Special Features

Mobile Device Operating Systems - Explained
By: David Johnson - January 18th, 2005
NEW! Windows Mobile 5 Screenshots Added: May 10th, 2005 NEW!

One of the biggest decisions when buying a PDA is which mobile device operating system is right for you.  Out of all the decisions this is likely the biggest as there is no way to change it, the operating system governs what software can be used, the operation system governs what expansions can be used (except for memory) with the included expansion slots, and of course the operating system governs what the user interface and general feel of the device will be.  If you do not like the operating system of your device, you likely will not like your device as in order to use the device, you must use the operating system.  Unlike choosing the amount of RAM or the processor speed, there are only two choices in the general US PDA market when it comes to mobile device operating systems.

 

Microsoft
     Microsoft's solution is called Windows Mobile.  You may also know it as Pocket PC, Pocket PC Phone Edition (which I refer to as just Phone Edition), and Smartphone.  Microsoft is working to phase out these three titles in favor of just Windows Mobile, but the separation defines what kind of device the PDA is (PDA, PDA/Phone, or Phone/PDA, respectively).  Windows Mobile is a platform based on the Windows CE operating system.  If you do not understand that sentence, it is not really that important, but just remember Windows Mobile devices are built on Windows CE.  Prior to Windows Mobile, Microsoft based PDA's ran just Windows CE and were called Palm Sized PC's.  All the versions of Windows Mobile end with the year they were released.  Windows Mobile is what may be described as a multimedia operating system because of its general style.  The user interface is similar to Windows, though not exactly.  Windows Mobile also may be described as a multimedia operating system because of the includes applications like Windows Media Player, MSN Messenger, Internet Explorer, and Microsoft Reader.  (Note: Not all Windows Mobile devices include all these applications.)  Windows Mobile also brings in Office applications to PDA devices with Pocket Word and Pocket Excel.  While the calendar, contact, tasks, and e-mail programs are all separate applications, collectively they are Pocket Outlook and are similar to Outlook.  The third reason Windows Mobile may be described as a multimedia operating system is because is supports multi-tasking.  While there is not a task bar like in Windows, applications can run simultaneously on the device.  One reason this is important is it allows faster switching between applications and it allows you to leave files (documents) open for fast access later.
     Windows Mobile is best for the user that wants an experience similar to that of their laptop, but on at a smaller scale.  Windows Mobile is similar to Windows, but is not Windows and does not run Windows applications.  It does act in a similar way, is designed in a similar way, and will give use a similar experience to using a Windows PC.

PalmSource
     PalmSource's solution is called Palm OS.  PalmSource took over the software side of "Palm devices" when the company Palm split into PalmSource and PalmOne.  Versions of the Palm OS as designated by a version number, and newest versions of the Palm OS also are designated by name.  The major versions available on the market currently are four and five, though it is expected in the near future version six will be available.  Version three is still prevalent on older devices that are still in use but not sold new.  Versions often also note a minor version as well.  The minor version is the number after the decimal.  For instance, some devices run Palm OS 5.1 while others Palm OS 5.2.  The point two usually means it is newer than the point one, though it also could mean that something is slightly different or was added/removed.  Palm OS version five is also referred to as Garnet, while the new version six is Cobalt (version three and four do not have names).  Palm OS is what may be described as an personal information manager style (or organizer style) operating system because of its general style.  The user interface is not like an PC operating system, but is modeled more after personal organizers.  It also may be described as an organizer operating system because the main focus of the operating system is the management of your personal information like contacts, calendar, and tasks.  The Palm OS is built for these functions primarily, but also allows for additional functions to be added and newer versions of the Palm OS expand the operating system to include additional software for doing more than just personal information management.  The Palm OS does not support multitasking in versions before version six.  Applications do not run in the background, but instead close when another application is run.  What this means for the user is that you cannot switch between applications like you would on a desktop PC for transferring information between applications. 
     The Palm OS is best for the user that wants to use their device almost exclusively for personal information management functions like contact lists, calendars, and task lists.  Devices running the Palm OS will be similar to that of personal organizers, but will have additional features for more advanced uses.  Specifically, some Palm OS devices come with native software for internet connectivity and media playback.

Screen Shots
     Below are three tables of screen shots from Windows Mobile and Palm OS.  Not only do these screen shots serve to show what the different operating systems look like, it also is a good reference for the changes in user interface elements in newer product versions.  (n/a means there is no such screen, no image means there is such a screen but there is no screen shot available currently.) 

Microsoft Windows Mobile Pocket PC

  Palm Sized PC 1.2 Pocket PC 2000 Pocket PC 2002 Pocket PC 2003 Pocket PC 2003 SE
Calendar - Add Item View View View View
Calendar - Agenda View n/a View View View View
Calendar - Day View View View View View View
Calendar - Week View View View View View View
Contacts - Edit View View View View
Contacts - List View View View View
Contacts - View View View View View
Find No Image View View View View
Home/Today View View View View View
Home/Today - Programs View View View View View
Home/Today - Settings View View View View
Home/Today - Start View View View View View
Internet Explorer n/a View View View
Landscape n/a n/a n/a n/a View
Mail - Message List View View View View View
Mail - New Message View View View View View
Media n/a n/a n/a View
Phone n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
Sync No Image No Image View View
Tasks - View View View View View
VGA Resolution n/a n/a n/a n/a No Image
 

Microsoft Windows Mobile Phone Edition and Smartphone

  Phone Edition 2003 Windows Mobile 5
(Pocket PC)
Smartphone 2002 Smartphone 2003 Smartphone 2003 SE Windows Mobile 5
(Smartphone)
Calendar - Add Item View View View View View
Calendar - Agenda View View View View View View
Calendar - Day View View View n/a n/a n/a
Calendar - Week View View View View View View
Contacts - Edit View View View View View
Contacts - List View View View View View
Contacts - View View View View View View
Find View View n/a n/a n/a
Home/Today View View View View View View
Home/Today - Programs View View View View View View
Home/Today - Settings View View View View View
Home/Today - Start View View n/a n/a n/a
Internet Explorer View View View View View
Landscape n/a View n/a n/a n/a
Mail - Message List View View View View View
Mail - New Message View View View View View
Media View View View View View
Phone View View View View View
QVGA Resolution n/a n/a n/a n/a View View
Sync View View View View View
Tasks - View View View View View View
 

PalmSource Palm OS

  v. 4.5 Garnet Cobalt
v. 5.1 v. 5.2 v. 5.3 v. 5.4 v. 6.0 v. 6.1
Calendar - Add Item View View View View View
Calendar - Day View View View View View View
Calendar - Week View No Image View View View View
Contacts - Edit No Image View View View View
Contacts - List View View View View View
Contacts - View View View View View View
Find View View View View View
Home - Main View View View View View
Home - System View View View View View
Input Panel View View View View View
Landscape n/a n/a n/a n/a View
Mail - Message n/a n/a n/a View No Image
Mail - View n/a n/a n/a View No Image
Media n/a n/a n/a View View
Phone n/a n/a n/a View View
Preferences View View View View View
Sync View View View View View
Tasks - View View View View View View

Final Thought: How To Choose
    
The best way to gauge what operating system is right for you, is to consider what you plan to use a PDA for.  If you plan to use a PDA as an organizer primarily (or as an upgrade from an organizer/planner), then Palm OS is likely a better choice as it is more structured for this use.  Where you may like a Windows Mobile device better is if you are a strong Outlook user and want something similar.  In that case, the functionality of Windows Mobile is similar to Outlook compared to that of the Palm OS.  Similarly, if you are an Office user and want pocket versions of Word and Excel, then Windows Mobile would again be a stronger option as it comes with built-in software for Word and Excel document creation and manipulation.  If you focus is more on using a PDA for media functionality, either operating system could be a good options but older versions of the Palm OS are not as strong as Windows Mobile in dealing with media.
     In either case, the best way to make a decision is to try out devices running each operating system.  The operating system side of things will be similar across devices running the same operating system.  There will obviously be differences between versions, so take that into consideration if you are trying a slightly older device than the one you may be considering for purchase.
     Like always, any questions or comments you have are welcome. Feel free to email me at dave@davespda.com.  You questions or comments may be incorporated into this feature to help other users as well.
 

Feel free to email me about your own PDA, questions, comments, articles, rumors, and reviews.  I can be reached at dave@davespda.com.