Pocket-sized PDAs can help you run your business from the job-site.

At the recent National Electrical Contractors Association trade show in Seattle, personal digital assistants (PDAs) were front and center. Many attendees and exhibitors were using these devices on the show floor, and several vendors were promoting business software products designed specifically to help electrical contractors get the most out of their PDAs on the job site.

The most basic features of a PDA include contact management, scheduling, rudimentary word processing and spreadsheet functions. But many of these units now offer Web access, e-mail and project management capabilities.

For instance, one NECA vendor introduced a full suite of mobile computing software that can be run on PDAs. Seattle-based Dexter + Chaney, unveiled its Forefront Payroll for Palm, which allows project managers and other field personnel to enter labor, payroll, equipment and production data at the job site. The software also has a daily productivity report that keeps project managers posted on job progress.

PDAs aren't cheap - they can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to more than $1,000. More expensive PDAs have additional storage capacity, built-in modems and more on-board software; the less expensive models usually just have a contact manager, scheduler and basic word processing programs.

When shopping for a PDA, you must first decide how you want to use the device. If all you really want to do is keep track of phone numbers, appointments and a to-do list, don't buy the most expensive PDA on the market. But if you want to browse the Web and stay connected to the office via e-mail while you are on the job-site, you will have to invest in a unit equipped with a modem or buy a modem as an accessory.

Modems open up a whole world of possibilities. With the wireless communication that PDAs can offer, you can send purchase orders to suppliers, update time sheets and keep track of office e-mail without having to stop by the office or home.

Before buying a PDA, spend some time on the ZDNet Web site. Just type in "PDA" in the Search Tool and you will find a wonderful treasure trove of useful information provided by Computershopper.com. PDAs have several key features that you should learn about before making a purchase: data synchronization capabilities, communications, and data manipulation, Web access and e-mail capabilities, handy accessories, rechargeable batteries and screen quality. Here is a brief summary of these features:

Synchronizing data. To ensure that the data on your PDA matches similar data on your office computer such as your address book, calendar or to-do list, you will have to synchronize data. All PDAs "sync" data. To do this, you connect the PDA through a docking cradle to the PC's serial port.

Communications. You can communicate with PDAs by using standard telephone-line modems, wireless modems, and networks. As mentioned earlier, only more sophisticated models are sold with internal modems as a standard feature. You also must check to see if the PDA you want to buy comes with the necessary software to browse the Web or send and receive e-mail.

Manipulating data. You can write short notes, list expenses and do other simple word processing tasks, but don't depend on a PDA to handle major word processing or spreadsheet work. PDAs come with a stylus, enabling you to "type in" letters on the PDA's onscreen keyboard. You can also use the handwriting-recognition option, where you write letters onto the PDA screen using the stylus.

Web access. Don't expect full-featured Web browsing with PDAs just yet. Most devices are limited to basic Web browsing of text-only versions of content. The small screens will also make extensive Web surfing difficult.

Accessories. If you are going to be a "power user" with your PDA, you may want to look into purchasing extra memory, according to Computershopper.com. The magazine's Web site said that internal RAM expansion can cost a great deal, as much as $50 per megabyte with some designs, but generally about $20 to $25 per megabyte. Other useful accessories include additional docking stations/battery chargers, extra rechargeable-batteries, protective cases, external keyboards, barcode readers and extra styluses.

Screen quality. When shopping for PDAs, make sure you buy a unit that has a good-quality screen. In this sense, buying a PDA is much like buying a personal computer: If you can't easily read the screen in the store, or if it's too dim or doesn't fit enough data, you will not enjoy using the PDA. Try to check out the readability of the screen in daylight because you will be using your PDA outdoors much of the time.

Rechargeable batteries. Most handhelds come with rechargeable nickel-cadmium, nickel metal-hydride, and lithium-ion batteries; they also run on AC current with an AC adapter.

Like any other type of consumer electronics equipment, PDA manufacturers are continually adding new features. Industry experts believe that built-in wireless modems will be a standard feature in a year or two. They also think some units will add telephone and pager features in the near future.

PDAs aren't for everyone because of their relatively high price. But they definitely have found a place on the job site with electrical contractors who aren't afraid of relying on an electronic device to help themselves become more organized, run the business from the field and communicate with office staff, electrical distributors, general contractors and other members of the electrical community.