Tag Archives: Dell Axim

Wading into the Calendar/Contact Sync Swamp Again

Ever a glutton for punishment, I’m again wading into the calendar/contact synchronisation swamp in an effort to get my address book and calendar details from the Exchange server at work onto the Mac at home. If you’ve followed my previous expeditions into the swamp you’ll remember that the basic problem is that I need to be able to keep track of both a large number of Church appointments, alongside all the work commitments. I’ve been doing that for the past couple of years using a Dell Axim X50v PDA, hooking up with ActiveSync to the Exchange Server.

There are a couple of things that have pre-empted this current attempt to get it all sorted. Firstly, the only thing I now do on the Dell is now my calendar – web browsing, multimedia, everything else is better handled by my iPod Touch which could handle the calendar too if I wanted to reconfigure it to hook up to a PC. Alongside this, the other big driver is that I’m changing jobs, and start at a new company in about a month – as a result I need to get all my contact and calendar details off the corporate Exchange Server.

The tool of choice for the current attempt to scramble my calendar and address book achieve synchronisation nirvana is Plaxo. Now it has to be said that in it’s earlier form, Plaxo achieved a good deal of notoriety by the number of times it spammed people with sign up requests when someone created a profile and added your e-mail address as a contact. However in response to this, they do seem to have one of the most stringent privacy policies I’ve seen – certainly it is an interesting exercise to compare it and the level of control with that offered by Facebook… By way of an example, in both services you’ll quite likely end up with a mix of family, friends and business contacts, with Plaxo you can present a different subset of your profile to each group – key for example if you don’t want your business contacts getting hold of your home phone number. Since Plaxo are also including Facebook like picture and tagging facilities, and FriendFeed like life streaming features, it also allows you to keep business contacts clear of all the embarrassing pictures friends may upload – features sadly lacking from Facebook.

Anyway, my primary interest is in the synchronisation facilities. The list of supported platforms is pretty extensive, in terms of the ones I need it includes support for Outlook, and also an equivalent MacOS X plug-in for the synchronisation on that end. If you’ve currently been using systems such as Hotmail/Windows Live or Google Mail/Google Calendar it can link in to those services too – although at time of writing the Google Mail/Google Calendar connection is not bi-directional. In terms of other devices, Plaxo does have some support for these, but I’m sticking with synchronising those through Outlook and iSync respectively.

I did the basic set up yesterday, and I’m now going through the inevitable process of ironing out the bumps with duplicated data where I had different copies of the same contact in both Outlook and Address Book. The most common problem is having phone numbers in different slots so the synchronisation produces multiple phone number fields all holding the same information – this is usually made worse by there being variations in how a particular phone number is formatted including international formatting, brackets around area codes, and all sorts of stuff like that. Alongside this, there is a bit of time getting used to how e-mail addresses map between platforms. On the Address Book end, addresses are marked as either ‘Work’, ‘Home’ or ‘Other’, and you can have several of these – Plaxo also identifies addresses in a similar way. Outlook on the other hand just has three numbered slots for e-mail addresses. Plaxo has to map these fields to suitable slots in the Address Book structure, and tends to go for ‘Work’ if there is only one. I’m slowly working through getting those sorted using the address book in Plaxo – hopefully once that is all cleared up, the synchronised systems should fall into place.

Calendars I haven’t done that much with so far, which is basically because it is a big job and I wanted to get the contacts sorted first. The fundamental problem is the significant differences between the operational model used by Outlook, and the model used by iCal and Google Calendar amongst others. The intention with Outlook is that the user will operate on a single calendar, and use categories to distinguish different sorts of appointments. iCal on the other hand positively encourages you to work with multiple calendars, so for example I have a work calendar, a home calendar, a Church service calendar, a choir calendar and so on. What this does is allow people to share calendars, so for example the choir schedule could be kept on a single shared calendar and distributed to all members. The different calendars roughly correspond with my Outlook categories, and this is what most synchronisation solutions tend to map. However, it is incorrect to say that Outlook doesn’t support multiple calendars – it does, however the support has always been obstructive. For example until the 2007 release you couldn’t overlay the different calendars – only side by side views were available. When it comes to synchronisation with a PDA, only a single calendar is synchronised, so effectively you can’t operate with multiple calendars using Outlook if you’re synchronising on from there. The idea of multiple calendar support seems to very much be to allow you to look at other peoples calendars, but then the implication is that you’re going to put relevant events into your own calendar.

The issue is that Plaxo doesn’t synchronise categories with calendars. The Plaxo model supports multiple calendars, so your multiple iCal calendars map to multiple Plaxo calendars, and thereby onto multiple Outlook calendars. Whilst this works fine if you’re synchronising something like an iPod Touch or an iPhone using iSync as they all understand and can deal with multiple calendars – even if the devices appear to work on a single calendar model. Doing the same from Outlook, and especially with a Windows Mobile device, you’re back into single calendar world, and you’ll have chunks of your schedule missing. Since Outlook can cope with multiple calendars, albeit badly, I could probably move to syncing the mobile devices with iSync and use Outlook 2007 at the PC end – but I’ll have to stop trying to keep the Dell Axim in sync. I’ll also have to go through a process of splitting my calendar out, as it’s currently all rolled up into a single categorised calendar, rather than the multiple calendars that iCal would support.

So, it’s so far, so good – Plaxo seems to be working okay, and I haven’t come across any of the annoying time and date shifting problems that beset any attempt to use Entourage hooked up to an Exchange Server. The real challenge though is still to come – when I try to pick apart my calendars…

Thank Heavens for Sprite Backup

This morning I had one of those real sinking feeling moments. I got to work, pulled out my Dell Axim PDA and plugged it into it’s cradle hooked up to my PC and rather than the usual screen was greeted with a big error message stating that there was memory corruption and asking me to press one of the buttons to continue. Pressing this caused the PDA to reboot, and then go through the first start-up screen calibration routine before dumping me at an empty today screen.

Now this isn’t the first time this has happened. The first time I had to reinstall all my applications, fix all the configuration – basically it was a long job. After that experience I looked around and bought a copy of Sprite Backup a bit of software that does a significantly better job of backing up a Pocket PC device than the included option. Every morning when I plug in my PDA it automatically takes a backup of the contents of the device – this morning I was very grateful that it did.

The only thing I had to install back onto my PDA was the Sprite Backup software, and then I just had to configure that to use the ActiveSync connection to talk to the other part of Sprite Backup on the PC. Then I just had to select my last daily backup and click the start button. Twenty minutes later after replacing all the missing files and putting back on all my settings the PDA rebooted and everything looked as it should. Then you only have to wait a few minutes whilst ActiveSync, which unfortunately decides that all the replaced contacts and calendar entries are new sorts itself out (just a question of letting it replace the data – the stuff in Outlook is probably more up to date than the backup anyway), and then everything is back to normal.

Seriously, if you’re running a Pocket PC PDA, something like Sprite Backup is an absolute life saver. True if you’re syncing your calendar and contacts to a desktop your information is relatively safe, but even then it still does take a lot longer to rebuild if you have to manually reinstall all your applications – Sprite Backup does the lot. The backup each morning is a bit annoying at times, but I’ll happily take that instead of the frustration when invariably the Pocket PC crashes.

Travelling with a Computer

Over the past couple of weeks, life for the business traveller has got rather more difficult. Immediately following the major security alert ten days ago, everything including the precious laptops were being checked. Whilst bag thefts have gone up as a result, there is no details of how many laptops have not made it out the other end in one piece.

However things improved a bit with the new regulations. Laptops no longer have to be checked, but the restriction is to a single bag, that dimension wise is about the same as a small laptop. If your laptop is small enough, you can now carry it, but you won’t be able to carry much else.

This of course provoked a good deal of discussion as to what might happen in the longer term. There is evidence that more business travellers are turning to private jets. However for the majority of people who will have to use regular planes, people will have to find ways to reduce what they carry. Certainly I can see smaller laptops becoming more popular for example the Flybook, with maybe a place for the Ultra-mobile PC. However the discussion left me thinking that what you really need is something that is portable, but can cope with being chucked in the hold if the alert level is raised again at short notice. If the baggage handlers are going to fling your suitcase around, even with a solid case rather than the more common soft sided laptop bags, a hard drive is still going to be shocked and jarred around. So effectively you need something solid state.

This led me back to thinking about my Psion 5mx (and I’m not alone), that I replaced with a Dell Axim a while back, and it’s bigger brother, the Series 7 and netBook. Although Psion stopped producing most of the machines a number of years ago, they are still pretty popular in some circles, with machines changing hands for reasonable amounts of money on eBay, and a number of mainstream companies still selling the machines. Indeed in amongst the latest toys, Expansys will still sell you an apparently new netBook. The netBook is sub-laptop size, comes with word processing, spreadsheet, diary, e-mail, basically plenty to keep someone productive whilst travelling. It even has wireless support so it can hook up to a local hotspot whilst travelling. But the key advantage is it is solid state, so nothing fragile to get broken. Of course it’s not a new suggestion – I commented on an article proposing using the Series 7 a few months ago, and it’s pretty easy to find happy customers picking up second hand models online for example here and here. There are also people who still carry around a Psion 5mx despite also carrying more recent devices.

Evesham Laptop with Psion 5mx

Even my little Psion 5mx is a worthwhile option – I’ve certainly used it on planes before. The battery life is fantastic compared to modern PDA’s, and laptops, and although it is small it has a proper keyboard, so I can type documents on it, and then tidy them up on a PC later. Take a look at the picture to see it in comparison to my laptop – which one would you rather carry around?

The simple fact is that modern PDA’s are essentially PC companions. Whilst Psion maintained they were producing PDA’s, the Psion 3 was probably the best PDA they produced – indeed there are people still using them today almost ten years after their heyday, and fifteen years after the first one appeared. The Psion 5 was really too big, and although they tried to redress the balance with the Psion Revo the balance was swinging towards the Palm idea of a PDA, without a keyboard.

In some ways, Psion were aiming slightly differently, and were producing pocket sized personal computers – certainly all the time I used my Psion 5 and 5mx I wasn’t synchronising them with anything else. My Dell spends most of it’s time hooked up to a desktop PC, and working in tandem with Outlook. Although it can play games, browse the internet, read e-mail and so on, it is tedious to actually write even short e-mails on it – I certainly can’t write up documents in the same way as I could on a Psion. Even years after it went out of production, the Psion 5 is still king when it comes to entering data quickly, just take a look at this comparison that lists data entry speeds for the current crop of devices – then scroll down to the speed for the 5mx for the same test…

Anyway, all the talk about the effects of the new regulations inspired me to dig out my trusty old 5mx. The batteries were all dead, but a couple of new Duracells and a standard CR2032 Lithium battery, all of which I could get at the local Tesco rather than a specialist retailer, and it started up fine. The contents of the internal ‘drive’ had gone when the batteries had died, but the add on CF card still contained data. Having put PsiWin onto my PC it also synced my current calendar, contacts and e-mail straight on without problems – even including the notes I have attached to some of the calendar entries. Certainly it seemed just as robust and stable as always. Bear in mind that on the same day I had to reboot the Axim four times after it repeatedly locked up talking to ActiveSync. As I mentioned before, the only thing that is a pain is linking to a mobile phone (no Bluetooth, only line-of-sight infra-red), and no networking. If someone would produce an updated 5mx with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi it would be great. However the current owners of the platform are focusing on phones, and whilst it may be exactly what most people lugging laptops onto aircraft actually need, the commercial wisdom is that nobody wants a pocket sized computer.