Welcome to Reviews OnLine: First Look at VTech Helio PDA
Helio PDA
by Rick Smith (August 19, 1999)

Two of Helio's hot colors
(click for larger image)

I just received two pre-production Helios this week and they work very well. I opened the box, installed batteries and immediately began to use one without reading the extensive manual. Handwriting recognition was very good, but I would expect that since it was using JOT, from CIC, one of the best handwriting software companies. See News Briefs about other CIC products: Acrobat Signature Support and Microsoft Word Support.

I have been using larger pen computers and tablets for over five years now, with great success, so my handwriting is great for recognition. Certain characters need to be written differently and "t" is the only one that I am having a harder time getting used to. The rest of the letters work quite well. The letters that are different are those created in 2 or more strokes. I had to look at the handy Jot guide to find out how to "write" a space and a dash, but the period was easy. The period character is difficult for some pen recognition systems, especially the Microsoft Alphanumeric Recognition System (MARS).

Docking is an critical issue that I feel really makes or breaks PDAs. From what friends tell me, 3Com's Palm devices are quite easy, but I have found from my personal experience that CE devices are MUCH more difficult. I recently was unable to transfer a file to a CE device and spent several HOURS trying. My HP 100 has several methods of data transfer (cable, infrared or PCMCIA card) and since it is a DOS machine, the copy command can even be used.

So, again, I did not read the manual and still was able to get the unit synchronized in under five minutes (and that included running upstairs to get the 9 pin to 25 pin serial adapter.) While the Helio dock does not charge the batteries and serves only to transfer data, the process is very simple. This is wonderful - another product that works well. The only thing you have to choose is the serial port to use, since the docking software on the PC initially responds to only COM1. After that is set, all you have to do is to push a button on the docking cradle for a second which causes the PC to respond and immediately start the synchronization process.

The applications included are Sketch, To Do list, Voice Memo, Memo, Calculator, E-Mail, Scheduler, Phone Book, Expenses along with configuration programs and utilities. I started off trying the calculator and it worked quite well. The mortgage calculator was off by nine-tenths of a cent (rounding error of 0.23911 to 0.23) on a monthly payment for a 30 year mortgage amortization, but the total payments was completely accurate. The conversion calculator also worked well and it includes temperature conversions as well. All the general conversion units were available, but items such as degrees Rankine, nautical miles, rods, fathoms, square chains, bushels, pecks or troy ounces were not included. The Helio included gills, stones and tonnes units and also included velocity conversions, including knots. While it doesn't have the scientific or financial capabilities of my HP100LX, its price of only 25% of the HP's selling price of $800 should serve most people's calculating needs and was easier to use with conversions. I was impressed.

One feature that few PDAs do well (and the HP didn't do at all) is voice notes. The playback of my voice on the Helio is audible and background noise isn't a problem. The volume is also loud enough to hear in a home environment with a fan and television on. I directly compared this feature against a Sharp mobilon HC-4500 Color CE device which was adversely affected by background noise. The Helio has 3 buttons on the rear that can "interrupt" any running application to take a voice note. The process is easier on the Helio because there is a playback button so you can immediately confirm your last recording. On the Sharp, you have to open the unit and click on the playback icon.

As I continue this article, in the next few weeks, I will be trying out direct email pickup from the Helio, alarm usage, schedule features, general note taking and the all important, battery life testing. In the meantime, see our coverage of upcoming Helio accessories shown at this year's Comdex, in Chicago.

Copyright 1999 Rick Smith All rights reserved.

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