Palm: One for the Road

SAN FRANCISCO (05/30/2000) - With the newest crop of Palm Inc. OS devices, you really can take it with you. We tested 8 Mac-compatible handhelds to help you make the best choice for your needs.

Ah, the days of the paper organizer. Shopping for a new one was as simple as going down to the corner stationery store. Should you spring for a leather-bound model? Do you want a calendar with Saturday and Sunday merged together or listed separately? Should the organizer fit in your briefcase?

These days, handheld organizers are running the paper organizer out of business -- and for Mac users, handheld means organizers running the Palm OS and manufactured by either Palm or Handspring Inc.. Shopping for these organizers has become more like shopping for a new computer, right down to comparing RAM size and fretting about future upgradability.

The truth is, shopping for a handheld organizer (sometimes known as a personal digital assistant, or PDA) shouldn't be too different from shopping for that low-tech pen-and-paper number. In the end, it all comes down to one thing: finding the product that best fits the way you organize your life.

These days, you can choose from eight different devices running Palm OS -- the $449 Palm IIIc, the $149 Palm IIIe, the $249 Palm IIIxe, the $329 Palm V, the $399 Palm Vx, the $449 Palm VII, the $179 Handspring Visor, and the $249 Handspring Visor Deluxe -- and each one will appeal to a different type of person. Macworld looked at all of them, comparing price, specifications, and upgradability.

The Least You Need to Know

Probably the best-known use of a handheld device is keeping track of your life.

If you're looking for a basic personal organizer, any Palm device or Handspring Visor will help you remember your mother's birthday or how many reps to do at the gym.

Each model runs a version of Palm OS -- core system software that includes built-in calendar, address-book, to-do-list, memo, and mail applications, as well as the ability to synchronize its information with included calendar and address-book programs for your Mac. An alarm feature will even alert you when you're about to miss that important lunch with your publicist and can double as a wake-up call when you're on the road.

All the current devices also feature an infrared (IR) port for beaming records, such as business cards, and applications, such as your favorite games, to other IR-equipped Palm handhelds -- you just point your organizer at another, and your data shoots through the air like magic.

Cheap and BasicFor just the basic features, save money by buying the $149 Palm IIIe or the $179 standard Handspring Visor -- both feature 2MB of memory, enough room to store thousands of phone numbers, addresses, and add-on software (for $149, you can also get the Handspring Visor without a HotSync cradle). The $329 Palm V offers the same specs at a higher cost but in a smaller, thinner case. If all you really want is an exceptionally cool address book and calendar, the extra $200 is probably not worth it.

Special Needs

If you don't require much from a handheld, your choice is easy -- but if you have very specific needs, your choice may already be made.

If you want a color screen for eye-popping charts -- or just for looks -- the $449 Palm IIIc is currently the only Palm OS device with a color screen.

Perhaps you need wireless Internet access to keep abreast of how many points the NASDAQ is up (or down). You have more choices here, but still not many. The $449 Palm VII is the only unit to offer built-in wireless Internet access, which means you avoid additional hardware expenses. But the required Palm.net service isn't available everywhere, so you should check Palm's coverage maps at http://www.palm.net/coverage/ to see if the service will meet your needs.

Other wireless Internet choices do exist, such as the $369 Minstrel III Wireless IP Modem from Novatel Wireless (888/888-9231, http://www.novatelwireless.com) for the Palm III family, and the OmniSky Minstral V Wireless Modem (800/860-5767, http://www.omnisky.com) for the Palm V (the Minstral should be shipping by the time you read this).

Packing It In

If you need more than just the basics, it's time to start weighing a handheld's features. Your handheld device's memory will determine how many phone numbers, addresses, and programs you can store at any given time, as well as whether you can update the core operating system. The amount of built-in memory ranges from 2MB to 8MB. Since these devices don't have hard drives, they store most of the data in RAM, as digital cameras and MP3 players do, although some PDAs also store data in semipermanent Flash ROM chips.

Miniature ApplicationsNone of the handheld devices we looked at comes with less than 2MB of RAM. Although this may sound puny, 2MB is enough to store 6,000 addresses and five years' worth of appointments. Even better news, Palm OS applications take up very little space compared with most Mac programs. The average application takes up a few dozen kilobytes, and the heftier ones take up just a couple hundred kilobytes.

By comparison, Microsoft Word 98 takes up 5.1MB -- and that's just for the application, not including all the other files needed to run it. No doubt Palm OS apps will expand as handheld devices with more memory appear (remember, Mac OS used to fit on a 400K floppy disk, with room to spare for MacPaint).

Hefty Extras

If you want to keep e-mail, electronic books, or big database files on your handheld, you might find yourself needing more RAM.

You can also fill up your RAM with software -- remember, Palm OS organizers are essentially little computers, and you can install programs on them just as on your Mac. You can download and install thousands of utilities, games, system enhancements, and other programs (see ÒPrograms to PackÓ elsewhere in this special report for a list of some of our favorites). If you need more RAM, consider the $249 Palm IIIxe or $399 Palm Vx, both of which offer 8MB of RAM.

If that's not going to be enough memory -- say you also want to carry lots of games and reference materials -- go with Handspring's $249 Visor Deluxe. It comes with 8MB of RAM, too, and has the potential to add more memory using Handspring's Springboard memory modules.

Flashy Upgrades

Just like Mac OS, Palm OS comes out in new versions from time to time -- and the handheld model you buy may determine whether you can upgrade. Every Palm unit since the Palm III, with the exception of the Palm IIIe, features 2MB of flash memory for storing Palm OS and built-in applications. Normally this is read-only memory (ROM), but you can change its contents using a utility that overwrites the ROM.

Flash ROM is more expensive than standard ROM, which is why the Palm IIIe and both Visor models don't include Flash ROM. Those models are less expensive but can't upgrade Palm OS. So while the latest Palm handhelds are running Palm OS 3.5, Handspring's Visors are stuck at Palm OS 3.1h, the company's adapted version of Palm OS 3.1.

Sidebar: One for the Road continues...

Expanding Your Horizons

So what happens when you find you've outgrown your organizer's built-in capabilities and want to do more with it? You don't have to house everything related to your handheld inside its case -- what about connecting external gadgets such as modems, pagers, and MP3 players?

A slew of external add-ons and accessories make the Palm more than just a digital Day-Timer, and all of them connect via the serial port located at the bottom rear of the Palm organizers. You can purchase modems, global positioning systems, digital cameras, data-acquisition tools, and a multitude of other gadgets to get the most out of your Palm. Remember, however, that the Palm V series does not have the same serial connection as the Palm III series and the Palm VII, so add-ons are not universally compatible.

Snappy Goods

The arrival of Handspring has complicated the Palm peripheral market by creating a new method of connecting hardware to the device: Located on the back of every Visor, the Springboard slot accepts modules designed for Handspring handhelds, making the Visor potentially the best choice in terms of hardware expandability.

Several companies are currently creating modules such as MP3 players, cameras, and wireless communication tools that require no installation or setup: plugging one in loads the associated software.

The Springboard memory module, for example (one of the few modules actually available as of this writing), lets you add more RAM without digging into the guts of the organizer, and opens up the possibility of storing applications and data on multiple modules according to category -- you could pop in work databases during the day and then replace your games and personal information in the evening.

Communicating with Your Mac

When it comes time to enter information for all your friends and contacts or perform any other data-entry task, the last thing you want to do is spend hours pecking away on a small screen with a stylus -- and that's where interaction with your Mac is critical. Palm dubs its handhelds "connected organizers," but how well does the connection between your Mac and the Palm and Handspring devices hold up? Both companies offer Macintosh compatibility and the ability to synchronize, or HotSync, information at the touch of a button, but they stumble in different areas of the implementation.

Auto PilotPalm's Mac support is thorough in some areas and surprisingly spotty in others. The latest version of the desktop software, Macintosh Palm Desktop 2.5, still adds calendar and address functions to your desktop, but it now offers more control over synchronization with multiple Palm devices and provides USB support -- important these days, since new Macs don't have serial ports. Also, Palm handhelds running Palm OS 3.3 or 3.5 have the built-in ability to perform HotSync operations via infrared to IR-equipped PowerBooks.

However, none of the Palm devices include Mac software, so you must either pay for it on CD-ROM or download it from Palm's Web site. Either way, you'll still need to buy Palm's $40 USB Connection Kit or $6 Macintosh Serial Adapter, depending on your Mac's connectors, in order to attach the PC-style serial cable snaking out from the HotSync cradle.

Spring into Action

Handspring's Macintosh support is better but has its own quirks. The installation CD that comes with every Visor includes the Macintosh software but currently supports only Macintosh Palm Desktop 2.1. (Handspring plans to release a 2.5 version that works with the Visors later this year.) Handspring has also embraced USB in a big way -- every $179 Visor comes with a USB HotSync cradle. This is great if you have a new Mac, but it means that owners of older Macs must pay $30 extra for a serial cradle. Unfortunately, the Visor doesn't include built-in support for IR HotSync operations, although Handspring says third-party software can provide this capability.

Macworld's Buying Advice

If you're looking for an everyday handheld and don't need the flash of more-expensive models, the Handspring Visor is the clear winner. Unless the smaller size of a Palm V is important to you (and honestly, except for the Palm VII they're all small enough to put in a shirt pocket), you'll get the best bang for the least buck with a standard Visor. Its 2MB of memory is plenty for using the built-in applications and others you want to install. You can take advantage of software improvements like the enhanced Date Book and Calculator.

Plus you get the advantage of the Springboard slot, enabling you to upgrade in the future for only the cost of memory modules or other add-on Springboard cartridges.

The best choice for those who need to carry around lots of files is the Palm Vx. Although other devices feature 8MB of memory (or the possibility for more than 8MB, as with the Visor), the Palm Vx's smaller, thinner design is really the deciding vote. Also key is its ability to upgrade to new versions of Palm OS and interact with Macintosh Palm Desktop 2.5.

Although switching from pen and paper to screen and stylus might seem like a leap of faith, it's easy to safely find the right handheld to fit your needs.

EDITORS' CHOICE

Best Everyday Handheld

Handspring Visor With all the basic applications of every Palm OS handheld, the inexpensive Visor offers software improvements, the Springboard expansion slot, and an included USB connection. Company: Handspring (888/565-9393, http://www.handspring.com). List price: $179.

Best Professional Handheld

Palm Vx Packs the best aspects of a professional Palm device -- 8MB of memory, flash ROM, a high-contrast screen -- into a small, thin, stylish package. Company: Palm (800/881-7256, http://www.palm.com). List price:

$399.

JEFF CARLSON is author of Palm Organizers Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, 2000).

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