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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

Deluxe Handhelds Try Hard to Justify the Price

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page F06

When $100 buys a pocket-sized gadget that can store decades' worth of appointments and addresses -- and $200 gets you one that also serves as a digital photo album and MP3 player -- why would anybody want to spend $400 or $500 on a new Palm or Pocket PC handheld?

Or, to be more precise, why would anybody who's not a gadget addict bother? (The one thing that has stayed constant in the handheld-organizer industry is that any new gadget can draw a following for a while; at first, stores couldn't keep the Apple Newton in stock.)

Dell's Axim X50v offers on-the-go Web browsing. (Nate Parsons - The Washington Post)

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PalmOne's Tungsten T5, at $399, and Dell's Axim X50v, $499, make an argument for the deluxe handheld as everyday appliance based on the lure of wireless Internet access. Neither handheld includes its own Internet connectivity, but with a WiFi signal (if you use the Dell) or a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, both allow you to browse the Web and check your e-mail on a screen significantly larger than any smartphone's.

The T5 at first looks just like PalmOne's far cheaper Tungsten E, with its clean, brushed-metal case; the slide-open design of earlier Tungsten T handhelds is gone. But it shares their convertible display: The T5's high-resolution (320-by-480-pixel) color screen can flip orientations from the normal tall-but-skinny portrait mode to wide-screen landscape mode at the tap of a button, an extremely handy option when you're browsing the Web or reading documents. Another tap shrinks its handwriting-recognition area to a thin menu bar if you need more room on the screen.

The biggest change in the T5 is deep in its guts: It uses flash memory that preserves your data even if the battery drains completely. The peace-of-mind benefit here is immense.

The T5's new Drive Mode is almost as impressive an improvement. Tap a button on the screen, and this device will present itself to any computer as a generic flash-memory drive, like those increasingly ubiquitous key chain drives. You can move files on and off it without using Palm's desktop software; all you need is its USB cable to connect it to a Mac or PC.

PalmOne's Tungsten T5: a handheld and a data dump truck. (Nate Parsons - The Washington Post )
To suit the T5's role as data dump truck, PalmOne includes plenty of memory: 160 megabytes reserved for storing files, plus another 55 megabytes for regular Palm applications. An SD Card slot accepts extra memory.

Unfortunately, PalmOne limits the T5's wireless capabilities to Bluetooth. This short-range technology allows cable-free synchronization with desktop computers (it worked on the first try with a Bluetooth-equipped iMac G5) and on-the-go Internet access with a compatible Bluetooth phone. But there's the catch -- half of the big six wireless carriers in the United States offer one or no Bluetooth phones.

And even if your provider does, the T5's Bluetooth software may not pair up with the phone on the first try. The Motorola V710 that I tested required some painstaking configuration, since the T5's software didn't explicitly support that model or the carrier behind it, Verizon Wireless.

Once I had the phone and the handheld set up, it was pleasantly effortless to jump online; the included Web browser and mail program provided more than enough utility in the field. But every time I was in my office or my home, I couldn't help wishing I could use the faster, free WiFi signals available in either place.

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