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April 14, 2004

'Tis the season for Palm(One)istry

Every self-respecting geek knows that the best way to solve a problem is to get another gadget.

The problem: I'm now on the hook to update my company's signs whenever the Indians have a game. It's worked out fairly well so far, but I foresee having to carry my laptop a lot. The browser on my cell-phone a) doesn't support SSH port-forwarding (it might support a VPN; I need to check), and b) is linked up to a keyboard that would take 3 weeks to enter a 500 to 700-character update.

I haven't used a Palm for a while, but this sounds like a Palm-shaped hole to me (or Pocket PC, but I just never have warmed to them, and they're likely to have significantly worse support for my Macs). I suspect there are new Palms due to arrive any day, since they've been offering rebates and discounts since the beginning of the year, but I'm ready to pull the trigger, so I'm limiting myself to current models. Also, the death of the PDA is being widely predicted, so I've got another chance to be marginalized here.

My first thought was the Tungsten C. When introduced a year ago, reviews were almost uniformly positive, and it introduced the new-generation Palm OS 5 and 400-mhz Xscale processor. It has 64 megs of memory, a generously sized thumb board, and built-in 802.11b (Wi-Fi). It's missing Bluetooth, stereo sound, and a microphone. Prices on the Tungsten C are nose-diving now: Originally $499, PalmOne launched a rebate in January, turned it into a price drop a week or so ago, and now they're widely available for $350 or less.

Next up was the Treo 600, current lust object of alphageeks everywhere. It's about $600, and could use my T-Mobile SIM and (slowish) GPRS networking. It has a thumb board, but I found the buttons too close together to use comfortably. It lacks Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, but is a great size and could replace my phone, to boot.

I seriously considered Sony's Clie UX-50. It's the only Palm OS PDA I saw with both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which means it could use the best available wireless network as I roam. It's got a slick twist-and-fold clamshell display, like many Tablet PCs, a very high-resolution display, a camera, and a thumb board. I found it hard to hold position on the thumb board, since the keys are flush, and you can't tell where your thumbs are by touch. Sony has also made some "improvements" to the look of the Palm OS, and they don't work for me. Cliés require an additional program to sync with the Mac. Pricing is around $600. Despite its small size, this one is the most laptop-like of the PDAs I looked at.

While browsing, I considered the Tungsten W. It's in the same chassis as the Tungsten C (cool kids abbreviate them as the T|C and T|W), but with GPRS wireless instead of 802.11. It also has a much slower processor and one-fourth the memory, but for about the same money (such a deal). I have an account with T-Mobile, so I could swap my SIM card from cell-phone to Tungsten 10 times a day, and take advantage of the $20/month unlimited data add-on plan I have. The existence of the Treo, and PalmOne's recent acquisition of Handspring, suggest that the Tungsten W is not long for our plane of existence.

Then I met the Tungsten T3. Being sold alongside the Tungsten T and the Tungsten T2, the T3 has the processor and memory from the T|C with an even bigger (320 x 480) display, and with Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi. It drops the thumb board. I see the T3 as the conceptual offspring of the Palm V I used to carry. It's sleek and functional, and the ability to switch from portrait to landscape is a very nice feature. I tried the T3 with my cell phone, and the pairing process was absurdly easy, easier than pairing on the Mac. The T3 even knew about the two levels of GPRS service that T-Mobile provides, and let me choose between them.

Ideally, I want to really use this thing a lot. I would love to be able to take it instead of a laptop on day trips. It would be cool if I could use it for light surfing and weblogging around the house, instead of carrying the laptop around.

There's Wi-Fi available at home, at work, and at a number of local restaurants and stores, but I'm probably going to have to use GPRS service occasionally, so there needs to be a way to hook the PDA up to my Nokia 3650 for data. I initially thought that would require Bluetooth, especially once I learned that the 3650 doesn't support a cable connection. Then I realized that infrared still works, so I could use IrDA to get the data in and out of my phone.

If I was using it as a PDA, I would go with the T3. It's reasonably priced, powerful, and has a great, large display. Instead, I'm seeing this as the world's smallest laptop, and a laptop's got to have a keyboard. The Treo's thumb board doesn't work for me. The UX-50 just feels like trouble waiting to happen, between the iffy Mac support, the elaborate hinge mechanism, and the Clié-flavored Palm OS enhancements. I like the keyboard, and nothing else, about the Tungsten W, which brings us to our winner, the Tungsten C. It has a display as bright but not as big as the T3, a comfy thumb board, and built-in WiFi. I've seen a few complaints about the C being delicate, but it feels fairly solid, and Palms have been pretty good to me.

Pricing at Amazon was great -- I paid $338. I may not feel quite so smug when the C2 comes out, but I haven't even seen any concrete rumors on the next generation. I picked up an expansion card with a dozen games, including SimCity and Shanghai for less than $30.

And, bearing the ruggedness rumors in mind, I picked up a case from UniQase at the PalmOne store. The case is also available (with optional personalization) direct from the manufacturer.

The Palm world is a lot different than it was 3 years ago when I was a regular user of a Palm VIIx. That one was monochrome, 160 x 160 resolution, with 8 megs of RAM, and the fastest networking BellSouth (doing business as Palm.net) could provide.

I'll be posting through and about the Tungsten over the next few weeks.

April 14, 2004 in General computing | Permalink


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I'd like to know how the T3 worked out for you. I'm considering getting one because I need BT support, ability to sync with my iBook and/or my work PC, and data access either through my t68i (T-Mobile) or through the iBook (running panther) when it's connected. My concerns are the battery life and the faulty units people on Amazon seem to be receiving. I realize you posted this only a week ago, but I'd appreciate any impressions you could share (remove FOILSPAMBOTS).


PS Found your site through google looking up "Tungsten t3 os x panther"

Posted by: Patrick Myers at Apr 20, 2004 10:17:19 AM

Hello Frank,

I had a similar issue and initially went with the Tungsten C. I really thought the screen was exceptional and the 802.11 wireless was great (but hinky at times). I returned it and made the big plunge for the Treo 600.

Having moved to the Nokia 3650 (on your recommendation) about a year ago, I decided that merging a PDA/phone/camera was where I really wanted to do.

The Treo rocks. The keyboard is smaller than the Tungsten C but I got the hang of it really quick. Being able to get online easily from whereever I'm at, have all my contacts with me, get photo caller ID, play games, and take quick pictures whenever I want seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Posted by: Joey at Apr 23, 2004 1:18:12 PM