These days, personal digital assistants (PDAs) do just about everything. Recent handhelds from Palm, Compaq, Sony, Handspring, and others can not only organize users’ lives, but also take pictures, check and send email, surf the Web, show off color photo albums, play music, or serve as a cell phone. And yet, for many handheld users use just the basics: calendar and contacts are still the primary uses for PDAs. For those users, Palm, Inc. this month introduced the no-nonsense $100 Zire handheld.
Zire Specs — The Zire (pronounced like the second syllable of "desire") is truly a no-frills handheld. Like the original Pilot, it includes 2 MB of memory and a monochrome display (with no backlight, so forget about using it in the dark). More modern accoutrements include a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery, infrared port, and Palm OS 4.1.
To keep things simple, Palm has included front-panel buttons only for the most commonly used applications, Date Book and Address Book. The To Do List, Memo Pad, and other standard applications are still provided in memory, but they don’t clutter the Zire’s pleasingly trim appearance. At 4.4 inches (11.2 cm) tall by 2.9 inch (7.4 cm) wide, the Zire is Palm’s smallest handheld, though its 0.6 inch (1.5 cm) thickness isn’t quite as slim as the svelte Palm m500 series or Palm Vx, or Handspring’s Visor Edge, which all measure about 0.4 inches (1.0 cm) deep.
Abandoning the "Universal Connector" introduced with the m500 series, the Zire includes a mini USB cable for synchronizing to any USB-capable Mac or Windows computer. As such, there’s no serial port support for synching or adding peripherals, and it has no expansion card slot. This means power users or feature freaks should look at other models. A simple charging cable has replaced the cradles of other models; frequent travelers might want to leave it at home, though, in favor of the capability to charge the battery (albeit more slowly) through the USB cable attached to your Mac.
Will the Zire’s cost-saving monochrome screen (we’re talking black and white here, not even grayscale) be too limiting? I doubt it, since the target audience that needs to keep track of names, numbers, and appointments will likely use the handheld for little else. The grayscale and color screens on the more expensive Palm models mostly come in handy for Web graphics and games, and the color screens also dramatically decrease battery life. Although Palm’s customer research revealed that users rarely made use of the backlight on their handhelds, I’d still prefer to see one on the Zire for occasional nocturnal use.
Zire versus m105 — The big question now is whether you should purchase the Zire for $100, or spend the same money on Palm’s previous entry-level handheld, the Palm m105. In terms of cold specs, the m105 is a clear winner: it comes with 8 MB of memory and a backlit grayscale screen. On the other hand, the m105 also requires AAA batteries for power, runs Palm OS 3.5 (though for most users this isn’t a noticeable difference), and isn’t as small, light, or sleek looking as the Zire. (The Web page below offers a comparison chart among Palm’s currently shipping models.)
What’s nice about the Zire is Palm’s approach: not everyone is looking for a full-fledged computer to put in their pocket, and the people who want some sort of electronic organizer are smart enough to steer clear of cheap Palm knock-offs. The Zire embodies many of the same attributes as an older device that promised to be the one for "the rest of us."