Folks interested in buying a Palm OS-based handheld have many more options now than they did a year ago. In addition to the eight models Palm, Inc. has introduced since the original Palm III, handhelds that license the Palm OS – most notably the Handspring Visor – have begun to appear. More options ultimately help consumers, but prompt the obvious question: which device should you choose?
This article focuses on the two leaders in the Palm OS market, looking at various Palm, Inc. and Handspring Visor models. (For a review of the Visor, see "A Handheld Surprise: the Handspring Visor" in TidBITS-521.) But first, although I don’t have direct experience with other Palm handhelds, it’s worth noting Palm OS-licensed devices like the TRGpro and IBM WorkPad.
The TRGpro is essentially a Palm IIIx with a Compact Flash slot built into its back. (Compact Flash is a miniature card design mainly used for memory storage in digital cameras, though some other peripherals are available). TRG has a history of selling utility software and memory upgrades for hard-core Palm users, who appear to be one of two target markets for the TRGpro. Corporations and vertical application vendors seem to be the other market, since TRG can produce custom configurations of the TRGpro. I suspect these niches will find the TRGpro more appealing than the general consumer. At $329, compared with $249 for the Visor Deluxe and Palm IIIxe (see below), the TRGpro is pricey.
In TidBITS Talk, Stephen Cochran passed on some links to other Palm OS-based devices including the IBM WorkPads, which appear to be relabeled devices from Palm, along with several Palm OS-handheld and cellular phone combinations.
Up-front Expectations & Costs — Like purchasing a computer, choosing a Palm device depends on what you need and how much you want to spend. Whenever I talk about price comparisons, don’t forget to make the following adjustments to account for the costs involved in making sure the device will connect with your Macintosh.
Add approximately $10 to a Palm purchase if you have a serial port Mac. You’ll need Palm’s MacPac to hook up to the PC-style serial plug included on the Palm HotSync cradle. The MacPac contains the serial adapter and the Macintosh Palm Desktop software on CD-ROM. You can order just the adapter from Palm for $6 and download the software for free, but you’ll wind up paying at least $10 when you add shipping costs.
Add $35 to $40 to a Palm purchase if you have a USB Mac. You’ll need either the PalmConnect USB Kit or a device such as Keyspan’s USB PDA Adapter.
Add about $30 to a Handspring Visor purchase if you have a serial port Mac. Every Visor comes with a USB HotSync cradle, but Handspring sells a serial cradle for $30 that also includes a Mac adapter.
This means a Palm comes out somewhat ahead on price if you have an older serial port Macintosh, and a Visor is significantly ahead if you have a USB Mac.
Only a Palm — First off, there are some Palm models that don’t have a Handspring equivalent.
If you want a device with a color screen, right now the Palm IIIc ($449 list) is the only Palm OS game in town. There aren’t many applications I use where color would be a significant benefit, and at almost twice the price of the standard models, I’ll pass on the Palm IIIc. I’m also not sure what I think of the color screen, based on my limited exposure; for some reason, it reminded me of the first color PowerBooks. The display was sharp, clear, and bright, unlike many color Windows CE models I’ve seen, but something about the colors and contrast made it harder to read than the monochrome screen of current Palm models. Try before you buy.
If you want wireless connectivity, go for the Palm VII ($449 list). Although three companies showed different wireless Springboard modules for the Visor at Macworld Expo, all were designed for local devices and networks rather than the cellular phone-like roaming access of the Palm.net service.
There’s no shame in loving the slim aluminum case and rechargeable battery of the Palm V/Vx ($329/$399 list, respectively). I’ve spent a fair amount of time with my friend’s Palm Vx; the case is nice, the screen seems a little better than other models, and it feels a more solid than the other models. However, the size, style, and battery aren’t worth the extra money to me, as they clearly are to many others who responded to last week’s TidBITS poll.
Palm & Handspring, Hand to Hand — It’s easier to compare models that compete directly in terms of pricing and features.
On the low end, the standard Visor and the Palm IIIe share many characteristics. Both have 2 MB of memory and store the operating system in read-only memory (ROM), which means the Palm OS is not upgradable. (Other Palm devices feature flash ROM that can be overwritten by an upgrade utility). However, the Visor includes the Springboard expansion slot, enabling you to add memory and other Springboard devices; the Palm IIIe is a closed, fixed system.
Recent price cuts bring the list price of the IIIe down to $149, $30 cheaper than the standard Visor before connection costs; however, the Springboard slot and slightly better ergonomics tilt the balance in favor of the Visor. You can get the standard Visor without a synchronization cradle for $149; I wouldn’t recommend that, because the cradle is the main way to install software and back up your data. Let me repeat the old truism – backup is essential, especially on a handheld where a pair of run-down batteries can mean losing everything. Handspring sells a Springboard Backup Module for $40, enabling you to back up your data to the module, but you lose the capability to synchronize data with your Mac by not having a cradle.
Higher up the lines, the Visor Deluxe competes with the Palm IIIx and Palm IIIxe. The Palm IIIxe appears to have been introduced specifically to compete with the Visor Deluxe: it sells for the same $249 price and includes 8 MB of memory. The Palm IIIx has half the memory of the other two, but the recent price drop makes it slightly cheaper at $229; it also has an internal memory expansion slot that isn’t present in the Palm IIIxe.
However, I suspect most people won’t use the Palm IIIx’s internal expansion slot, and 4 MB of memory is easily worth $20. So, the decision narrows down to the Palm IIIxe versus the Visor Deluxe.
The new low-cost Palm IIIxe takes away most of the value advantage that the Visor Deluxe had when it was introduced. Therefore, the question boils down to which capability is more important to you: being able to update the Palm OS using the Palm IIIxe’s flash memory (the Visor Deluxe, as with the standard Visor, uses ROM to store the operating system), or being able to use Springboard expansion modules.
It’s a hard decision. I want OS upgradability – the interface improvements in Palm OS 3.5 (like tapping the title bar to pull up the menu bar) sound like they smooth the user experience. And, to date, most announced Springboard modules are not yet shipping.
That said, the benefits of the Springboard slot seem more concrete than OS upgrades. Although it’s possible a future OS upgrade may be needed to run some software, I think the non-upgradable Palm IIIe will keep developers focused on the current OS version for some time. And, although there are devices that can connect to the Palm series through the built-in serial connection port, the Visor’s Springboard slot offers more convenience and greater functionality, while also keeping the Visor’s connector free for other add-ons like external keyboards.
An Organizer in Hand — Choice is a good thing, and today’s Palm OS market is no exception. Although I ended up with a Handspring Visor Deluxe most recently, I can’t think of a single model mentioned above, with the possible exception of the Palm IIIe, that I’d be unhappy to own. It’s just a question of determining which model fits your needs and pocketbook.