Palm m505: A Slightly Dim Bulb
Even when I’m testing various models of handheld organizers for books and articles I write about Palm OS-based handhelds, I keep my Palm Vx nearby. I have to return devices when I’m done reviewing them, and so far the Palm Vx is the only one for which I’ve shelled out my own money: it’s thin, lightweight, and has enough memory to store the data I need. And of all those models I’ve returned, only two have been good enough to replace my Vx for the duration of the review period: Handspring’s Visor Edge and the Palm m505.
The Edge is thin, light, and beautifully designed, but it didn’t offer me more functionality than the Vx. When the m505 was announced, offering similar dimensions as the Vx but with a color screen, it almost became the next line item on my credit card bill. Almost.
Surface Reflections — I probably put too much stock in a product’s shape and appearance instead of its functionality, but my interest isn’t entirely cosmetic. A slim handheld is easier to carry, more comfortable to hold, and less obtrusive in a shirt pocket. Color devices like the Visor Prism and the Palm IIIc feel too bulky to carry everywhere.
My Palm Vx, however, is starting to show its age, along with some limitations of its design. Its power button has never been particularly solid and requires a solid diagonal press to activate. More distressing is the raised scroll up button, which presses against the original flip-over cover and keeps the unit powered on following an alarm if there’s pressure against it (such as when it’s in my pants pocket). To work around this problem, I’ve installed a few system hacks like PalmVHack, which haven’t always worked for me; using a Palm V Hard Case would also help, but that ruins the device’s thin profile. So, on a few occasions, the button has remained pressed, draining the internal battery to the point where my data was lost.
Palm clearly recognized their design mistakes, since the Palm m505 effectively fixes them. The scroll buttons are small and flat, and the power button is solid and even lights up to indicate when the battery is being charged (it can also be used as a silent flashing alarm indicator). The case design is slightly different from the Palm Vx, with a tad more curve in the sides and less flare at the bottom, and overall it feels a little sturdier than its already solid predecessor.
Expand and Connect — The Palm m505 veers from its heritage in several other ways. It includes an expansion card slot that accepts Secure Digital and MultiMediaCard cards, small postage stamp-sized memory cards that can store data such as digital photos, electronic books, or just your important files. The m505 also uses Palm’s USB-based Universal Connector port, which replaces the slower serial ports at the bottom of each earlier Palm handheld. This means that peripherals manufacturers must redesign their devices yet again to accommodate Palm’s connectors (add-ons like keyboards were scarce for the Palm V when it was introduced because the pin configuration was different), but Palm seems to be committed to the Universal design.
The good news is that synchronizing through the HotSync cradle is much faster over USB. The bad news is that disconnecting the handheld from the cradle is annoying: because of the clips holding the m505 in place, you must tilt it about 45 degrees before lifting it from the cradle.
Holding a Mixed Bag — The Palm m505 is one of the first devices to run Palm OS 4.0, which offers only a limited number of improvements for users. The best of these in my opinion is the Attention Manager, a screen that summarizes missed alarms that can be cleared with one tap, rather than having to clear each alarm individually. You can also view a single masked record without changing the system-wide privacy setting by tapping it and entering your password; it’s obscured again when you’re finished reading it. (Palm will release an update to Palm OS 4.0 for owners of selected earlier models in November.)
Palm has added some third-party software to its mix, too, including DataViz’s Documents to Go for working with Word and Excel files on the handheld; Palm Reader, an electronic book viewer from Peanut Press, which Palm purchased earlier this year; and Palm’s Mobile Connectivity Software for getting online (using a compatible cellular phone or other device). And finally, the Macintosh Palm Desktop is now on the included CD-ROM; previous Palm owners had to purchase a separate cable converter or download the desktop software from Palm.
And That Color Screen — So what about the Palm m505’s main attraction? After all, it was the combination of the Palm Vx’s shape and the promise of a screen featuring 65,000 colors that made me grab for my credit card.
Well, the m505’s screen is dark. In fact, when I first turned it on in my moderately lighted office, I wasn’t sure it was a color screen. Activating the backlight made a big difference, though it was still considerably dimmer than a Palm IIIc or a Handspring Visor Prism. And remarkably, there’s no brightness control – the backlight is either on or off.
The positive spin is that the screen’s lower brightness draws less power, offering longer battery life, and it’s quite readable in daylight – two failings of most color handheld devices. You can also download an application from Palm that remembers the last backlight setting, effectively enabling you to run with the backlight always on (a better alternative is a program called 505LightOn). And I have to admit that after getting used to the light level, it didn’t pose a problem – until a friend’s Visor Prism provoked brightness envy.
In the end, the Palm m505 addresses all the shortcomings of the Palm Vx and adds color to this great form factor. However, I’ve reached the point where the next device I buy will have a color screen, and the Palm m505’s dim offering doesn’t live up to its $450 price tag. Until it improves, or another company offers something better (the Sony Clie PEG-N710C came close, but not quite), I’m sticking with my slightly battered Palm Vx.