by Marty Demarest
At some unspecific point a few years ago, consumers stopped buying new computers. Since then, cell phones and MP3 players have done a pretty good job of distracting people with shiny new toys. But those devices are nothing compared to PDAs and pocket PCs. These paperback-sized computers have emerged as, if not great technological tools, at least great electronic toys. Designed primarily to keep track of addresses and notes, they've slowly evolved to let you play uninspired games and trade dorky programs (like "Starbucks Finder") with other owners. But to be fair, most of the newer models at least make a decent attempt at emulating usefulness: They recognize handwriting, record audio, play it back and connect to the Internet.
If all you're looking to do is keep track of your addresses, phone numbers and work on text documents, Sony's CLIE PEG-NR70V ($550) is the current leader of the PDA pack. It has a flip-open design that resembles an old cell phone or one of the original Star Trek communicators. This gives it room to house a tiny keyboard, letting you painstakingly type things with a small stick. But just when you start to feel like you're using one of the Flintstone's granite tablets and chisels, it lets you take pictures: You can literally attach faces to the names in your address book. Perhaps its strongest feature, however, is its use of Sony's Memory Sticks, little columns that can transfer data from one device to another, just like floppy disks used to do in the old days.
On the leading edge of the "pocket PC" realm is Toshiba's $350 e310. (Do they always name these things to sound like bad TV science fiction?) It's certainly cool-looking, measuring about a half-inch thick, and covered in that platinum plastic that's going to define our era's version of "high-tech" the way that black and glass did in the 1980s. It runs Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system, meaning that along with a future of expensive upgrades, you get the usual suspects like Word, Excel and an electronic book-reading program. It's got 32MB of RAM, and 206MHz of power, which makes it almost as powerful as an obsolete desktop computer.