Hands up for hand-helds
LG Phenom Express, handheld PC, £699
Anyone who carries a laptop should consider this beautiful little computer as an alternative. It crams most of the functions of a seven-pound knee-crusher into a fraction of the space (9.3["] by 5.9["]) and weight (1.8 pounds) while including a touch-typing keyboard and a raft of other features that give it a distinct advantage in many of the roles laptops are used for.
Take battery life, the bane of those who use computers on the move. Three hours is pushing it on most laptops, but the Phenom claims 11 hours of typical use, or five of continuous typing on one charge of its Lithium-ion battery. There is a 56K modem built in, as well as infra-red and serial ports, plus full-size video and printer ports.
It runs Microsoft Windows CE 2, and comes with the cut-down Word/Excel/PowerPoint/Outlook/ Internet Explorer programs which go with it, plus software for faxing and connecting to a desktop PC. These should do most of what's required but PC Anywhere is also included to allow the Phenom to run programs on a computer it has dialled into (and is also running PC Anywhere). Its failings - such as the lack of a word-count in Pocket Word - are mostly down to Microsoft's software and should be rectified in future versions. The machine itself shows every sign of being produced by a company which looked hard at what users actually do with portable computers and set out to provide those features in the most attractive shape and price possible.
3Com Palm III, personal organiser, £329
The original PalmPilot became an instant success by creating a new market for devices which make information shirt-pocketable but easily synchronised between pocket and PC. The basics that made the original Pilot are still there: address book, to-do list, expenses and memos, all accessed with a stylus and touchscreen and about the first usable form of hand-writing input. The latest Pilot includes an infra-red port which lets two Palm IIIs beam items of information from the built-in programs to each other. This sounds like gimmickland, but is surprisingly simple and occasionally useful. There is also a back-lit display and the ability to write email on the Palm III, to be sent later from the desktop PC, and to synchronise inboxes between the two computers so that selected mail arriving on the PC is copied to the Palm. A flip-up cover protects the screen, but makes opening the device far too reminiscent of a StarTrek trooper contacting the Enterprise. It wins on ease of use. Within 30 minutes of opening the box a new user can have the contents of a mainstream PC contacts list copied to the Palm and be taking the first steps with pen input. From then on, it is a complete doddle to keep the Palm III synchronised with data on a PC. Information can be entered, altered or deleted on either machine, with the two kept in touch by dropping the Palm into its cradle and hitting the hotsync button.
Microsoft SideWinder Force Feedback Wheel, game controller, £145
Controlling racing games with the keyboard is a couple of laps short of a race. Plugging in a steering wheel and pedals helps to make the play more realistic, but adding feedback to the wheel goes a big step further towards the feel of a step-in arcade machine. Force-feedback means that (in games which support it) the wheel reacts to changes in road surface, bumps with other vehicles, skids and other events by vibrating, turning or jumping in the player's hands. This adds to the fun of a game, of course, but some of the effects are also startlingly reminiscent of real driving - in particular the "Oh dear!" feeling of the suddenly slack steering wheel in a car skidding on ice. Its air-cooled motor gives the Force Feedback wheel a surprising amount of strength, but also operates quietly enough not to distract the driver. If the feedback itself is too much it can clicked off instantly, and a range of other settings, such as programming buttons on the wheel, can be tuned in software. Whatever the mode, the wheel has a chunky, solid feel and clamps firmly to the table with a quick-release mechanism. The two included games (Monster Truck Madness 2 and Cart Precision Racing) show off the wheel well in very different scenarios and go some way to taking the sting out of the price.
Microsoft SideWinder Freestyle Pro, gamepad, £55
It's a terrific idea and it suits certain types of game very well. Instead of moving a joystick, pressing buttons on a keyboard, or turning a wheel, a special gamepad combines the usual pad functions with those of a wheel or joystick. Tilting the gamepad to the left, turns left, tilting it forward moves forward. The gamepad itself becomes a joystick, rather than just being a platform for lots of buttons. This works well with the included game Motocross Madness, where the bike is often airborne and getting its angle right before it hits the ground is the key to staying aboard. With other games such as Doom, Flight Simulator or racing games it takes quite a bit of getting used to.