Solutions At Hand

Handhelds, smartphones, mobile technology and the digital lifestyle.

Back to school with a handheld or smartphone.

Posted by Michael Brown on September 2, 2005

Back to school is a big time of year for both students and retailers. Advertising abounds with what you NEED in order to go back to school. These days, most of the advertising is saying that you need a laptop computer in order to be productive at school. I won’t dispute the fact that a laptop can be very useful for students; if you want to get a computer, a laptop does have everything in one nice portable package. But what if you already have a computer, like a desktop; do you really need to run out and buy a laptop? That’s where a handheld can come into the picture.

What are the needs of a student these days? Basically, it comes down to a few things:

  • You need to be able to take notes and write assignments (word processing)
  • You need to carry reference information
  • You may need to make presentations (PowerPoint)
  • You need to be able to do e-mail
  • You may need to do spreadsheets
  • You need to manage your class schedule and other commitments (calendar)
  • You need to manage your assignments and other tasks (task lists)

Now, there may be more than that, depending on your curriculum, but that covers the needs of most students. There isn’t a single thing in that list that can’t be done on a handheld computer or smartphone. I regularly work with Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and even PowerPoint presentations on my Treo smartphone. I compose and read e-mail on it, and manage all my schedule, tasks, and even my journal with it. I also carry all these blogs, plus hundreds of other pieces of information on my handheld. The Treo allows me to take and view pictures, and I’ve added-on third party software to do voice recording and watch videos. For students, there’s even Palm software available to specifically address school schedules, grades , and assignments.

Plus, there are some unique advantages to using a handheld as opposed to a laptop. The biggest ones are speed of use, and silence. Silence, you ask? Why is that important? Handhelds are low power devices, and do not require active cooling. Laptops get pretty hot, and therefore have fans. Try concentrating on a lecture where all you can here around you is the whirring of little laptop fans; it can be really irritating! Especially older laptops where the fans are slowly dying; it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard! Instant on is really convenient for students, since you can pull out your handheld and get working right away. You have to wait for a laptop to boot up, and that can be a while. Yes, I know that laptops have suspend and resume, but that does take longer than turning on a handheld. Plus, suspend isn’t always really stable on some models of laptops, or sometimes Windows will just plain blow up trying to resume. Not very handy when you’re in a hurry. Another plus with a handheld or smartphone is that you can instantly check your schedule when someone asks you if you’re free at such and such a time to study the chemical properties of beer, or whatever you need to study.

Convergence is also another benefit of using a handheld or smartphone. Instead of buying a laptop, an iPod or MP3 player, a calendar, a cell phone, voice recorder, and other gadgets, you could just buy a Treo. Or you could buy a handheld with Bluetooth and a cell phone with Bluetooth, and have them work together, as well as doing double duty for all those other devices.

Portability is also a strong reason to consider a handheld instead of a laptop. A handheld or smartphone is much more pocket-able than a laptop. In fact, you can get a portable keyboard for handhelds and smartphones that folds up into a package not much larger than the handheld. It unfolds to a laptop-sized keyboard, and is quite comfortable to type on. I’m actually typing this blog on my Palm Universal Wireless Keyboard and my Treo while I’m sitting in a restaurant during lunch. I could put the keyboard in my pocket after I’m done; it’s that small.

My biggest advice to you is to not let advertising drive your purchases when it comes to back-to-school, or at any other time of year. Advertising is geared to make you feel that “YOU NEED THIS”, and often the products that are hyped the most, COST the most. Take a step back and look objectively at what you want to DO. Make a list of the tasks you wish to be able to perform, then look at what’s available to accomplish those tasks. Look at other more “ergonomic” things like size, feel, durability and general suitability for the tasks. Don’t close your mind off to alternate means to get things done; just because everyone else is spending $2k on a laptop doesn’t mean YOU have to! What’s most important is WHAT you want to do, not necessarily the HOW or WHERE. Handhelds and smartphones can restore a sense of freedom that even a laptop can’t manage, and gives you a little more freedom to spend your back-to-school dollars on other things too!

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