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PDAs and the Interpreter

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What are PDAs and how do they work?

PDAs (often called "Palms", although Palm is just one of the brands available) are small electronic devices that capture, organize and manage data. As the name suggests, they are small enough to fit on your palm. You input data using a special blunt-ended stick called a stylus (or, for the less organized among us, your fingernail!) to write on the screen. Alternatively, the truly Palm-devoted can buy full-size keyboards that fold down to the size of the PDA itself, making them easy to transport. Best of all, a PDA can communicate with your desktop computer, allowing you to easily and quickly transfer data from the computer to the PDA and vice-versa.

How much does it cost? What kinds of software are available? Is it expensive?

Here is the good news about PDAs: the price tags are considerably lower than what you would expect to pay for a notebook or even a desktop computer, and you can manage to do most of the tasks you use your computer for now. The most basic models (2MB of memory, monochrome display) are currently retailing for under US$100. For an interpreter wanting to load several language-related software applications (called "apps" by the Palm-savvy), 8 or 16 MB of memory is probably a better choice to allow lots of room for storage; devices offering this capacity start around US$150 for a monochrome model. If you want color display, optional built-in MP3 player and other bells and whistles, prepare to get out the checkbook: models offering these features are usually in the US$300-$500 range, with newer and more tempting models coming onto the market constantly. You're probably best advised to browse your local electronics shop, then check on-line prices. It's a toss-up these days which will end up cheaper.

As for software — oops, "apps" — the sky is the limit here. The best-known source for PDA software is probably www.palmgear.com, which offers the user the chance to browse and download literally tens of thousands of titles. And more good news for the penny-pinchers among us: Palm OS apps typically sell for between US$9.95 and $19.95 each, and are written by individuals or small companies which often give great, personal support. A surprising number of useful apps are even available free. You can expect to pay more for apps developed by larger companies (typically US$24.99 to US$69.99) but these apps are usually more sophisticated and offer capabilities that are practically indispensable for those of us who want to kiss our desktop computers goodbye (ability to read/edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, capacity for storing large data files on memory cards or sticks, etc.). Most PDAs run the Palm OS (operating system), and there is far more software available for this system. If this is a consideration, you might want to avoid models offering the "Pocket PC" OS.

PDA or computer?

PDAs have their good points, but at the end of the day they ARE tiny, and the way their operating system is configured means that they have some inherent limitations that a full-fledged computer doesn't. Let's take a PDA and a flashy compact sub-notebook into the booth and take a test drive...

On space considerations, the PDA wins hands down. Even if it has a full-size keyboard attached, it takes up less than half the footprint of the typical computer (even a sub-notebook). No need to look for a spare power outlet, either; a monochrome PDA can be used continuously for over 8 hours without running out of battery power, and the newer models mostly feature rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The PDA also beats the computer on boot-up time; it springs to life instantly when the power button is pushed, and it returns to the same point you were at in the app you were last using, which can be a real time-saver. Last but not least, when you are not using it, the PDA will shut itself off automatically to save its battery (again, not losing your data or your place).

In low-light situations, however, a PDA may need some adjusting. Your manual will explain how to adjust its backlight (try to buy a model with this capability just in case) to optimize the display for your working conditions. And be sure to turn off any alarms you might have set — don't want those going off during the conference!

Okay, you're sailing along nicely, coffee break is past, and you suddenly feel the need to consult a glossary. If you're a computer user, you can pull up your glossary on a spreadsheet, word processing, or database program, and you've probably got a 30GB hard drive full of treasures from the last ten years. You may also have a good-quality bilingual CD-ROM dictionary available, which is something the PDA can't compete with (yet!). On the PDA, you'll have to pack a little bit lighter, but it's possible to carry just about everything you could want, especially if you've bought a memory card or memory stick.

A typical PDA with 16MB of memory, for example, could easily hold a "Word-substitute" program that allows viewing and editing of Word documents; an "Excel-substitute" that lets you work with Excel docs; a PowerPoint viewer; a bilingual dictionary (although quality varies, and you're more likely to find useful ones in the more commonly used languages); and a database program which you can easily stuff full of your own glossary entries. In fact, you can convert those Excel spreadsheets full of terms to feed them quickly and efficiently into your PDA. And one advantage the PDA has is that operation is very intuitive. The tap of a button easily re-sorts your glossary on any field you'd like, and filtering via pull-down selection boxes allows you to limit what you're looking at for ease of handling.

Of course, your PDA will also store the contact details for people you meet who are eager to use your services in the future, and will even instantly "beam" your personal business card to other PDA-enabled folks via its infrared port at the tap of a single button (and absolutely no technical know-how required).

On a plane or train, the PDA and the laptop are neck and neck. Both can be loaded with Word, Excel, .pdf, and PowerPoint docs for study and preparation. Some high-end PDA models also function as cell phones, and most PDAs can link up to the Internet to allow e-mail and Internet browsing (separate wireless or other access service is required).

What applications are particularly useful for interpreters?

You'll probably make good use of the built-in apps (Address Book, telephone list, ToDo list, Calendar, Expense and Calculator) that come with every PDA. Beyond that, you can also load your family photos in .jpg format, add a world clock and currency converter to keep track of what time zone you're in and how much you are making, and add a few games for those moments you don't feel like working. You will probably want to download Internet pages for later reading using a free app like Avantgo, which gives you access to hundreds of “channels” of content, like the Economist and many major international news services, and updates automatically whenever you “synch”. There are also niche apps for every conceivable use: recipes, drawing programs, where'd-I-park-my-car apps, doggie veterinary record trackers...but let's focus for a moment on a few apps that are either written for interpreters or that can be used to great advantage by the PDA-equipped interpreter.

Office Suite: If you're serious about PDA-ing, you'll probably buy one of these sooner or later. I personally like WordSmith, which allows you to load and edit Word documents, and update the versions on your desktop computer with your changes. For Excel, I like TinySheet which does the same for Excel spreadsheets. One full suite that handles Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files and comes bundled with some PDAs is Documents to Go.

Terminology management: If you choose to use a dedicated database for your glossaries (or to convert from Excel or comma-delimited files), one of the best-kept secrets is a little program called SuperMemo. Selling for just US$16, this program is intended primarily as a flashcard program, but features almost infinitely expandable databases that can be fully customized, categorized, sorted, and searched. A powerful flashcard algorithm makes this a great way to memorize terms, too. You can quickly switch the order in which your columns are displayed and search for any term you need.

Dictionaries (bilingual or monolingual): There are a variety of these on the market, but quality varies. Be sure to check out the content before you buy. Sites like www.handango.com or www.palmgear.com will offer a variety of these; search for keywords like "dictionary your-language" and you'll be sure to find plenty.

Language-specific OS or localized version of the Palm OS: The native Palm OS supports accented characters well (covering Spanish, French, and most other Western European languages), but the Palm OS has been basically an English system since its inception. Recently, localized versions of the OS with built-in foreign language input have appeared on the market. It's also easy to buy third-party apps that will translate the Palm OS menus into the desired language, and afford you the capability of inputting text in other languages. If you work in Russian, Turkish, Chinese or another "technically interesting" language, for example, it will probably be easier to buy an add-on to allow your PDA to speak your language. Most of these add-ons retail for between US$15.99 - US$29.99, and are remarkably stable. Installing one will allow you to use the language in question in all your apps, although you may experience some troubles trying to get a double-byte language to coexist peacefully with accented European characters. This doesn't cause any crashes, though, just some random double-byte characters on the screen. It is necessary to turn off your Chinese system, for example, if you want to read a nice clean page of Spanish with proper accents; luckily, doing so requires only a few taps of your stylus.

Need to print? You can buy a third-party program to enable printing on your PDA. Again, www.palmgear.com has a selection, or you can find reviews of different apps on the Net. This kind of app is only necessary if you want to print directly from your PDA to a printer, though, because you can "get around" this requirement in most cases by synching your PDA (updating the data on both your computer and the PDA) and then opening the document or data you want to print on your computer and printing normally.

Specialized interpreter apps: as an aspiring interpreter and Palm OS developer, I've been trying to develop a number of apps useful for interpreters. To date, I've completed "CI Notes" (for those moments you just don't have a notebook, napkin, or scrap paper on hand — take consecutive notes right on your PDA). I am working on "InterpreTrainer" (an app to help interpreting students track their practice, materials used, difficulties encountered, strategies applied, free reading/listening results, and so forth), and on an app for interpreters who want to organize their records to prepare for applying for AIIC membership by tracking days worked, language combinations, possible signatures and signatures obtained. Of course, if you have a great idea for a Palm OS app that would help you do your job, I'd be glad to try to develop it with you.

This article was originally published on the AIIC website (www.aiic.net).

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