A personal digital assistant (PDA) is a handheld computer also known as small or palmtop computers. Newer PDAs also have both color screens and audio capabilities, enabling them to be used as mobile phones, (smartphones), web browsers, or portable media players. Many PDAs can access the Internet, intranets or extranets via Wi-Fi, or Wireless Wide-Area Networks (WWANs). Many PDAs employ touch screen technology.
Software typically required to be a PDA includes an appointment calendar, a to-do list, an address book for contacts and some sort of note program. Connected PDAs also typically include E-mail and Web support.
Many original PDAs, such as the Apple Newton and Palm Pilot, featured touch screens for user interaction, having only a few buttons usually reserved for shortcuts to often used programs. Touch screen PDAs, including Windows Pocket PC devices, usually have a detachable stylus that can be used on the touch screen. Interaction is then done by tapping the screen to activate buttons or menu choices, and dragging the stylus to, for example, highlight. Text input is usually done in one of four ways:
PDAs for business use, including the BlackBerry and Treo, have full keyboards and scroll wheels or thumb wheels to facilitate data entry and navigation, in addition to supporting touch-screen input. There are also full-size foldable keyboards available that plug directly, or use wireless technology to interface with the PDA and allow for normal typing. BlackBerry has additional functionality, such as push-based email and applications.
Although many early PDAs did not have memory card slots now most have either an SD (Secure Digital) and/or a Compact Flash slot. Although originally designed for memory, SDIO and Compact Flash cards are available for such things as Wi-Fi and Webcams. Some PDAs also have a USB port, mainly for USB flash drives.
Most modern PDAs have Bluetooth wireless connectivity, an increasingly popular tool for mobile devices. It can be used to connect keyboards, headsets, GPS and many other accessories, as well as sending files between PDAs. Many mid-range and superior PDAs have Wi-Fi/WLAN/802.11-connectivity, used for connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots or wireless networks. Older PDAs predominantly have an IrDA (infrared) port; however fewer current models have the technology, as it is slowly being phased out due to support for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. IrDA allows communication between two PDAs: a PDA and any device with an IrDA port or adapter. Most universal PDA keyboards use infrared technology because many older PDAs have it, and infrared technology is low-cost and has the advantage of being permitted aboard aircraft.
The synchronizing also prevents the loss of information stored on the device in case it is lost, stolen, or destroyed. Another advantage is that data input is usually a lot quicker on a PC, since text input via a touch screen is still not quite optimal. Transferring data to a PDA via the computer is therefore a lot quicker than having to manually input all data on the handheld device.
Most PDAs come with the ability to synchronize to a PC. This is done through synchronization software provided with the handheld, such as HotSync Manager, which comes with Palm OS handhelds, Microsoft ActiveSync for older versions of Windows or Windows Mobile Device Center on Windows Vista, which comes with Windows Mobile handhelds.
These programs allow the PDA to be synchronized with a Personal information manager. This personal information manager may be an outside program or a proprietary program. For example, the BlackBerry PDA comes with the Desktop Manager program which can synchronize to both Microsoft Outlook and ACT!. Other PDAs come only with their own proprietary software. For example, some early Palm OS PDAs came only with Palm Desktop while later Palms such as the Treo 650 has the built-in ability to sync to Palm Desktop and/or Microsoft Outlook, while Microsoft's ActiveSync and Windows Mobile Device Center only synchronize with Microsoft Outlook or a Microsoft Exchange server.
Third-party synchronization software is also available for many PDAs from companies like Intellisync and CompanionLink. This software synchronizes these handhelds to other personal information managers which are not supported by the PDA manufacturers, such as GoldMine and Lotus Notes.
Many systems can also display traffic conditions, dynamic routing and roadside mobile radar guns. Popular software in Europe and in America for this functionality are TomTom, Garmin, iGO etc. showing road conditions and 2D or 3D environments.
In medicine, PDAs have been shown to aid diagnosis and drug selection and some studies have concluded that their use by patients to record symptoms improves the effectiveness of communication with hospitals during follow-up. A range of resources have been developed to cater for the demand from the medical profession which supply drug databases, treatment information and relevant news in formats specific to mobile devices and services such as AvantGo translate medical journals into readable formats and provide updates from journals. WardWatch organizes medical records to remind doctors making ward rounds of information such as the treatment regimens of patients and programs. Finally, Pendragon and Syware provide tools for conducting research with mobile devices, and connecting to a central server allowing the user to enter data into a centralized database using their PDA. Additionally, Microsoft Visual Studio and Sun Java provide programming tools for developing survey instruments on the handheld. These development tools allow for integration with SQL databases that are stored on the handheld and can be synchronized with a desktop/server based database.
Recently the development of Sensor Web technology has led to discussion of using wearable bodily sensors to monitor ongoing conditions like diabetes and epilepsy and alerting medical staff or the patient themselves to the treatment required via communication between the web and PDAs.
PDAs and handheld devices have recently allowed for digital note taking. This has increased student’s productivity by allowing individuals to quickly spell-check, modify, and amend their class notes or e-notes. Educators are currently able to distribute course material through the use of the internet connectivity or infrared file sharing functions of the PDA. With concerns to class material, textbook publishers have begun to release e-books, or electronic textbooks, which can be uploaded directly to a PDA. This then lessens the effort of carrying multiple textbooks at one time.
To meet the instructive needs sought by educational institutes, software companies have developed programs with the learning aspects in mind. Simple programs such as dictionaries, thesauri, and word processing software are important to the digital note taking process. In addition to these simple programs, encyclopedias and digital planning lessons have created added functionality for users.
With the increase in mobility of PDAs, school boards and educational institutes have now encountered issues with these devices. School boards are now concerned with students utilizing the internet connectivity to share test answers or to gossip during class time, which creates disruptions. Many school boards have modernized their computer policies to address these new concerns. Software companies such as Scantron Corp. have now created a program for distributing digital quizzes. The quiz software disables the infrared function on PDAs, which eliminates the element of information sharing among individuals during the examination. Many colleges encourage the use of PDAs.
PDA's may also be used by music enthusiasts. They can be used to play a variety of file formats (unlike most MP3 Players) during physical exercise (e.g. running), unlike certain larger devices such as laptops.
PDAs can be used by road rally enthusiasts. PDA software can be used for calculating distance, speed, time, and GPS navigation as well as unassisted navigation.
PDAs offer varying degrees of accessibility for people with differing abilities, based on the particular device and service. People with vision, hearing, mobility, and speech impairments may be able to use PDAs on a limited basis, and this may be enhanced by the addition of accessibility software (e.g. speech recognition for verbal input instead of manual input). Universal design is relevant to PDAs as well as other technology, and a viable solution for many user-access issues, though it has yet to be consistently integrated into the design of popular consumer PDA devices.
PDAs have recently become quite useful in the Traumatic Brain Injury/Posttraumatic Stress Disorder population, especially seen in troops returning home from Operation Iraqi Freedom(OIF)/Operation Enduring Freedom(OEF). PDAs address memory issues and help these men and women out with daily life organization and reminders. As of quite recently, the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) has begun issuing thousands of PDAs to troops who present the need for them. Occupational therapists have taken on a crucial role within this population helping these veterans return to the normalcy of life they once had.
Stand-alone PDA sales fell 43.5% from 2006 to 2007. Approximately 4 million PDAs are sold per year. However, with smartphone sales increasing from levels of approximately 60 million per year, more telephones are being used as PDAs with phone capability.