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.)
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.
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.
The only way I could have done that would have been to pay extra for an WiFi module that would occupy the SD Card slot, abandoning any other use of it in the process.
Dell's Axim X50v has no such hang-ups; both Bluetooth and WiFi come standard. It paired up with the V710 phone with far less fuss than the T5, connected to multiple WiFi access points without a hitch and switched seamlessly from one connection to the other as needed.
The X50v's screen is both better and worse than the T5's. It's much sharper, with a peak resolution of 640 by 480 pixels. But its operating system -- Microsoft's Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition -- only uses those extra pixels to draw sharper text, instead of allowing the choice of smaller text and images that would fit more data on the screen.
A third-party program called SE_VGA restores this option; seeing the same resolution that once saturated 14-inch desktop monitors confined to a 3.7-inch screen made me squint, but after a few minutes I realized I had something very close to a laptop in terms of Web capability. I just hope it doesn't make me go blind.
The X50v's screen can switch from portrait to landscape modes, just like the T5 -- except making this switch requires an absurd six taps on the screen. That is all too typical in the clumsy, inefficient Windows Mobile software, a designed-by-committee mediocrity that manages to make numerous everyday tasks slower and more complicated than on just about any other handheld outside of the BlackBerry.
Frequent out-of-memory errors add to the fun here; I routinely had to pause my Web browsing to close other applications -- a practice I thought went out of style with Windows 98 and Mac OS 9. The Windows Mobile desktop software, meanwhile, still ships with Outlook 2002, not the 2003 release that shipped a year ago.
If you can adapt to these annoyances -- something many Pocket PC owners have done -- you can get a great deal done with the X50v. Although only 64 megabytes of memory are on board, it includes both SD Card and CompactFlash expansion slots. The version of Windows Media Player included on the device can play songs purchased off Microsoft's MSN Music site; it also synchronizes with the new Windows Media Player 10 on Windows XP machines. Versions of Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint are also bundled, although they display desktop documents with less fidelity than the third-party software Palm includes.
The X50v's battery life is not the strongest. It lasted through about six hours of battery life while playing music (the T5's battery still read about half full at that point in the test). I give Dell credit for including a removable, replaceable battery instead of sealing the unit inside the case, but I have to deduct points for including a power adapter that comes in three parts and, at 6 3/4 ounces, weighs more than the handheld itself.
In a week of testing, I found a lot to like in both of these handhelds. But I wasn't remotely tempted to buy either one. The X50v suffers from the software on it, while the T5's most appealing features -- flash memory and drive mode -- will probably wind up in other PalmOne handhelds. In the meantime, those $200 handhelds look like pretty good deals in comparison.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.