PDAs Part 2

My previous PDA was a Palm V. 16MHz 68000, 160×160 B&W screen that could do greyscale in special modes that most software didn’t use. I didn’t particularly want to replace it, but there were a few issues I was having.

First off, the fact that it was serial based rather than USB meant it was a pain to connect to any modern computer; getting it hooked up to the Mac involved a USB to serial adaptor, special drivers, and a lot of futzing with Palm Desktop, and the end result was painfully slow. As a result, I hadn’t synced it in ages.

Secondly, I’d never liked the screen. Going from the Newton MessagePad to the Palm had been a serious downgrade, necessitated by Jobs killing the Newton. I’d been waiting around for some usable Palm devices with at least 320×480 resolution and a 10cm screen, and they finally started appearing in the last year or so.

Other than USB and a big screen, I didn’t really care too much about fancy features; just the obvious stuff—a beeper you can hear easily for alarms, either Bluetooth or wi-fi with an option for the other one, enough memory for a comprehensive GTD list, and maybe a few games and e-books, and connectivity to Mac and Linux.

I did consider the “smart phone” option (again). I came to the same conclusion as last time I considered it: it just doesn’t work. Generally speaking, I want my PDA screen to be as large as possible, and my phone to be as small as possible. Specifically, I want my PDA screen to be big enough to be usable for reviewing an outline of a hundred or so items, and my phone to be small enough to fit in the pocket of my jeans. The Treo 650 fails both tests—it’s too big for a phone and too small for a pocketbook. I’m sure it’s just the right size for some people, but not for me.

Pocket PC devices? Yeah, right. Even if I was prepared to assist Microsoft’s plans for World Domination, the Pocket PC is pretty much crippled unless you run Windows and/or Office, and I don’t run either. So Microsoft eliminated themselves from consideration.

Nokia Communicator? Tempting, but Nokia don’t seem to sell it in the USA. Or at least, I’ve never seen one, and I’m not buying one without seeing the screen first.

Psion? They seem to have given up on the consumer market, and they always price-gouged outrageously for proprietary peripherals and upgrades. No thanks.

Sony Ericsson P series? Again, I’d never actually seen one, and didn’t fancy buying sight unseen, especially not after my experiences with the Sony Ericsson t68i. Plus, you know, $700…

Zaurus? Tempting again. I kept waiting for Sharp to start selling the clamshell Zaurus machines. Unfortunately, all they sell in the US is the SL-6000. It’s thick and heavy and has a keyboard that’s too small to use, hidden in a sliding mechanism. I don’t like sliding mechanisms, they’re too unreliable. I met some guys from Sharp at a show, and told them I hated the 6000, and when would they be selling the SL-C7xx series or some other clamshell design? They said that they both wanted clamshell Zauruses too, but the Japanese mothership had decided that we were wrong, nobody in America wants clamshell machines. I wasn’t prepared to pay $800+ to Dynamism for an unwarrantied Japanese import Zaurus re-flashed with a partially translated OS, though clearly the fact that some people are rather puts a hole in Sharp’s official position. Anyway, I waited a year or so to see if Sharp would relent and sell my a PDA I wanted, then crossed them off the list when they failed to do so.

So, my short list of options was: Tungsten T3, Tungsten T5, Sony CLIE PEG-TH55, Tapwave Zodiac.

The Tungsten T3 has a gratuitous sliding mechanism. The slider wasn’t going to protect the screen, and I couldn’t imagine any concievable circumstance where I’d want to make the screen smaller than it already was, so what was the point? The T5 kinda illustrates the uselessness of it. I expect it was purely a matter of wanting to recycle the case of the Tungsten T and just drop in a different screen instead of having to do a major redesign. So, not really very appealing.

Ah, the Tungsten T5. Looks like a fabulous device until you read some reviews. The biggest problem is that Pa1mOne b0rked the OS on the T5 and the Treo 650, so that every single database entry is now allocated in 512 byte chunks, like on a desktop PC. So if (like me) you carry small databases with hundreds of phone numbers, to-do items and scraps of info, suddenly they bloat out to 10x the size. To me, it seems like that rather ruins the point of the thing. Palm say they are going to fix it, but the fact that they’ve given Treo 650 owners free memory cards to make up for it suggests otherwise, and they’re keeping very quiet about fixing it for the T5. The T5 has 128MB, so allowing for bloat of the kind Treo 650 users have observed, it’s like a 32MB machine—and Palm think that’s OK.

Even ignoring the memory issue, though, there are other problems. The T5 has software compatibility issues. Most software developers are scrambling with updates, but good luck getting classic Palm freeware to run on it. The connector for sync is yet another new design, so none of the existing peripherals will work. And worst of all, it has no vibration mode. Yup, if you’re in a meeting, cinema, church or whatever, you can’t have it vibrate instead of beeping for alarms. It’s the same rather anemic speaker as the T3, and it’s mounted in the center of the back of the device, so as soon as you lay it on a desk, put it in a carrying case, or even hold it in your hand, the sound is badly muffled.

So in short, the T5 fails the basic functionality requirements due to some very poor design choices by Palm.

Next to be eliminated was the CLIE. Sony decided they weren’t interested in selling in the US any more. That left the Tapwave Zodiac, and I bought one.

Things I like about the Zodiac:

  • It has the biggest rechargeable battery capacity of any Palm device.
  • The case is made of metal, not plastic like the T5.
  • Because it was designed for gaming, it has two front-mounted speakers for loud stereo sound, and a strong vibration function.
  • It has a graphics processor, leaving the CPU free to do actual CPU stuff, so performance is lightning-fast.
  • The internal memory behaves as regular Palm memory, with most of the free space being used to simulate an internal memory card. This is important because Palm OS craps out once files get large, so your photos and MP3s and e-books need to go in “card memory”. With the Zodiac, you get some “card memory” built in…
  • …and then you’ve got two SD expansion slots, one of which takes SDIO cards.
  • A proper navigation joystick and a complete set of application buttons.
  • Most color Palm software seems to run, including titles which I know don’t run on the T5.
  • Real headphone jack capable of driving a pair of portable Sennheisers.
  • It’s black.

Things I don’t like:

  • The stylus just clips on the back. I can see that getting lost.
  • The sync cable is hard to clip on; it tends to feel like it’s clipped on, only to suddenly drop off half way through a data transfer.
  • Case and dock cost extra. C’mon, guys, would it kill you to bundle a cheap neoprene carrying pouch?

Basically, it’s the nicest Palm device I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame that Tapwave’s strategy is to sell it as a game console, because it’s not so hot at being one of those. As a Palm organizer, though, it easily beats the competition—at least as far as the hardware is concerned.