Beyond budget, it's usually the biggest decision you'll need to make when buying a personal digital assistant for your business: should you use the Palm operating system or the Windows-based Pocket PC technology?

"While they're similar devices to a degree these days, it boils down to what you want out of a PDA and how easily it'll plug into business needs," says analyst Michael Gartenberg, of New York-based Jupiter Research. "On one hand, Pocket PC is very compatible with [Microsoft] Outlook and Exchange, but the Palm OS tends to be simpler and more user-friendly."

Before deciding which PDA system to deploy at your company, another factor to consider is "what the third-party application support is for each platform and how it relates to your business," says Bob O'Donnell, IDC's Program VP for Clients and Displays.

This common operating system debate has grown a bit more complicated for a few reasons.

Palm now gives its customers the choice of operating system for their signature device -- the Treo. Microsoft, which now refers to its software as Windows Mobile, offers two versions: one for Pocket PC-based PDAs with a touch-screen interface and another for button-based smartphones, such as the Motorola Q.

It doesn't need to be confusing, however, if you consider both the Palm and Pocket PC each has its share of pros and cons. The following provides a brief look at what these are for both PDA types:

Why buy a Palm OS device?

With ten years of experience under its belt, not only has Palm created a time-tested operating system, but along with this comes a dedicated community of developers. In fact, those who use one of the many Palm OS-based PDAs can choose from more than 28,000 downloadable programs for their handheld device.

And many prefer the Palm for its clean and simple (and thus intuitive) icon-based interface.

"Palm has a legacy of applications available for it, and for many users, the graffiti interface is an easy way for them to enter data," says O'Donnell.

Palm OS-based digital assistants are also ideal for those businesses on a tight budget since you can pick up one, such as the palm Z22, for less than $100. If you want more features, consider the Palm TE2 ($199) with Bluetooth and an expandable SecureDigital (SD) memory slot. The Palm TX ($299) offers both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. For $399, the Palm LifeDrive includes a 4GB hard drive, integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. Finally, the Palm Treo 650 or 700, which is also a cell phone, can be found for $199 to $499, depending on the carrier and length of commitment. You can tell which operating system is used by the product name: the Palm Treo 700p uses the Palm OS, while the 700w uses the -- you guessed it -- Windows Mobile v.5.0 platform.

Why buy a Pocket PC device?

Pocket PC-based products are ideal for business for several reasons.

Windows Mobile 5.0 devices communicate directly with Microsoft Exchange Server and Small Business Server, so businesses can use Outlook Mobile -- without requiring the management of an additional e-mail server and related costs (thus saving money and time).

Plus, what this means for Pocket PCs with phone functionality, is BlackBerry-like "push e-mail," so messages are sent to the portable device as soon as they're received instead of having to log onto the Net to "pull" them down. As with other Windows Mobile-based devices, this push e-mail solution enables compatible devices to connect directly with Microsoft Exchange Server and Small Business Server. Microsoft's Direct Push Technology also gives customers up-to-the-minute access to all of their Outlook information, such as e-mail, calendar, contacts and tasks.

"For the same reason the BlackBerry is so successful, people want access to e-mail at any time, without booting their PC," says 'O'Donnell. "It's a huge benefit for the business."

Pocket PCs sync well with desktop PCs running Windows XP. The look and feel of the Windows-based PDA will be familiar to PC Windows users.

For the most part, Pocket PCs are also more powerful than their Palm OS counterparts. This extra computing power is perfect for multimedia, such as digital audio, photos, video and Web surfing via Pocket Internet Explorer. "While the Palm OS tends to be simpler and easier to use, Pocket PCs offer more functionality, and as a result, they're more capable machines," says Gartenberg.

While generally pricier than Palm OS-based PDAs (Pocket PCs start at about $200 for an entry-level model), Pocket PC machines come from more vendors, namely: Asus, Casio, Dell, Garmin, Gateway, HP, Toshiba, and ViewSonic.