The simplicity and elegance of Palm.-connected organizers have made them the most popular personal digital assistants ever. But a growing number of PDA buyers are turning to feature-rich competitors--to Pocket PCs with glitzy multimedia, productivity software, and multiple connectivity options; or to Handspring Visors with their easy expandability via Springboard modules. Now Palm is fighting back with new models that add some of these features--in a package the size of the sleek, popular Palm V.
The new Palm M500, which should be available by the time you read this, and the M505, a color version due in May, include an expansion slot for postage-stamp-size Secure Digital (SD) cards or MultiMediaCards (MMCs) for adding memory, content, and eventually peripherals. But the expandability, though welcome, seems half-baked in some ways. You'll have to wait at least until the northern hemisphere fall before SD cards that permit you to add hardware (such as Bluetooth cards or GPS devices) become available. And while the M505 is the first Palm with 16-bit color support, the screen is disappointingly dull.
The biggest innovation in these new Palms is the small SD/MMC slot on top. Users are likely to prefer MMC for memory, but SD cards will add content such as Lonely Planet travel guides and games (including an amusing version of Sim City). The input/output standard for SD cards has not been set, however, so you won't be seeing any SD hardware peripherals--similar to modules for the Handspring Springboard--right away.
Both M500-series Palms come with 8MB of RAM, a 33-MHz processor, and Palm OS 4. They also have a new universal base connector that allows hot syncing via a USB or serial hookup. But you can't use today's Palm modems, keyboards, or cradles with the new devices. New keyboards and modems for the M500-series Palms are due in April.
The new Palms hold the line on weight (a plastic backing helps on the M505). At just 4 ounces, the M500 weighs less than the Palm V, while the color M505 weighs about the same as the V and is a mere 1 millimeter thicker. Other color PDAs are chunky in comparison. But to match the Palm V's estimated two-week battery life and skinny form factor, the M505 uses a reflective color screen. It's easier to view in sunlight than the screen on the Palm IIIc. But indoors it looked too dark, even with the backlight switched on--and it paled in comparison to the brilliant screen on the IIIc and on Compaq's IPaq Pocket PC.
New Software Included
Besides offering SD and 16-bit color support, Palm OS 4 builds in wireless connectivity software that lets you use a mobile phone as a modem via the infrared port or a cable. You can click on a phone number in your address book to place a call on your mobile phone. And you can now beam appointments made using datebooks that support the VCal format.
Palm bundles several programs that mimic Pocket PC productivity applications: MGI PhotoSuite, DataViz's Documents To Go (for reading and editing Word and Excel documents), AOL for Palm OS, AvantGo, Infinity Softworks' PowerOne personal calendar, and Palm Reader (for e-books).
Estimated street prices are US$399 for the M500 and $449 for the M505. They'll compete head to head with PDAs such as HP's $499 Jornada 548 Pocket PC and Handspring's $449 color Visor Prism.
The new-generation Palms offer room to grow in a slim, attractive package, but you'll have to wait for hardware add-ons, and the color display on the M505 is disappointing. If you want to view images, read books, and edit Word documents, you'll probably be happier with a Pocket PC. But if a small profile and battery life matter to you, and you prefer the Palm OS, the M500-series Palms' SD slot and new applications make these devices more than mere organizers.