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Electronic Organizer Reviews and Recommendations

Updated December 2006

Looking for a review or recommendation on a basic electronic organizer? It's not hard to find reviews of high-end PDAs and pocket PCs, but there isn't too much product comparison information available on the basic models. Here you can read IMSL Software's views based on many years of using and supporting these devices.

The pickings are one again rather slim in terms of new models for 2006. Pen-pad-style organizers have come to dominate the market, in imitation of the high-end Palm and Windows PDAs. The availability of new keyboard-style electronic organizers is currently limited to inexpensive low-end models such as the Sharp EL series and Casio SF-4990. Earlier models are sometimes available from online retailers - check sources like eBay. Unfortunately we cannot recommend any of the low-cost imitation PDAs currently being sold, such as the Sharp P series. If you want to use a PDA as an organizer, then you would to better to consider the least expensive Palm or Windows Mobile unit that meets your minimum needs - or perhaps a cell phone with PDA functions. You would think that the makers of penpad-style organizers would notice how popular those cell phone PDAs with alphanumeric keyboards have become, and re-think their product strategy.

If all you want is a portable Contacts list, spending hundreds of dollars more for an organizer that attempts to be a poor substitute for a laptop computer or a music player is probably not a very good idea. Consider alternatives: You could buy an Apple iPod for the same price and have a fine music player that doubles as a portable hard drive and a simple pocket organizer.

Reviews

Casio

Sharp

Oregon Scientific

Palm

Apple

General Recommendations

  • What model should you buy?
  • What features should youlook for?
  • How much should you spend?
  • Should you buy an organizer or a PDA like Palm or Pocket PC?

Specific Recommendations

Note: You may have to search eBay for some of these now that they are no longer being sold new.

Best full-size organizer under $100: Sharp OZ-770

Best buy in a pen-pad PDA: Palm Tungsten E2, about $200

Lowest cost electronic organizer that isn't just a toy: Sharp EL-6990: under $30 with PC-Link

When it has to be as small as possible: Oregon Scientific Echo, $70

Best mobile Email solution: Sharp TM-20, under $100

More Details:

Best full-size organizer under $100: Sharp OZ-770

The OZ-7xx models (also known as ZQ-7xx) have the high-end features which put them a cut above basic organizer models, and at a bargain price. They have more memory (3 Mbytes for the OZ-770), a bigger display (8 lines by 40 characters), and a more extensive set of fields and options for the standard data types. The older OZ-700, OZ-730, and OZ-750 models are similar to the OZ-770 but have less memory (1 - 2 Mbytes).

But the main thing that sets the OZ-770 and the other OZ-7xx models apart is that they are user-programmable, which makes them the lowest cost programmable organizer available. You can download the programming IDE and a variety of free add-on programs from Sharp's MyWizard web site.

The included PC link hardware and software supports true synchronization with a PC database, and the OZ-750 even has a wireless infrared interface to allow it to exchange data directly with other OZ-750 models (not compatible with anything else though, so don't expect to be beam infrared data back and forth to Palm PDAs). You can get an add-on terminal emulator program from MyWizard, but there's no TCP/IP support yet for web browsing or email.

The OZ-770 is a bit larger than pocket size in order to accomodate the larger screen and keyboard, and to allow the use of standard AA batteries. However they are slimmer and lighter than most other models in this category, such as the Casio SF-7xxSY models. The use of standard AA batteries saves you money, and there are no additional memory backup batteries required since the organizer uses non-volatile flash memory.

In summary, a very impressive organizer at the price - well worth it if you want a bigger screen and keyboard, or you want to be able to extend your organizer with add-on programs. The add-on programs available so far aren't all that impressive, but there is an active group of developers producing more all the time (see www.ozdev.com).

Should you buy the OZ-770 or spend twice as much for a Palm PDA? That depends on whether you prefer a pen-pad layout or a regular keyboard, and whether you want to be able to use all those Palm add-on applications and exchange data with other Palm users.

Best buy in a pen-pad PDA: Palm Tungsten E2, about $200

Surveys show that most people use their PDAs as a basic organizer, so what's the attraction of the more expensive Palm models? Among other things:

  1. A well-designed user interface which works smoothly with the pen-pad layout.
  2. Fast and easy synchronization with the Palm PC database software and with a variety of other standard applications software.
  3. An open application development environment which has spawned thousands of 3rd-party applications which run on the Palm PDA
  4. Standard communications interfaces which support Internet connectivity and a host of other devices.

These things have made the Palm PDA the real "generic PC" of handheld units. If you want to be able to exchange data easily with other people's PDAs, and if you want to take advantage of the most extensive set of PDA add-on applications available, then Palm is the best choice. The Pocket PC models running Windows from other manufacturers have been getting better every year, and are now very competitive with the high-end Palm PDAs, but they are also generally much more expensive and battery-hungry than the mid-priced Palm units. At the low-price end Casio has a line of programmable PV-S/X models released in Europe. The Casio units are well designed and have an impressive set of built-in functions, but they are starting from way behind Palm. Casio hasn't even bothered trying to compete with Palm in the U.S. market.

Palm has a wide variety of models, and other manufacturers such as Sony offer similar PDAs which use the Palm operating system, but Palm is still the leader. The Palm units and their accessories are more widely available and more likely to be fully compatible with third-party software than the others.

The Zire series are the low-price models in Palm's line, but the lower-end Zire models have a smaller screen which some people might find more difficult to use, and some other limitations. The Tungsten E2 sits at the low end of the Palm's premium Tungsten series, and it delivers good value for money. It offers a full-size color screen, rechargeable battery, USB connectivity, 32 Mb memory, SD card slot, PalmOS 5.4, MP3 playback, and expansion port.. I would pay the extra money and opt for the Tungsten E2.

Lowest cost electronic organizer that isn't just a toy: Sharp EL-6990: under $30 with PC-Link

For several years now the Sharp EL models have set the low price point for a usable electronic organizer. This year the new EL-6990 model takes over from the EL-6790 and the EL-6890 before it, adding extra data types and a Spanish-English word translator. If what you want is an inexpensive pocket-size organizer to store telephone lists and reminders, manage your schedule, and double as a calculator and alarm clock, this will do it.

The screen is a bit small at 5 lines by 14 characters, but otherwise this model is similar to the more expensive YO/ZQ-270 model line. The EL-6990 even has the same amount of memory as the more expensive models, 256 Kbytes).

The one feature that sets a usable organizer apart from a toy is the communications port that allows you to backup and restore the contents. The inexpensive PC-Link cable used by these models allows Sharp to include the cable for a very small price premium in the "P" kit. The "B" kit does not include the cable, but it's a simple cable which is easy to build and cheap to buy as an accessory. The backup software included with the PC-Link cable is rudimentary, but an inexpensive shareware upgrade is available to allow you to edit and manage data on a PC. However these models do not support true automatic synchronization with a PC database.

If you ever lose or break the EL-6990, you can buy the organizer alone as a replacement for less than $20, restore your last backup, and you're in business again. Compare that to losing a $500 PDA or Pocket PC that you areusing as a basic organizer!

You can spend $20 more for the compatible YO/ZQ-270 if you want a bigger display (5 lines by 19 characters).

Casio has similar models, but they use a more expensive PC link cable which is not included.

There are several flaws in these inexpensive Sharp models though. The password protection of secret data is not as usable as it should be, and the small batteries are relatively expensive to replace. And while the EL-6990 has a few improvements over the older models, it also introduces some new limitations: it is limited to a maximum of 290 telephone records, and Memos are limited to a maximum of 96 characters each.

When it has to be as small as possible: Oregon Scientific Echo, now about $30

If you are looking for a very compact pocket electronic organizer, you can't beat the size of the Echo. As you can see from the photo, this is a credit-card size organizer (not that you would ever put it in a wallet - it's too thick, and it would break if you tried to flex it). It fits conveniently in a pocket or purse, and yet it has all the functionality and memory capacity of larger electronic organizers. The pen data input and editing is no less convenient than any of the other pen-based units in spite of the compact size.

The package includes a PC Docking station and Companionlink Software(TM) synchronization software for Microsoft Outlook(TM), Act!(TM), Goldmine(TM), Lotus Organizer(TM), Schedule +(TM).

If you are familiar with the Rex PDA, the Echo is similar in form to the Rexx unit, but with the following differences:

  • It has a touch screen and comes with a stylus to allow data entry and editing on the unit, unlike the Rexx which relies on the PC for data entry and editing
  • It plugs into its own compact docking station with a serial interface to the PC - it is not designed to slide into a PCMCIA slot like the Rex.

The only real drawback to this unit is the relatively poor screen contrast and lack of a backlight, which can make it difficult to read in low-light conditions.

The Echo isn't widely available in stores, but you can buy it through PDABuzz. (update: now available at Office Depot online).

Best mobile EMail: Sharp TM-20, under $100

The Sharp TM-20 TeleMail is a unique combination of an electronic organizer with mobile email capability. It has a built-in acoustic modem (on the back) which allows you to send and receive your email using any telephone - no special connections or additional gear required. It's meant to be used with the PocketMail service (www.pocketmail.com), which for $9.95/month provides a special email server with toll-free access numbers to be used with this type of modem. All you do is dial the toll-free number, hold the TM-20 up to the phone, and press the Synch button to exchange messages.

The TM-20 will send and receive messages up to 4000 characters (text only). PocketMail provides you with a dedicated pocketmail.com email account, and the PocketMail server will consolidate messages from up to 3 other existing email accounts, automatically stripping off attachments and truncating the messages to 4000 characters when it sends them to the TM-20. The PocketMail server also provides standard POP/SMTP access to your email account over the Internet from your home computer.

On the TM-20 you can read messages, reply to or forward messages, compose new messages and edit existing messages. The screen and keyboard of the TM-20 are pretty good, on par with Sharp's high-end Wizard organizers. It's certainly a lot more convenient and usable than a Palm PDA or a cell phone for email. There's no "web surfing" capability, but you can make use of various free online services which allow you to retrieve web pages and other information like news/sports/weather via email.

The acoustic connection is fairly reliable on most phone lines, but it's not as fast as a direct telephone line connection, and it may not work over digital cell phones (analog is ok). It usually takes a couple of minutes to upload and download several messages of medium length each way. You can minimize the time required by retrieving message headers on a first pass, then marking just the messages you want to read for a second pass.

You can only use the built-in email function with PocketMail's service. At the moment PocketMail USA provides toll-free access only in North America, but PocketMail is expanding in Australia and Europe, and now has local access numbers there which may be available to travellers (check with PocketMail for up-to-date information).

The TM-20 also functions as a standard electronic organizer, with sections for Address List, Schedule, and Memos. In spite of the built-in modem it's no larger or heavier than similar Sharp Wizard organizers. It includes a PC link cable and some basic PC backup software. You can upgrade the software to Rupp PocketLynx, or XLink/Win shareware.

PocketMail supports several other models, but the TM-20 is the most popular of the supported models available in North America.

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General Recommendations

There are dozens of electronic organizer models currently available from Sharp, Casio, and other manufacturers. They range in price from less than $30 to more than $200. Several hundred older models have been sold over the past few years which are no longer in production. Each is slightly different in appearance and features, and obviously which one is best for you is a matter of individual taste and usage.

This is what people say is most important to them according to the ongoing poll by PDABuzz:

1. Scheduling (33%)
2. Internet Access (20%)
3. Contacts (18%)
4. ToDo/Memos (12%)
5. Email (5%)
6. Games (5%)
7. Other (4%)
8. Audio/Video Playback (2%)

Forget Internet Access, EMail, and Audio/Video in a pocket electronic organizer - no inexpensive organizer model supports those features, and most expensive PDAs don't support them well enough to actually use. On the other hand any inexpensive organizer will support Scheduling, Contacts, and ToDo/Memos. So maybe you should ask, what's the point of buying a $400 PDA to do the job of a $40 electronic organizer? Sooner or later you are going to lose it or break it!

The one feature which you must have in an electronic organizer is PC backup capability. Nobody in their right mind would spend a lot of time entering their valuable data into an electronic organizer and then take the risk that months or even years worth of irreplaceable information could be wiped out in an instant by a trivial accident like battery failure, dropping the organizer and breaking it, or simply having it lost or stolen. Cheap organizers with no backup capability are nothing more than toys.

If the organizer does not come with a backup cable and software included, then make sure that it is easily available and you know how much it will cost. For some models it's an expensive and difficult-to-obtain accessory, although in many cases you have the alternative of building your own cable and downloading shareware software. Don't put it off too long - you'll end up wishing that you had done that backup about 10 seconds after you realize that your data is gone forever!

How about PDAs like Palm and Pocket PC?

A PDA costs a lot more than an organizer, and most people end up using it to do exactly the same things, i.e. scheduling and contacts. So you might ask, what's the point of spending more money? There are some advantages to the Palm and Pocket PC PDAs, for example:

1. You can download new programs to them to customize the way they work and to add special capabilities (e.g. keep your golf score)

2. They have good support for synchronizing data with desktop applications (e.g. synch your schedule and contacts with Outlook).

Only you could say if it's worth the extra money to you. See the review here of a basic Palm PDA.

What about those nifty Pocket PCs running Windows with color screens from companies like Casio and HP? Very nice - and very expensive. Experiment with one to feel the size and weight, and see if you would want to carry it around with you. Don't forget, your wallet will be lighter by at least $500! If you are already carrying a compact laptop computer in your briefcase with much better capabilities, do you really need a Pocket PC?

What to look for in an organizer:

Other than PC backup capability (as noted above),

Memory: If you plan to store just your telephone list and your current schedule, a basic 64 Kbytes of memory is quite adequate. Some models have up to 2 Mbytes of memory. While this could be useful for example for storing thousands of business contacts, or entire text documents, most people don't need it.

Screen size: A bigger screen generally costs more, but it lets you see more information at once and it's easier on the eyes if it uses a bigger font. This is usually a matter of personal preference versus price. Keep in mind that a bigger screen can also make the organizer too big to fit in a pocket.

Portability: The smallest organizers slip easily into a pocket. Larger ones have more features and convenience, but often are too big and heavy to fit practically in a pocket. Features which make an organizer bigger include a bigger screen and keyboard, and the use of standard AA batteries.

Batteries: The smaller electronic organizers use watch/calculator batteries, which generally last for several months (unless you use the display backlight). But they can be expensive to replace. Standard AA batteries are much cheaper, even though they made the organizer bigger than pocket size.

Features and Functions: They all have a telephone list, schedule, memos, alarm clock, calculator. Some models have additional functions for anniversaries, To-Do lists, and expense tracking, but these are generally less important. Other unique features are far less used. Broadly speaking there isn't really much to choose between them when it comes to the basic features most people will actually use.

Usability: Some are easier to use than others, but they all work well enough, so it's a matter of personal preference.

Pen vs. Keyboard: Pen models are more compact, but many people prefer typing on a real keyboard. Pen models usually have a bigger screen for a given organizer size, but the more vertical screen proportions sometimes results in a less usable information layout.

Multimedia: Higher-end PDAs now offer the ability to store and play MP3 music files, show JPEG photos, and even take photos or show small movies in some cases. In general it's not a good idea to mix this type of multimedia capability with your PDA if you primarily want to use it as an organizer. A general-purpose PDA typically doesn't do nearly as good a job with multimedia functions as a more specialized device, and it consumes the battery power too rapidly.

Price: Prices generally run from less than $30 to more than $200 for electronic organizers (not including cheaper toy organizers and more expensive PDAs). The best value for money is under $70 - beyond that you would be paying extra for specific extra features, so make sure you need them. Be sure to include the cost of PC backup if not included in the base price.

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