Where are the cheap handhelds?

My brother Jon asked me where he could purchase a cheap handheld computer with basic wordprocessor software and a keyboard for a low price. Basically a PDA with a keyboard that could be used on a train. Oh, and he wants it cheap.

I had a similar requirement, but my solution was to purchase a Sharp Zaurus C3100 and a Sharp Muramasa mini-notebook from Japan. Both were at least A$800 and mini-notebooks in Australia are quite expensive. The two Sharps are pretty powerful, with the  Muramasa a full Windows PC, though of fairly low-spec. The Zaurus is nominally a PDA, but it runs Linux, has a hard disk and VGA screen and is really a full computer. What my brother wants is more basic.

I know that such computers did exist. On my desk is an old Cassiopeia A11, a Windows CE 1.0 handheld. It's obsolete, has 4MB of shared memory, a 4-grey 480×240 pixel touch screen (now flaky), is difficult to synchronise (serial port) and chews through batteries. But it comes with a very basic version of Word (think Wordpad) and you can type full documents on its uncomfortable QWERTY keyboard. Plenty of other handhelds have been made, from HP's running MS-DOS and later versions of Windows CE and Psion Symbian machines.

What I want to know is, why can't you pop down to your local discount store and pick up some no-name Chinese brand handheld for somewhere in the range of $20 – $100? It would have a monochrome LCD screen, keyboard, USB interface and obsolete chip. However, you could use it to type a basic document or spreadsheet. Maybe even check your email if it had a built-in modem and interface. Open-source programs exist for all of these activities, even the operating system. Perhaps it could play mp3's as well, seeing as mp3 players are so cheap now.

In fact, I would use mp3 players and mobile phones as the benchmark for these "souped-up organisers" – these are now commodity items. I'm sure that they would be popular amongst students if they were cheap enough. Put a few basic games on them and they may be even more popular. Of course, you could go further with wireless and web access, but the costs would be correspondingly higher. Anyway, the highend PDA's are perfectly capable in that area.

Would I buy one?  If it were cheap enough, maybe. I already have my Zaurii. However, when I was a student and had a lot less moolah, I would have jumped at the chance.

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