Palm i705: Wireless Internet, If You’re Patient
"It’s great living in the future," a friend of mine is fond of saying, which for me over the past few weeks has been embodied in using a Palm i705 wireless handheld. The successor to Palm’s clunkier but groundbreaking Palm VII, the i705 offers wireless Internet access nearly anywhere, in a device that’s slightly larger than my old standby, a Palm Vx. Waiting in my car for my wife to leave work, I can find out which movies are playing in the area or check my email without finding a WiFi-equipped Starbucks. However, as with other expectations of living the future – silent, non-polluting, air-cars guided automatically by computer come to mind – the i705 is also grounded in the realities of the present, specifically when it comes to the speed (or lack thereof) of working online.
From VII to i705 — Altogether, I’m primarily impressed with the i705’s size: the Palm VII was a modified Palm III with an extended top containing the wireless radio. Activating the wireless access required you to lift an antenna, which added another five inches or so to the height. The i705, in comparison, is a slightly thicker Palm m500. The antenna is now a curved bump at the top of the unit, more like a raised eyebrow than the Palm VII’s flat Frankenstein forehead.
The i705 has a grayscale screen, 8 MB of memory, an infrared port, and a Secure Digital/MultiMedia card slot for using removable storage cards or add-on devices such as Palm’s Bluetooth Card. Its built-in rechargeable battery on my unit was surprisingly robust: even after having the wireless radio activated all day (more on that later), battery drain was negligible, and even regular use of the device didn’t affect battery life much (unlike my Palm Vx, which has a much shorter battery life than it used to). It runs Palm OS 4.1, which means you get the full complement of organizer software such as Date Book, Address Book, To Do List, Memo Pad, and Note Pad.
Also new in recent Palm handhelds is Clock, a time and date display activated by tapping a clock icon on the silkscreened area. It’s a handy feature, but with an unfortunately inconvenient method of activation. The Palm m100 series uses Clock much better: with the device powered off, pushing the scroll-up button displays the time. On the i705 (as well as the m500 series), you must either pull out the stylus to tap the teeny clock icon, or have great fingernail dexterity. On the plus side, you can set an alarm using Clock, which means my Date Book should no longer be cluttered with mid-day appointments titled "Wake Up."
The silkscreened Calculator button has been replaced by a star icon, which is confusing until you learn that you can set any application to launch when you tap it. This button remapping capability has been around for quite some time, but I’m guessing people didn’t know to take advantage of it, so Palm created this Favorite App button. (To change how it’s mapped, go to Preferences, choose Buttons from the pop-up menu at the upper-right corner, then choose an application from the pop-up menu to the right of the star button icon.)
Also remapped are the two right-most plastic application buttons. Formerly the To Do List and Memo Pad buttons, they now launch the MyPalm and MultiMail applications. As a longtime Palm user, I consistently hit one of these to bring up the To Do List or Memo Pad, but I’m sure I’d adapt over time. My short-term compromise was to remap (again, in the Prefs application) the MyPalm button back to the To Do List, but leave the MultiMail button alone.
Without Wires, but Not Without Strings — Using the Palm i705 without enabling the wireless access would be like leaving a sports car in the garage. However, you should factor in the service costs in addition to the $450 price of the organizer. Palm offers two pricing structures for its Palm.Net service.
The Associate Plan costs $20 per month and covers up to 100K of data transferred during the month, plus $0.20 per kilobyte above that. Unless you’re especially skimpy on your wireless access, this plan is ridiculous. I did not deliberately try to max out the wireless usage, and still chewed through 441K during one month of use. Under the Associate Plan, that would have cost me $68.32 in addition to the $20 monthly fee. Ouch.
The Associate Plan may just be Palm’s way of enticing users to go for the better (though still not cheap) Executive Unlimited plan, which for $40 per month offers a flat rate for as many kilobytes as you can pull down. Palm also offers an Annual Executive Unlimited plan, which ends up costing $35 per month if you prepay for a full year’s service.
You’ll also need to consider geographic availability of Palm.Net. If you live in a major metropolitan area in the United States, chances are you’ll have coverage (see Palm’s maps at the link below for more detail). However, as with cellular phone coverage, Palm.Net could prove elusive at times. One afternoon, my wife and I were trying to find a restaurant that I hadn’t been to in years, so we pulled into a parking lot and did a Google search. No connection. So I drove around while she held the Palm, waiting for the connection to improve, until she finally asked with a smirk, "Can you go to an area with wireless access, please?" I could only reply, "Yes, I think I see some access up ahead." After about a mile or so, the signal strength picked up, and we were able to get the restaurant’s address.
Web Clipping — When the Palm VII first appeared, the only service options were based on per-kilobyte usage. To reduce the amount of data transferred, Palm developed what it calls Web Clipping, a novel method of downloading only the information you need. Instead of loading a Web page that’s been designed for computer viewing (i.e., chock full of graphics and ads), Web Clipping uses Palm Query Applications (PQAs) to send and receive data. Essentially, these are small programs that let you perform a specific request, such as retrieving movie show times (using Moviefone) in a specific area code, listing recent news headlines (via CNN, ABC News, USA Today, and the PR Newswire), or a number of other quick bursts of information. PQAs are basically just Web forms that grab specific information. On the i705, Palm rolled a number of PQAs into one MyPalm application to provide an Internet portal. You can also download other PQAs from the Web – PalmGear links to all sorts of Palm software, and has created a PQA that can download and install other PQAs over the i705’s wireless connection.
Despite Palm’s deliberate bandwidth belt-tightening, I found the i705 to be surprisingly slow. You access the built-in PQAs via the MyPalm application, and even clicking any topic from the main screen requires a new connection and data transfer; I don’t know what it could possibly be asking for, since it’s apparently loading only the built-in Web form. For example, testing as I write this, it took 18 seconds between tapping the News link to displaying a page with four PQAs listed. Tapping the CNN option causes a 10 second pause before listing a main page with CNN’s links. I tap the new Top stories link, wait 14 seconds, and a page of headlines is displayed. I tap a headline, wait another 25 seconds, and am finally given the text of a 2K article. It’s taken me roughly a minute to get to a single news story.
The MyPalm application also offers a straightforward browser to connect to regular Web pages, but that’s more painful to use. You cannot switch to another application while MyPalm is downloading Web content, so you’re left watching the steady pulse of the round progress indicator (which doubles as a stop button during transmission) as you wait for data to load. Several times, the i705 lost contact with the server when viewing Web pages, resulting in partial pages. Amazingly, there is no Refresh command to reload the contents of the page, so you have to go back to the previous page, tap the link for the article you want, and hope it loads on the second try. If you arrived at your partial page by writing its URL, the address isn’t saved, so you have to write it again.
Unfortunately, MyPalm seems to be the only choice for Web browsing; other Palm OS browsers such as Handspring’s Blazer didn’t work over the Palm.Net service in my testing.
Email — Far more useful is the included MultiMail application, which you can use to access your Palm.Net email or any other POP or IMAP account. When you tap the Get Mail button, you’re given the option of retrieving full messages or just the Subject lines of the mail waiting on your server. You can also choose to skip larger messages (the default limit is set at 50K – that’s half of your monthly allotment if you’re on the $20 Palm.Net plan), retrieve only unread mail, or ignore attachments.
Messages stay on the server by default, so anything you’ve read will show up later (marked as read) in your email program on the Mac. If you delete a message on the handheld, you have the option of deleting it on the server as well, which means you don’t have to look at the same spam twice.
The i705 also includes an option to schedule when the radio is activated, which is handy for checking email automatically: you can choose to keep it on all the time, activate it manually each time you need it, or set a block of active time such as 8 AM to 6 PM. Using a form on the my.palm.net Web site, you can instruct Palm’s server to check your accounts every day or every hour, then forward the messages to the handheld. When new mail is waiting, the handheld can sound an alarm, vibrate, flash its indicator light, or perform a combination of all three.
You can also set up filters to control which messages are downloaded, though they are confusing to create and mostly ineffective. Unlike the filters found in most Mac email clients, you can’t specify a filter to ignore messages (such as spam); instead, you can only choose which messages to accept. So, I could create a filter that grabs any message from Adam or Geoff, but not one that avoids spam messages with "viagra" in the Subject line. Even so, I found the capability to check email remotely to be the most important for me, and it was workable to grab a list of message subjects and manually filter those.
It’s also worth mentioning that the i705 includes an AOL Instant Messenger client, but frankly the device’s performance made me snicker when I considered how "instant" the messages would be, so I didn’t test it out.
The Future Is Almost Now — If you need compact wireless Internet access, the Palm i705 is a good device that also acts as your personal organizer, as long as you’re not expecting to do it quickly. And if wireless connectivity outweighs some of the inconveniences of Palm’s built-in software, you’ll be happy to have a more compact device to carry around.