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A Handheld Surprise: The Handspring Visor

I admit it – I’m a handheld computing junkie. I’ve had an original Newton MessagePad 100, a Newton 120, an original PalmPilot 1000 upgraded to a Palm Professional, and a Palm III with which I’ve been happy.


So why did I walk out of Macworld Expo in January carrying a Handspring Visor Deluxe?


The Visor is a Palm OS-based handheld developed by Handspring, a company founded by the designer of the original PalmPilot and a group of former Palm Computing engineers. After licensing the Palm OS from Palm, Handspring released the Visor and Visor Deluxe toward the end of 1999. Visors feature the same core software as Palm’s devices – including integrated calendar, contact, to do, and memo applications – but offer some additional software benefits and a hardware expansion slot.


Initially, the Visor was only sold through Handspring’s Web site, and the demand was more than the company could handle; availability remained limited for some time, with buyers complaining about delays of up to six weeks in receiving products. At Macworld Expo, ClubMac was doing a brisk business selling Visors directly on the show floor (eventually selling over 2,000 devices over the five-day event). Since then, availability has improved dramatically: Handspring quotes a seven-day order fulfillment period, though some users have received orders sooner. In addition, Handspring is expected to begin selling the Visor in some retail stores.

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The Visor Hardware — The Visor’s form factor is slightly longer and thicker than a Palm III – and significantly narrower. I found both devices equally easy to hold and use, although someone with smaller hands might prefer the Visor, which features ribbing along the sides to improve your grip. Instead of the attached flip cover of the Palm III series, the Visor has a separate snap-on plastic cover. To me, this cover is the Visor’s main ergonomic disadvantage; although you can hook it on the back when you’re using the Visor, it isn’t as comfortable or convenient as flipping open the cover of the Palm III, and it has the potential to get lost. The Visor Deluxe also includes a leather slip case (I’ve never used mine) and follows the translucent plastics fad by adding four colors (blue, green, orange, and whitish "ice") to the graphite case of the standard Visor model. Although I like the translucent look on something the size of the iMac, I don’t think it looks as good on something the size of a handheld device.


Although some reviewers have said that the Visor’s plastic case and application buttons feel cheap, I like them. The unit itself feels solid in my hand, with a comfortable heft to it. I actually prefer the Visor’s buttons to the buttons on the Palm III (and a friend’s Palm Vx); they have a physical detent which gives good tactile feedback when you press a button, and the up-and-down scroll buttons are flat half-circles that feel much more comfortable than the rounded rocker switch nubs of the Palm III series. (The pad of my thumb has actually started hurting from repeatedly pressing the scroll nubs on my Palm III when reading through a long document.) On balance, I’d have to give the ergonomic advantage to the Visor.

The screen is the same high-contrast display as that of the IIIe/IIIx/IIIxe, a major improvement over the stock Palm III. It’s readable in much lower light conditions than the old Palm III, and uses the same reversed backlight as the newer Palm models. Contrast is handled through a software slider instead of a hardware dial, much like the Palm V series.

The standard Visor includes 2 MB of memory, enough to store a reasonable load of programs, addresses, notes, and appointments (this is the same memory as the Palm III, Palm IIIe, and the Palm V). The Visor Deluxe features 8 MB of storage, the same as the Palm IIIxe, Palm Vx, and twice that of the IIIx. The additional memory can be handy for storing many applications and large amounts of reference information, like electronic books, databases, and images. However, I suspect that users who don’t need extra reference materials will be satisfied with 2 MB.

Finally, there’s the Springboard expansion cartridge slot, which generated most of the initial excitement about the Visor. Although the Palm IIIx has an internal expansion slot for memory or similar hardware enhancements, the Visor’s Springboard slot makes adding or exchanging hardware as easy as sliding a game cartridge into a Nintendo GameBoy and allows adding a much wider variety of devices, like a GPS system or MP3 music player. Several companies were showing Springboard modules at the Handspring booth at Macworld; see my post in the "Macworld Expo SF 2000 Notes" TidBITS Talk thread for the ones I found most interesting.




The Palm OS — Although the Visor is powered by the Palm OS, one significant disadvantage is that the operating system is physically stored in read-only memory (ROM).

In contrast, all current Palm models except the Palm IIIe store the operating system on flash ROM, which is also read-only but capable of being overwritten using a "flashing" program. This means they can be updated when Palm releases improved versions of the OS. For example, Palm OS 3.3 made significant improvements to infrared synchronization with laptops, and I was able to upgrade my Palm III because its flash memory could be overwritten to include the new operating system. (Palm OS 3.5, included with the Palm IIIc and Palm IIIxe, will be available as a downloadable upgrade in the near future, according to a representative at Palm.)

The Visor’s standard ROM can’t be updated; the only way to modify the OS without physically replacing the hardware is via software patches (usually incremental bug fixes) loaded into the Visor’s RAM. If your data gets erased, such as from completely dead batteries, those patches will be erased with the rest of your data. The Visor comes with Palm OS 3.1h (the "h" indicates that it’s a Handspring-modified version of Palm OS 3.1), which is a version behind the 3.3 installed on my Palm III. One consequence of this version lag is that you cannot do infrared synchronization out of the box with an IR-equipped Mac like an original iMac or a PowerBook G3, even if you have the proper infrared libraries installed on your Mac. A third-party application called IrLink allows you to perform IR synchronization, but it’s an extra $20 and an extra nuisance unless infrared HotSync is important to you.


The Handspring representatives I spoke with at Macworld took the line that OS upgrades are mainly to support new hardware releases, and thus they wouldn’t be important to Visor users – something I find a little dubious. It remains to be seen what Handspring will do about supporting future Palm OS upgrades, like the new Palm OS 3.5. I recently had the chance to ask a Handspring product manager, Frank Romero, about the upgrade issue. He replied:

"Much of the functionality that the Handspring Visor was designed for has already been built into the Visor’s version of the Palm operating system, which supports key Visor features like the infrared port functionality, USB connectivity, support for the European currency symbol, and most importantly, the infinitely expandable Springboard Modules."

Upgraded Software — From a user’s standpoint, Handspring’s improvements to the Palm OS mostly boil down to improved versions of the Date Book application and calculator, and a new program called City Time. I wouldn’t say City Time is useful for most people; it just displays a world map with the regions in daytime and nighttime, plus the current time in four cities. The improved calculator is useful, with many extra scientific, financial, and logical functions plus a built-in unit conversion capability. The improved calendar program, Date Book+, is even better, adding new calendar views, event types, a snooze feature on alarms, and other features. However, since Date Book+ is a modified version of the shareware program DateBk3, I wouldn’t call it a huge advantage, except that it is included with the Visor.

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Working with the Mac — Macintosh support on the Visor is a mixed bag. On one hand, if you own a USB-equipped Macintosh, the Visor and Visor Deluxe include everything you need in the box – the USB cradle works directly with your Mac, without requiring an adapter, and the Macintosh desktop software is included on the supplied Visor CD-ROM. To use a Palm handheld on a USB machine, you need to buy a USB-to-serial adapter (Keyspan and Palm sell adapters for around $40); since the Macintosh software isn’t included with Palm handhelds, you either need to download it from Palm’s Web site or buy the Palm MacPac for $10. (Note that many new Macintosh models come with the Palm Desktop software installed, and it also comes on the Mac OS 9 CD-ROM.)


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On the other hand, if you have an older Macintosh with serial ports, you need to buy a Visor serial cradle for $30. Palm requires you to buy an adapter cable for a Macintosh DIN-8 serial port, but the price is only $10.

The Visor will not work with the latest version of the Mac software, Palm Desktop 2.5. Instead, it requires version 2.1, included on the Handspring CD, because it has built-in USB support that Palm’s version 2.5 lacks. According to Frank Romero, Handspring hopes to have a version of Palm Desktop 2.5 that supports native USB available within "the next few months."


It’s also worth noting that the user manual provided with the Visor is largely useless. Not only is it provided solely as a PDF file on the Palm Desktop CD, the manual covers just the Windows version of Palm Desktop, which is very different from the Mac version.

The Bottom Line — Am I regretting my impulse purchase at Macworld? Although I have a few pangs now that Palm has introduced the Palm IIIxe (an OS-upgradable model for the same price as my Visor Deluxe), overall, I’m satisfied with the Visor. Its ergonomic improvements, though minor, do make a significant difference to me day in and day out, and I’m excited about playing with Springboard modules when they start to become widely available. And I am hoping that someday, Handspring will come out with an OS upgrade for my Visor.

If you’re still straddling the fence on whether to buy a Visor, look for an upcoming article in which I’ll compare the features of Palm’s and Handspring’s devices.

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