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It's 1996. You might have a cellphone, but it doesn't do much more than make phone calls. You might have a laptop, but it's likely too heavy to carry with you everywhere you go. Or you might only have a phone that's plugged into a wall and a PC that's confined to a desk. That's the environment that gave rise to the Personal Digital Assistant (or PDA), a new type of product that first arrived in the late 1980s but really came into its own in the mid-90s.

1996 also saw the release of the first PDAs developed by USRobotics subsidiary Palm Inc., the Pilot 1000 and 5000, which had more in common with today's smartphones than many of their contemporary devices. They had a touchscreen with only a few physical buttons at the bottom. They had apps you could download. They could sync data with your computer. And they were small and light enough to carry with you at all times. They just didn't make phone calls.

A year later, Palm released the slightly upgraded PalmPilot Personal and PalmPilot Professional (with 512KB and 1MB of RAM, respectively), and the ensuing years would see a regular stream of new devices -- not to mention an acquisition by 3Com, and a new spate of Palm OS products from Handspring, a company founded by the folks behind the original Pilot.

But it's those first few devices that come to mind when someone mentions "Palm PDA," and with good reason -- they set a mold that wasn't deviated from much until Palm made the jump into smartphones.
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PalmPilot Personal review

Hardware

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The payoff is a fast and reliable input system that does away with the need for a physical keyboard.
The standout feature is the stylus-based input, a source of ridicule for Apple's Newton device released just a few years earlier. Unlike the Newton, however, the PalmPilot doesn't make an attempt to recognize natural handwriting, opting instead to rely solely on a shorthand recognition system called Graffiti. It has a slight learning curve (aided by a tutorial game called Giraffe), but the payoff is a fast and reliable input system that does away with the need for a physical keyboard. As for the device itself, while we'd be a bit hesitant to put it in our jeans' pocket (it creaks enough to diminish any confidence of it holding up for long sans case), it does slip easily into an inside jacket pocket -- it's smaller than, say, the Galaxy Note in every dimension but thickness. On the right side of the device, you'll find what looks like a volume knob but actually adjusts the screen's brightness (it's best left at maximum), while the left side contains a slot that conveniently houses the stylus. Around back you'll find a removable cover that allows you to install an optional upgrade kit (originally selling for $199), which boosts the memory to 1MB and adds some wireless capabilities (IR, of course). Not included is a paper clip, which we'd recommend carrying with you to perform the occasional hard reset. All PalmPilots also had the advantage of a HotSync cradle, which plugged into your computer (via the now rare serial port) and allowed you to sync apps, documents and other data at the push of a button. As good as Graffiti is, it was certainly a lot easier to add contact information or write out memos on your PC and then send it all to your PalmPilot in one batch.

Software

Palm's devices weren't trying to be small computers.
Unlike many of the so-called "handheld PCs" of the day, Palm's devices weren't trying to be small computers. The apps and operating system were greatly simplified, with everything just a few taps away. Yet those apps also made the devices much more capable than the personal organizers that were popular at the time, which did only a few tasks and not very well. They may not have gone on to explode in use the way smartphones have in the past decade, but they found a niche and served it well for a good number of years. Of course, there were areas that did leave some room for improvement. While the resistive touchscreen offers reliable stylus-based input, it's also low-res (160 x 160) and hard to see in less-than-ideal conditions, with an Indiglo-style backlight offering a poor substitute for a true backlit, color LCD. The limited internet capabilities offered by the devices also require a bulky 14.4k modem that originally cost an extra $129 -- and, of course, plugs into a phone jack. What might have once been a slight drawback is a welcome feature today, though. The early Palm devices all run on a standard set of AAA batteries, which means that collectors and technology historians don't have to worry about hard-to-find rechargeable batteries (or worse, non-removable batteries) to keep them running for years to come.

Wrap-up

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As far as we've come in the 16 years since the release of the original Pilot, it's also remarkable how much hasn't changed. The screens have gotten better, the hardware has gotten sleeker, and everything has gotten far more connected, but we're still carrying around handheld devices that supplement our main computer, help us stay organized, and have a simplified operating system with apps displayed as a grid of icons. Add in some WiFi, 3G and a decent web browser and we could almost see ourselves using getting by with one of these today -- and that's quite a testament to Palm's original vision.

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