Among other things, the Palm is good at demonstrating how much abuse people are used to putting up with from computers. Show a Palm to somebody who's never fiddled with one, and the questions are always the same: How hard is it to use? How often does it crash? This thing must suck down batteries--and when it dies, you lose all your information, right?

People fully expect computerized devices not to work the way they're supposed to, and they aren't disappointed often. Not to get too gushy about it, but the wonderful secret to the Palm's success is nothing more than the fact that the thing actually works right. It comes on instantly. The operating system makes sense. It's easy to learn how to use.

And, just as important, I've used a Palm III for a year and never, ever gotten any error messages other than a "low battery" warning or a note that yanking the device off its cradle while it's in the middle of backing up files on my desktop computer is not a great idea.

I think it's the coolest gadget ever. My friends think it's time for an intervention.

The Big Concept behind the Palm (many people, by the way, call it by its old name, the Palm Pilot) is that it's a different way of conducting your life. You can store all the info you need--all the contacts, all the numbers, all the e-mail addresses--and forget them. You don't need to remember that you need to buy milk at the grocery store. You jot it down in your Palm--the handwriting-recognition software really does work--and forget about it until the next time you find yourself at Safeway.

Right now, I'm using a Palm IIIx. It's got all of the details of my life and also a number of pointless games and the entire text of Nietzsche's tome "Also Sprach Zarathustra," which I downloaded mainly to see if it would fit. It does--and I've still managed to only fill up about a quarter of the storage space that this model comes with.

Early-adopter types are used to being guinea pigs. They make a habit of buying equipment that's still on the buggy side and costs twice as much now as it will next year. To this extent, early adopters are ninnies. The Palm, though, has been a different sort of creature altogether for those who jumped in early. It worked well from Day One and actually helped folks get organized without any fuss while their friends continued to get swamped in Post-It notes and continued to lug around creaky, bulky Filofaxes. Who's the ninny now?

For those of us who own a Palm, the thing is a perennial conversation piece. When you run across somebody else who owns one, you know you've got something in common--even if you really don't. While the very first wave of Palm owners was a homogenous set of geeks, the people who use the thing now are a diverse crowd. Just visit any Web site offering free, downloadable text files readable on a Palm and see for yourself.

While the offerings at these sites used to be strictly nerd-interest stuff, now you can find things like recipes, the Koran and NASCAR information. And that's just the stuff you can find for free.

People generally don't talk about the software that comes included with the Palm very much, unless they've devised a snappy work-around to a perceived flaw in the Palm operating system. (Okay, so there are a few. One common complaint: Why isn't it easier to put dates on "To Do" list items or link them to an entry in the address book?)

What Palm owners who run across each other in the wild do is compare what cool third-party applications they've downloaded off the Web. And if both parties have a III, IIIx or V, the models with an infrared port that lets people with these models "beam" stuff to each other, an exchange of documents and programs inevitably follows. Text files and games get beamed around.

And this, which seems utterly bizarre to folks who don't own a Palm, is just the behavior of relatively normal users. The obsessive ones start Web sites and post pictures of their Palms online or submit to Web sites such as Conklin Systems' "Pilot Pages" (www.conklinsystems.com/pilot), using the name of the early version of the Palm. This is where Palm users who've taken their machines to weird locations on the planet tell their tales. (The odd allure of this page diminishes when you scroll down and read an unconfirmed story that a Dr. Andy Thomas took his Palm with him on the Mir space station. Now, how is anybody ever going to top that?)

The obsessive Palm fans buy the Palm V, one of the latest, most expensive models, and immediately void the warranty on the things by cracking them open and cramming another 6 megs of memory in. The obsessive folks use the OmniRemote remote-control program to set up macros for operating their TVs and stereos or Lego Mindstorms robots (another cool, cutting-edge geek toy).

As for overall social acceptance, the Palm still has the power to make people look twice. Owning one of these things means . . . something, though there isn't a clear consensus just what that is. Sometimes the things impress people, as if it took anything more than a few hundred dollars in the bank or on a credit card to get one. Sometimes, although the Palm isn't really a potentially obnoxious accessory like a cell phone, they annoy.

Who gets annoyed by Palms? The same sort people who thought e-mail was the '90's equivalent of CB radio a few years ago. The funny thing is, though, the folks who roll their eyes when you bust out a Palm still want to see how it works.

If you feel like bugging a Palm owner, ask this question: "Isn't the new line of WinCE devices eventually going to crush the Palm anyway?" It could, I suppose. But I tried a WinCE device for a few weeks (being a tech reporter has its perks) before investing in a Palm, and I didn't care for it. To me, the thing worked too much like . . . a computer.

A friend of mine refers to his Palm as an extra brain, which sounds weird but makes sense if you've used one of these things for more than a week. Another acquaintance (one of my own recruits into the cult of Palm) puts it this way: "You can tell the difference between people who use them and people who don't. People who use them think in terms of capturing information and using it again in the future." For people who don't use a palmtop, it's "infinitely" more difficult to manage time.

It's not bad at killing time, either. If you're standing around waiting for the Metro or standing in line at the DMV, you can answer your e-mail, read something or goof around and play a game instead of staring at the wall.

Do I miss being bored? Um, no.

CAPTION: It's a constant companion, a conversation piece--and an extra brain.