A Palm for the Road

SAN FRANCISCO (06/27/2000) - You can't yet surf the Web willy-nilly like you do from your desktop PC, but if you think today's wireless handhelds are just expensive toys, think again. Big changes are coming in wireless Internet access, and Palm Computing Inc.'s Palm VII is helping blaze the trail.

Despite its slow data rates, the wireless Palm VII offers a lot of content. And it delivers a more user-friendly experience than I've had so far with Wireless Application Protocol-enabled phones.

Of course, at $449 for the handheld plus $40 a month for unlimited use of the Palm.net service, the Palm VII is a pricey solution. It also has its limitations--mostly owing to the present state of wireless Web access. You can't make phone calls, of course, and, unless you operate with the help of another (free) wireless browsing site like AvantGo, you aren't able to browse the Web like you do from your desktop PC. Only about 375 Web sites support the Palm VII's Web-clipping protocol.

If you want the market-leading personal digital assistant with some wireless capabilities, Palm VII is not a bad choice. But it's also not your only choice.

For example, if you're a Palm V or Palm Vx owner with $300 for the price of an OmniSky Minstral V wireless modem, you can subscribe to its wireless service and get access to about 1,000 Web sites optimized by OmniSky's partners to fit the Palm display.

Handhelds using Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system offer a slightly broader, but similarly limited set of solutions.

All-in-One

In addition to superior Palm OS usability, the advantage of the Palm VII is that it's an all-in-one, no-brainer solution.

To get started, you need only buy the Palm VII device and sign up for Palm.net wireless service. Palm.net uses Bell South Wireless Data, a national paging network that offers pretty good national coverage, but at 8.7 kbps, the data rates are slow.

You can pick any of the more than 375 content services from Palm.net, but, on the downside, you have to download a small applet, or PQA, once for each site or service when you synchronize with the PC. After that, access to the site is wireless. According to Palm, that client-side PQA lets Palm's Web clipping technology transmit content more quickly and efficiently because the application doesn't have to browse for the things that don't change from inquiry to inquiry.

And you don't have to download every service. The Palm VII comes with a host of third-party Web services, such as ABCnews.com, Bank of America, ESPN.com, E-Trade, Fidelity Investor, MapQuest.com, Merriam-Webster, Moviefone.com, Ticketmaster, Travelocity, UPS, USA Today, Visa, Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, The Weather Channel, and Yahoo People Search. Some of these applications are burned into the ROM on the device, while others you download from the installation CD. Most of the services, including the Wall Street Journal, are free to use after you pay for Palm.net access. But some, such as Fidelity Investor, charge for transactions.

Smooth Browsing With Palm.net

Because most services at Palm.net are designed specifically for the Palm, the experience tends to be good. Type is large enough to read, and the Tap and Graffiti commands are intuitive.

Rather than dig through menus to get to what you want, each menu page on a Palm VII goes a little deeper than menus on a WAP phone, thanks to the Palm's larger display. Through ESPN.com, I quickly found an interface with a list of sports leagues like NFL and NBA. During the National Basketball Association finals, I hit the "quick score" icon next to NBA and got the final score in game six of the Lakers/Pacers championship series. Then I went back and tapped NBA to get to a menu with more basketball content options.

News content is also much easier to peruse on the Palm than on a phone or pager. At ABCnews.com, I found a large icon for headlines followed by a menu arranged by topic area. I drilled down to read a story on storms in the Midwest but was interrupted by a phone call. With Palm.net's flat fee, I didn't have to worry about being charged for minutes away from the Palm.

I decided to turn it off to save batteries, and when I turned it back on, I was still at the story on storms. There's even a history menu so you can quickly view previously read content. Speaking of batteries, the Palm VII holds to the company's claim that batteries can last for weeks depending on usage. I used the Palm.net service regularly for several days before I had to change mine.

E-Mail Requires Some Configuring

While built-in e-mail support is limited on the Palm VII, you can use many third-party applications to access and forward your messages.

The device comes with IMessenger, an application that lets you send and receive short messages on the Palm using your Palm.net account. And with Palm's graffiti strokes or touch-screen keyboard, writing messages is easier than it is with the cell phone convention of pressing buttons multiple times. I sent a few messages with IMessenger to Web e-mail accounts as well as to my corporate Lotus Notes accounts. The messages I sent were received within minutes, as were the reply messages sent to my Palm.net account.

For another $4.95 a month, you can forward POP3 and IMAP4 messages to your IMessenger account using MonkeyMail from Primate Systems. And with Primate's Visto Assistant, you can forward Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange Server messages to IMessenger.

Beyond e-mail, other messaging applications let you send faxes--and pages to certain paging networks--from your Palm VII.

Bottom-Line Browsing

Like mobile phones and pagers, the Palm VII isn't the ideal device for browsing the Web. But you can expect it to get much easier as WAP and XML sites proliferate.

Its warts notwithstanding, the Palm VII beats browsing with a WAP phone because of its larger display, its touch screen, and for the simple reason that it has all the PDA features of a Palm.

If you don't feel the need to be on the bleeding edge, wait to hear about the new ways you can connect existing Palms. Palm says it will announce this week products for wireless connectivity for its current devices.

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