details that just don’t arise on Apple hardware and software.

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