Palm's efforts at securing the high end of the Palm OS handheld market have been surprisingly rocky over the last few years. Last month, Palm released the Palm Tungsten T, a multimedia-enhanced handheld that indicates the company is making a serious foray into the field that it created. Although the Tungsten T isn't aimed at everyone, its influence sets the stage for the next wave of Palm OS-based handhelds.
A Simplified History of Success and Stumbling -- The fact that Palm is releasing a "multimedia-enhanced" handheld is noteworthy, since traditionally it has eschewed features that were outside its comfortable sphere of simplified organization. To appreciate why the Tungsten T is an important reentry point for Palm, we need to look at how we got here.
In 1999, Palm introduced the Palm V, a sleek anodized aluminum handheld targeted at the executive suite. To the company's surprise, the Palm V was a huge success with all sorts of users who wanted a slim handheld. Two years later, Palm pre-announced the Palm m505, a color handheld with the same form factor as the Palm V. Many people believed the company had another huge hit, but two important missteps knocked Palm off its feet. By pre-announcing the m505 months before it was available, interest in the existing product line evaporated, leaving the company with lots of unsold inventory. Then, when the m505 finally appeared, its highly anticipated color screen turned out to be dim and virtually unreadable (see "Palm m505: A Slightly Dim Bulb" in TidBITS-598).
In March of 2002, Palm released the Palm m515 with a decent color screen. By then, Palm OS licensee Sony had taken the lead in color handhelds thanks to models of its CLIE line with high-resolution color screens, MP3 playback capabilities, and more, demonstrating that people were interested in handhelds that went beyond organizing.
Meanwhile, the wing of Palm responsible for Palm OS development (now a spin-off called PalmSource, Inc.) realized that the operating system needed to be updated to support faster processors and better handle the multimedia capabilities demanded by the market. The result was Palm OS 5, engineered to run on processors designed by ARM Holdings.
Sony nabbed the distinction of releasing the first devices based on Palm OS 5 and the ARM architecture with its new NX60 and NX70 series. However, Palm is still the market leader, and the way it handles its self-imposed transition will affect Palm OS-based handhelds to come. Fortunately, the Tungsten T points to a bright future.
Ever Smaller -- The most obvious feature of the Tungsten T is its case design. Palm has moved away from the swooping curves of the Palm m500-series to a rounded slab. At 4 inches (10.16 cm) tall, the Tungsten T is the shortest Palm handheld, but with a catch: the bottom section containing the application buttons slides down to reveal the silkscreened Graffiti area (making it 4.8 inches, or 12.19 cm, tall). Normally such a gadgety feature would conjure images of broken latches or snapped housings, but Palm seems to have created a solid mechanism that should hopefully hold up well. I can only vouch for a couple of week's worth of heavy use, but initially the slider seems well engineered. A nice touch is a preference to turn the device on when the slider is opened; you can also set it to turn off when closed.
The case design also includes a five-way navigation button (up, down, right, left, and push to select) in place of the old up and down scroll buttons, which is remarkably useful. Using this Navigator, as Palm calls it, enables you to look up information without opening the slider or even grabbing the stylus from its spring-loaded silo. With the device off, pressing the Navigator button briefly displays the current time and date. If you press and hold the button, you're taken to the Applications screen. As with previous models, pressing up or down scrolls through your list of programs, but if you press the button again, the first application is highlighted and you can use the other directions to go to the program you want.
In most instances, you're probably just looking up a phone number in the Address Book. But here's where the Navigator excels: In the Address list, press right to enable a letter-directed search in the Look Up field, then press up and down to select a letter. Pressing right again moves on to the second letter, and so on until you've located the person you're looking up. Pressing the center button again displays that person's record. Handspring introduced a variation of this technology with its Visor Edge, but the Tungsten T's five-way Navigator makes it easier to look up information not only without using the stylus, but using just one hand.
Longtime Palm users accustomed to tapping the silkscreened Applications button will probably be initially flustered by the need to open the slider, but pressing the center Navigator button takes you to the Applications screen from within other applications.
A Beautiful View -- Given Palm's spotty track record with color screens, it's clear that the company wanted to get it right with the Tungsten T's bright, gorgeous screen. Unlike many handheld color screens, which are either visible indoors or outdoors but rarely both, this one looks great in both environments. The brightness level is controlled by a sliding scale, and I'm happy to report that even at about 30 percent, the screen is quite bright.
The screen's resolution has been doubled from previous models, now featuring a grid of 320 by 320 pixels. It's not as noticeable in many applications, but in programs that have been optimized to handle the resolution - such as the included PhotoBase for storing photos, or Astraware's excellent game Bejeweled 2.0 - the difference is striking.
ARMed and Ready -- Unlike previous Palm models, the Tungsten T is powered by the Texas Instruments OMAP 1510 processor, which brings a significant speed boost to what was already a fairly snappy platform. In programs like Date Book or Address Book, screens tend to redraw quicker, and processor-intensive applications such as Bejeweled are fast and smooth.
As Mac owners are aware, migrating to a new processor architecture isn't trivial. Developers need to rewrite their software to take advantage of the new environment, so not all existing programs work correctly under Palm OS 5. To ease the transition, Palm OS 5 includes PACE (Palm Application Compatibility Environment), which runs older programs much the same way Apple supports old 68K software on PowerPC-based systems. You must endure some trial and error to see which ones work; a few programs that had trouble on my unit suffered mainly from display problems. In the interim, Palm has created a compatibility Web page tracking current software titles, as well as an application for the Tungsten T called AppCheck that can identify which programs on your handheld are fully compatible.
Bluetooth Enabled -- The Tungsten T is also the first Palm device with Bluetooth wireless communications built in. I don't know anyone with a Bluetooth-enabled handheld, so I wasn't able to test the bundled BlueChat application. I also lack a Bluetooth-enabled phone, which would in theory allow me to connect to the Internet or look up someone's number in the Address Book and then dial the phone.
However, I borrowed a D-Link Bluetooth USB adapter and set it up so I can HotSync with my Mac without wires or using my PowerBook's infrared port. I had to set up a new HotSync connection on the Palm to get this to work, but it took only a few minutes.
Voice Memos -- The last showy feature of the Tungsten T is a built-in microphone and side button that enables the Voice Memo application to record audio. The Tungsten T also includes a standard 3.5mm headphone jack for listening to your memos privately, and a much improved speaker if you want to share them with the world (the audio quality in general is also better for alarms and other system sounds).
You'd think that the Tungsten T would be a nice MP3 player, especially given its the SecureDigital memory card slot. (You could probably store a song or two on the device's built-in 16 MB memory, 14 MB of which is available after the built-in applications, but the external storage option is more likely.) However, there's no software to play back MP3s so far. Rumor has it that a player was in the works but not completed in time to ship with the device; hopefully either Palm or a third party developer will create such a program in the near future.
Highly Polished -- The Tungsten T is a big leap for Palm and heralds a more optimistic future for the platform than we've seen in recent years. Priced at $500 and available from vendors like TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics, it's not aimed at most typical handheld users, but the elegant combination of hardware and software improvements in this device promises a healthier product lineup from Palm in the coming years.
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