Many people think of palm or pocket-size computers as expensive toys for keeping track of addresses, phone numbers and to-do lists.

Dale Blasi sees handhelds as hard-working tools that can help farmers manage their operations easier and more effectively.

You may wonder how a tiny computer controlled by a few small buttons could be helpful. But Blasi says that a well-outfitted handheld runs rings around a seed company notebook for ease of use in recording important production data. Plus, it can do a whole lot more.

Blasi, an extension beef specialist at Kansas State University, has used handheld computers for the past three years to help collect data for research projects. The longer he has used them, and the more software and accessories he has added, the more enthused he has become.

A handheld computer makes it easier to keep track of production records and reduces errors because you don't have to transcribe written records, he says. Records can be downloaded directly into your PC. A handheld computer is a handy reference tool and data-collection device. They are amazing.

The Palm Pilot from Palm Inc. initially drove the handheld market. Palm devices, as well as models made by Handspring and several smaller manufacturers, use the Palm operating system (OS). Other manufacturers use the Microsoft Windows CE OS. Unfortunately, hardware and software often aren't compatible between operating systems or devices. Both Palm OS and Windows CE devices can download data to Windows-driven PCs. Macintosh compatibility is limited.

Here are Blasi's ideas for customizing a handheld computer into a hard-working management tool. To learn more about options that will work for your handheld computer, visit a Web site about handhelds, such as one of Blasi's favorites, www.PdaBuzz.com.

Software add-ons. The address book that comes with a handheld computer is low on Blasi's list of useful software for the farm.

He suggests adding a text editing/spreadsheet program that synchronizes with software on your PC. Now you have a way to take a spreadsheet to the field to quickly and accurately calculate the amount of herbicide to put in the spray tank.

One option is Quickoffice 5.0 for the Palm OS. It sells for $40 and includes a spreadsheet program, text editor and charting program. It synchronizes with the Microsoft Office software package in a PC. For more information, contact Cutting Edge Software Inc., Dept. FIN, 2351 W. Northwest Hwy., Suite 3265, Dallas, TX 75220, 800/991-7360, www.cesinc.com or circle 219.

You also might want a database program for recording field observations or livestock treatments. The database program Jfile synchronizes with the popular Access database program from Microsoft, as well as the Excel spreadsheet program. It costs $25. For more information, contact Land-J Technologies, Dept. FIN, Box 677461, Orlando FL 32867, 407/359-2217, www.land-j.com or circle 220.

If the graffiti data entry software that comes with handhelds feels too cumbersome, consider adding a character-recognition program, which allows you to enter data with standard characters. One option is Jot, which sells for $40. For more information, contact CIC, Dept. FIN, 275 Shoreline Dr., Suite 500, Redwood Shores, CA 94065, 650/802-7888, www.cic.com or circle 221.

To back up your handheld files on your PC, consider a backup utility, such as BackupBuddy for Windows, which sells for $30. For more information, contact Blue Nomad, Dept. FIN, 4 Hyde St., Redwood City, CA 94062, www.bluenomad.com or circle 222.

Automated data entry. Bar-code scanners have revolutionized the checkout counter. They are about to do the same for agriculture. By adding a bar-code scanner to your handheld, you can rapidly and accurately capture complex data. Blasi uses a bar-code-enabled handheld to enter animal identification in a database as he assigns cattle to experimental treatments. Ear tag manufacturers are beginning to sell bar-coded ear tags, so it's easy to match the critter with the treatment.

Scanning a bar code on the seed bag as you fill the planter not only records the hybrid, but also may indicate where the seed was grown and processed. So if you have a problem, you have the data to help the seed company figure out what happened. You also can automatically record other field treatments by scanning bar codes on product containers and by scanning treatment bar codes created with inexpensive PC-based software. By creating bar codes for a menu of common treatments and planting rates, as well as field IDs, you can automatically record field operations in your handheld device. Later, data can be downloaded directly into your PC.

Until recently, bar-code scanners were dedicated devices or were attached to handhelds by cables, which can be cumbersome. Symbol, which manufactures industrial scanners, recently introduced the CSM 150 bar-code scanner, as well as several other scanners, for the consumer market. The CSM 150 snaps into a Handspring Visor's Springboard slot. It does not work with other handheld brands, but stand-alone and cable-attached models are available.

The CSM 150, which lists for $159, can make 52 scans/sec. and is powered by the Visor's battery. A fresh set of batteries would provide enough juice for about 10,000 scans. The module includes 2 mb of memory, which can be used as backup storage for applications and data. A software development kit is available to help create useful applications. For more information, contact Symbol Technologies, Dept. FIN, 1 Symbol Place, Holtsville, NY 11742, 800/722-6234, www.symbol.com or circle 223.

Camera, action. If you want to document a problem in the field, your best crop ever or the family picnic, you can add a camera attachment to most handheld computers. The Kodak PalmPix camera, for example, can turn most Palm models, as well as IBM Workpad and TRGpro brand organizers, into a camera. Camera attachments also are available for most other handheld brands.

PalmPix pictures can be viewed on the Palm's LCD screen and later transferred to a PC through the handheld's cradle for storage and printing. Once in the PC, pictures are stored as standard jpeg or bitmap files. They can be accessed on a PC screen as full-color VGA (640 480) pictures, or about 3 5 in. in size. The camera features a 2X digital zoom lens and self-timer. Photo-editing software compatible with Windows 95, 98 and NT is provided.

The suggested list price for PalmPix is $100. For more information, contact Kodak, Dept. FIN, 4545 E. River Rd., Rochester, NY 14654, 800/235-8234, www.kodak.com/go/palmpix or circle 224.

GPS-enabled. For taking field notes and other location-specific information, consider adding GPS capability to your handheld. That way, you can tell your agronomic consultant exactly where to look to assess an insect infestation or nutrient deficiency you have noticed.

If you already have differential-corrected GPS capability, you can attach the same hardware to your handheld. Although a differential-correcting receiver and antenna won't fit in your pocket, they can be attached to a backpack or a toolbox to capture location-specific information as you scout your crops.

Several companies market small GPS receivers for the consumer market that plug into handhelds. You'll give up accuracy most note your position to within 30 ft. but you gain portability and accessibility because they easily slip into your pocket when they aren't attached to the handheld.

GeoDiscovery claims that its Geode GPS module, which it introduced in January for Handspring Visor handhelds, achieves accuracy to within about 6 ft. by using Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) technology. The module, which costs $289, is about 2 4 in. and about 1 in. thick. The module allows you to create a location and time stamp and take notes. Because PC programs cannot read Geode software, field notes must be entered into a PC by hand to be integrated with other field records. Geode files can be downloaded to a PC for storage, however. For more information, contact GeoDiscovery, Dept. FIN, 1415 E. 840 N., Orem, UT 84097, 888/206-6444, www.geodiscovery.com or circle 225.