Palm's new Tungsten T handheld organizer may be the finest-constructed device this company has ever released. Its anodized-aluminum case and smartly condensed controls display an uncommon elegance and style. And its innards contain a revved-up processor and revamped operating system.
The box it ships in, meanwhile, sports a $499 price -- five times the cost of Palm's entry-level Zire organizer. This gadget is a welcome development in the handheld market, but it's not the sort of thing consumers need fret about having on their shopping list just yet.The Tungsten T matters because it's the first handheld being shipped that uses the new Palm OS 5 software and runs on a line of much faster processors. That software and hardware let the Tungsten T easily handle such multimedia tasks as video playback.
It doesn't, however, make the Tungsten T blindingly fast compared with its forebears. First, Palm OS 5's core applications haven't been rewritten to take advantage of the new chips. Second, Palm's software was written efficiently from the start, so common tasks such as looking up an address or searching through old calendar data never involved a wait on old Palms.
The one obvious display of power of the Texas Instruments OMAP 1510 processor inside the Tungsten comes via its photo-album software, which displays a color JPEG-format image nearly instantly, something older Palms can take the better part of a minute to do.
Digital-music playback should be another fine demonstration of OS 5; Palm says an MP3 program will be available as a free download soon. (With only 14 megabytes of memory free, you'll need to buy an SD memory card for your MP3s; this add-on slips into a slot atop the Tungsten.)
Palm OS 5 looks much sharper than OS 4. It supports the same high-resolution (320-by-320-pixel), 65,000-color display that Clie handhelds have included for the past two years, but its crisply drawn fonts and icons are easier on the eyes than Sony's add-ons.
The programs behind those icons are little changed, which means you have nothing new to learn -- and no new features to gain from. You still can't write a memo longer than 15 screens' worth of text, have the datebook link a contact to an event, or readily list more than five phone numbers and e-mail addresses per contact.
Palm OS 5 loaded most of my old applications without complaint, but a simple Breakout-style game wouldn't run. Expect to see some OS 5 compatibility updates to older Palm programs.
If the software on the Tungsten T isn't all that exciting, its nifty slide-open design may draw admirers.
Take the six-ounce Tungsten T out of a pocket and it measures a compact 27/8 inches wide by 4 inches long by five-eighths of an inch thick. But tug the bottom third of the Tungsten and the device slides open another three-quarters of an inch to reveal the handwriting-input area.
Demonstrating this feature, quick-draw style, hasn't failed to amuse onlookers. But it's not just a geek-pleasing gimmick.
Many Palm users only look up information on their handhelds, rarely breaking out a stylus to enter data with the simplified Graffiti alphabet. A design that shifts into a more compact, read-only mode makes sense, even if it raises worries about the long-term reliability of the moving parts.
The Tungsten T also includes a central, five-way controller (left, right, up, down, center) that allows one-handed operation of common Palm functions. You can look up an address-book entry, for instance, by spelling out a last name with a series of up, down, left and right taps of this switch. (Unfortunately, this one-handed accessibility doesn't extend to removing the Tungsten's clear, clip-on screen protector.)
On the left side of the Tungsten is a headphone jack, as well as a button to control the device's dictation program. There's also an infrared port and the novel addition of a Bluetooth wireless receiver.
Bluetooth is one of those wait-till-next-year technologies. You can use it to synchronize a Tungsten with a computer, print documents, play games with other handhelds, and place calls and get online via cell phones -- but only if those other devices include Bluetooth receivers.
In the real world, most don't. Of the 40 cell phones Palm supports, for instance, I found only five available through wireless carriers in the Washington area.
I could use the Bluetooth link to place calls on a Sony Ericsson T68i phone after a few minutes of setup, but Internet access defied the collective skills of myself and a local wireless-software developer. After half an hour thumb-wrestling with settings on the phone and the Tungsten, we gave up.
Bluetooth hot-syncing worked fine with Windows 98 and XP but crashed Mac OS X every time. (I saw less-serious glitches when hot-syncing the Tungsten to OS X over a regular universal-serial-bus connection.)
Bluetooth also sapped battery life, helping drain the Tungsten's rechargeable lithium-polymer cell in about 31/2 days.
This capability -- like much of what the Tungsten offers -- feels like overkill. Palm OS 4 devices can organize your everyday tasks just as well and at a much lower cost. And if you are itching to drop $500 on a handheld, Sony's upcoming OS 5-based Clie NX60 will feature MP3 playback (with headphones), TV remote-control software and a clever rotating screen. Handspring's Treo 300 lacks the new operating system but packs in an entire cell phone.
If, however, Palm cuts the Tungsten's price by $100, bundles more software to take advantage of its capabilities or releases a cheaper, simpler version, the company could have an attractive little gadget here.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.