Choosing the right hardware is among the most important decisions that you will make when beginning an energy audit / inspection application.

PDA Energy Auditing Choices

Bill Shadish | Fundamental Objects

by Bill Shadish, Fundamental Objects

Hardware choices

Your field staff no longer needs to schlep (or to lose, or to have stolen) laptops into the field to take energy audits or inspections. Or worse, to have your staff write audit notes on paper forms to be (shudder) keyed-in back at the office.

The explosive growth in Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) has dramatically lowered the cost of running audits, inspections or workorders from a handheld device.

And, these PDAs actually work today. There are literally thousands of applications available for them, many of them free. These PDAs can even run copies of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, so that you can do much of what you used to do on a laptop.

But part of this growth brings on new concerns, primarily over what the heck one to buy. This article points out some of the key good (and key bad) points of the main handheld platforms that are currently on the market to help you in your decision process.


This table helps to point out the pluses and minuses of each platform.

Tool Pluses Minuses
Pocket PC (PPC)
  • Closely tied to Windows
  • Pushed by Microsoft
  • Form factor is close to Palm
  • Closely tied to Windows
  • Pushed by Microsoft
  • More costly
  • Fewer free tools/utilities
  • Many more applications
  • Many free applications
  • Many free tools
  • Generally less expensive
  • Larger market share than PPC
  • Runs key Win apps, like Word
  • "Feels right" to many users
  • Under seige from Microsoft
  • Only one unit to carry
  • Small, manageable size
  • Tiny user interface
  • Loose standards between vendors
  • Requires wireless data plan
  • Can not run Palm or PPC apps
  • Can not run Windows apps
Tablet PC
  • Runs Windows applications
  • Much larger user interface
  • Highest per unit cost
  • Few solid choices
  • Many users prefer smaller size


The lines above are blurring quickly, with devices like the Treo 600 (see right). This PalmOS device is also a fully featured GSM/GPRS or CDMA (click for descriptions) mobile phone. The phone features are tightly integrated with the PDA software, so that you can look up a person's name in the list and dial the phone directly from the list entry that you just found. Since you can run standard Palm applications on the Treo 600, this becomes an effective all-in-one tool.

Also, connectivity between devices has become much tighter, with the rollout of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections. These standards allow you to use, for example, a Bluetooth-enabled PDA with a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone to access the web. Or you can even add a small Bluetooth-enabled printer to print invoices, receipts or work orders in the field.You can pick the best of both phone and PDA breeds and use them together to accomplish joint tasks as well.

Treo 600

Things to Look for

Some things that should influence your hardware decision are:

  • To go wireless or not?
    Are your users within range of wireless stations and are you willing to pay for the wireless access plans to go wireless? Doing so allows you to store more data on the internet, so that changes can occur in one (and only one) place. But it does cost more for connectivity.
  • Standardization with PC software.
    Do you want to edit Word or Excel applications on both the PDA and the PC? If so, standard phones are eliminated from contention.
  • Keyboards, Printers and other add-on devices.
    Will your application require these add-ons? If so, you will want to choose devices that offer connectivity to them.
  • Existing base.
    Do your users already have a significant number of one hardware type or the other already in place?
  • Number of Fields
    The amount of data to capture in your PDA application can dictate hardware as well. The tiny screen of a phone precludes a lot of fields, while a Tablet PC can handle a ton of them.
  • Cost.
    Tablet PCs can cost 10x as much as Palm or even PPC handhelds. Even a $50 difference between different PDA types or versions can run into a very large number, if you have thousands of users.

Consider Your Data

  The data that you will want to capture can also dictate the hardware to use. In this foAudits example (see left), the inspector is capturing information in several different ways.

The dates and times are from pop-up calendars, the number of rooms comes from a pick-list (a drop down-list). There are places to key-in comments and an area to have the customer sign-off on any suggested work. Capturing all of this on a phone-based interface would be very difficult.

However, if you do not need sign-offs or a lot of keyed comments, then the phone interface is fine for pick lists and Yes/No responses.

For More Information

The following links provide more detail for you to drill into this and related topics.

Handheld Energy Audits

Choosing PDA hardware

Handheld User Interface Ten Commandments

Lawrence Berkeley Labs: Energy Analysis and calculators

Custom handheld, database and web Software DevelopersFundamental Objects, Inc. (FO) is a software development consulting firm. Founded in 1995, FO provides custom software development and project management on specialized corporate and government projects. FO also markets pre-packaged software development tools ( as well as providing teaching and mentoring services. What we enjoy most is truly partnering with companies -- which provides for far "stronger" solutions than is normally possible.

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