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Choosing a handheld device for business use can bewilder even the best executive. The choices are varied. The technologies are immature. The costs are high. The product lifetimes are short.

Fortunately, the rewards can be significant if you make the right decisions.

There is no "best" handheld device for every business user. However, there are a small number of factors that when properly weighed can lead you to the right choice. You'll have to make some compromises and be willing to adapt to the way your device operates because handhelds are not nearly as configurable as desktop and laptop PCs.

Here are the critical factors to consider when shopping for a handheld electronic device.

Identify what you want to do with the handheld device. Options include making phone calls, handling email, managing your appointments, surfing the web, storing notes and information, editing documents, taking pictures, playing games, listening to music, displaying maps and directions, reading ebooks, etc.

It's a lengthy list. You may conclude that you'd like to do all those things on occasion but deciding what's most important is critical. No single device does everything well. You'll want to choose a device that works best for the things you do most often.

If doing a wide variety of tasks is important to you, consider buying two devices. This means carrying more items around with you but it will require fewer compromises on functionality.

If the device is to be a phone, the situation gets more complex. The major wireless carriers provide a limited set of phone choices. You may find the ideal phone only to discover that your carrier doesn't offer it or vice versa. In my experience, finding the right carrier is more important than finding the right phone assuming that making phone calls is a critical function.

Think about how you will use the device for managing information. If you will be doing a lot of text messaging, email and/or document creation, a simple telephone keypad won't do. There are devices with built in QWERTY keyboards, those that offer external keyboards, and those that employ a touch screen to accept handwritten characters or display a keyboard.

Try them all! The built-in keyboards are tiny and can cause hand strain. The size and shape of your hands will make a big difference in how comfortable such devices are. Some are designed for single-handed operation while others are larger and designed to be held in both hands.

External keyboards can make life easier if you don't mind carrying an extra gadget. You'll also need a desk or table to setup the unit which reduces portability.

The stylus and touch screen approach works well for some users. It takes some practice but is easy to learn and flexible enough to handle any kind of information. The downside is that it will slow you down. Scribbling one character at a time or tapping on keys with a stylus will never qualify as high-speed data entry.

Screen size and layout are the next things to consider. Tiny 1- by 2-inch displays are fine for making phone calls and sending short text messages. Handling email and documents requires a much larger display. Some newer handhelds allow the display to be rotated so wider documents can be viewed in landscape mode.

Try reading a lengthy message or document on any device you are considering. Are your eyes straining to make out words? Are you forced to read slowly? Is the display legible in both low light and bright light conditions? Remember that store lighting is often optimized for viewing small LCD displays. Be sure to try other venues.

Consider your connectivity needs. For synchronizing with your computer, today's handhelds either use a USB wired connection or one of several wireless technologies including infrared, Bluetooth and WiFi. Does your office computer have any of these options?

If you'll be using the device on the job, it should be compatible with your company's computer systems and software. Before buying anything, check with your IT department to find out if any restrictions exist. Some companies will not allow you to connect an unapproved device to your computer or to the company network.

Synchronizing with Microsoft Outlook is a common feature used by many business people. Be sure your company approves of this practice. In some cases, you may find prohibitions against loading confidential company information onto a personal device.

If you intend to use the handheld for business email, you may need your company's cooperation in configuring their email software to send email messages to your handheld.

Lastly, take note of batteries and battery life. For light usage, nightly charging will be fine and battery life is not a major concern. A larger device such as a smartphone that you intend to use heavily throughout the day may require charging during the day or carrying an extra battery.

Don't be confused by the many operating systems used by handhelds. The most common are Palm, Windows Mobile, Blackberry and Symbian. Focus on your needs and how the device can make you more productive. The operating system is secondary.

The technologies behind handheld devices are improving rapidly but remain one or two generations behind where they need to be. Thus, willingness to compromise is needed.

The right handheld device can become your portable office. It will save you time and make you more productive. Invest the time to make the right choice.

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He helps companies avoid the subtle mistakes that cause missed deadlines, lost opportunities and fragile results. He shows them agile approaches that slash risk and cut development time so they get to market 25-50% faster. He helps them carry that momentum into the sales cycle using white papers and case studies that accelerate the selling process.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in February 2007.

To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.

Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.