by Rick Broida
Many PDA users never venture beyond basic calendar and contact management, perhaps thinking that's all the devices are good for. That's a shame, because the modern Pocket PC (that is, a PDA running Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system) can do more than you ever imagined, from reading e-books to making VoIP phone calls to streaming TV shows from your PC.
And you can do all that without spending a dime on extra software. Here are 11 of my favorite Pocket PC freebies.
1. ADB Idea Outliner
If you live and die by the outline, you'll love ADB Idea Outliner. It provides a traditional tree-style format for organizing your plans, tasks, and ideas, but you don't have to stop with text: The program also lets you add sketches, voice notes, and file attachments to your outlines, which can be exported in Pocket Access format. Idea Outliner is an excellent substitute for the anemic Windows Mobile Tasks app.
2. ADBWeather Plus
From the same developer who brought us ADB Idea Outliner, ADBWeather Plus puts a local weather forecast on your Pocket PC Today screen. This slick little plug-in relies on your handheld's Internet connection to fetch the latest forecasts, which it can do this automatically at designated times. Venture beyond the Today screen and you can see animated satellite images, radar and warning data, and forecasts for both U.S. and international locations. A must-have for weather junkies.
3. Agile Messenger
Available for Windows Mobile PDAs and smartphones, Agile Messenger offers instant messaging on the run. I'll confess: IM-ing on a PDA is not my idea of fun, if only because entering text is so slow and awkward. But for those times when I need real-time communication, it's the only way to go. Agile Messenger supports AOL, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo chat services (what, no Gtalk or Jabber?).
So you've just finished watching the latest episode of Battlestar Galactica and you're wishing you could watch it again while listening to producer Ronald D. Moore's podcast. With Audiopod you can download podcasts directly to your Pocket PC and listen to them offline. This program just came out, so I haven't had a chance to try it yet--but it definitely looks like a winner.
Avvenu enables you to access your home or office PC via your Web-connected PDA or smartphone. The utility itself runs in Windows; you use your handheld's Web browser to establish a link with your PC. Once connected, you can browse the files on your hard drive, download them to your PDA, and share them with other users. You can even stream MP3s. Avvenu could come in mighty handy if you're on the road and realize you forgot an important document.
Most books I read these days, I read on my PDA. eReader is vastly superior to the Microsoft Reader app that comes with some Pocket PCs, which features like bookmarks, notes, auto-scroll, and fine control over the look and layout of book text. As for the books themselves, eReader.com is home to thousands of mainstream titles, from Dan Brown to Stephen King. They're not free, of course, though you can find lots of compatible public-domain titles at sites like MemoWare. And don't forget the very best thing about e-books on your PDA: You can read in bed without disturbing your spouse.
Before Bejeweled, before Zuma, there was Tetris--and it's just as fun and addictive as you remember. Kevtris is an attractive Tetris clone that's ideal for those times when you have five minutes to kill, like in line at the post office or waiting for the dentist. Free Pocket PC games are few and far between; this one's a gem.
8. Magic Button 2.0
Pocket PCs are notoriously bad at memory management. For instance, when you exit a program, it may not actually shut down. This can lead to seriously sluggish performance. There are dozens of utilities designed to help you manually close stubborn apps, but most are shareware. Magic Button 2.0 is a freebie. Once installed, it takes just two taps to "close all" or "close all but active" apps.
Orb is actually a Windows application that lets you stream audio and video from one PC to another--or, in this case, to a Pocket PC. Just point your handheld's Web browser to your "My Orb" address and you can listen to your music library, stream videos, and even watch live TV (if you're connected to a Media Center PC or one with a TV tuner). Video can be a little choppy, especially if your Wi-Fi connection is on the slow side, but this is still a way-cool way to leverage your Pocket PC.
How to put this delicately... Windows Media Player 10 Mobile, um, bites. PocketMusic offers a vastly superior interface, including support for the 10,000 or so Winamp 2.x skins available online. It sports a 10-band graphic equalizer with loads of presets, and it provides a playlist editor. The freeware version plays only MP3s, however; if you want to play other audio files (including Audible, Ogg, and WMA), you'll need the $19.95 PocketMusic Bundle.
11. Skype for Pocket PC
Hey, is that a phone in your pocket? It is if you're carrying a Wi-Fi-connected Pocket PC with Skype installed. The PDA version of the mega-popular voice-over-IP app works surprisingly well, enabling you to make calls to other Skype users or any landline/mobile phone. It also offers group chat, a photo-enhanced address book, and other desktop-like features. Just awesome.
You can find even more of these kinds of handy apps in my book, 101 Killer Apps for Your Pocket PC, which makes a great gift. Dang, I swore I wouldn't resort to this kind of shameless self-promotion. But now it's too late. Ah, well.
What are your favorite Pocket PC apps? Let us know in the comments. And if you're a Palm user, stay tuned for a similar roundup next week.
Rick Broida is the founder and former editor of Handheld Computing magazine. He still enjoys a good Palm-versus-Pocket-PC debate.