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    Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro Discussion:
    Hand-Held Gadgets

    Wednesday, March 17, 1999

    Rob Pegoraro Rob Pegoraro began writing about the Internet for The Post back in 1994, which meant he had a Web page up before the Post did (the quality of it was another matter entirely).

    A few gray hairs, multiple trade shows and several bottles of Advil later, he became editor of Fast Forward in September 1997. There, he reports on, reviews, and often yells at home computers, Web sites, Internet providers, video games and other things that beep.

    Our discussion topic: Any gadget you can hold in your hand, including PalmPilots, Windows CE devices, mini-disc players and more.

    For background, read this week's Fast Forward and past discussions with Pegoraro.

    College Park, Md:
    What is the purpose of the handheld toys? To me, they seem like cell phones which are only valuable in an emergency situation in one's car. The handhelds I've seen have a wee small screen and are like laptops. I was very happy to get rid of my laptop when I retired! My own take is that people use them in order to appear cool and on the cutting edge! Maybe I'm wrong.

    Rob Pegoraro: Hey y'all... welcome again to the Fast Forward chat room, in which you send me questions and comments about things electronic and I try to sound intelligent in return. This week's topic: gadgets, from PalmPilots to laptop computers to Star Trek tricorders to those CIA transmitters in my teeth. (Oops, wasn't supposed to type that last bit...)

    Our first question is the ever-appropriate "why?"

    College Park, you're definitely right about the looking-cool angle. I think that's the first reason a lot of people--and certainly most technically-inclined people--buy into a handheld electronic device.

    The gadgets that last are the ones that actually deliver value, once the initial infatuation has worn off, and make your life better than it was beforehand. For instance, the Sony Magic Link (a now-deceased personal digital assistant) looked way cool, but turned out to be a pain to use and was still too hefty to lug around. But a cell phone--if you're on the go a lot and have friends or business associates that are too--means your life need not be spent waiting for people to return your calls; instead of waiting to get in touch with people, you can go ahead and do the things you were calling them about, whether it's dinner, that meeting, picking up the kids, etc.

    Yikes, I sounded like a complete shill there :) Uh, next question...

    Washington DC: Should I wait for buying a palmtop or a handheld computer? Are there some useful new features getting incorporated in the near future versions of these gadgets?

    Rob Pegoraro: Depends. I bought a handheld computer (a Palm III, which all of my friends are sick of hearing about) because I can't keep track of a to-do list to save my life, and I got tired of having good ideas--a story topic, a gift for my brother, a CD to buy--fly out the other ear before I could act on them. I could have carried around a notebook or something, but that would have been bigger and dumber (i.e., no "find" function), with no backup option at all.

    But if you're comfortable with a personal analog assistant, so to speak--a DayRunner, a little black book, writing on your hand--sure, it's a lot cheaper.

    Either way, though, the basic concept that you see in devices like a PalmPilot or a Win CE device is pretty much here to stay--that is, at the current $200-$300 price bracket. Don't expect anything snazzy like 100% effective voice recognition to come in at that kind of cost anytime soon.

    Ft. Lauderdale, Florida: The online version of Fast Forward provides an amazing amount of resources -- downloads, links, etc. Why do you folks at the Post bother wasting paper printing a newspaper version of it?

    Rob Pegoraro: We hate trees. Where's my chainsaw, anyway?

    Just kidding!

    We try to write for what's called the "middle adopter"--not the gearhead who's the first person on the block, if not the county, to buy the newest computer-enhanced widget, but that guy's coworker, who maybe heard about this thing on the news and is curious, but not interested in geeking out for its own sake. Many people matching this description have limited or no Web access; for that matter, at least half of American households don't own a computer at all.

    Bethesda, MD: Is the Palm VII worth the cost and the wait? Or is mobile e-mail easier and cheaper with a PocketMail device?

    Rob Pegoraro: For the uninitiated, the Palm VII is a forthcoming $700 version of the PalmPilot that adds wireless Internet access so you can bounce e-mail back and forth and pluck info off Web sites. Since it's forthcoming--i.e., we haven't touched one--I have no idea of its value.

    But I do know that scratching out replies to e-mail on a Palm's screen has gotta be annoying. And using the tiny keyboard on a PocketMail device (see can't be much more fun. My advice: Get a Web-based e-mail account that will also let you access your regular account--almost all of them do this now--and you'll be able to read and reply to messages anywhere on Earth there's an Internet-connected computer. Which means anywhere, period.

    There's also Plan D. If you're on vacation, don't check your e-mail at all; the world will probably survive your electronic absence.

    Rockville, MD: Look into your crystal ball and tell me what you see about the future of the mini-disc. This sounded like a great idea that was poorly marketed by Sony (they have done that before; Beta video). Seems like it would have use for both music and data.

    Rob Pegoraro: Excellent summation of the MiniDisc's fortunes, Rockville. These little (sub-floppy-disk-sized) discs are much easier to work with than recordable CDs and are also way more portable than any other music storage medium. However, Sony and the other MD manufacturers seem to have taken an awful long time to cut prices; I've yet to see any new MD Walkman-size player sell for much less than $200. You can buy a CD-R drive for a computer for less than that; home stereo CD recorders cost more, but bet on them dropping in price pretty rapidly.

    However, MiniDiscs are beyond huge in Japan, so the format isn't going anywhere. I don't think it's going to crater in the U.S. either, not with the last couple of year's worth of Sony marketing. My prediction is nothing too brilliant: Cassette tapes will continue their slow death, with MD becoming the tape replacement for people who don't invest in CD-R.

    Fairfax, Virginia: This infantile facination with the Palm Pilot is getting a bit irritating. Is there nothing else besides games and this tricorder thing worthy of your reviews?

    Rob Pegoraro: Aw, Mom!

    (Sorry, that's Craig Stoltz's line.)

    We do, in fact, cover quite a lot of different things as part of our explaining-technology-to-non-geeks mission. Next Friday's weekly page looks at online tax-preparation; this month's pullout section is our annual guide to Web sites for people with lives away from the Net; in April, we'll be looking at home telecommunications issues (when will you be able to pick a cable TV provider, when will you be able to get a cheap high-speed Internet connection, etc).

    Games are a funny part of the business. Lots of people buy them and care very much, but people who aren't in that scene often despise the entire "gamer" infatuation with "what's the newest 3-D card?" Having had enough game-installation problems myself, I can certainly sympathize with that view.

    ALEXANDRIA VA: Is there a device for converting old film movies directly into VCR or computer use?

    Rob Pegoraro: Hmm, takes me back a bit. We did a piece about companies that will do film-videotape transfers a few years back... aw hell, I can't find it. E-mail me ( or call (202/334-6394) and I'll try to look that up.

    Upshot of the story was, you've gotta pay somebody to do that transfer; the camcorder-in-front-of-the-projector-screen approach wasn't recommended, as I recall.

    Alexandria, Virginia: I recently heard that, the Reston based company, Proxicom, will be selling their shares to the public soon. What are you feelings about this company? Would you recommend buying Proxicom shares in the future?

    Rob Pegoraro: Well, a friend of mine interned there last year, and I can report that they have a generous vacation policy. Beyond that, alas, I don't know a heck of a lot about these folks... partially because, as a tech reporter, I'm not allowed to invest in the business.

    You might want to pitch that question to Jerry Knight or the Tech Thursday people at their chats.

    Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan: I'm told there's a "worm" program, kind of like a virus, called Happy99 that can mess up your computer. I got the e-mail and opened it. What's a worm, and what should I do? I checked online "hoax" lists and it doesn't seem to be one of those fake hoax viruses. . . .

    Rob Pegoraro: Sounds fishy to me. You did the right thing by checking to see if it's a hoax first (if you're not sure if that strange e-mail is a real virus or a dumb joke, try ... as mentioned previously in FFWD's "www.worth it" column).

    But you did the wrong thing by opening a strange file attachment, Moose Jaw. Hate to nag, but 1) if it is a virus, double-clicking it guarantees that it will activate; 2) if it's a joke file, it's probably dumb and you've probably already seen it before anyway.

    For the record, Happy99 is indeed a worm: (that's the info page about it at Network Associates). Better hide from your systems department before they find out...

    Queens, New York: Fast Forward only comes out once a week. What do you guys do the other six days?

    Rob Pegoraro: Try to get our computers to stop crashing online, like everybody else! Also, we try new software, new Web sites, talk to various industry PR flacks, sit through boring demos and answer reader e-mail. And drink lots of coffee.

    Washington, DC: Now that the Palm V is out, why would anyone buy the recently released latest version of the Palm III?

    Rob Pegoraro: 'Cause it's $200 or so cheaper. The Palm V is the same thing inside as the III, it just looks neater on the outside and has a better screen. If you can deal with having to hold a Palm III a little closer to the nearest light, it will serve you well. (Yes, it lacks the V's stylish metal case, but among the uninitiated, using either one of these makes you look like a dork. So be it.)

    Fairfax,VA: I know this will draw the ire of one of your previous questioners, but did you review Baldur's Gate? If so, I must have missed it. Any thoughts on this game?

    Sorry to waste the time of all non-gamers out there!

    Rob Pegoraro: We had not. We've heard a decent buzz about it--apparently, its Internet-play options are kind of what Ultima Online was supposed to be--but haven't fit it into the review schedule yet.

    Translation for the non-gaming types: Baldur's Gate is a role-playing game--same basic concept as Dungeons & Dragons. RPGers care very much about these games, but, because they take up so much time, their appeal can be a little limited to those not willing to, in effect, move into the game's world.

    Actually, that's true for many games in general. I don't play that many myself, because the timesuck factor looms too large when I really should reply to my e-mail before launching into yet another six-hour session of SimCity 3000.

    Arlington, VA: What's the best portable device to play MP3s? Anything new and snazzy coming down the line?

    Rob Pegoraro: The only one out there right now is the Diamond Rio PMP300, a cigarette-pack-sized thingie that holds about seven or eight songs in MP3 format (this is a way to store songs as digitally-compressed files). See our review from last winter:

    A bunch of other companies are coming out with Rio-type MP3 players; for instance, Creative Labs, the sound-card people, have one called the Nomad. This should be a really interesting thing to watch develop.

    Your other option, though, is to get a CD-recorder drive ($200-ish) and use it to burn regular audio CDs of the songs you have stored as MP3s.

    Arlington, VA: What are your recommendations on notebook computers in the under $2,000 price range?

    Rob Pegoraro: A lot of good stuff in that price bracket. I haven't looked at notebooks closely in a bit, but my general advice here is buy the screen (and the keyboard), not the specs. That is, get a laptop with the clearest, biggest, brightest screen you can find (look for an "active-matrix" screen), as well as the most comfortable keyboard you can find. That means you gotta try the hardware firsthand in a store. Ignore processor specs; anything sold today will do fine at the word-processing/Web/e-mail you're most likely to use a laptop for.

    Apple fans take note: the company just cut prices on G3 laptops, so you can get a very nicely equipped machine for under $2,000. 'Bout time; the company needs to have a laptop priced for civilians, not just people who can have their company pay for the thing.

    Burke, VA: Of the many PDA's available in the market place today, I have been most interested in the Windows CE equipment. I have been very reluctant in purchasing one simply because of the rate technology changes. Which Windows CE based PDA do you think is the best value and where do you see this tiny technology going in the next 3 - 5 years?

    Rob Pegoraro: I don't think any of the Windows CE (a cut-down version of regular Win 95/98) palm-sized PCs are a good value. Trying to duplicate the Windows user interface--taskbar, Start menu, and so on--on a screen the size of a deck of cards is just dumb. It complicates things without adding much value, and I wish somebody at Microsoft would realize that we're not, in fact, all desperately hoping that the Windows interface will be attached to every electronic device in sight. Also, battery life and performance on the palm-sized PCs are generally lousy.

    Rant aside, I think the "sub-laptop" CE devices, like the Vadem Clio we just reviewed , make sense. A laptop is clearly overkill for much on-the-road use; I'm happy to give up the ability to run, say, Adobe Photoshop if it means using something much lighter, simpler and with a longer battery life than a regulation laptop.

    bethesda,MD: What is the best book that clearly explains and defines everything for a newbie to the linux operating system?

    Rob Pegoraro: I will do the unthinkable (well, for an amateur pundit) and say "I have no idea." From my very small acquaintance with Linux--a free, "open-source," publicly distributed operating system for PCs and Macs--I definitely know that you'll need a book to get anything done. Here's what I'd do: Head over to the nearest bookstore and look at the books they have on Linux. Read the intro, then try to find the part of the book where they explain what you have to do to connect to your Internet provider. If you can find that chapter easily, and if it makes some sort of sense to you, then I'd give the book a shot.

    (Same advice goes for any computer book; if it's as hard to get around the book as it is to get around Microsoft Word's help file, the book's probably not going to work.)

    That's about all the time we've got here today. Thanks for stopping by; as ever, you can reach the entire Fast Forward crew at, or me personally at And keep an eye out for FFWD's page in Weekend, where this week our coverage turns to--I swear I'm not making this up--"Monica's Story."

    See y'all soon...


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