If you don’t yet have a Palm handheld, read on for Travis Butler’s review of the Handspring Visor, the Palm OS-based device from the original creators of the PalmPilot. Old software also continues to hold our attention this week, as we consider the implications of last week’s poll and look at the elderly DiskTop and DiskTracker, a modern competitor. In the news, we cover eMerge 1.6.2 and pass on an important warning to iBook and PowerBook (FireWire) owners.
iBook, PowerBook Data Loss Problem Noted — Apple has issued a Tech Info Library article cautioning iBook and PowerBook (FireWire) owners of a potential data loss problem with those portable Macs. Under certain low-memory situations, putting the machine to sleep with the "Preserve memory contents on sleep" option enabled can overwrite essential file system data. When restarted, the laptops display a flashing question mark; after booting from a CD-ROM, the hard disk fails to appear and Disk First Aid reports errors that cannot be repaired. Apple is working on a software fix to be released at the end of March. In the meantime, Apple recommends disabling the "Preserve memory contents on sleep" feature. [JLC]
eMerge Update Speeds Direct Email Processing — Galleon Software has released eMerge 1.6.2, a small-numbered revision that nonetheless greatly improves the direct-email program’s functionality (see "Legitimate Direct Email eMerges" in TidBITS-465). Primarily, importing email address lists is now three times faster, and exporting the information is now 11 times faster. There is also greater control over duplicate email addresses and filtering. Another nice improvement is the elimination of a few minor (but frustrating) text-editing bugs in eMerge’s main message window. eMerge 1.6.2 is a free update for registered users, and is a 1.3 MB download. New users can download a 2.2 MB demo version; registration is $99. [JLC]
Poll Preview: Palm Before the Storm — Handheld computers used to belong only to the excessively organized or excessively geeky (or odd combinations of both). Now, every third person at a convention is trying to beam you his business card. With the popularity of Palm OS-based devices on a continual climb, we want to know: If you’ve been thinking about buying a Palm OS-based handheld device, which model do you find most appealing? Choose from the monochrome Palm III family (Palm IIIx, IIIxe, or IIIe), the color Palm IIIc, the slim Palm V or Vx, the wireless Palm VII, Handspring’s Visor or Visor Deluxe, or the Technology Resource Group’s TRGPro. Read on for more details about the new Handspring Visors and register your vote on our home page! [JLC]
Last week’s poll asking about your oldest regularly used program proved fascinating in a number of ways, not the least of which was in the enthusiasm it generated on TidBITS Talk, where we heard about the many old programs still in regular use throughout the Macintosh world. I was surprised that messages to TidBITS Talk had little duplication – most people seemed to have different favorites.
The Numbers — We weren’t surprised that few TidBITS readers use only recent programs – only 9 percent of respondents said their oldest program was less than 5 years old. We also weren’t surprised by the number of people who use programs that were 5 to 10 years old – a total of 68 percent of respondents. For instance, the oldest program I regularly use turns out to be Peter Lewis’s Finger client, which remains my preferred method of doing whois lookups on domain names despite its last revision in 1994. However, a whopping 23 percent of respondents still used programs that were 11 or more years old. Considering that the Macintosh has only existed since 1984, we were stunned that such elderly programs were still in regular use.
To be fair, had we broken out the years past 11, the answers probably would have fit a standard bell curve with the top of the curve at about 7 years, so perhaps it’s not so surprising. Still, the mere fact that programs from 1984 run in Mac OS 9 on today’s G4-based Power Macs is testament to how well Apple has handled backward compatibility over the years and to the code created by those early Macintosh developers.
The Rationale — The reasons why people continue to use these programs vary widely.
Many programs, particularly small, single-purpose utilities such as the Prairie Group’s DiskTop that Matt Neuburg writes about in this issue, have no need for major updates past the occasional bug fix, because they do everything the programmer intended from the beginning. Such programs tend to be quite simple, of course, but there’s no shame in writing simple and effective software. I’d say this category made up the majority of the notes in TidBITS Talk.
In cases where updates had been made available, the old programs offered the precise feature set that the user wanted, making updates unnecessary or at least not worth the expense and trouble of upgrading. Quite a few people have stuck with Word 5.1 or Canvas 3.5 for this reason.
The software business isn’t an easy one, and many programs have been orphaned over the years for reasons unrelated to the quality or utility of the program. Many older programs are still in use purely because updates were never forthcoming, such as the ever-popular outliner MORE. We’ve bemoaned this fact in TidBITS in the past in Matt Neuburg’s "Long Day’s Journey into Night of the Living Dead Software" in TidBITS-494, and the seemingly unanswerable topic of where you can still legally get old software is going on in TidBITS Talk.
Some users stick with older hardware, at which point older software is more likely to match the processing power and available resources on the Macs in use. A IIci paired with WriteNow 3.0 probably still provides all the basic word processing power most people ever need. Though the fact that this is possible is high praise for Apple and software developers, it’s also the bane of their continued financial existences, which relies on people buying new Macs and software updates or new packages.
Games tend not to receive significant updates, and when they do, those updates often change the play enough that many users stick with the original version. Quite a few people seem to play the 1984 version of Missile Command still, and Tetris from 1988 also garnered a few mentions.
Lessons — It strikes me that there are some important lessons for software developers and for the Macintosh community at large, but I continue to have trouble winnowing them out. Should developers carefully avoid including certain features in programs to make upgrades compelling? Probably, and there are also trade-offs in development time versus feature completeness. Are upgrades often over-priced? No question. Do software companies rely on upgrade revenue to survive? Absolutely. Do software companies also rely on the splash of an upgrade to stay in the eye of the market? Indeed. Should users stick with versions of programs that meet their needs? Yes. Does the Macintosh community have some sort of an obligation to support software companies, or should survival go only to those companies that can appeal to a sufficiently large number of users? Good question.
These issues have been hashed over in the past in TidBITS Talk, but in the end, I think we end up with an uneasy synergy, where we in the Macintosh community rely on software companies to provide the quality programs we need to make the Macintosh experience compelling, but those companies in turn rely on us for financial support. Everyone’s happy when the synergy works, but if either side fails to live up to its side of the bargain, the relationship fall apart. That’s what happens when software companies release buggy software, fail to provide necessary tech support, or release more for-pay upgrades than seem warranted. And the Macintosh community is quick to complain when a favorite program is orphaned, be it MORE or Emailer; in the end, however, those orphaned programs must not have sold sufficiently well to overcome other obstacles to continued development.
Alternate business models have been tried, but none have proved sufficiently successful to convert existing companies to a new way of thinking. Perhaps there’s room for improvement in that area, but until a new approach can be shown to work, the Macintosh community and software developers will just have to agree to abide by the tenuous contract that ensures our mutual future.
Back in the hoary days of System 6, the Finder badly needed help, and DiskTop was one of my favorite helpers. Over the years, DiskTop somehow fell off my radar screen, though I was dimly aware that CE Software had spun it off to the Prairie Group; and TidBITS hadn’t reviewed it since 1994, when Stephen Camidge looked at DiskTop 4.5. Having bemoaned the frequent untimely death of good software, I was stunned and delighted to learn that DiskTop is still available – and still works, though the version number has increased only to 4.5.3.
DiskTop is a single window displaying one folder’s contents, like a non-hierarchical version of the Finder’s List view, but including invisible files, and telling you type/creator codes and exact data/resource fork sizes. Navigation between folders (using always this single window), by mouse or keyboard, is lightning-fast; you can also nominate favorite folders for direct access through a pop-up menu. Supplementary modal dialogs let you delete or rename an item, pick a folder to copy or move an item to, create an item, learn a folder’s size, or copy a pathname. A Get Info dialog lets you get (and set) the sort of technical stuff for which you’d otherwise need ResEdit or Snitch. You can also find by multiple criteria, quickly and easily.
To be sure, DiskTop has its failings. For example, it lists invisible files, but it doesn’t tell you they’re invisible, nor does it let you search only for invisible files. As you make an alias, you can’t dictate its name. And so on. But carping, though easy, is pointless, since these issues will probably never be addressed. In the past six years, DiskTop has been tweaked to ensure compatibility with Apple Menu Options and Y2K, but functionality remains unchanged. Indeed, much of DiskTop’s appeal, I have to admit, is that it’s such a blast from the past. It’s tiny (220K, using 80K of RAM). It’s a desk accessory (remember those?). It comes on a floppy! It’s not PowerPC-native. It doesn’t use drag & drop. It opens files and folders, not through the scriptable Finder or other modern methods, but through the antiquated CE Toolbox extension (this rather hampered my system, and ultimately I elected to forego this functionality). The main downside is that it costs $50, which seems rather cheeky for software that isn’t being updated; does Prairie Group think software improves by sitting, like wine?
DiskTracker — For a thoroughly modern alternative that’s being updated regularly, you might try the $30 shareware DiskTracker, by Mark Pirri (Portents LLC). This, too, is a blast from the past, but in a different way: it goes back only to 1996, but its conceptual ancestry reaches well into the 1980s to another old favorite of mine, Bill Patterson’s FileList+ (itself based on Erny Tontlinger’s FileList).
DiskTracker was originally a file cataloger, meaning that it quickly reads and stores into a single document the file information from as many disks as you like. Catalog file size is roughly proportional to the number of files; the catalog listing all 27,000 files on my hard disk occupies 1.5 MB of disk space.
But with the recently released DiskTracker 2.0, if the disk whose catalog you’re viewing is mounted and writable, you can make changes to it through the catalog. As with DiskTop, files are listed in a single window, and you can navigate into a folder using the same window; but you can also view folders hierarchically, as with the Finder’s List view. You can rename items, delete items, move items to the Trash, copy an item’s path, create a new folder, and view and alter an item’s type/creator, creation/modification date, and locked and invisible attributes. Copying files works through drag & drop, which is clumsier than DiskTop’s dialogs because of the single-window approach – what I’d really prefer is a Windows-like cut-and-paste metaphor – but it operates both internally and with the Finder, which is slick. You can open or reveal the actual item in the Finder. You can’t create an alias; resource and data fork sizes aren’t listed separately; invisible items can be shown or hidden, but there’s no direct indication that they’re invisible. On the whole, it’s like a modern DiskTop.
Additionally, you get DiskTracker’s disk cataloging features. In particular, you can do highly complex saveable searches, which result in a flat sortable list of the matching items. For example, show all your files in a flat view; then sort them by size to learn where your hard disk space went. Search for duplicates based on criteria that you specify (I instantly found 14 MB of unneeded files). Plus, don’t forget, you can search disks that aren’t mounted. Oddly, unlike the regular view, the flat list view can’t be customized to display extra columns such as type/creator, nor to show creation/modification times along with dates, nor can columns be widened or moved.
DiskTracker is a 1.3 MB download, and although its requirements aren’t as minimal as DiskTop’s, it requires only a 68020 or later Mac with System 7 or later and 2,000K of free RAM.
I admit it – I’m a handheld computing junkie. I’ve had an original Newton MessagePad 100, a Newton 120, an original PalmPilot 1000 upgraded to a Palm Professional, and a Palm III with which I’ve been happy.
So why did I walk out of Macworld Expo in January carrying a Handspring Visor Deluxe?
The Visor is a Palm OS-based handheld developed by Handspring, a company founded by the designer of the original PalmPilot and a group of former Palm Computing engineers. After licensing the Palm OS from Palm, Handspring released the Visor and Visor Deluxe toward the end of 1999. Visors feature the same core software as Palm’s devices – including integrated calendar, contact, to do, and memo applications – but offer some additional software benefits and a hardware expansion slot.
Initially, the Visor was only sold through Handspring’s Web site, and the demand was more than the company could handle; availability remained limited for some time, with buyers complaining about delays of up to six weeks in receiving products. At Macworld Expo, ClubMac was doing a brisk business selling Visors directly on the show floor (eventually selling over 2,000 devices over the five-day event). Since then, availability has improved dramatically: Handspring quotes a seven-day order fulfillment period, though some users have received orders sooner. In addition, Handspring is expected to begin selling the Visor in some retail stores.
The Visor Hardware — The Visor’s form factor is slightly longer and thicker than a Palm III – and significantly narrower. I found both devices equally easy to hold and use, although someone with smaller hands might prefer the Visor, which features ribbing along the sides to improve your grip. Instead of the attached flip cover of the Palm III series, the Visor has a separate snap-on plastic cover. To me, this cover is the Visor’s main ergonomic disadvantage; although you can hook it on the back when you’re using the Visor, it isn’t as comfortable or convenient as flipping open the cover of the Palm III, and it has the potential to get lost. The Visor Deluxe also includes a leather slip case (I’ve never used mine) and follows the translucent plastics fad by adding four colors (blue, green, orange, and whitish "ice") to the graphite case of the standard Visor model. Although I like the translucent look on something the size of the iMac, I don’t think it looks as good on something the size of a handheld device.
Although some reviewers have said that the Visor’s plastic case and application buttons feel cheap, I like them. The unit itself feels solid in my hand, with a comfortable heft to it. I actually prefer the Visor’s buttons to the buttons on the Palm III (and a friend’s Palm Vx); they have a physical detent which gives good tactile feedback when you press a button, and the up-and-down scroll buttons are flat half-circles that feel much more comfortable than the rounded rocker switch nubs of the Palm III series. (The pad of my thumb has actually started hurting from repeatedly pressing the scroll nubs on my Palm III when reading through a long document.) On balance, I’d have to give the ergonomic advantage to the Visor.
The screen is the same high-contrast display as that of the IIIe/IIIx/IIIxe, a major improvement over the stock Palm III. It’s readable in much lower light conditions than the old Palm III, and uses the same reversed backlight as the newer Palm models. Contrast is handled through a software slider instead of a hardware dial, much like the Palm V series.
The standard Visor includes 2 MB of memory, enough to store a reasonable load of programs, addresses, notes, and appointments (this is the same memory as the Palm III, Palm IIIe, and the Palm V). The Visor Deluxe features 8 MB of storage, the same as the Palm IIIxe, Palm Vx, and twice that of the IIIx. The additional memory can be handy for storing many applications and large amounts of reference information, like electronic books, databases, and images. However, I suspect that users who don’t need extra reference materials will be satisfied with 2 MB.
Finally, there’s the Springboard expansion cartridge slot, which generated most of the initial excitement about the Visor. Although the Palm IIIx has an internal expansion slot for memory or similar hardware enhancements, the Visor’s Springboard slot makes adding or exchanging hardware as easy as sliding a game cartridge into a Nintendo GameBoy and allows adding a much wider variety of devices, like a GPS system or MP3 music player. Several companies were showing Springboard modules at the Handspring booth at Macworld; see my post in the "Macworld Expo SF 2000 Notes" TidBITS Talk thread for the ones I found most interesting.
The Palm OS — Although the Visor is powered by the Palm OS, one significant disadvantage is that the operating system is physically stored in read-only memory (ROM).
In contrast, all current Palm models except the Palm IIIe store the operating system on flash ROM, which is also read-only but capable of being overwritten using a "flashing" program. This means they can be updated when Palm releases improved versions of the OS. For example, Palm OS 3.3 made significant improvements to infrared synchronization with laptops, and I was able to upgrade my Palm III because its flash memory could be overwritten to include the new operating system. (Palm OS 3.5, included with the Palm IIIc and Palm IIIxe, will be available as a downloadable upgrade in the near future, according to a representative at Palm.)
The Visor’s standard ROM can’t be updated; the only way to modify the OS without physically replacing the hardware is via software patches (usually incremental bug fixes) loaded into the Visor’s RAM. If your data gets erased, such as from completely dead batteries, those patches will be erased with the rest of your data. The Visor comes with Palm OS 3.1h (the "h" indicates that it’s a Handspring-modified version of Palm OS 3.1), which is a version behind the 3.3 installed on my Palm III. One consequence of this version lag is that you cannot do infrared synchronization out of the box with an IR-equipped Mac like an original iMac or a PowerBook G3, even if you have the proper infrared libraries installed on your Mac. A third-party application called IrLink allows you to perform IR synchronization, but it’s an extra $20 and an extra nuisance unless infrared HotSync is important to you.
The Handspring representatives I spoke with at Macworld took the line that OS upgrades are mainly to support new hardware releases, and thus they wouldn’t be important to Visor users – something I find a little dubious. It remains to be seen what Handspring will do about supporting future Palm OS upgrades, like the new Palm OS 3.5. I recently had the chance to ask a Handspring product manager, Frank Romero, about the upgrade issue. He replied:
"Much of the functionality that the Handspring Visor was designed for has already been built into the Visor’s version of the Palm operating system, which supports key Visor features like the infrared port functionality, USB connectivity, support for the European currency symbol, and most importantly, the infinitely expandable Springboard Modules."
Upgraded Software — From a user’s standpoint, Handspring’s improvements to the Palm OS mostly boil down to improved versions of the Date Book application and calculator, and a new program called City Time. I wouldn’t say City Time is useful for most people; it just displays a world map with the regions in daytime and nighttime, plus the current time in four cities. The improved calculator is useful, with many extra scientific, financial, and logical functions plus a built-in unit conversion capability. The improved calendar program, Date Book+, is even better, adding new calendar views, event types, a snooze feature on alarms, and other features. However, since Date Book+ is a modified version of the shareware program DateBk3, I wouldn’t call it a huge advantage, except that it is included with the Visor.
Working with the Mac — Macintosh support on the Visor is a mixed bag. On one hand, if you own a USB-equipped Macintosh, the Visor and Visor Deluxe include everything you need in the box – the USB cradle works directly with your Mac, without requiring an adapter, and the Macintosh desktop software is included on the supplied Visor CD-ROM. To use a Palm handheld on a USB machine, you need to buy a USB-to-serial adapter (Keyspan and Palm sell adapters for around $40); since the Macintosh software isn’t included with Palm handhelds, you either need to download it from Palm’s Web site or buy the Palm MacPac for $10. (Note that many new Macintosh models come with the Palm Desktop software installed, and it also comes on the Mac OS 9 CD-ROM.)
On the other hand, if you have an older Macintosh with serial ports, you need to buy a Visor serial cradle for $30. Palm requires you to buy an adapter cable for a Macintosh DIN-8 serial port, but the price is only $10.
The Visor will not work with the latest version of the Mac software, Palm Desktop 2.5. Instead, it requires version 2.1, included on the Handspring CD, because it has built-in USB support that Palm’s version 2.5 lacks. According to Frank Romero, Handspring hopes to have a version of Palm Desktop 2.5 that supports native USB available within "the next few months."
It’s also worth noting that the user manual provided with the Visor is largely useless. Not only is it provided solely as a PDF file on the Palm Desktop CD, the manual covers just the Windows version of Palm Desktop, which is very different from the Mac version.
The Bottom Line — Am I regretting my impulse purchase at Macworld? Although I have a few pangs now that Palm has introduced the Palm IIIxe (an OS-upgradable model for the same price as my Visor Deluxe), overall, I’m satisfied with the Visor. Its ergonomic improvements, though minor, do make a significant difference to me day in and day out, and I’m excited about playing with Springboard modules when they start to become widely available. And I am hoping that someday, Handspring will come out with an OS upgrade for my Visor.
If you’re still straddling the fence on whether to buy a Visor, look for an upcoming article in which I’ll compare the features of Palm’s and Handspring’s devices.