The PDA Ain't Dead Yet Okay, so smart phones will eventually rule the digital- device universe. But this new handheld is neither a lame duck nor an ugly one.
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – When the Palm V handheld computer made its debut five years ago, the typical buyers were male (80%), highly educated (over 33% had postgraduate degrees), and affluent (average income was $100,000). In short, they were nerds.

Today that flock of geeks is migrating to a new generation of smart phones, which combine the typical organizational functions of a handheld computer with a mobile phone, plus wireless e-mail and web-browsing capabilities. After all, who wants a plain old personal digital assistant (PDA) when smart phones offer so much more?

Plenty of normal people, as it turns out. PalmOne, the hardware company formed by the merger of Palm and Handspring, says it has sold three million of its non-geeky Zire handhelds in the past 18 months. Based on my experience with the newest offering, the multimedia-savvy Zire 72 ($299), PDAs (public displays of affection) for the humble PDA are certainly justified.

PDAs have become much more than just fancy and expensive replacements for paper notepads and sticky notes, for keeping track of names, numbers, appointments, and to-do lists. The new PDAs do all those things, of course, but they are also photo wallets, music players, electronic books, and even video and voice recorders.

In keeping with the zeitgeist, the Zire 72--which replaces and greatly improves on the Zire 71, one of my previous favorites--has had extensive plastic surgery. It got an eye job in the form of a built-in, 1.2-megapixel digital camera with 2X digital zoom, vs. the submegapixel version in the Zire 71. The camera also captures MPEG 4 video with sound, but you'll need an external memory card (a 256MB or larger SD media card will run you $60 and up) to store the clips and all the photos you'll be spontaneously snapping. The 71's sagging bottom, a sliding panel that had to be manually retracted to reveal the hidden camera, has been surgically fixed to allow the camera to be operated one-handed. If you want to import your favorite digital photos from your PC or Mac, the Zire 72 comes with a mini-USB connector. The Zire's bright color screen is handy for showing off pictures and even slide shows of your kids or grandchildren.

Normally I'm not a fan of implants, but the RealOne MP3 music player embedded in the Zire 72 is impressive. The Zire's built-in speaker is wretched, but through headphones this baby puts out enough sound to pin back your ears. While there are certainly better portable music devices on the market, the Zire 72 music player is a bonus. Again, you'll want to buy an SD card for storing MP3s. The music player and the digital camera each have dedicated, one-touch buttons on the front panel. Two other buttons bring up the calendar and the address book.

Did I mention the brain enhancer? The 72 has a new button for recording quick voice memos, which can be invaluable for such things as helping remember where you parked the car at the mall. Heck, take a picture if it helps.

Last, and most important to some, the Zire 72 also had its teeth done. Well, just one, actually--it added built-in Bluetooth networking. That allows the Zire to connect wirelessly to a separate Bluetooth phone for sending photos or short video clips to friends, or for browsing the Internet and keeping up with e-mail. It's not clear just how popular this feature will be: Bluetooth phones are still considered exotic, and the typical Zire buyers--including seniors, soccer moms, and students--are often intimidated by propeller-beanie technologies like wireless networking. Anyway, the Zire 72 is not the ideal mobile e-mail device, as it lacks a built-in keyboard. To enter data, the user must learn the Graffiti 2 handwriting alphabet or peck with a stylus on a tiny software keyboard. If wireless e-mail and Internet are vitally important to you, consider a smart phone, like the PalmOne Treo 600. Otherwise, as far as PDAs go, the Zire 72 is a cut above the rest.