The Handspring Visor family of handheld organizers boasts one major difference from its Palm counterparts: the Springboard expansion port. In last week’s issue, I talked about six modules that offered features such as wireless communication, MP3 music playback, and even a way to run PowerPoint slide shows from the Visor (see "Diving into Visor Springboard Modules" in TidBITS-586). This week I want to complete my roundup of notable modules that I used while writing my book Handspring Visor: Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, $20, available at Macworld Expo New York, then in wider release at the end of July).
Parafone — In my previous article, I discussed Handspring’s VisorPhone, a module that turns your Visor into a cellular telephone. A similarly intriguing Springboard module was the Parafone, by Arkon Networks. It uses the same software as the VisorPhone to turn the Visor into a standard cordless phone, not a cellular one. Like the VisorPhone, the big draw with a device like this is having a useful interface to a phone. You can dial all of the phone numbers in your Address Book at the touch of a button, and the software keeps an extensive calling log.
The Parafone includes a charging station which plugs into your standard phone line and can also be used to HotSync your Visor. The $120 Parafone will be available in early August.
HandyGPS — At Macworld Expo 2001 in San Francisco, I saw several options for using the Global Positioning System (GPS, a collection of satellites above the Earth whose signals can be triangulated to pinpoint one’s location; see "Feeling Lost? An Overview of Global Positioning Systems" in TidBITS-388 for more) with Palm and Visor handhelds (see "Palms Up at Macworld Expo" in TidBITS-565). Feeling the need to find myself, I used Nexian’s HandyGPS device with my Visor. The module is short and stocky, and makes the Visor look a little like the raised forehead of Frankenstein’s monster. It initially takes about six to ten minutes to lock onto the GPS satellites overhead, even on a clear day with no trees or other obstructions. But once a lock was established, I was able to continuously pinpoint my location using maps downloaded from Nexian’s Web site. Sometimes the module could re-establish locks fairly quickly, but it seemed that the longer you hadn’t used the module, the longer it took to re-acquire its location.
The HandyGPS software could use improvement. Icons at the top of the screen don’t clearly indicate if they just display information or if they’re buttons (there’s a mix of both), and to view a rough schematic of how many satellites are overhead, you must select Satellites from the Preferences menu, even though that information isn’t a preference. Tapping the application’s title bar, which should bring up the menu bar on Visors running Palm OS 3.5, instead pops up a dialog box asking if you want to cold start the module.
What the HandyGPS does have going for it is price: at $150, it’s notably cheaper than its competitors. The other leading GPS module is GeoDiscovery’s $290 Geode, which includes two MultiMedia Card slots for storing maps and other data. Since I never received a promised evaluation unit from GeoDiscovery, I can’t speak to the Geode’s quality.
Franklin Electronic Reference Titles — Not all the Springboard modules I received were gadgets that transmogrified the Visor into something completely different. Franklin Electronic Publishers sent me a handful of modules containing electronic texts of reference books. At first, I thought it a bit odd to distribute electronic books as Springboard modules instead of as downloadable files, but then I got a better look at a few of the titles: the King James Version of the Bible, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the 2001 PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference). Not only does it take more memory than you may have in your Visor or wish to devote to one book to store all that information, these reference works are actually searchable databases. Doctors can quickly look up drug interaction guides, or you could search the Bible for specific quotations. You can bookmark items and add your own notes. The svelte modules themselves sit flush in the Springboard slot, so there’s no extra bulk.
InnoGear InnoPak/2V and Handspring Backup Module — The $30 InnoGear InnoPak/2V is a small module that adds 2 MB of memory for storing more files or programs. It also has a small motor that gives the Visor a vibrating alert in place of the handheld’s standard audio alarms, a welcome feature if you rely on your Visor to alert you to appointments in cacophonous environments like trade shows or if you simply don’t like to broadcast your reminder alerts to others in the room.
One of the most useful Springboard modules is Handspring’s appropriately named Backup Module. At the tap of a very large, obvious button in the provided software, the contents of the Visor’s memory are transferred to the module. If you lose your data (from a bad battery swap, for example), simply insert the Backup Module and restore your data. For $40, it’s worth it, especially if you often use your Visor far from the safety of the backup stored on your Mac.
eyemodule2 — I should take this opportunity to apologize to my friends who had to put up with me showing off new Springboard modules continually. After a few demonstrations, they tended to glaze over and became inured to the charms of the latest toy – except for the eyemodule2, a module that turns your Visor into a digital camera.
A fixed lens sits atop the module, which adds only a little height to the Visor. To take pictures, you simply point the lens at your subject and use the Visor’s screen as viewfinder. A button on the module snaps the photo, though I preferred to push the Visor’s scroll up button instead: the placement of the eyemodule2’s button made it easier to nudge the Visor as the shot was taken, blurring the photo. You can take pictures at 160 by 120 pixels (the viewable area of the software on Visor’s screen), or at a larger size of 640 by 480 pixels. The full size images are captured in color, even if you own a grayscale Visor. The smaller Palm sized images are stored in grayscale if you’re using a grayscale Visor, but if you’re using a color Visor Prism the Palm-sized images are stored in color, taking up more memory. The software also includes some rudimentary exposure controls for dealing with low-light or overly bright situations. In addition to still photos, you can capture Palm-sized movies from between 20 and 85 seconds in duration. Again, the different depends on which Visor you own: grayscale Visors capture grayscale movies, while the color Visor Prism captures color movies which require more memory.
The images (or movies) are stored in your Visor’s built-in memory. The eyemodule2 site claims that a Visor Prism with 6 MB of free memory can store 50 full size or 150 Palm size color images; a grayscale device with the same free memory can store 50 full size or 660 Palm size images. When you’re finished pretending to be Ansel Adams, you can easily transfer the images to your Mac as JPEG files or QuickTime movies (for the movies) during HotSync operations.
I was surprised at the quality of the images: you probably wouldn’t want to rely on the eyemodule2 to record your family vacation, but for everyday snapshots or even Web images the quality is acceptable. I was able to test only with a Visor Platinum, so the movies I shot were grayscale and rather grainy – perfect if you want to make a moody 60-second film noir masterpiece. (You can see samples I’ve posted on my Web site at the URL below.)
In addition to the image capture software, you can use the eyemodule2 to add images to other applications. For example, eyecontact is an Address Book replacement that can store photos of people with their contact information; BugMe Messenger lets you annotate your images and send them to other handhelds by beaming or by mailing them (using a separate module like the VisorPhone or OmniSky modem). The eyemodule2 costs $299, and even comes with a protective metal tin for storing the device.
Ever Expanding — Who would have guessed when the first PalmPilots came out that you could do so much from such a tiny device? There will undoubtedly be more Springboard modules in the future, since Handspring has become a dominant player in the handheld industry. But they’re not alone: the newest handhelds from Palm feature a different type of expansion port that accommodates Secure Digital and MultiMedia Card modules, and have the potential for incorporating devices similar to what we’re seeing with the Visor. No doubt, I’ll be filling my laptop bag with those too in time.