It's an exciting time to shop for a handheld organizer: Palm and Handspring, two of this market's pioneers (and soon to be merging), are debuting a batch of new models.
All preserve the core advantage of a Palm handheld -- simple but capable software to manage your life, stuffed into a package little bigger than a deck of cards -- but add compelling features.
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Palm's new hardware starts with the $99 Zire 21, an upgrade of last year's best-selling Zire. It's the least impressive part of this season's lineup: The Zire 21's 8 megabytes of memory, faster processor and new Palm OS 5.2 software fail to deliver improvements that most people will notice.
The reason is the Zire 21's low-resolution, non-backlighted screen (if a $20 Timex can glow in the dark, why can't this?). Limited to 160 by 160 pixels and four shades of gray, it's useless for viewing maps, photos or anything much more complex than text. As with the original Zire -- now discontinued, but a better value at the closeout price of $79 -- the Zire 21's utility starts and ends with calendar and contact management.
But if Palm bunted with the Zire 21, the company hit one out of the park with the Tungsten E. This elegant, slim $199 device is the best buy Palm's ever offered: It combines a beautiful, high-resolution color screen (320 by 320 pixels, 65,000 colors), 32 megabytes of memory (28.8 available), an SD Card slot to add more memory, Palm OS 5.2, and an outstanding software bundle. Its rechargeable lithium-ion battery should provide a few hours of MP3 playback, several days of use otherwise.
The core Palm applications get a dramatic upgrade here. Calendar events now include categories and locations and can start one day and finish on another -- yes, your Palm will finally let you stay out past midnight! Address-book entries accommodate three street addresses, birthdays (which appear in your calendar with birthday-cake icons), Web sites and instant-messaging accounts. To-do items can repeat and be sorted by due dates. Memos are no longer restricted to 4,000 characters.
Palm also includes new, better-integrated software to synchronize the Tungsten to Microsoft's popular Outlook program, plus DataViz's Documents to Go 6. With this program, you can edit Microsoft Word and Excel files on the Tungsten E without converting them into some other format -- a first on any handheld. PowerPoint slide shows, however, must be saved into a more portable format.
These changes fulfill most of the items on my Palm-software wish list. They also effectively destroy the consumer rationale for buying a Pocket PC-based handheld -- the Tungsten E has just about all of a Pocket PC's utility without any of its ugly inefficiency.
My only complaints about the Tungsten E lie at the margins: Its plastic casing seems likely to scratch over time, and it's not quite as thin and light as the Palm V it's obviously inspired by.
Palm's Tungsten T3 (Courtesy Palm)
Palm's last new handheld is the slick Tungsten T3. Like the older Tungsten T and T2, the $399 T3 slides open to reveal a handwriting-input area. But on the T3, you can hide that area to use the entire color display, a full 320 by 480 pixels' worth. You can then tap a button to flip the screen's orientation from the vertical portrait mode to the horizontal landscape -- making viewing and editing vastly more convenient. (The T3 includes the same excellent software bundle as the Tungsten E.) This "stretch display," as Palm calls it, is the rare feature that is both useful and cool to show off.
But the impressive array of components inside the T3's brushed-aluminum casing -- 52 megabytes' available memory, an SD Card slot, voice recorder, Bluetooth wireless -- omits a WiFi receiver. So you can't use the T3 to browse the Web from your couch.
Handspring's Treo 600, by contrast, is up to that task. This organizer/phone hybrid, barely bigger than a normal Palm handheld, offers a geek's grocery list of features: digital camera, speakerphone, SD Card slot, MP3 playback (with an optional headphone adapter in the headset minijack), Palm OS 5, 24 megabytes' free memory and e-mail and Web access.
Wireless carriers will start selling the Treo 600 for around $500 over the next few weeks: Sprint PCS will offer one version that uses CDMA technology, while AT&T Wireless, Cingular and T-Mobile will retail another based on the competing GSM standard. I tested a close-to-production GSM model on T-Mobile's network.
Handspring has smoothly integrated phone and text-messaging services into the 600 -- you can dial a number from the cleverly miniaturized keyboard, with a set of on-screen keys or by selecting it from the standard Palm address book. Sending a new photo only takes a few more taps of the screen.
The 600's internal lithium-ion battery lasted for four days of moderate use in one test, seven hours (!) of talk time in a second test. Handspring says the CDMA version will offer closer to four hours of talk time; on either model, a backup battery should preserve your data for four days after the main battery runs out.
The 600's screen, at 160 by 160 pixels and 4,000 colors, is surprisingly usable for Web browsing but a poor choice for viewing detailed images. It also makes the camera's 640-by-480-pixel pictures look much crummier than they are. Some users may also find the condensed keyboard -- what Handspring offers instead of Graffiti handwriting input -- too dainty.
Handspring's Treo 600 (Courtesy Handspring)
The biggest limit on the 600's appeal, however, is its price. You could buy a separate handheld organizer and camera-phone for half the cost -- then use software like Apple's iSync to put the same address book and calendar on both devices. The Treo 600 is the best choice for the people who must have it all, regardless of cost, but otherwise the Tungsten E is the way to go.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.