VTech Helio

by Reads (16,572)

Let’s face it, not everyone can fork out $300 or more for a top-of-the-line electronic organizer. But that shouldn’t mean that they’re left out of the new and exciting world of PDAs, according to VTech.

VTech has developed a line of PDAs for the masses called the Helio. And let me tell you that after evaluating the VTech Helio ($149.99) for the last few days, all I can say is that this is an outstanding entry-level PDA.

So let’s take a look at what’s inside the box and then explore the VTech Helio, outside and inside, and see just what $150 gets you nowadays.

What’s in the box?

Here’s what you get with the VTech Helio:

  • Vtech Helio with stylus
  • Serial synchronization cradle (you can buy a sync cable from VTech for $14.95)
  • DB25 connector
  • Neoprene slipcase
  • Desktop, V-Sync and User’s Manual on CD-ROM
  • 2 AAA Duracell Ultra batteries
  • Quick Start Guide with product registration card and handwriting recognition reference card
  • Accessory catalog

 

On the outside

The first thing I noticed about the Helio was its styling. It’s simple yet attractive with slight bevels around the face. And although it’s slim and light at only 4.6" x 3.1" x 0.6" and 5.5 ounces, it feels solid. Overall, a good first impression.

The Helio has a 160 x 160, 16-level gray scale touch screen (which unfortunately uses the same reverse-backlight that Palm now employs.) And it’s powered by two AAA batteries, which Helio states offers 20 hours continuous or 1 month normal use. So this could work for many people who simply want a stand-alone PDA.

The Helio has two ports: a standard RS232 serial port and a high-speed communications port, which VTech will supply you the pin assignments to if you wish. And it’s got 3 shortcut buttons on the front that you can assign to applications, 3 voice recording and playback buttons on the back, and 2 scroll buttons, perfectly positioned on the top left side.

The power button and the 3 application launch buttons are recessed and a bit difficult to press, so have you stylus tip ready. That is, if you can get it out of the stylus silo. The stylus snaps into place so it requires a hard fingernail (ladies don’t try this at home) or the tip of a key to remove it, but at least you won’t lose it.

The synchronization cradle is quite unique in that it is not only foldable, it is adjustable as well. Now you can position your PDA at just the viewing angle that you prefer.

VTech Helio in its unique V-Sync synchronization cradle


On the accessory front, VTech offers a neat combination keyboard/28.8 kbps modem ($99.95) that also works as a docking station for the Helio. What’s neat about it is that it holds the Helio in landscape orientation (yes, it works in landscape mode) and the modem is built-in with a phone line port on the front of the keyboard.

 

On the inside


Under the hood, the Helio is powered by a 75 MHz 32-bit Toshiba RISC processor, and backed by 8MB RAM (which you can increase to 16MB with an add on) and 2MB Flash ROM (so you can upgrade the operating system in the future.)

On the software side, the Helio runs VTech’s VT-OS operating system, and you can get its C based SDK from VTech’s developer website at no charge. Plus, as you may have heard, VTech has ported Linux to the Helio and will have a version available soon for download (that’s where the Flash ROM comes in handy.)

Helio also comes with CIC’s Jot natural character writing recognition program, which harkens back to the days of the Nino; CompanionLink software to enable you to sync with Outlook, Schedule+, Lotus Organizer, ACT!, GoldMine and Palm Desktop; and many other built-in applications including:

  • e-mail
  • voice memo
  • phone book
  • expense manager
  • sketch
  • memo
  • scheduler
  • to-do list
  • calculator
  • currency exchange
  • mortgage calculation
  • metric/imperial conversion
  • V-Sync
  • PC desktop software

It requires Windows 95/98 or NT Workstation 4.0 on the desktop.

Our road test

So how does the VTech Helio fare on the open road? Well, I used it for a few days and was impressed. Of course it’s very Palm-like in its operation but it’s got a few subtle differences as well that I really liked.

The silkscreened Jot area, for instance, lists OK and Exit in addition to the typical Menu and Home. Thanks, Helio. I spent a dozen years with OK and Exit on a desktop and I still want them on a PDA. And the voice recorder is an unexpected extra in this price range.

And let’s not forget the software installation and setup, which was a breeze.

The bottom line is that the VTech Helio is a device that you recommend to friends and family who want a useful PDA but don’t want to invest a lot of money. And they’ll be able to find it at their local Target store. It reminds me of my first set of golf clubs, which I’ve long ago outgrew: the right tools at the right price.

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