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Franklin REX PC Companion
Fit all your appointments and contacts into a credit-card size PDA
REX PC Companion
Xircom
Windows
In the 1980s, the Macintosh--and shortly thereafter, Windows--popularized the "desktop" metaphor. The reasoning went something like this: the computer is analogous to your desk. You've got files, you've got space to write, you've got a calculator, and even a deck of cards hidden in the top drawer in case you want to sneak a game of solitaire. Of course, you can't gun down bloodthirsty aliens with a real desktop, but people tend to forgive the metaphorical oversight.

Some years later, the Apple Newton--the first personal digital assistant (PDA)--gave us, shall we say, the agenda metaphor. Sacrificing some of the power of a full-fledged computer, the Newton and its many followers contented themselves with being analogues to agenda notebooks, effortlessly keeping track of appointments, contact information, and to-do lists--and, of course, doing a few things real agendas can't do, like teaching Japanese with flash cards.

So what metaphor, then, applies to the Franklin/Rolodex creation, the REX PC Companion? Its job--keeping track of contacts, appointments, and to-do lists--is that of a PDA, but for the most part the resemblance ends there. Unlike other PDAs, the REX looks nothing like a notebook or an agenda: the unit is slightly smaller than a business card, and only a few millimeters thick.

Maybe we could call it a business-card metaphor. But a business card only "displays" one name and address, plus whatever you can scribble in the white space. The REX-1 model can hold about 750 records of contact information; the REX-3 has a limit of about 3,000. However, unlike any other PDA, there's no way to directly enter information into it.

The REX, you see, is actually a PC Card device, with a remarkably clear 2.5-inch (diagonal) LCD screen and five buttons. Included in the package is the REX TrueSync Information Manager for your computer, through which information is entered or modified. To transfer the information from the computer to the REX, the REX is placed in the computer's PC Card slot (or the optional docking station, which connects to the serial port) and the information is synchronized between the program and the REX. Maybe we should call it a credit-card metaphor. After all, you can get stuff out of it just about anywhere, but you have to be in the right place to put stuff in.

Better yet, we can skip the whole idea of a metaphor and accept it as something new, and perhaps a little more honest. The allure of PDAs has always been the ease with which you can carry around an awful lot of information (at a fraction of the size, weight, and price of a laptop), and the idea that you can jot down information any time you please (like a real notebook) and instantly have it filed, organized, or calculated (unlike a real notebook). But, honestly, how realistic is that? No matter how easy it is to master a PDA, they're always designed to make it easier to retrieve information than to enter it. As it's become easier to synchronize information between a PDA and a computer, it's also become easier to transfer information from existing databases, spreadsheets, or word processors into these convenient handheld gadgets. Actually entering anything more than a few lines is tedious and sometimes frustrating.

I put this idea to the test by replacing my Palm Computing Pilot with the REX for a week. The Pilot is the first PDA I've ever enjoyed using, and we've been inseparable for over a year--longer than I've ever managed to stick with an actual agenda notebook. So it was with some trepidation that I went cold turkey and used the REX for seven days.

Much to my surprise, the world didn't end, nor was I reduced to crying and begging for mercy. I first transferred all of the information from the Pilot to the REX, and discovered the TrueSync Information Manager was more full-featured and thoughtfully laid out than the Pilot's more austere Pilot Desktop. One particularly nice feature is that multiple calendars and contact databases can be maintained in TrueSync, and selectively transferred to the REX. Better still, each contact database can be organized differently, with a different number of fields, and/or different field names.

(Incidentally, you don't have to use TrueSync if you don't want to. TrueSync can handle data from Microsoft Outlook or Schedule+, Lotus Organizer, and Sidekick 98 right out of the box.)

Lacking any kind of pen or keyboard, the REX depends solely on five buttons for any kind of input. Although the manual doesn't use this analogy, I found the interaction almost, dare I say it, Web-like. Four of the buttons are used for navigation. The Up and Down buttons move between a screen's different options and select activates a highlighted option. The surprisingly misnamed Home key acts much like the Back button on a Web browser, bringing you to the previous screen in the hierarchy until you get to the main ("home") screen. The fifth button, View, switches between different views in order to provide more information on a given screen. There is no on/off switch; pressing any button brings the REX to life, and it switches off after a user-definable period of inactivity (one to five minutes).

Using these five buttons, it takes a few seconds longer to get at information than on a Pilot, but for the most part it's quite easy to zip through the on-screen calendar or Rolodex. The lack of a search function that covers all of the databases is a little frustrating, but being able to sort contact information by first name, last name, or company simplifies things somewhat.

As much as I like the REX (it has replaced my Pilot, after all), I can't recommend it for everyone. Some people do need to enter information on the fly. Others need to use the custom software that the Pilot and other PDAs have to offer. But if getting to your information quickly and easily is your main concern, you can't go wrong with REX.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (January 1998)
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