You can't count on getting special attention by waving around a handheld organizer. For all the people who use one to store addresses, appointments and other easily forgotten data, many more seem content to satisfy their small-shiny-gadget cravings with a cell phone or MP3 player, while getting by with paper organizers of one kind or another.
That flaunting a handheld has lost its power to impress represents both a victory and a defeat for Palm. This company popularized this category of hardware, but along the way it somehow forgot how to wow spectators -- aside from the Treo Smartphone, an ingenious fusion of cell phone and organizer.
Its two latest handhelds aren't likely to change that state of affairs. One finally offers wireless Internet at a reasonable price, while the other adds a color screen to Palm's entry-level design. They're not bad, but they also don't represent any great achievements. Their best chance of success may lie in continued mistakes by Palm's competitors -- not just vendors of devices running Microsoft's Windows Mobile software, but also wireless phone companies and MP3-player manufacturers.
Palm's $299 TX would have had techies buzzing in anticipation three years ago, on account of its built-in WiFi wireless networking. But until recently, Palm restricted this feature to the much pricier Tungsten C, allowing rival Windows Mobile devices to offer built-in WiFi for much less.
Now, with the TX, mainstream Palm users can see how much simpler Palm's WiFi software is compared with Microsoft's gummed-up interface. Aside from entering the lengthy alphanumeric passwords many wireless access points require, most other WiFi tasks demanded just a single tap of the TX's touch-sensitive screen.
The TX includes the same Blazer Web browser and VersaMail e-mail software as the Treo 650, but these programs become far more useful with WiFi's speed -- and without having to pay a cell phone service to get you online. For example, instead of just looking up the Web site of a band you just heard, you can also download the MP3s on that page. And the ability to shift the TX's screen from portrait to landscape orientation with the tap of a button lets you view Web sites and mail messages with much less scrolling.
The TX also includes Bluetooth, the short-range wireless technology Palm mistakenly emphasized over WiFi, but the half-baked Bluetooth software on many cell phones and Windows computers means few users will bother making much use of this feature.
By popping an SD Card into a slot at the top of the TX, you can expand this handheld's memory beyond the nearly 115 megabytes available -- and turn it into a decent digital-music player and photo viewer. (The TX's rechargeable, non-replaceable battery allowed almost nine hours of music playback with WiFi and Bluetooth left on.)
The included Pocket Tunes program is a far better MP3 program than the lame RealPlayer Palm used to bundle, but it also stuttered a few times in playback. If you want to listen to Windows Media Audio files, such as those sold at most non-iTunes sites, you'll need to pay $35 for an upgrade.
The Media photo-movie program can show family pictures and the occasional map, while DataViz's Documents To Go allows you to read and edit Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files.
The TX's big flaw surfaces when you use the core address book, calendar, to-do and memo programs -- a too-skinny input area for its Graffiti 2 handwriting-recognition software. (This software requires you to write simplified forms of letters and numbers with a stylus, a skill that takes some practice to get right.)
This parcel is about a quarter-inch narrower than the one on older Palms, making it too easy to tap the program-launch icons on either side (which are themselves wider than on earlier models).
Palm's $99 Z22 offers none of the TX's wireless and multimedia capabilities. It's just a cheap Palm handheld, and in many of the wrong ways. Because it ships without a screen cover, its LCD picked up numerous fingerprints and dirt -- and a nasty scratch across its handwriting area -- in just a few weeks.
Even without that damage, entering any data on the Z22 was an ordeal. To call its input area postage-stamp sized would be unfair: A 37-cent U.S. flag stamp measured about 25 percent bigger than this dainty expanse.
Without a memory-card slot or headphone jack, the Z22 can't replace an MP3 player or hold more than a few photos -- assuming you don't mind viewing them on Z22's blurry, blotchy color screen. In practice, the Z22 is likely to be a read-only device whenever it's away from its host computer.
Both the TX and Z22 ship with software for Windows 2000 and XP and Mac OS X. (You may be able to get them to work on older PCs and Macs, but I didn't try.) Unfortunately, the default desktop counterpart for these handhelds is the antiquated Palm Desktop. Without a built-in mail program -- or even a convenient way to allow other mail programs to employ its address book -- it forces users to keep two separate contacts lists.
On a PC, you can avoid that issue by synchronizing a Palm with Microsoft Outlook. But if you're going to put up with Outlook's innate complexity, why not go whole-hog and buy a Windows Mobile device that pairs better with it?
In Mac OS X, the situation is far worse; even though Apple now bundles good address-book and calendar programs in OS X, Palm can't be bothered to write software to connect to them. (Apple, for its part, has returned to neglecting its occasionally promising iSync software, which can sync a Palm to those two applications but does so with numerous glitches.)
The TX still makes a fine upgrade from an older Palm, and the Z22 provides a far cheaper entry into handheld computing than Windows Mobile models. But the future may not leave much room for either device.
At the high end, you can get all the functions of the TX, plus a cell phone, by spending a little more on a Windows Mobile-based phone (or, if you can give up WiFi, by buying a Treo 650). At the low end, many other, more popular types of devices could take over the Z22's role.
Apple's iPods -- which outsell Palm handhelds by an enormous margin -- can store addresses, calendars, to-do lists and text notes, although the software to transfer that data from Windows PCs is often buggy. Cell phones, meanwhile, could easily do the same, except that wireless carriers keep treating computer connectivity as an extra. Outside of such pricey models as the Treo or the BlackBerry, you usually have to pay extra for the necessary software if it's offered at all.
It may require a minor revolution to get the cell phone vendors to seize this opportunity, but it should not take much more work to turn an iPod or other MP3 player into an effective, reliable way to carry around a Mac or PC's address book and calendar. Once either event comes to pass, Palm risks finding itself with even fewer potential buyers to impress.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.