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PalmPilot, Part 1: Hopelessly Devoted

You wouldn’t expect this kind of devotion toward a blender. Most handheld electronic organizers are dumb appliances, storing appointments and phone numbers with the same mindless efficiency a blender uses to mix juice. Of course, if you take away my blender I’ll switch to a spoon. Try to take my PalmPilot and I’ll reach for a sharp knife.

After using a 3Com (formerly USRobotics) PalmPilot Personal for the past nine months, I’ve discovered what more than a million Pilot users already know: this little device isn’t as much an organizer as it is an extension of one’s daily life. In addition to maintaining my active calendar, address book, and to do items, my PalmPilot allows me to send and receive email; track my freelance hours; store notes and lists; and even sneak in a game of chess or Yahtzee – anywhere, without having to open my PowerBook. All in a compact unit that fits in a shirt pocket and runs for months on two AAA batteries.


A Sharp Instrument — At first glance, the PalmPilot looks like a baby version of a Newton MessagePad (check out David Gewirtz’s review, "MessagePad 2000: New Newton Exceeds Expectations," in TidBITS-379). Measuring 4.7 inches tall and 3.2 inches wide, the gray plastic case rests comfortably in your hand like a deck of cards. There is no keyboard, just a stylus for tapping on the 160 by 160 pixel backlit screen and writing on a silkscreened area below. Four buttons on the front access the built-in Date Book, Address Book, To Do List, and Memo Pad applications. The Pilot’s serial port is located on the bottom, where it rests in an accompanying plastic cradle that connects to your computer.


The PalmPilots on the market today come in two varieties: Personal and Professional. They look exactly alike, and differ mainly in the amount of RAM included: the Personal ships with 512K, while the Professional comes with 1 MB. The ROMs and versions of the Palm OS differ slightly because the Pro model supports built-in email and expense-tracking applications, which don’t work under the Personal’s smaller RAM allotment. (If you will be using the Pilot with a Mac, however, this point is moot: these last two programs won’t synchronize with the current Mac Pilot Desktop software. I’ll go into more detail later.)

IBM recently began selling a Pilot clone called the IBM WorkPad, which ships only in a 1 MB RAM configuration. It’s also worth noting here that if you’re thinking about buying a used Pilot, you can easily find a Pilot 1000 or 5000, the first-generation machines that look the same but don’t have backlighting capabilities and ship with less RAM (typically 256K and 512K respectively, although a 1 MB upgrade is available from 3Com that effectively turns them into PalmPilot Pros without the backlight).



Cooking with the Palm OS — I originally bought my PalmPilot in an attempt to bring order to the paper-infested chaos that was my schedule. I was carrying around a decidedly unorganized organizer stuffed with printed contact information, calendar pages, scribbled notes, and scraps of crossed-out to do items. The Pilot, thankfully, replaced all that.

The four main applications that run under the Palm OS behave as you would expect from a personal information manager. The Address Book stores important contact information such as name, company, address, phone, and email address. It includes four custom fields for adding categories like URLs or anniversary dates. Phone number fields have pop-up labels, so you can choose among seven labels (such as Fax, Mobile, and Pager) instead of settling for something generic like Phone 2. You can attach notes to any record, which I’ve found handy for storing driving directions to homes and offices. Individual features aside, by far the best aspect of the Address Book is the simplicity of searching for a contact: simply start to write a person’s last name, and the Pilot jumps to the first matching listing. Try that with a packed DayTimer.

The Date Book, though hampered by the screen’s size and low resolution, manages to deliver nearly everything I’ve needed so far in a calendar application. You can view your schedule by day, week, or month. Although you can read text labels of events in the daily view, you’re limited to movable gray bars occupying time slots in the weekly view and tiny black rectangles in the month view. It’s easy to set up repeating events and alarms. You can also look up and grab contact information from the Address Book using the Phone Lookup menu.

Based on usefulness alone, the To Do list is my favorite application. Some people feel satisfaction when they can scratch off a to do item, but I enjoy tapping a task’s checkbox and watching the project disappear. That way, I (hopefully) end up with a short list of projects at the end of the day. Entries can be sorted into categories and prioritized for importance on a scale of one to five. If you prefer to view the struck-through carnage of finished tasks, you can choose to show completed items.

The last main application is the Memo Pad, which stores pretty much anything you’d like in text format. Similar to SimpleText, Memo Pad is good for jotting down notes, flashes of inspiration, grocery lists, and the like. This application is also the catch-all for most programs’ export commands (such as exporting my freelance hours from a program I use called Hourz), making Memo Pad a vehicle for shuttling some information between your Pilot and the desktop Pilot software.


In addition to the four main applications for managing personal information, the Palm OS includes utilities such as a calculator, security options, memory controls, general preferences, and a fast Find command that can zip through all of your data in one pass.

This is, by no means, the limit on the software available. Early on, the Pilot’s creators decided to open up the development environment to anyone who wanted to program for it, and the result is a community of commercial, shareware, and freeware developers writing applications that range from financial calculators to drawing programs to card games. Although many Web sites host PalmPilot applications, I find myself going back to PalmPilot Gear H.Q. and Jim’s App Archive.



Graffiti on the Walls — One reason some people are hesitant to try the PalmPilot is its stylus-based input. Unlike the Newton’s built-in handwriting recognition, the Pilot uses a type of shorthand called Graffiti, which is written in the silkscreened area below the screen, not on the screen itself. Most of the area recognizes Graffiti strokes as letters, while a smaller section to the right recognizes strokes as numbers. Although it’s hard to believe until you’ve tried it, Graffiti is easy to learn, and can sometimes be faster than writing normally. I’ve heard stories of Pilot-savvy businesspeople unintentionally using Graffiti when writing on white boards in meetings and presentations. It took me about four hours of use to get the hang of it; for unusual characters that I don’t use often (such as the pound sign (#), I check the quick help built into the Palm OS.

Alternatively, you can bring up an onscreen QWERTY keyboard that allows you to tap each letter, similar to finger-pecking a manual typewriter. If you must input a lot of information, you can enter it into the Pilot Desktop program on your Mac, then use the HotSync command (see below) to transfer the data when you’re finished. Or, you can purchase a PiloKey, an adapter and software driver that enables you to connect a Newton keyboard to the Pilot’s serial port.

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Communicate from Your Palm — I mentioned earlier that I use my PalmPilot Personal to send and receive email, but also noted the Palm OS email software doesn’t work on the Mac. Several companies offer alternatives to 3Com’s email software. In my case, I connect to my mail server through a Ricochet wireless modem using Smartcode Software’s HandStamp. You can also purchase the PalmPilot Modem from 3Com or the Minstrel wireless modem from Novatel Wireless, both of which snap onto the bottom of your Pilot.





Cooking over a HotSync — Jeff Hawkins, creator of the PalmPilot, describes the device as a "window on data that exists elsewhere," meaning that it’s not necessary for all of your information to reside on one machine. Although you’ll end up storing some programs solely on the Pilot, the bulk of your important information gets copied to your computer’s hard disk for use with the Pilot Desktop application. This is the Pilot’s much-vaunted HotSync feature, and it works at the press of a button on the cradle. HotSync synchronizes the information in each main application, and is also used to install new program files.

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The downside to using HotSync with a Mac is that it doesn’t seem to work well for some people, and this is where we delve into some of the difficulties Mac owners can face with the PalmPilot. The HotSync cradle plugs into your Mac’s serial port, and you must turn on HotSync monitoring via a control panel. However, some programs (notably modem and fax software) jostle over who controls the serial port, resulting in a broken connection between the Mac and the cradle. I’ve read a variety of suggested workarounds, including restarting the Mac without extensions, restarting with the HotSync cable attached at startup, and others. My Mac sometimes fails to see that anything is connected, so I’ve found it helpful to toggle the HotSync monitor on and off a few times. This is easier to do with Yukinari Suzuki’s Control Strip module HotSyncCSM.

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Mac Owners Get Burned — Despite the wonderful aspects of the PalmPilot itself, the Macintosh Pilot Desktop software is a disappointing, slow, ugly Windows port. Although I haven’t experienced any crashing bugs with the software, performance can be glacial at times, and the interface is crude and sometimes confusing. Pilot Desktop (still at version 1.0, while its Windows counterpart is currently cruising at version 2.1) strongly favors the broader installed base of PC users.

On one hand, this is understandable since the ratio of Windows users to Mac users is about 10 to 1. But what makes the Mac software an insult is the lack of a conduit to link the Pilot to desktop applications running on your Macintosh. On the Windows platform, users can exchange information from their Pilots with many different programs such as Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes. So far, Macintosh equivalents haven’t surfaced, although my contacts at 3Com assure me one is in the works.

The only other option for Mac users is to use Now Software’s Now Synchronize, which ties the Pilot to Now Contact and Now Up-to-Date. I haven’t used Now Synchronize, but some colleagues and acquaintances alternately swear by it or at it. You can download a free trial version.

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And Yet, Still Invaluable — It says something about the quality of the PalmPilot and the Palm OS that, despite my disappointment with the desktop software, I’m still fiercely devoted to my Pilot. It has become one of those rare tools that I can’t imagine living without.

Next in this PalmPilot series, I’ll cover some of the available software, and reveal some tricks to getting the most out of your PalmPilot.

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