Chris Partridge reviews the latest handheld gadgets and software, the best websites for palmtop technology, plus Tom Barker on what innovation really means
Why are palmtop computers taking off?
Palmtop computers used to be something of a status symbol on building sites. Now they are becoming standard issue for many construction companies. What made the change? First, the arrival of software designed specifically for construction. This makes the palmtop a real tool, rather than a posh calculator. Data collection is the killer application for palmtops. Wandering the site, an engineer or foreman can tick off jobs completed, make notes of errors or omissions and check progress. Back in the office, the palmtop can be plugged into its cradle and all the information downloaded to headquarters or to the rest of the project team in seconds. Add to that the ability to carry huge amounts of technical information and the individual's own contact list and diary in a form that can be slipped in a shirt pocket, and it's no wonder the palmtop is coming into its own.

A wave of new hardware using the vastly popular Palm system has just been released, bringing more power and versatility than ever to your pocket.

Software for palmtops

Site list program
For the manager who likes to go around a site nitpicking, this is a killer application. Etails allows you to build up lists of things that need doing, from pouring foundations to mending broken window panes. When you synchronise your Palm with your PC, all the jobs are uploaded and compared with the central database. Then the machine sends out orders to everyone responsible, either by adding tasks to the Etails menu on their Palm, or by emailing or faxing them.

As a system, it is complex to set up but easy to use, and should be well worthwhile if it helps get the details right. Etails is still under development by Kim Medlin, a builder and computer consultant in Atlanta, Georgia, and Ennio Murroni, a software developer based in Florida. It should be on the market soon - see for details.

Scheduling system
At present, scheduling software gets as far as the site office and from there on in you rely on pencil and paper. With Punch List, tasks are downloaded from a central scheduler, such as Microsoft Project or Primavera Suretrack, onto a Palm so that the site manager can note down the actual start and stop times for each activity directly on screen. At the end of the day, the user just places the Palm in its cradle and presses the synch button, and the central schedule is updated.

A schedule that is updated daily is invaluable for the team, the client and, increasingly importantly, for evidence as to who is to blame when delays begin to cost money. Punch List is downloadable from at a cost of £140 per handheld.

Estimator tool
Marathon uses Palm computers as in-the-field extensions of its project management and estimating tools, as well as powerful inventory trackers. Marathon Construction Management and Advanced Estimating Tools for Windows can both be enhanced with field systems based on the Palm. See for more.

Microsoft extension
Natara Software has launched Project@Hand, yet another system for taking Microsoft Project with you on site. A nice touch is the graphical representation of the percentage complete for each task. See to download a 30-day trial version. It costs £35 to register.

List-making add-on
Obsessive note-taking, recording everything from inspection visits to the showers of rain, can make the difference between success and failure, and if you fail anyway, it helps with the legal fallout. Prolog Pocket is a new add-on for Prolog Manager, Meridian Project Systems' project management application.

But why not just use pencil and paper? For one thing, downloading information from Prolog Manager saves a great deal of time. And uploading the notes back into Prolog Manager ensures accuracy.

Prolog Pocket for Palm costs £210. For further information, visit

Web watch Handheld resources at your fingertips
The official Palm site has everything imaginable: games, music and navigational aids including Lonely Planet city guides and language directories. Share price movements and news can be monitored with the right program and a wireless link. For the health-conscious, a program called Alcopal will monitor your alcohol consumption.
This site is full of information for the handheld user. Handango publishes business and entertainment software for Palm, Pocket PC, Windows CE, RIM Handhelds and Symbian platforms. It also markets the hardware complete with accessories. There is a comprehensive glossary of handheld terminology for the uninitiated and tutorials for new users.
ZedNet has plenty of software titles covering everything from utilities to herbal remedies. This site reviews the software available and gives it a star rating plus the number of downloads to date. Each category can be arranged according to its star rating or popularity. It also reviews and lists the top 10 software titles, making the whole business of buying software over the internet less of a hit-and-miss affair.
MobileDB for the PalmOS is a database application for viewing and editing table or spreadsheet-like information. Handmark has more than 500 MobileDB databases that can be downloaded free of charge. Another handy program is MobileSafe Account Manager. Access is gained via a single password; it remembers all account numbers and PIN numbers and keeps them in one place.
Tony Jest's PalmPilot Freeware Recommendations. A site for the parsimonious as the software is either very cheap or free. Jest makes personal recommendations, including a list of "must-have" software, and also indicates how much memory is needed for each application. There are links to other sites where free software can be found.

Glamour model

Handspring’s Visor is incredibly useful because its Springboard expansion slot enables you to transform it into a phone, camera and lots more simply by plugging in a module. But it could never be described as pretty. The new Visor Edge is another beast entirely. It is razor thin, just over a centimetre thick and has a flip top or a side-opening metal case that looks rather like a 1950s cigarette case. But the Springboard slot could not be squeezed in, so to attach a Springboard module you have to use an adaptor that clings to the back of the unit like a papoose. Which rather spoils the slimline effect. But if you want a really stylish palmtop that won’t create an unsightly bulge in your dungarees, the Edge is definitely the one. It costs about £330, even in lowly monochrome. See for all the details.

New from Palm …

One of the main drawbacks of Palms was that they could not be expanded. The m500 series solves that by including a slot for a multimedia card barely the size of a postage stamp. Initially, the MMC slot will only be used for extra memory, but Palm expects other devices to be incorporated on the card, including cameras, modems and even satellite navigation systems, but these are unlikely to arrive any time soon. Physically, the m500 is sleek and stylish, looking very like the Palm V. It has a monochrome screen so if you want colour, you will need the m505. The m500 and m505 will be in the shops in May. The m500 will cost about £250, add £50 for the colour version. See for more.

Sony’s one-armed bandit

The CLIE is very stylish and has a couple of original features. The first is the slot for a Memory Stick, the “chewing gum” memory card that Sony is pushing for all its gizmos. It is very good technically, but tends to be a bit more expensive than other cards. The other feature is a “jog dial” positioned at the top left hand corner that enables you to look up phone numbers or read documents with one hand – dead useful if you are on the phone. The Clie costs about £300; take a look at for an animated demo.

Palm for less

The latest addition to Palm’s economy class, the m105 has 8 MB of memory, four times that of the previous model, and a desktop cradle for connecting to a PC or Mac. The m105 also comes with all the software you need to link to the internet and your email via a mobile phone. But the most notable feature is the price: just £175.

The scribbler

The ultimate accessory for people who prefer pen and paper but need to record their scribbles on computer, the Seiko SmartPad 2e is a folio with a notepad on one side and a space for a palmtop on the other. As you write or draw on the pad with the special pen, the lines appear on the palmtop via an infrared link, ideal for back-of-envelope designs. It even makes typing easier by including a keypad that you can tap on with the pen. Available soon at £170. See for more.