When the original Newton from Apple was released, I was a poor college student. Whenever I visited the school bookstore, I’d play with the device on display especially practicing with handwriting recognition.

In the intervening 10 years, I never could justify buying a handheld. So, that’s how a gadget geek like me came to own her first handheld computer in 2005.

My handheld is a Palm Tungsten E2. And even though I’m a computer teacher, I enjoy being freed from my computer for a host of tasks.

What kind should you buy?
The first thing to know is that there are two major types of handheld computers on the market today: ones that run the Palm Operating System and ones that run Windows Mobile (also known as PocketPCs).

I use a Palm OS handheld computer. After shopping for several applications I knew I needed Palm OS was the hands-down winner. I recommend choose your handheld after you choose the software you want to buy. For example, the handheld version of my gradebook software is available only in a Palm OS version.

There are a handful of good tips at LearningInHand.com — scroll down the page to Eposode 2: Choosing a Handheld for Education. The file is a podcast, which is an MP3 file designed to be listened to on an iPod but can be heard on any computer with speakers.

Applications on my handheld

Tasks: a to-do list manager, built in software on the Palm. I use the alarms a lot!

Lesson Plan: create and organize daily lesson plans. The software has a complementary version for the PC that allows for organized printing of plans by the day, week, or month.

Easy Grade Pro Clipboard: The Palm OS version of my gradebook software. I use the application for attendance every hour. In addition, I bring the handheld home and can use EGP Clipboard to enter grades.

Documents to Go: Put Office documents Palm

Text entry
My Palm OS handheld uses Graffiti handwriting recognition. I find that with several months’ practice, the input is about 25% slower than writing on paper. For writing more than a lesson plan note, a calendar item, or an assignment name Graffiti is too slow.

That’s why I purchased a portable keyboard. The model I own folds in the middle and communicates with my handheld via the infrared port. As a little word processor, this setup works nicely. The whole rig fits well on a school desk, the screen is easy to read, and accuracy+speed is greatly improved.

Compared to a laptop computer, my handheld and keyboard cost much less — about $250 compared to $750 or more. As a teacher, I like that the handheld and keyboard don’t overwhelm the desk (read: allow the student to hide behind it).

Unfortunately, when the IR port is in constant use, my handheld’s battery wears down quickly. Without recharging and with using the keyboard in several classes, my Tungsten E2’s battery wouldn’t last the school day.

Handheld resources for teachers
Here are a few of the sites I found useful in evaluating my handheld for use at school.

Berkmar High School, a success story from Palm.com
Learning In Hand
Handhelds in Education, an article in THE Journal
Handheld devices in the classroom