Hardware

Hardware problems run rampant in personal digital assistants. These dilemmas act in domino-like manner. The solution to one obstacle inevitably leads to other difficulties. Thus, developers have resorted to compromising certain features for the sake of others. They are also wary of using components which might raise the device to an unreachable price. Acareful balance of hardware must be reached before PDAs can be a general use item.

The five main hardware obstacles are size, screen, battery, speed, and fragility.

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PDAs are small. However, most of them are still much to large and heavy to fit in a standard pocket. The entire point of PDAs is that they can be effortlessly taken anywhere at anytime. Without this feature, these devices lose much of their usefulness. Developers need to continue to shrink hardware components until PDAs are small enough that users are unhindered by their form factor.

However, this miniature size immediately gives rise to other problems. How will users input information into a device that is so small? A standard QWERTY keyboard requires more space for the multitude of buttons. Currently, the only other alternative is pen input. But, with a small form factor, there would be a dearth of writing surface.

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Another direct result of a small PDA is the a tiny screen. Most PDAs have a low resolution, black and white LCD display. Further shrinking of the screen will only aggravate the poor visibility. In addition, PDAs which utilize pen input are required to have a touchscreen. This feature requires layers of pressure sensitive film to be laid over the screen. The material further blurs the display and makes it difficult to read in dim lighting.

The Newton 130 and 2000 solve this problem with a non-glare screen which utilizes backlighting. Brightening the entire screen increases clarity but severely shortens battery life.

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PDAs depend on batteries for fuel. Much effort has already been invested in designing hardware components which miserly sip energy. PDAs such as the Pilot can last 8-12 weeks on only 2 AAA batteries. However, most PDAs still require complete battery changes every two to three weeks. Mass market consumers are not accustomed to consumer electronic devices which require such a high level of maintenance. Compound this with the fact that PDAs hold critical data such as daily schedules and contact lists. A single fit of forgetfulness could render the PDA unusable when it is desperately needed. However, limiting the energy PDAs use also limits its computing power and speed.

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PDAs are already fairly fast. They store their applications in RAM, which is much faster than the spinning hard drives used in standard computers. By holding their data in memory, they can also instantly turn on rather than go through a lengthy boot-up. In addition, their proprietary software and operating system kernels are optimized for their particular hardware. This makes these devices speedier than normal computers. However, they are still too slow for most situations.

Chores like quickly jotting down a phone number or writing down a fleeting thought cannot wait the five to seven seconds needed for the PDA to turn on and the proper application to load. Writing these pieces of information on a piece of paper would be faster. In these type of situations, every millisecond is precious. Thus, PDAs need to be much more responsive in order to keep up with the fast pace of everyday life.

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All these hardware obstacles are overshadowed by the fragility of PDAs. Why would size, screen readability, battery life, and speed matter if the appliance is going to break easily? If PDAs are to be truly portable, they must be able to endure a variety of environments and mishaps. Currently, several PDAs such as the Newton 130 and the Pilot have none to minimal protection for their naked screens. One accidental drop would be the end of an expensive investment. To combat this problem, Apple has designed its eMate 300 with durability with in mind. It is likely that its unusual ergonomics will serve as a model for PDAs to come.

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Computer technology rushes along at maddening speeds and PDAs will advance right along with it. These hardware obstacles are more tangible than problems such as function and input. They will eventually be solved as technology runs its course.