Less functional than a cell phone or a laptop, grayscale, and without a digital camera - but man, we went nuts for 'em!
The Palm Pilot was your quintessential PDA, and I bet it's what most 90s survivors think of when they hear the phrase.
PDAs were an oddball evolutionary branch on the technology ladder. It wasn't until late in their evolution that they could make phone calls. And they existed along with laptop computers. Although laptops were relatively small and bulky then, they were still pretty ubiquitous, especially in the business world.
It's hard to explain the appeal of the PDA now. Back then, it was essentially a digital version of a Franklin planner. How is that something you would need, much less lust after? I can't explain it either, and I owned several. I used them to hold my calendar and contact information, and read e-books and text files in excruciatingly small bites.
Because of the form factor (it could fit in your pocket!) the screens were tiny. You could only get like five words across. I had a friend who used one to work on his novel when he was on his lunch break at the insurance brokerage we both worked at.
He wrote something that was five words across and about twelve feet long. It was like a novel written on a roll of adding machine tape. I remember how crushed he was when he finally emailed it to himself and found that it was only a few hundred words long. "It seemed so much longer when I was typing it out with the butt end of my pencil on that tiny keyboard," he groaned.
PDAs eventually merged with cell phones and gained the ability to access a very crippled, limited, and tiny version of the internet. I remember thinking it was pretty swell to lie in bed and incur shocking data charges for the privilege of reading a text-only version of Slashdot from the comfort of my snoozefest.
PDAs did not have cameras. It never occurred to anyone that they should. It would have seemed bizarre. Why would you want that? Everyone already owned a camera. And digital cameras, which were just coming on the scene by the mid-90s, cost a small fortune. (My novel-writing friend bought a digital camera for the low low price of about $875.)
The PDA: you couldn't take pictures on it, make phone calls on it, or play any decent games on it. And yet, everyone had to have one. Basically, it was the 1990s version of the iPad craze, but less sleek!