Before Apple started teasing the press last Wednesday in a cell phone-unfriendly auditorium, Palm announced their two latest handheld organizers, both of which come with Mac OS X support out of the box.
Palm, Inc. dropped the Zire and Tungsten "sub-brand" names, as they called them, keeping just the initials. The $100 Palm Z22 is aimed at casual users who can't always remember to keep a battery charged, while the $300 TX offers greater connectivity at a mid-range price.
Palm Z22 -- The Z22 comes with infrared and a mini-USB port (with a special cable), but more cleverly includes 32 MB of flash RAM (which doesn't lose its data if the battery goes dead). The Z22 works with Mac OS X 10.2.8 to 10.4.x, Windows 2000, and Windows XP.
Palm hopes that this model will appeal to folks who want to be able to run Palm applications and have a portable device with a color screen (160 by 160 pixels), and who will find the price point appealing. Palm also understands that the primary problem for this audience is, in fact, keeping the battery charged. The non-volatile memory is a great idea.
The Z22 comes with a USB sync cable (but doesn't require or include a cradle). The Z22 also comes with an AC adapter and a selection of built-in software, including a few games.
Palm TX -- The Palm TX will attempt to work its magic on a different audience: one that wants the portability of a small computing device along with Internet connectivity and a good media player. It comes with infrared, Bluetooth 1.1, and Wi-Fi built-in, 128 MB of memory, and a massive 320 by 480 pixel screen.
The screen orientation can change from landscape to portrait with a single click, making it easier to view Web pages and videos. The device has an SD/SDIO slot that can accept cards up to 2 GB in size (Palm lists a 2 GB card as coming soon on their in-house store for $250).
Out of the box, the device can play only MP3s using PocketTunes, but an upgrade to the Deluxe version enables playback of WMA files and Plays4Sure-protected files and streaming media from compatible services like Rhapsody. This is one way a Mac user could gain access to those subscription music services, as none work on the Mac.
Transferring music from a Mac requires an SD card, which appears on the Mac desktop as if the Palm TX were just another USB storage device. The PocketTunes Deluxe version doesn't add playback for AAC or Protected AAC (used by the iTunes Music Store) because Apple doesn't license its FairPlay digital rights management system.
Palm bundles a variety of Palm software, but two of the three third-party packages that Palm highlighted in its announcement have some issues with the Mac. Avvenu is a remote desktop file access program, but it works only on computers running Windows XP SP1 or later. DataViz's Documents To Go handles opening and editing Microsoft Office documents; Mac PowerPoint files can be viewed but not edited. It also reads specially converted PDF files, although a later version promises to be able to open them without conversion.
Finally, although it's only sold separately, Palm's pre-release briefing and press release both mentioned a subscription-based television service called MobiTV that should work well over Wi-Fi. MobiTV's pricing hasn't been set in this trial phase, but they expect to offer at least 10 channels of news, sports, and entertainment, growing over time.
Video, Video, Everywhere -- I couldn't help being struck by the differences between Apple's new 30 GB video iPod and the Palm TX, both of which cost $300. The new iPod has a 240 by 320 pixel screen, half the area of the Palm TX's screen, and a 30 GB hard drive that dwarfs the TX's 128 MB of RAM. The Palm features four connection methods, three of them wireless; the iPod has only its dock connector. Out of the box, the iPod can play several music formats, but offers no option for Microsoft DRM-protected tunes or WMA (without conversion); the TX plays only MP3s and WMA (protected and not) with a separate $35 upgrade.
That's where the feature-to-feature comparison ends. The Palm is a general purpose computational device with an operating system supported by a microcosm of Palm OS developers. It can play video and music, edit documents, run terminal sessions, and browse the Web.
The iPod plays music and video. Apple has secured music and video licensing rights and one assumes much more content will be coming down the pipe. Palm has none. Though many people may not realize it, the iPod provides a variety of built-in PDA-like features, along with its capability to act as an external hard drive (see Steve Sande's "Take Control of Your iPod: Beyond the Music" for details). But there's no way to write new software for the iPod, and it seems unlikely that Apple will ever open it up to developers.
This doesn't make the iPod worse in any sense. Its hard drive makes up much of the difference in price versus functionality, for instance. But it's a stark comparison, because the Palm isn't unusable in the way that many of the music players that compete with the iPod are unusable. Its interface isn't terrible. Its speed isn't slow. The Palm does many things quite well; the iPod excels at just a few tasks.
I wouldn't have thought of comparing an iPod and a Palm head to head just a few days ago. Now, it's an obvious comparison.