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Moving Back to the (Palm) Desktop

Purchasing my PalmPilot a few years ago ended my flirtation with Mac-based personal information management (PIM) software. I experimented with Claris Organizer, but abandoned it because it couldn’t synchronize with the PalmPilot. Although Now Synchronize could transfer data between the handheld and Now Contact/Up-to-Date, it was buggy and unreliable.

That left me with Pilot Desktop 1.0, the software portion of the Pilot MacPac (which also included the serial adapter required to hook the Pilot’s cradle to a Mac), but the program’s glacial performance, gray Windows-like interface, and steep memory requirements ensured that Pilot Desktop acted only as a backup of my PalmPilot’s data. As a result, I almost never viewed my schedule or looked up contact information on my Mac; grabbing the information from the handheld was always faster and easier.


Since installing Palm Desktop 2.1 (see "Palm Desktop Marks Return of a Familiar Organizer" in TidBITS-469), I’m not reaching for my PalmPilot as often. Now I’m looking up addresses and checking my calendar using either Palm Desktop or the Instant Palm Desktop menu. I’m using my PowerBook’s modem to dial phone numbers, and I’m viewing and sorting my personal information in ways I’d never considered. Like an amphibian that exists comfortably either on land or in the ocean, I’ve partially migrated back to the desktop while retaining the advantages of accessing my data on a handheld device.



Palm Desktop appeals to two main camps of users: Palm device owners whose only option has been Pilot Desktop 1.0 and users of Claris Organizer, upon which the new software is based. Both parties (and anyone else for that matter) can download the free software from Palm Computing’s Web site; Apple also mirrors the files.

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Confusion Is Only Skin Deep — If you’re used to Pilot Desktop 1.0, Palm Desktop 2.1 may seem overly modular and scattered at first. But give yourself a few minutes to grasp its way of thinking and you’ll be glad you abandoned the gray tones of Pilot Desktop.

One source of confusion for Palm device users is that Palm Computing kept Claris Organizer’s names for the four modules that correspond to the four main Palm applications. In Palm Desktop, Date Book is known as Calendar, Address Book is called Contact List, the To Do List becomes Task List, and the Memo Pad is known as the Note List. Palm device users would appreciate more consistency, but once you mentally match up the names the confusion disappears.

Another source of confusion is Palm Desktop’s multiple window interface. Pilot Desktop 1.0 (and Windows Palm Desktop 3.0) keeps all of its functions in a central window, but the Mac Palm Desktop uses a separate window for each module and displays records in their own windows. You could stack windows like Mah Jongg tiles, but arranging the windows to your liking and then saving the window positions works better, especially when linking records (see below).

These Are the Days — I use the Calendar module most often because it provides the most information in one window. You can choose between Daily, Weekly, and Monthly views (which all share the same window). In the Daily view, the day’s calendar runs in a column down the left side of the window, with an advancing bar at the far left indicating the current time. A second column displays your Task List for the day. Clicking the Tasks column header moves completed items to the bottom of the list. The weekly view displays the same information, but stacks each day’s schedule above the list of tasks. The Monthly view arranges the days in a typical calendar grid, with appointments listed on each day by their time, and tasks listed with a preceding bullet.

You can click the arrows in the upper-right corner (or press Command and the right or left arrow keys) to display past or future dates. The plus and minus buttons in the Weekly view choose how many days to include in the view. Double-clicking the date at the top of the page brings up the Go To Date window, from which you can jump to any date.

The calendar can also create Event Banners, which equate to repeated untimed events in Palm’s Date Book application. Although you can set any appointment to repeat during a variety of increments (daily, weekly, every other week, etc.), an Event Banner shows up as a single event stretching across multiple days, without an attached time.

Several features in the Mac Palm Desktop aren’t available in the Windows version or even in the Palm OS. Each appointment can be assigned to a category; if you’ve associated colors with your categories, the resulting multi-hued calendar makes it easier to differentiate events without having to read each appointment’s description. The downside to the implementation of categories in Palm Desktop is that you’re limited to one master list that covers all modules; on the Palm device, each application can have up to 15 separate categories.

Making Contact with Addresses — Palm Desktop Contacts can store more information than the Address Book’s contacts on your handheld. For example, a long-requested feature for Address Book is now partially available: secondary addresses. Since the Palm Address Book contains fields for only one address, people often created two records to store work and home addresses. Now you can store all of that information within one Contact record in Palm Desktop. The secondary address, as well as information in fields such as Web site, Age, and Birthday, are stored as attached notes on the handheld.

Palm Desktop supports auto-completion of information in many fields. When typing phone numbers, it doesn’t matter whether you include hyphens, periods, or spaces, since the numbers will convert to your preferred phone number style. And last, one of the Contact goodies I most appreciate is the Birthday field, which computes a person’s age if you supply their date of birth.

Icons placed next to specific fields offer additional functionality. Clicking the envelope icon next to the Email field creates a pre-addressed blank message in Claris Emailer, and the icon next to Web Site field opens that field’s URL in your Web browser. You can customize the actions attached to these icons with AppleScripts residing in Palm Desktop’s Scripts folder. Although Palm Desktop should have used Internet Config for email and Web services, it’s possible to extend Palm Desktop’s functionality via custom scripts (which could in turn support Internet Config).

Palm Desktop’s Find feature, accessible in any module, is especially attractive. When searching for a contact, it can display results as you type any part of a person’s name or company title, which I far prefer to waiting for a search to execute.

Tasks, Notes, Lists, and Filters — Palm Desktop’s Task List and Note List are straightforward. Tasks can include a priority on a five-point scale ranging from Highest to Lowest, a completion date, and category. You can create repeating tasks and assign them reminders. Notes feature Title, Date, and Time fields in addition to the note text, a category pop-up menu, and a button for time-stamping comments in the text.

You can manipulate Palm Desktop’s lists in useful ways. Clicking a column heading sorts the list according to the contents of the column. This applies to all modules, not just Tasks and Notes, meaning you can view your Contacts by last name, company name, or other field. To rearrange the columns, Option-click a heading and drag it to a new location.

Better yet, Palm Desktop lets you to filter your information. Each column header includes a pop-up filter menu in which you can define and save criteria for selecting the column’s contents, such as all your friends who live in Idaho or who are in a certain category.

Attached to Attachments — If you’ve synchronized your Palm device’s data and played with Palm Desktop a bit, you’ve no doubt run into one of the bigger brain-twisting elements of the new Palm Desktop. What happened to attached notes? Under the Palm OS, you can create a note from within a record that includes miscellaneous information. When you open Palm Desktop, however, those notes aren’t immediately apparent because they’re stored in the Note List. Looking at the Note List for the first time can produce a moment of organizational panic: in addition to the records you entered in the Palm’s Memo Pad, you’ll find dozens of records marked "HandHeld Note:" then the name of one of the Palm’s built-in applications.

This organization is in fact consistent with the way Palm Desktop stores its information internally and is the product of the program’s capability of linking any record with any other record. If a record contains a link to another record, you see a paper clip icon with a down-pointing arrow. Clicking the icon displays a menu of items linked to the record, plus options for creating new attachments. When you choose a linked item from the menu, it appears in its own record window.

Let’s say you want to add driving directions to a friend’s new house. First you’d open his entry from the Contact list. His contact card displays in its own window. Choose New Note from the paper clip pop-up menu; a new Note window appears for you to type the driving directions in the main text field. Before you close the window, be sure to enter the following in the Title field: "HandHeld Note: Address Book". (If you don’t, the note appears as its own record in the Memo Pad after you perform a HotSync.) After you close the window, the paper clip pop-up menu displays the number one to indicate that one note record is attached to that contact record.

You can link to existing records using drag & drop. Make sure both records are visible (in this case your friend’s contact record and an existing note), then drag the gripper icon located in the upper left corner of the contact record window to the other record. You’ll hear a click sound indicating that the records are now connected. You can also use the paper clip pop-up menu to attach an existing item to any record: Palm Desktop opens a floating window in the lower right corner of your screen from which you can drag your current record to any other item. This is often easier than pre-arranging your windows before establishing a connection between records, since you can hunt around for your other item while the floating window is open.

Change Your View — Since I don’t usually want to see all of the HandHeld Notes when I view my Note List, I take advantage of another aspect of Palm Desktop’s filtering capabilities. The View pop-up menu in the upper left corner of the Note List window enables you to save the current state of your list. So, I’ve created a memorized view called No HandHeld Notes that hides any note containing HandHeld Note in the Title field. The View feature also lets you save the current sort order, column arrangement, and window positions. Similar View menus also appear on the Contact List and Task List – they’re a great help.

Printing and Playing with Others — Although Palm Desktop’s printing capabilities aren’t as robust as those in Now Contact and Now Up-to-Date, they’re better than those in Pilot Desktop 1.0. Palm Desktop offers good control over what data gets printed and handles a variety of output formats, such as Avery labels, envelopes, or Day-Timer insert sheets. If you’re bringing information in from another program, Palm Desktop’s Import feature enables you to specify which Palm Desktop fields correspond to the incoming data. Be careful when importing – large data sets can cause performance to slow to a crawl.

Better than the Alternative — There are a few things missing from this release which I hope Palm Computing will address. Palm Desktop doesn’t support private records, so although your hidden records are invisible on your Palm device without a password, they’re available for viewing on your Mac. I’ve set up my memorized view for the Notes List to hide private records, but that’s not particularly secure. If you’re more concerned about unwanted eyes accessing your data, consider using a Palm-based encryption program.

A good addition to the Palm’s overall functionality is the capability to display alarms on your Mac; however, if you don’t want this feature (the alarms appear as system-halting modal dialogs), you must disable the entire Instant Palm Desktop extension. I would also like to see an indication on Calendar records that shows whether the item is a repeating event or includes an alarm, as the Palm Date Book program does. Finally, there are persistent reports that HotSyncing doesn’t work with Keyspan serial port expansion cards.

Given the significant increase in functionality from Pilot Desktop 1.0, plus the improved conduit architecture enabling third-party developers to access Palm device-based data, Palm Desktop is a winner on my Mac. It’s now one of the few applications, such as my email client and Web browser, that’s permanently active throughout the day.

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