When you compare handhelds from Palm and Handspring, the two product families look quite similar. They all run the Palm OS, which includes a built-in calendar, address book, to-do list, and notepad; most of the models share the same type of screen and hardware buttons; and you can synchronize the data on a handheld with your Mac at the push of a button.
However, the Handspring Visor features one notable difference: the Springboard expansion port, a slot on the back that accepts a wide variety of hardware modules (see "A Handheld Surprise: the Handspring Visor" in TidBITS-521). I’ve been using a Visor Platinum device with a host of Springboard modules over the past few months while writing the Handspring Visor: Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, $20, available at Macworld Expo New York, then in wider release at the end of July). Here’s a roundup of a few noteworthy modules that run the gamut from storing information to accessing the Internet and making phone calls.
Handspring VisorPhone — I’m convinced that the idea for Handspring’s VisorPhone came not so much out of a desire to capitalize on digital technology as the dream of carrying one less gadget around. The VisorPhone is a module that effectively turns your Visor into a cellular phone. But it’s also better than a cellular phone for one simple reason: it gives your phone a usable interface! If you’ve ever tried to add a person’s phone number to your phone’s memory, you know what a pain it is to keep hitting number keys to scroll through letters. With the VisorPhone, the contents of your Address Book are immediately available to the phone. If you don’t have a number in your Address Book, the VisorPhone software provides a regular phone key layout with nice large buttons to tap. You can set up to 50 speed-dial buttons, meaning you might not even need to access the Address Book.
Having a decent interface also means that some awkward operations on a regular phone are made much simpler. For example, I loathe the prospect of setting up a three-way call, because invariably one person on the line ends up parroting "Are you still there?" while establishing the connection. With the VisorPhone, it’s simple: call one person, then tap a button to put them on hold. Call the next person, tap the big 3-Way Call button, and you’re all set.
Best of all, you don’t need to remain locked into the VisorPhone software while you’re calling. To conserve battery life, your Visor turns off after its standard waiting period (usually one or two minutes) without breaking the connection (the VisorPhone gets power from its own rechargeable battery, which Handspring says offers three days of standby time and three hours of talk time, so it doesn’t burn through your Visor’s juice). You can also switch to other applications in case you need to confirm an appointment or look up another phone number while talking. The VisorPhone includes a headset, which is recommended, though you can hold the whole unit to your head at the risk of looking silly.
The VisorPhone uses the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) cellular network, so be sure the service is available in your area – GSM is the dominant network in Europe and is making inroads in the protocol-cluttered United States. Being based on GSM, the VisorPhone supports SMS (Short Message Service) text messaging, so you can send short text messages to folks with many types of GSM phones, other VisorPhone owners, or to email addresses. Using the included Blazer Web browser, you can also use the VisorPhone to access the Web (again, offering a better screen and interface than even the most advanced cellular phones).
The only drawbacks to the VisorPhone are its price and size. At $249, you’re paying more than the cost of most cellular phones (though Handspring is currently offering the VisorPhone for $99 with the purchase of a Visor Prism or Visor Edge handheld). And, of course, you need to sign up for a compatible service plan (you can optionally buy the VisorPhone by itself if you already have a GSM service plan, but the price then rockets to $449). The module’s size isn’t much larger than the Springboard slot, but it does add some weight and bulk to the back of the Visor.
As with most modern gadgets, however, you’re paying for mobility as well as for whatever the gadget does, so consider what the reduction of one gadget is worth to you. Getting a VisorPhone may end up costing less in the long run, especially if you want Internet access that would normally require another Springboard module.
OmniSky Wireless Modem — If you’re looking just for wireless Internet access, it’s hard to beat the OmniSky modem. I was an early tester of OmniSky’s model for the Palm V, which looks like a sled that attaches to the back of the handheld; though functional, it infringes on the Palm V’s main advantage, its thin profile. The OmniSky modem for the Visor is a compact improvement. A variety of monthly pricing plans are available, ranging from roughly $30 to $40 per month, plus $270 for the modem itself.
Like most Springboard modules, all the software you need is installed when you plug the modem in. It includes its own email and Web clients, plus directory software for looking up names and addresses. It also comes with several Web Clipping applications for specific companies, such as Barnes & Noble’s online bookstore. (Web Clipping is the technology introduced with the Palm VII, which includes an internal wireless modem. Unlike typical Web browsing, Web Clipping programs – called Palm Query Applications, or PQAs – act as small forms that transmit your search criteria and receive only small, bandwidth-saving responses. You don’t have to download a Web site’s full page of information and graphics when using a Web Clipping application.)
As a modem, you’re not limited to using the OmniSky software. Any Internet software for the Palm will work, such as the Blazer browser or the Eudora Internet Suite for the Palm. One interesting feature of the built-in email client is its capability to check your email account when you’re not online. An OmniSky server can periodically check your mail server (you can set the frequency) and flashes a light on the modem to indicate you have new mail waiting.
Xircom SpringPort Wireless Ethernet Module — So far, I’ve concentrated on getting Internet access via a cellular phone or wireless modem, but a recent entry in the Springboard arena gives you access to a wireless Ethernet network. The Xircom SpringPort Wireless Ethernet Module is basically AirPort for your Visor. Using the 802.11b-compatible device, you can connect to the Internet on your AirPort network. Since the SpringPort operates at 11 Mbps, getting online is speedy.
You can also access other computers on your network, though the software options are currently limited – I’m aware of MacVNC and PalmVNC, which offer Timbuktu-like capabilities to use one machine from another. The Xircom SpringPort can also be configured to HotSync wirelessly, but unfortunately this works only under Windows because the HotSync software on the Mac has never featured network synchronization.
In my opinion, though, the $300 SpringPort is too expensive, especially since 802.11b PC Cards that offer the same functionality sell for half of that price. I can see how corporate IS folks might use the SpringPort in a high concentration of Windows machines spread out over a large area, but the lack of network synchronization makes it a tough sell for Mac users. I hope that the price reflects the initial costs of squeezing wireless Ethernet functionality into a handheld package, and that prices will soon come down.
MiniJam and SoundsGood – I commented earlier that one appeal of the VisorPhone is to merge portable gadgets (a handheld and a cellular phone). The same applies to digital music players. Despite the popularity of the MP3 format, I wasn’t interested until I could get a portable MP3 player. I still love the Rio500 that I eventually bought, but these days I’d be more tempted by either the $260 InnoGear MiniJam or the $150 SoundsGood Audio Player. Both offer 64 MB of storage, offering about an hour’s worth of music. (You can also purchase the MiniJam in a 32 MB configuration for $200 or a 96 MB version for $300.) Both also include external buttons for controlling playback, plus a headphone port (and headphones, of course).
The songs are stored on the devices themselves, but the Visor provides a more extensive interface than just the physical controls. You can program the order of songs, play them randomly, or play them straight through. You also get all of the information that accompanies each song file (like the artist, album, genre, etc.).
The main advantage of the MiniJam is its expandability, which also accounts for its higher price. It can accommodate two MultiMedia Cards (memory cards about the size of a postage stamp), and therefore more memory. In addition to MP3 music, you can store electronic books or photos (reader software is available on the module).
The SoundsGood player looks like the better deal for the money, and has a couple other advantages: it’s smaller than the MiniJam, and it can be fitted into a separate $40 Energy Clip battery pack that can be used to play music without being connected to the Visor (especially good for when you’re exercising, since it’s less fragile than the Visor). Unfortunately, Good Technology has recently stopped handling the SoundsGood audio player, turning it over to PalmGear; further, it’s not expandable like the MiniJam, and it doesn’t include software to manage MP3 files on the Macintosh. But if you’re not looking for anything flashy and have a Windows machine that can act as a music server (or perhaps Virtual PC, but I didn’t test this), the SoundsGood might be an economical choice.
Margi Presenter-to-Go — Every once in a while, I hear about something that makes me scratch my head and wonder why anyone bothered to come up with the idea, much less follow it through to an actual product. Such is the case of Margi’s Presenter-to-Go, a Springboard module that enables you to run Microsoft PowerPoint presentations from your Visor.
Although I’m not a big fan of PowerPoint presentations, Presenter-to-Go pleasantly surprised me. After you’ve created your presentation, you use Margi’s desktop software to prepare it for the Visor; it’s transferred the next time you HotSync. Then, with the Springboard module in place, you connect a supplied monitor cable and power cable (the Visor doesn’t have enough energy to power an external display) to a monitor or projector. Without cracking the lid of your laptop, you have a mobile presentation machine. Everything is reproduced in full color, and thankfully the software doesn’t support many of the garish effects that PowerPoint has foisted upon the business world. In fact, you don’t even need PowerPoint: a Margi print driver lets you "print" pages from any application to the Presenter-to-Go format.
Although I don’t personally need this type of module, I can see how people that need to give the same handful of presentations in many locations (companies looking for venture capital come to mind) can use their Visors to have their presentations at hand instead of lugging a laptop around.
Off the Deep End — There are numerous other modules for the Visor, including digital cameras, GPS devices, and more. As an ever larger number of them appear, module lovers like me will have to face the dilemma of which module to use at any given time, not to mention the conundrum of how to carry around a slew of Springboard modules with a svelte Visor. Hmm… maybe I need a larger bag.