Ramblings from the Warrior's Den
Thursday, January 16, 2003
OK, I'm back to using the plain old keyboard on my computer to write Blog entries on. Although I do still use the Transcriber on my Axim for taking notes in my classes and as the primary text entry for everything else, it's the kind of thing that probably isn't the best thing to be using to write anything much more than a quick note or two with. Sure, the transcriber does an incredibly good job of translating my chicken scratches into something resembling what I was trying to write, but I get the general impression that I'm giving the technology quite a workout, and I've found out that a 2.5"X3" screen really doesn't give you a lot of real estate to write on. If I had the money to spend, I probably would have given serious consideration to getting one of the new Tablet PCs that have been appearing recently. I have messed with a few demo units in stores, and these seem to do a far better job than the PocketPC transcriber does in recognizing my handwriting. Whether this is because they have the power of a full-fledged PC platform behind them, or because I can write in much larger characters on the letter paper sized screen, I can't determine for sure.

Those of you who have been following computers for a while will probably remember the first ill-fated attempts at pen computing in the early 90's that never got off the ground. At the time, handwriting recognition was a relatively new field, and the first attempts fizzled out mainly because nobody could get it to work well enough to be practical. At the time, I messed around some with the PenWindows API (which was an addition to Windows 3.1,) albeit using a mouse for input rather than a stylus. At the time, trying to write a single sentence in Notepad was an exercise in frustration. Character recognition was limited to one character at a time, and it often took multiple tries to get the right character. The system was supposed to be "trained" by using a program that learns your handwriting, although this wasn't included (the PenWindows components I had came with a copy of Borland Turbo C++, back in the days before Visual Basic.) I didn't spend any appreciable amount of time with the program, but it didn't take long to determine that the technology wasn't developed enough at the time to be much more than a curiosity. It probably also didn't help much that these systems only had the computing power of a mobile 386 platform to work with.

There are several other methods of text input (In addition to the transcriber: There's a standard virtual keyboard, a block recognizer which uses something similar to Graffiti on Palm-based PDAs, and a letter regognizer which is a more advanced version of the block recognizer, although it's something of a misnomer because it recognizes one-stroke gestures rather than characters. In addition to these, there are commercial thrid-party add-ons such as Calligrapher (an enhanced handwriting recognition program, which is supposedly better than the built-in Transcriber) and Fitaly, a virtual keyboard optimized for use with a stylus, with which some people have been able to exceed 70 words per minute on a handheld. I haven't tried any of the third-party add-ons yet, nor have I extensively used any of the other standard input methods, because although it tends to be particularly sensitive to mistakes ans stray marks, the transcriber has been working pretty well, and is great for jotting down notes in class and having them appear almost magically (well, after corrections) in typed format.

Given the fact that my Axim is the first handheld that I've owned, I really can't compare it to any of the other Palm or PocketPC models, with which I have no experience beyond messing with demo units in stores. The Axim itself seems to be relatively well built, although it is obvious that along the line, a few corners were cut. Given the fact that comparable models from other PocketPC vendors can cost up to twice as much, I can understand why this might be the case. The Dell Axim Advanced model I have, with a 400MHz XScale processor, 64MB of RAM and 48MB of ROM cost $349 plus shipping, with a $50 rebate to bring the actual price to $299. The Basic model, with a 300MHz processor, 32MB of RAM and 32MB of ROM only costs $199 after rebate, making it the least expensive PPC on the market right now. Competitor's models start at $299 (which often doesn't get you much, and go up from there.

Most notable among the issues with the Axim is the somewhat flimsy directional pad, an issue well known among the Axim user community. The built-in speaker is also small, and relatively underpowered. The output from the headphone jack is better, although there seems to be some quiet high-pitched noises when the volume is turned up. Other than these items, the quality of the overall unit is quite good. The screen in particular is excellent, drawing comparison to the screens on some of the high-end iPAQ models. Some people have complained that for a Pocket PC, the Axim is somewhat larger in size, and somewhat bulkier. Again, I can't really compare it to other PPC models since this is my first one, but I find that as long as I don't use the included case, it fits comfortably in a pocket, although I'm somewhat reluctant to carry it this way frequently because of the possibility of the screen getting scratched. Once I get one of the WriteShield screen protectors on it, I imagine this won't be an issue. The Axim is only about an inch longer than the wallet I carry around, and significantly thinner. The stylus included with the unit is very thin, and somewhat difficult to use for extended periods of time. Most of the time, I write on it with a standard pen-sized stylus I found at CompUSA, which is slightly more difficult to use with the small screen, but a lot more comfortable to write with than the included stylus.

As I mentioned in my last entry, when I got this, I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to use it for, other than a fancy new toy. Surprisingly, I've found my Axim to be a lot more useful than I planned. I've been using it to take notes in my classes at school, and have yet to use a single sheet of paper in any of my three classes. In fact, if it were not for the fact that I need to carry around some books for use in class, I doubt that I'd even need a backpack at all. Unfortunately, I have found that I most likely will not be able to store files for use in classes because the school computers don't have the proper drivers, but I could probably pick up a USB SD card reader for $20 and do that. In less productive pursuits, the PocketPC excels. I've used the included Microsoft reader to spend some time reading some EBooks, and it works quite well for the purpose. You don't have to squint to read it, and with the backlighting, you can even read with the lights off. There are some excellent games that have been written for the PocketPC. In addition to those, there are some excellent emulators for PocketPC which allow it to play games for the NES, Gameboy Color, TG16 and several other platforms. The flaky D-Pad and cramped button layout aren't exactly optimal for gaming, but they do work. What I'd ultimately like to see is something like the game controller Sony offers for their Clie handhelds, although I imagine something like that to be unlikely to appear anytime soon.

When I was originally looking at handhelds, I was primarily considering the Palm M130 model, primarily because it was what was in the price range I was looking to pay for one of these. Some messing around with a store demo unit left me relatively unimpressed. I really wanted to get a PocketPC based handheld because they seemed so much more useful. It seemed that all of them were outside of the range of what I was willing to spend on one though, so I was about to just forget about getting a handheld at this time... Until I found the Axim. I wouldn't say that it's the kind of thing that I wonder how I lived without it, because I managed to live without it for quite a long time. I have found the Axim to be incredibly useful though. Some people who don't need something like this for much more than the basic stuff (contacts, notes, etc.) might be better served by a Palm-based handheld. If you need to do much beyond that, I'd definitely recommend an Axim.

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