PDAs and fieldwork

I used mine for data entry with speakers for the first time this most recent field trip, so I thought I would post something about it.


  • It allowed relatively fast data entry, and saved a lot of rewriting.
  • It obviated my need for a printer.
  • Speakers adjusted to the replacement orthography very easily (my PDA cannot display Unicode or nonstandard fonts)
  • people thought it was fascinating.
  • The battery life was fine and I was able to rest the machine on my equipment bag.


  • it is possible to hear the typing on the recording sometimes. The keyboard is quite noisy.
  • It was hard for speakers to see the screen, and for more than one of us to look at the same time.
  • The screen is poorly backlit in bright sunlight, so I also had trouble.
  • There is no Yolngu Matha font, which made it hard to decode what was on the screen sometimes.
  • Space on top of the equipment bag was at a premium because it was the safest place to put equipment.
  • Green ants bite when you try and keep them off the screen.

All in all, I would use it again for work like this, especially when we were just checking items. I think I would also perhaps use a portable database with a scaled down version of the dictionary for data entry rather than a text file. That wasn’t possible because of the age of my PDA. But that would be something to think about for a future trip.


8 responses to “PDAs and fieldwork

  1. What flavor of PDA are you using? PalmOS-based, Windows CE-based, or something else?

  2. It’s an Axim X5 from early 2003 with PocketPC and an external keyboard.

  3. I’m quite curious about trying one of these in the field next year:


    Low power consumption, just barely a computer, light, and probably just big enough to play back movies for one viewer. I wonder if wine-toolbox would run on it… silly name though: Eee PC.

  4. But with only 4GB solid-state hard drive, you would a) have to keep an external hard drive with you at all times (not such a bad thing) and b) have to restrict yourself to only necessary programs. Certainly no Adobe programs, nowadays they take too much ram to run in any case.

  5. yes, I think if you needed more space for applications you’d probably be better off taking a full-sized laptop. But for text notes, maybe toolbox, for and playing back a collection of stimulus videos / slideshows I think it’d be perfect.

    The lack of a moving-parts hard drive is great. Its a major power consumer! I have an external hard disk with a card reader built in, and so I only power it up to copy data on or off it.

  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences with your PDA.

    Back in the ancient days of 2000-2001 I used a Handspring Visor with a collapsable external keyboard in the field. All I could really do was type ASCII text files, but its portability and low power consumptions were definite plusses. But my need to run real software has since pushed me to use a laptop in the field. But that means also having to drag along a solar panel, car battery, external hard drive, waterproof cases and so on.

    I had virtually forgotten about PDAs as fieldwork tools, but your post has made me wonder if, with the advances since my original experiments, its time to reconsider them as an option in the documentation toolbox.

  7. Tom, that Eee PC says 3.5 hours battery life – I get 6 per battery on my PDA of solid typing (I have two batteries). I also looked at Palms and Trios at the time, but the Axim was a bit cheaper and seemed a better machine. I also take a laptop (Vaio SZ series) but I have decent power. Lev, people recommend motorcycle batteries as being a bit lighter and sometimes more easily available. Tom might have suggestions. I guess with most PDAs you’d still need a solar panel or charger and external hard drive.

  8. Or a back-pack with a solar panel and a wind turbine.

    The motorcycle battery is a good idea, what’s the ouput on one of those? There are also specialised batteries available for storage of photovoltaic generated power, but I think they’re still at the household-level stage.

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