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  2. Royal Vista PDA
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Royal Vista PDA

On the other hand, when I saw the ads for the Royal Vista PDA, it sounded like an absolute winner. It had an attractive $59.95 price; near-credit-card size; a small, folding detachable keyboard to speed data entry; a clear, bit-mapped screen; a cable and software to connect it to your PC—and even a spare set of batteries.

So I bought one.

Unfortunately, even with brand new batteries, it would run for five seconds and then give me a "battery low" warning. I tried everything I could think of and then made two long-distance calls (at my expense) to customer support that put us on hold for a half hour. I give customer support a grade of "F-". We never got through. Eventually, I gave up my anonymous-reviewer disguise and spoke directly to headquarters, boldly announcing that I was a writer. That got results, and, soon, a "replacement" Vista arrived. I put the word in quotes because, while the cardboard-and-plastic package it came in (including the printed dimensions) was the same, this unit was not identical. It was thicker by about a millimeter, used different batteries, had a different keyboard, and even the PC cable was different. The Vista's best feature, the clever leather-like protector and stand, hadn't changed.

The four cursor-control buttons on the main unit, which are marked on the diagonal, also hadn't changed. Figure 2 tells the story (look at the lower-right corner). Which button do you tap to move the cursor to the right? Your guess is as good as mine. They did it right on the keyboard. What's strange is that there's no reason to get it wrong on the main unit; I guess it was just some stylist's idea of making it look different. That it didn't work seems never to have occurred to anybody at Royal. (Did they try it?)

Figure 2 Which button moves the cursor downward? With this layout of cursor keys, you can't be sure.

I carefully followed instructions, as I always do. I don't believe in the "guess test" as an indicator of interface quality because one person's guessing might be different than another's. The new unit's operation matched the manual in its behavior, mostly. And I never would have guessed how it worked. And now that I know, I wish I didn't. SSee Figure 3 for a picture of the PDA and keyboard.

Figure 3 The Royal Vista PDA and keyboard.

Some of the software is simply primitive. For example, there's a "del" button, in the position of the Backspace or Delete button on most keyboards. Say you type clocl instead of clock. As a keyboard user, you press "del." Nothing happens. Instead of deleting backwards, this product only deletes forward. So, you have to press the left cursor button, and then "del." Duh. Just what you need on a keyboard that is small enough to present some difficulties to the touch typist. (At least the keys have a faint click, so you can sort of tell when you've pressed them.)

But wait, there's something worse. Between the "L" and the "enter" key, where the semicolon and apostrophe keys would be on a conventional keyboard, lies the "esc" (for "escape") key. You hit it often when reaching for "L" or "enter", or when you try to type an apostrophe using your standard keyboard habits.

Guess what the "esc" key does.

You'll never guess.

I'll tell you.

It erases the entire address, phone number entry, or the whole memo you are working on. Forever. There is no "Undo" button or facility on this product. This key is like a time bomb sitting there. If it doesn't get you now, it'll get you later.

Calling up functions on the Vista is unnecessarily complicated. It isn't enough to merely open a new memo and start typing, as with other PDAs. On this one, you have to move the cursor to the proper entry on the memo list, press "enter" to see the memo, press "edit" to get a four-item menu, move the cursor down to "Edit Record," and then press "enter." Then you may type. If you accidentally tap "enter" twice, you get to repeat this process.

When you return to edit an existing memo, the cursor is not at the end, or where you left it, but at the beginning. This is probably the worst possible place to put it, unless you want to write a preface to your memo. Usually you want to add to the end. At least in this regard, Microsoft Word is equally stupid.

The Vista doesn't have word wrap, so words are broken across lines like this:

This is so p
rimitive a w
ay of handli
ng text that
 I cannot be
lieve that t
hey did it.

The "caps" key works like caps lock. To type "Hi," for example, you need four keystrokes: caps H caps I. This is a very bad design decision, especially on a machine with a klutzy keyboard that makes each keystroke an effort.

Current designs (such as a new USB keyboard from Fujitsu that I just put on my PC) are moving toward eliminating Caps Lock altogether. It's one of the most reviled features on keyboards. Royal goes the other way, offering only Caps Lock. To make things worse, you can't tell whether the Vista is in upper- or lowercase; just type and see which you get. If it's the wrong one, erase it. Remember, you can't just backspace!

You have almost no control of formatting. Say you'd like to start a new line in a memo. On any other product, you'd press "enter." On this product, the "enter" key terminates the memo mode, and if you want to add any further typing you must reenter the memo, get into edit mode, move the cursor to the end of the memo, and then start typing (always remembering to never touch the poisoned "esc" key). There is no way to force the start of a new line that I could find. The assumption seems to be that you never use paragraphs or lists in memos.

I could go on, because the interface lunacy never stops. Okay, one more dreadful example. When you leave the device, say to answer the phone in the middle of putting in an address, it shuts off to save power. But when you turn it back on, it doesn't bring you back to where you were—you have to start again from the main menu, and your incomplete work is lost. My Vista occasionally times out and cannot be turned on unless you wait a while.

This product represents the worst example of interface design I've seen in a while. It avoids standard conventions where they're good and replaces them with more awkward methods. Worse, it overturns conventions that have become habitual to the product's users because they also use PCs. The only good reason to avoid a convention is when the change represents an improvement—a rule this product ignores and reverses.

Strangely, the same hardware, with well-designed software, could be a useful tool, perhaps even a challenge to PDAs that cost six to ten times as much. And implementing better software would not have increased the price.

So it's kudos for Olympus and rotten tomatoes to Royal. As is so often the case, it's the interface that makes the difference between a winner and a loser, between a profit and a loss.

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