Relic: The PDA



If you’re anywhere near my age, you will likely remember the days of the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). Around the time when mobile phones had monochrome screens, monophonic ringtones, and the smarts of a hollow coconut, PDAs were there alongside them to fill the gap and provide the brains to handle calendar appointments, document composition, multimedia work, and a few odds and ends aside.

I was a fan of Palm and their varied selection of products. By the time colored screens had started to hit the PDA market, I was in college, and had enough willpower to save up to buy my own Palm OS device, a Tungsten T. It had a 320 x 320 pixel, 3.5-inch capacitive TFT touch screen, and 16MB of RAM, backed by a 144M Hz processor. You might scoff at such specs now, but at the time, that was the best the industry had to offer. I remember having paid close to PHP 20,000 for that device, if memory serves me right, and back then, it was worth every Peso.

The PDA was a great way to keep things organized. I was a college student, which meant classes, papers, lectures, and a little down time every so often. It became an indispensable tool for keeping my head above water in the years I had it in school. It was the first device I had that had an audio recorder, which let me catch whole lectures without missing a single word, and best of all, everything synced flawlessly with my desktop PC at the end of the day, giving me both redundancy and easy reviewing or printing out or notes.

The main input method for the PDA was the included stylus, which was handy, once you got proficient with the particular script the OS demanded in order to recognize handwriting, but it became a real productivity machine with an after-market keyboard that I purchased shortly thereafter. This allowed me to take down notes like an absolute boss, and was indispensable when it came to the many Philosophy classes we had to take. Once the bell rang, all I had to do was fold the keyboard up and stuff the two devices in my pocket. The bottom of the PDA could even slide closed to create a smaller overall footprint.

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The Tungsten Twas also one of the first devices to have Bluetooth built-in, and while the use back then was a little limited, since Bluetooth headsets were prohibitively expensive, it was a neat thing to have, particularly once I figured out how to share my computer’s internet connection via a Bluetooth dongle (Wi-Fi wasn’t quite so big back then.)

It was able to play music, thanks to the extra storage available via an SD/MMC card slot at the top of the device. It even had a speaker that was loud enough to share a track or two when the action at our usual hangout place got a little slow. Despite all the action I had in a day, the PDA I carried had enough juice to last me a whole day at school, give or take, and remained my constant, faithful companion for years until problems started to appear.

After about a year, the capacitive screen was prone to getting confused, registering taps a few millimeters off where they actually were, the battery started to lose its ability to hold a decent charge, and it was starting to show its age. New technology also appeared that started to make the PDA superfluous. Small hardware got smart enough to handle both the PDA features and phone abilities, allowing people to just carry a single device.

Palm, the makers of the Tungsten which I owned, and others after it, also made colored-screen versions of their “Treo” devices at the same time to keep up with the trend of convergence devices. This worked for a while, as they had lots of experience in that arena, but the trend towards better devices, plus Nokia’s then-dominance in mobile phones made the demand drop. Even other manufacturers, such as Sony, started dropping the OS, and their Palm OS “Clié” devices from their lineup. The Tungsten T, in particular, had volatile memory, which meant a drained battery wiped all your data.

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They managed to come up with a few other devices that showed much promise, and proved very useful, such as 2005’s LifeDrive, which came with a huge 3.9-inch screen, and an absolutely massive 4GB internal Hard Drive, as well as 2008’s Treo Pro, which was a phone-PDA device that actually ran Windows Mobile. The last of the Tungsten series was the TX, with internal Wi-Fi, as well as all the other conveniences associated with mobile devices, except for a GSM radio. It was produced until 2009. The last Palm device of note that I recall seeing was the Palm Centro, launched in 2009. It didn’t really save the ecosystem. Others were just perceived to do the job better, in more attractive packages and more apps. This, along with the appearance of other convergence devices from other players, was the death knell for the stand-alone PDA.

The PDA will always have a special place in my heart. It served me longer than any other tech device I have ever owned, and got more work done than was maybe fair to expect. Still, tech marches ever onward, and now you can do all the PDA tasks on your phone or tablet, and then some. Whenever you schedule an appointment, create a document, or record a memo, spare a thought for the PDA.

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Words by Ren Alcantara
Art by JP Pining
First published in Gadgets Magazine, September 2013