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Handhelds Hardware

PDAs as a College Notebook? 32

Eugene asks: "G'day everyone! Here's the deal, I study Engineering in college and therefore, I have to write down LOTS of mathematical formulae and such. Now I heard that students of Law/English/etc. find great use of various PDAs as a notebook replacement(that's pen&paper notebook). I'd like to know if there's a PDA software-solution for quickly writing down math expressions( Something like the equation editor shipped with MS-Word - but if possible with a more intuitive way of entering data). All I could find so far are lots of calculators, that do little in the way of easily entering equations and storing them for later review." Well, that would be one less thing to lug around in the ole backpack. Now if we could only get textboox in digital form...
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PDAs as a College Notebook?

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  • Basically, no. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fm6 ( 162816 ) on Saturday December 01, 2001 @10:00PM (#2642605) Homepage Journal
    Questions like this make up for all the lame "where is the power button" questions in Ask Slashdot. Cliff, please note. The difference between this question and the kind we all complain about is that it touches on issues way outside the asker's problem.

    To wit: where the fuck is our electonic paper already? I've wanted it ever since I saw Captain Kirk using an computer tablet some 35 years ago.

    PDAs aren't it. Except for a few people who can do 40 WPM without concentrating using Fitalystamp [twsolutions.com] or something similar, there's no practical input for plain text, never mind math. And how can you possibly keep track of your notes on such a small display? (Even the Newton was too small for this purpose. And of course too big to put in your pocket. The worst of both worlds.)

    IBM was on the right track with the Thinkpad 700 [onlinehome.de], which folded flat so you could use an electronic stylus instead of the keyboard. Alas, the 486 processor just wasn't up to serious character recognition, and IBM abandoned this option in later Thinkpads.

    (The Transnote [ibm.com] is interesting, but I don't quite like the idea of having a separate input device.)

    Here's what would make Captain Kirk smile. Somebody comes out with a mass produced pad device. Minimum requirements:

    • At least VGA-resolution display
    • Stylus input
    • Enough processing power and RAM to do serious handwriting recognition
    • Mass storage of some kind (hard disk uses too much juice, but anything else is probably too expensive)
    • Some kind of comm/expandability option. USB 2 would suffice.
    That's it. Don't waste money on a color display -- I'm not going to use it to display graphics. And most of all, don't waste a lot of R&D money on software development. Leave that to the hackers. We've all seen what they can do if you just give them the right platform!

    Ok, what about something now? Well, if you can't spring for a Transnote, there's always the Crosspad [lnl.net], which was an attempt to market the Transnote's input device as a separate product. No longer in production, but you can get them on ebay for about $150.

  • by pete-classic ( 75983 ) <hutnick@gmail.com> on Saturday December 01, 2001 @10:07PM (#2642623) Homepage Journal
    I am very skeptical that you are going to find a way to enter formulae as fast as your prof. can write them on the board.

    I'd think that a hybrid that captures handwriting as a bitmap for later transcription would be ideal.

    I swear I have seen something like the IBM TransNote [zdnet.co.uk] but more like a normal (paper) notepad with a Palm attached to it and less like a notebook (PC) with a notepad next to it.

    Good luck!

    • I agree, you probably want a solution that allows you to simply write on real paper, but have a copy on your palm. To do this you can use something like the smartpad [fingertech.co.uk]

      or from the seiko web site: here [seikosmart.com]

      This thing won't allow handwriting recognition, but will "draw" into your palm as you write on the paper. Combined with using the text entry on the palm this could be what you are looking for. Formulas and pictures can be sketched on the paper, and notes can be written on the palm.

      Another bonus is that you can a decent size folder to protect your palm, and carry your mobile, pens, etc. etc.

  • by nbvb ( 32836 ) on Saturday December 01, 2001 @10:34PM (#2642683) Journal
    That really-small, really-cool Sony Vaio device comes to mind... or even an Apple iBook....

    You could also look into something like the HP palmtops, or, dare I say it, the Newton.

    This is really what the Newton could have become, if it had been given a chance. The problem was that it was waaaaay too ahead for its time!

    • That really-small, really-cool Sony Vaio device comes to mind... or even an Apple iBook....

      I've got one of those really-small really-cool Sony Vaio devices [sonystyle.com] of which you speak (an sr27k which I got free after Sony borked my previous sr7k in the shop), and I must say I *really* like the thing. I've taken it to a bunch of classes, and my notes are a lot better because of it. I type a whole lot faster and more accurately than I can write, as I'm sure a lot of other people do - the keyboard on this thing is pretty conducive to fast typing, too.

      As for equation entry, I realised after much puzzling that doing all that in Mathematica [wolfram.com] is the best way to do it. It took me a while to get good at it, but after I figured out all the keyboard shortcuts it got pretty easy. The real bonus is that I can actually decipher what I took down when I look at it an hour later.

      On a side note, I'm planning on trading this laptop in on an iBook soon. This one is fantastic, but it's shiny-newness has worn off for me for some reason, and that's mostly what I'm interested in. :-)
      • Just as a heads-up....

        I love my iBook, but make sure you get the 600mhz model. I have the 500, and you can definitely feel the speed difference. the 600 has the 100mhz system bus, where mine has a 66mhz bus. Yuck-o!

        It's a great machine though, and OS X rocks. Really makes Linux pretty worthless for me. I use Solaris on my servers, and OSX on the desktop. Squeezed Linux right out of the picture....

        Anyway, good luck on getting the iBook! I had great results getting mine from the Apple online store [apple.com], but you also might want to check out Small Dog Electronics [smalldog.com] too...

  • Star Office (Score:3, Informative)

    by heliocentric ( 74613 ) on Saturday December 01, 2001 @10:50PM (#2642712) Homepage Journal
    The equation editor program thing in star office allows you to type in equations, and you can type into your paper an equation and then highlight it and click to insert an equation, thus tranforming your text into the equation. Consider this string that makes the obvious pretty G(z):

    G(z) =
    {sum from {n>=0} left( 4^n + 6 right) z^n + 10z + 13 } over {left( 1 - p_1 z right) left( 1 - p_2 z right)}
    { left( 4^0 + 6 right) z^0 + left(4 + 6 right) z + sum from {n>=2} left( 4^n + 6 right) z^n + 10z + 13 } over {left( 1 - p_1 z right) left( 1 - p_2 z right)}

    Put that into star office equation editor thing-e and enjoy...
  • by iankerickson ( 116267 ) on Saturday December 01, 2001 @11:13PM (#2642764) Homepage
    Back in school, the instant I learned about the Psion 3 I was sold. I bought one and used it as my main PC for writing papers and taking notes all through school. It was worth every penny. For less than the cost of upgrading/replacing my old Mac to something that could run a modern version of Office, I got a tool that could import and export the latest Word formats, never crashed, booted instantly, made ZERO noise, could be locked in my desk to prevent theft, fit inside my coat pocket, had a fairly fast GUI set of apps, and only needed recharged batteries about once a month. I have no idea where you could get a decent equation editor, but let me give you some generic advice:

    • Look for portable, interpreted software: Java or Waba, Forth, Postscript, Python, maybe Perl (if you have the room), or even VB or JavaScript. Then you can download programs for those languages and run them on your PDA. The problem with PDAs is that they are ALL proprietary. WindowsCE models use various incompatible CPUs, and some apps work only on a certain OS versions (which usually requires a ROM upgrade to change), and models usually differ in screen depth, resolution, and the presence/absence of color, all of which can make short work of a casually written GUI app -- same story on the Psions. You have to score a version for your CPU and OS and hope that it doesn't have any show-stopper bugs. What's more likely? That someone wrote and maintained a bug free version of the exact software you're looking for that runs on your proprietary PDA? Or that a bored web developer wrote a Java applet along those lines that also runs on your PDA? With portable languages, you will have much more software available (especially freeware), and you can at least make an attempt to fix any bugs that bother you by editing the script or decompiled bytecodes. Newer PDAs are modern enough to host a compiler, but it takes too much space and time to be convenient to fix things, especially when you're "in the field". Recent Psions had Java built-in.

    • Go cheap. The obsolesense curve you see on PCs is steeper for PDAs because they're relatively new. Also PDAs are easy to misplace, even easier to steal, fragile, and vulnerable to falls and liquid. Even if you're careful, other students will not be and may knock it off the desk, spill drinks on it, or use their mechanical pencil on the touch screen just to see what happens. Buy the best you can get for $99, maybe $199. If the worst happens a few months later, buy a better model for another $99. No one worth knowing will care how much your toys cost, except maybe thieves.

    • Avoid proprietary components. Most PDAs use parts that should have a number of BMW logos on them to indicate their scarcity and cost. Most of the accessories will be available only from the OEM, mostly cables. See if you can find cables and parts at RadioShack or in JameCo catalogs instead (I was able to) -- the price difference is worth it. Also, get one with AA batteries, not a Lithium "powerpack" -- then you can buy a fresh set of replacements at any gas station or supermarket, if you have to. CompactFlash is the best storage medium right now (no batteries in the CF card, ATA pinout, FAT filesystem, works with anything).

    • Buy spare parts: batteries, backup batteries (the watch battery on the underside), serial cables, AC adapter, CF cards, etc. If you can afford, get a spare PDA. If you do the previous step, this should be pretty inexpensive. You don't want to have pay overnight shipping to mail a needed replacement because something bad happened. Leave them at home in a safe place. There no point in losing them if your backpack gets stolen.

    • Rule in favor of battery Life over performance. There's nothing fast or useful about a PDA that shuts itself off right when you need it. You can't rely on having AC power. Don't get anything that has less than 1 full day's charge. If you're using it for school, you're going to use it a lot and you might exeed that in a stretch.

    • Backup to media, not (only) your PC. The tools that "sync" your PDA to your PC make your PDA dependant on that PC working properly. Get sync working then just use it to add software. If you backup to flash or CF, you can make multiple copies and lock the backup in a desk or someplace safe. If someone or something happens to your computer, your PDA data will still be safe. You can then upgrade the OS on your PC without worrying whether your sync software will still work (here's a hint: it usually won't).

    • Password your PDA with a good pasword and keep current contact info into the "Owner" control panel. Most people are honest and will call you if they find your PDA. Don't use a password that can be "seen" by people nearby (like all numbers). You'll also want to learn the key combo to reset the password in case you get locked out. Usually, it wipes your data. But just insert your backup on CF and restore.

    Other than those points (mostly a healthy mix of common sense and paranoia) a PDA is far superior to a notebook for student tasks. Unless you need essentially a portable workstation with a large screen for graphics, compilation, viewing PDFs or web pages, the CPU and disk space offered by laptops are overkill, especially given their weight, bulk, fragility, cost, short battery life, OS problems, and appeal to thieves. Beyond backups, a PDA doesn't take any system administration, virus or defragmenting tools, or any other maintenance. With good battery life, you can stop watching the clock and apply your full concentration to your work.

    • You said:

      "WindowsCE models use various incompatible CPUs, and some apps work only on a certain OS versions (which usually requires a ROM upgrade to change), and models usually differ in screen depth, resolution, and the presence/absence of color, all of which can make short work of a casually written GUI app -- same story on the Psions"

      This is just wrong. If you by a new Pocket PC based on Pocket PC 2002 or a iPaq or other StrongARM based handheld, you are using a StrongARM chip, all programs developed for the iPaq are instantly compatible no matter if you have a iPaq or a HP 565. That matter is going by the wayside if it was even there. Microsoft's devloper tools for PocketPC/WindowsCE all compiled for multiple platforms as well. Most everything I have run across has also been available for the older Casio MIPS based handhelds and HP's older SH3 based ones. It should be just a matter of finding the program.

      Also, PERL and stuff like that DO NOT BELONG ON A HANDHELD! Handhelds do not have the processing power to spare (unless running handhelds.org Linux distro) for running the PERL interpreter. Besides, why would I want to write a PERL script on a handheld?? I would rather run compiled software on a handheld. Note, I don't mean that they would not be able to RUN these, in fact I believe Pocket Internet Explorer can do Java and even Shockwave based pages, they just run a bit slow. Everything on a handheld should be super fast. That means compiled code. NO SUBSTITUTION! They also would serve as BLOAT to a great many people these are targeted at. Do you think my boss needs to write a PERL script??

      Back on topic, handhelds should be able to do equations, but they have just gotten it to recognize handwriting with relative accuracy. Math equations would be difficult (especially if you want the thing to calculate it....just recording it can be accomplished with the Notes app). The best calculator/handheld for writing and calculating thes are the HP 49GX's....you can enter the formula as stated and it will help you solve it with HPsolve. These calculators even have a small programming language and can link to a PC. HP may even have a solver for their handhelds too but as I have never bought a HP PDA I have no idea. I do believe if I was back in class, this would be the way I would want to go. I have paper and this would be better for me. A PDA would be great and a laptop would be marvelous!
  • by tephlon ( 446820 )
    I too have yearned for such a device...
    Found the <a href="http://www.viewsonic.com/products/viewpad100 0.cfm">Viewpad 1000 TabletPC</a> and can just imagine reading slashdot over a bowl of cherieos at the dining room table. :)

    Intel Celeron 800mhz
    128mb sdram
    10.4 svga touch screen
    10gb hd
  • by roystgnr ( 4015 ) <roystgnr&ticam,utexas,edu> on Sunday December 02, 2001 @02:23AM (#2643077) Homepage
    I did mechanical engineering with a math minor... and between that and the Linux hobby I got exposed to LaTeX pretty early. I've never owned a laptop (or a PDA with a keyboard), so I haven't tried to use it for notetaking, but I'll bet with a little practice that's what would work best. And if you decide that it doesn't work for notetaking, it's a good thing to learn anyway. It produces spiffy-looking reports, translates automatically to MathML, is the preferred submission format of most math/engineering journals, etc. You'd want a laptop with a full size keyboard, not some palmtop 2-finger typing thing, though.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      I like LaTeX as a way to transcribe the formulas after the fact, but I think it would be too slow to do in most classes.

      Besides, when I was in college, the professor who go the quickest wrote with his right hand, erased with this left, blocked the equation with his body, and then note corrections a couple of lines back from memory. Not that you could read his hand-writing anyway.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    If the professor used this, no one would have to copy notes off the boad.
  • I use the "Diddle" drawing program to take pictorial/equation notes. It's kludgy going back & forth between the text editor and the drawing program, but it's easier to understand what I wrote later. It's about the simplest way to enter an equation/diagram I can imagine, though. Diddle is based on "Doodle," do a search for either on palmgear or tucows.
  • In one of my CS courses, there is this one guy in the back that has a PDA with keyboard attachment, and he types in all of his notes into it.

    However, it is *extremely* annoying to the rest of us! The keyboard makes that click-click-clack-clack sound, which wouldn't be annoying except for the fact that its in the middle of class.

    Imagine if the whole class did that? It'd be as noisy as a touch typing course.
  • the really great PDAs that they have in Japan?

    I use a Hitachi Persona and my wife can't live without her Sigmarion. These are little half laptop size WinCE based PDA/palmtops. Clam shell design with up to half VGA display, full(enough) size keyboard, plenty of ram for your purposes, PCMCIA support, built in modem, and great touch screens.

    I don't know if there is the kind of equation editor you are looking for, but it is very easy to mix keyboard input and touch-screen-scrawled bitmaps in a single doc.

    NEC sells some outside Japan, and they are great. The trouble is price. I picked mine up second hand in Osaka for about 200 USD. Great value if you can cope with the Japanese OS. The lack of market volume in the west means that deals like this are hard to find. You can find some NEC 780 or 790 models on eBay and such.

    For me the form factor beats iPaq etc hands down. Plenty of screen real estate, but easy to carry. Not pocket-size, but most PDA's wind up in backpacks, cases, etc anyhow. A real keyboard makes any kind of writing easy.

    If you are so inclined and have the time, you can get Linux to run on some of them, too.
  • Don't know if this would be enough, but I've seen something called MathPad [radiks.net] for the Palm.

    Hmm, on further reading it doesn't look like it is enough. Sure, you can enter equations algebraicly but no support for any kind of advanced notation.

    Others have suggested some alternatives: Drawing the equations using one of the free tools for the Palm that exports image files, but then you'd have to re-enter the equation in another program for printed output or so it would be legible. Assorted portables that run software you want, whether it be a laptop running maths software or something that let you enter the equations (LaTex, MS Equation thingie, etc)

  • Yes you can use a PDA to assist you in taking notes. Nothing beats writing down equations quickly as pencil and pen. So this is what you might be looking for:


    It allows you to input notes directly into your PDA while either writing on the pad or on normal notepaper on top of the pad. These notes then are saved onto your PDA to be printed/sorted out later in electronic form.
  • by biglig2 ( 89374 ) on Tuesday December 04, 2001 @09:29AM (#2653278) Homepage Journal
    And having notes that look as good as a text book can't be bad. I'd suggest this as preferable to a digital-ink style device.

    But as pointed out, if you're transcribing a lecture you will want at least something that can render quickly so you can see how you are doing.

    Might I suggest you investigate something along the lines of a sub-notebook? I imagine even an old cheap one will run Linux nicely, or if you have $$$ to spend, something slinky in the Crusoe line.
  • I know I'm a little late with this suggestion, but here goes:

    Casio has a CE device called the The Cassiopeia "Computer Extender" that comes in two flavors: one with/modem & PC Card (A22T) and one without (A22S). It is made for education. High School and College.

    http://www.casio.com/personalpcs/section.cfm?sec ti on=20

    The interesting thing about these two PDA/Palmtop devices is that they run 3 really nice Mathematical applications, namely:

    1. Maple V for Windows CE-High School/College
    2. The Geometer's Sketchpad
    3. MRI Graphing Software

    Now, all these applications do come at a cost (about $100) each, but then again, the Casio can be found for about $100(new) on eBay or another after market source.

    I owned a A22T and the fact that it has two expansion slots (Compact Flash/PC Card) allow you to store a lot of data. And the modem let me share math problems to friends (who have Maple).

    For me it was do everything machine. I took it traveling and used it like a digital wallet for any pictures I take and I used it as an MP3 player as well (handles 96kbps/128kbps OK). I could also, check in with friends using the modem. When I got home I could upload any files to a desktop machine.

    PROS: The application set: Word, Excel, IE come with the device. Additional programs like MS Money, Pocket Streets, Mobipocket or Palm Pocket Viewer for ebooks, PocketC for development, MS Plus Pack (comes with an Image Viewer and Register Editor), and HUM MP3 Player will complete an excellent device. There is also a lot of older software for the SH3 available on the web (like Python which is too cool).

    CONS: quick data entry is not all that possible. The keyboard is small and there is no handwritting software (unless you purchase Caligrapher or similar). The screen is not color, so the mathematical graphs, while very useful, may prove hard to read. Also, the 80mhz SH3 processor is a little slow compared to a device like the HP Jornada 720 which using the new MS standard 206mhz StrongARM. Also, only ARM devices will be used in future HandheldPC/PocketPCs so the applications will start to disappear for this little guy. Also, for those who HATE Microsoft, this is a Windows device. That means no Linux or MAC support.

    TO SUM UP: It's worth a look, just don't expect lightning fast data entry.
  • I used this combo for my C Programming class. It worked great, and other students were begging me for code snippets that i had typed. Some of my programming assignments were as simple as copying the code from jPilot (Linux Palm frontend) into gVim and compiling. The only thing is make sure you have enough desk space for the folding keyboard. Once, i moved the folding keyboard so that the front was off the desk. The folding stand for the palm collapsed, and the palm fell onto the floor. I had to send it in to Palm to be fixed.

    I don't know what to say about the math notation. suff like "z=sin(x^y!/3)" and junk like that (i'm sure what you need to take notes of would be much more advanced) isn't very convenient.

    If you want to go the slim laptop or tablet route, MathCAD [mathcad.com] might just be right up your alley. It's basically a mathematical word processor. It's no Mathematica, but it would probably work. The student price is $120 [edu.com]. That's if you want to run Windows on a laptop or (maybe?) web pad. If you you're a Linux guy (like myself) then i'm not sure. You might try lyx [lyx.org] like the other person suggested (i've never used it). I have used MathCAD, and it was really nice, although I was just using it for Calculus. I used it a long time ago, and i don't know how good or bad the program or the company is now. But it did a great job for me back when.
  • I take notes on my PDA (a Jornada) every day with the help of a Stowaway keyboard (I got it on sale for $50! wee hoo). I can't imagine bringing a laptop to class anymore.

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.