In TidBITS-597 I wrote about using Xircom's Palm Wireless Ethernet Module (since Intel purchased Xircom, it's now called the Xircom Wireless LAN Module for Palm Handhelds), a Wi-Fi add-on for some Palm models. I still use the module with a Palm m515, but only in certain situations and not in daily use.
My use dropped off for three reasons. First, the DHCP client on the Xircom module is buggy, and over the course of a year and a half these issues have not been resolved. Second, since the m515 uses the module as if it were a modem, the speed is mediocre and time-outs are common, even when using a fast 802.11b wireless network. Third, I prefer to carry the m515 in a Palm hard case and I have to remove the case to attach the module.
So, while the Xircom solution is functional, I have to admit that it proved to be a high maintenance gadget that took a lot of effort to operate after the novelty wore off. However, things are looking up. Two weeks ago I was asked to test and demonstrate Palm's new Tungsten C, which builds in 802.11b networking.
Before I examine its wireless networking capabilities, here are a few other facts about the Tungsten C that are worth noting briefly.
It lacks built-in Bluetooth, as does the Tungsten T, and Palm says their Bluetooth SDIO card does not work in it.
It runs Palm OS 5, a significant rewrite of the Palm operating system, which means that a number of older programs (including some Palm Query Applications for accessing online content) I tried would not run on it.
The separate Graffiti writing area is gone (you can write anywhere on the screen) and has been replaced by a BlackBerry-style miniature keyboard.
It uses Graffiti 2, which is different enough to require some adjustment by experienced Palm users.
The To Do and Memo Pad buttons have been replaced with Email and Web buttons.
The processor is the new 400 MHz Intel ARM, which means it's noticeably speedier than earlier generations of Palm handhelds.
It includes 64 MB of built-in memory, a significant boost from earlier models that tapped out at 16 MB.
The 16-bit, 320 x 320 transflective TFT screen is really impressive.
Its list price is $500 (buying a Palm m515 and a Xircom module would still cost more).
The demo unit arrived the day Palm announced it and I had only a few hours to experiment before demonstrating it at a technology showcase the next day. One thing was clear after only a few minutes: the Tungsten C is everything I had wanted the combination of the m515 and Xircom module to be. It just works.
The Tungsten C I tested was a pre-release unit with no documentation, but I didn't need any. Running the Wi-Fi Setup application on the Tungsten C started it searching for a wireless network, and when it could not find our campus network at Dartmouth College, where the SSID is hidden, it walked me through setting up the connection manually in a few easy steps. I found the setup process much easier than using the XircomPWE setup program.
Field Test -- Once you enter your wireless network settings you can check the status of the connection with the Palm Prefs application or the Graffiti Command stroke. Reception is better than the Xircom module but still not as strong as a full size notebook computer. The Tungsten C selects the nearest access point reliably, and active roaming between access points worked well as long as I stayed in the same network subnet. Moving around too quickly caused the connection to drop during long downloads, but that happens with my laptop as well. Compared to the older Xircom adapter, connecting to the network is quick and is no longer burdened by the overhead of the simulated modem negotiation. Any problems with a connection are fixed in two to three seconds by powering the Tungsten C off and on again.
In my testing, the life of the Tungsten C's 1500 mAh Li-Ion battery was very good. I demonstrated the unit almost continuously for two and a half hours and used less than a third of the battery charge. Using it on and off during a weekend on my home network was also no problem. Using a wireless connection does drain the battery faster, as one would expect, but not at an alarming rate.
Putting It to Work -- The Tungsten C includes a good set of basic applications in its read-only memory (meaning they're still available even if you reset the Palm to its default state): VersaMail 2.5, PalmSource Web Browser 2.0, DataViz Documents To Go Professional 5.1, and a PPTP (Point to Point Tunneling Protocol) VPN client. Products like Adobe Acrobat Reader, AvantGo, AOL for Palm, and Printboy are on the installation CD or available for download (an IPSec VPN client is in beta).
I use a Power Mac G4 (QuickSilver) as my primary workstation, but I set up the Tungsten C with an IBM ThinkPad T23 running Windows XP and Outlook 2002 so I could test features like Network HotSync that aren't available for Macintosh. Network HotSync is particularly impressive on the Tungsten C when the host computer and the Palm are on the same LAN. The speed is comparable to a serial cradle and not much slower than an USB cradle. It wasn't 100 percent reliable as I moved around the campus network, but I didn't have adequate time to look for a cause.
However, Mac users will also find things to be happy about. For example, if you install the beta version of AvantGo, which currently has no Mac conduit, you can then use the wireless sync feature to keep it updated. I also used this method to update Vindigo 2.0 (which does have Mac support) because using wireless sync to update it directly is more convenient and surprisingly fast - I was able to update three cities in less than a minute over a home DSL connection. I did use the Tungsten C briefly with a PowerBook G4 running Mac OS X 10.2.5 and had no problems with the basic Palm Desktop 4 software and the USB HotSync.
PalmSource Web Browser 2.0 is well implemented. Images are amazingly crisp on the new display, and the software does an admirable job converting Web sites to the small screen. My only real complaint is that links that target a new window don't work. This eliminates pop-up windows, but the browser should ask in case you do want to open the link.
As I said in my previous article, the application that really matters is the original killer app, email. VersaMail 2.5 is a huge improvement over my current application, MultiMail SE. It supports IMAP with SSL, which I will soon be required to use, and uses color well. The faster connection speed makes the email program highly responsive; there's no sense of waiting a long time for things to download. Because of this, downloading a Microsoft Word or Excel file and viewing it with Documents To Go was worth doing unless the file was truly huge (some files did not open properly, though, including files created with Microsoft Office X, and I was not able to open PDF files with Acrobat Reader). Even though this unit was on loan for only a few days, I found myself reading and sending email with it constantly at work and at home. It doesn't replace Eudora on my PowerBook, but it did make it easy to leave the laptop behind when I wanted to.
Looking Forward -- The Tungsten C is ideal for mobile users on a corporate or academic campus with a lot of wireless access points. Even if you aren't in a place like that, Wi-Fi hot spots are becoming more common every day, and Palm is happy to suggest that you buy access from a service like Wayport (unfortunately, T-Mobile's Web site says their hot spots don't currently support Palm devices because of the proprietary browser, but I was unable to test that).
The Tungsten C has the same hands-free headset jack as the Tungsten W, which is a wireless phone. The sales brochure says this is for audio playback and voice recording, but it seems like there is more potential there. I've already started to hear rumors about a Voice Over IP (VOIP) solution. So, maybe I'll be able to use one of these as a phone when we roll out VOIP at work.
The demo unit went back the day after I finished this review, but I've already ordered one of my own. That's the greatest praise I can give. I plan to set it up with a Mac running Mac OS X and Now Up-to-Date 4.
[Geoff Bronner is webmaster for the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, buys too many DVDs, and actually watches NFL Europe football.]