iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






PalmOS 5.0 Based Palm Tungsten T Review

February 6, 2003

The Palm platform which is still leading in sales volumes faces today the necessity of fundamental changes caused by the pressure of the strongest competitor - Microsoft Pocket PC. The pocket computers based on the latest OS have wide integrated multimedia capabilities and are ready to play audio and video files of the popular PC formats once they are fished out of the box. The best Palm compatible devices are able to offer only a built-in hardware MP3 player which is not a part of the platform (by the way, it was the Sony's initiative, not that of Palm) - it's a useful gadget sometimes excelling software solutions, but it has a narrow range of application. There was no general multimedia solution for Palm OS till recently able to play audio and video in any of the current formats and which can be updated in future Palm OS. 

Till recently the Palm could successfully compete against the Pocket PC at the expense of high price of the latter. But the recent price cuts made the budget Microsoft based pocket computers, with their multimedia functions superior to all Palms (except the most expensive Sony's models), comparable in price to the middle-level PDAs from Palm or Sony. In such situation Palm and its allies have two ways out: either to be thrown into the lowest budget sector (which means almost no income) or think of something else. Certainly, the first option was not satisfactory, that is why they developed a new hardware platform and released Palm OS 5. 

First of all, the developers had to increase the overall performance of the system, and, in particular, efficiency of the CPU. The Motorola Dragonball line doesn't have a processor clocked at over 66 MHz, but even such performance is not enough for playing high-quality audio and video especially if it's greatly compressed with complicated algorithms with losses (e.g., MPEG-4) that make possible to store large volumes of data on PDA. That is why the processors of ARM architecture starting from 150MHz were chosen as a core of the new generation. The rumor had it that they could use the XScale chip, but it was only a rumor. 

Palm OS 5 is a version of the classic Palm OS for the new hardware platform. One of the problems facing the developers was to make it compatible with the existent Palm-compliant software. This solution is logical taking into account that the the Palm platform takes firm positions on the market mainly at the expense of the abundant software suites. 

The company that developed the OS wasn't the first to announce the finished solution - it was outdone by Sony which released Clie NX70V and NX60 (they will be reviewed very soon). But this advantage is formal as the Palm's Tungsten T arrived just a week later, and all the newcomers appeared on the market at the same time. 

The hero of the occasion

The design of the body of the Tungsten T reflects one of the trends of 2002 oa - attempts to use a smaller form-factor. As you know, it's better to wear a smaller device, but at the same time, it becomes less convenient in utilization. That is why Palm made its body folding. When folded up, the device is as wide as a usual Palm but its length is much shorter, that is why it perfectly fits into any pockets. The lower part which covers the graffiti area in front and a reset button behind slides down. 

The body is made of metal which makes it sturdy and durable as well as reliable thanks to the sliding mechanism. It's well fixed in both positions and it can be quite difficult to unfold the device. But it prevents loosening of the Palm. Well, we give a high grade for the Palm's design. 

The device is only 15 mm thick (0.6"), which places it into the line of the slimmest PDAs. There is a plastic strip between the front and back metallic panels, - it's very narrow on both sides and takes all the surface above and below. Presumably, there is an antenna of the Bluetooth adapter, and the plastic cover is necessary for proper operation of the radio interface because the metal would shield the radiation. 

The slider's front panel has application shortcut buttons and, as a new element, a 4-way joystick with a button which, when pressed quickly, confirms commands (i.e. it acts as OK or Enter), and when pressed and held, cancels or closes an active window or application. Such system makes possible to work with the PDA with one hand and, when coupled with a stylus, to use all PDA's functions except text input without moving the slider. 

On the left is a dictaphone button and a headphones out. Above it has a power button (which, when pressed and held, controls backlight), expansion cards slot, IR port and a stylus connector. On the left panel there are two rows of holes with a speaker hiding behind them (the microphone hides behind a small hole on the side). Behind, on the protruding slider's part there is a sticker with the other model's name - m550, which is not mentioned anywhere else. It seems that Palm decided to give up traditional system of names and promotes the new solution under its own name - Tungsten T. 

The Tungsten T is based on the Texas Instruments OMAP 1510 processor, 16 MB RAM and 4 MB Flash ROM. 

The stylus of the new PDA is metallic; it has a roundish section and a retractable design. The pullout section is in the upper end of the stylus, it's attached with a spring and can be fixed in both positions. This element also attaches the stylus inside the PDA hole. The unfolded stylus is put into the hole where it gets fixed with a weak magnetic holder. Then you press onto the protruding end so that the stylus would jut out only by 1-1.5 mm, it's impossible to take it out by such a small tip. To fish it out, press the head once again. The stylus is rather massive, fits the hand nicely and, when unfolded, it is optimal for most users. 

The cradle of the Tungsten T connects to PC via USB. It hasn't changed compared to conventional models. You don't have to apply much force to put the PDA onto the information connector. The PDA is not fixed either on the sides or above or below - the device just rests upon the sloping surface and holds on to the connector with its weight and weak catches. The solution is simple and handy but it requires careful treatment. The cradle has a button for synchronization. 

The rechargeable battery of the Tungsten T is LiPol, it's built into the case and can't be replaced by a user. Our sample could endure 3 hours of continuous work (games, images, data sync), which corresponds to 2-3 days for businessmen at the middle level of intensity. It's not much, but maybe, this is peculiar only to the given sample. In this respect, the nonremovable battery is a bad disadvantage. 

The screen is a reflective TFT matrix of 320 x 320 pixels; it has lower backlight providing uniform brightness along the whole screen without flashes, dark spots and gradients. The screen displays up to 65000 colors (16 bits), has good contrast and brightness and is legible when backlit in any conditions. We liked the quality of the screen - in this aspect the Tungsten T takes an intermediate position between typical Pocket PC models with inferior monitors and latest Sony's models with perfect transreflective matrices. The touchscreen and touch graffiti area provide a good level of sensitivity so that you don't need to press them strongly. 

The software suite is modest - it includes the PDA, cradle, charger, protective transparent panel, brief user guide and two CDs with software. The first one contains PC sync program Palm Desktop, and the other has freeware programs for PDA (a bit later on it). 

Palm OS 5 in operation

The Tungsten T contains a pure Palm OS 5 without additional programs or shells. The system doesn't differ much from the previous one in this form. The main element is a pictography menu with the programs' icons. They are grouped by categories the list of which can be changed by a user. The OS contains such utilities as Address, Calc, Card Info, Date Book, Expense, Graffiti reference book, HotSync, Memo Pad and Note Pad (supports handwriting), Prefs, To Do List, Voice Memo and World Clock. The list of application is almost the same as in Palm OS 4.1 with several exceptions. The user interface and functions of coinciding applications weren't changed considerably. 

The only application that uses multimedia capabilities of the new platform is Voice Memo which records voice notes from the built-in mic and can load them into PC during synchronization converting into WAV. The mic is low-sensitive, that is why the device suits best of all for recording nearby sounds and in not noisy conditions. 

The preferences window was redesigned most of all. Now the categories of options which were earlier selected from the drop-down menu are located in the main window of the Prefs shell, which makes simpler for beginners to search them. They hide the same settings the Palm OS 4.1 had. The only new thing is the Bluetooth connection control applet which allows enabling/dosabling the radio interface, detect a name of the device and permit/forbid its detection by other devices. Here you can make a list of trusted devices which can be connected to the Tungsten via Bluetooth  - devices which belong to other users will therefore be cut off. 

One of the most important possibilities of the new OS is compatibility with all software developed for previous OS versions. We examined this issue closely in the tests. 

The device comes with a CD which contains the following stuff: Acrobat Reader for PDF files, ArcSoft PhotoBase for viewing images (supports JPEG), BlueBoard and BlueChat for data exchange with other PDAs via Bluetooth, Dialer for connection to a mobile phone with drivers for most popular phones having Bluetooth (Ericsson T39, T68, Nokia 6310 and some others), DataViz Documents To Go compatible with MS Office in data formats, Magic Dogs game, Palm Reader for e-books, WWW and WAP, e-mail and SMS clients and some other programs. All these programs are either developed for Palm OS 5 or tested on it but anyway they work reliably on the Tungsten T. There were only some problems with reading documents in Acrobat Reader loaded from PC, but this seems to be a problem connected with fonts or other features of the Palm version of the program but not the problem of the new Palm OS. 

After that we tried to install several programs on the PDA downloaded from the Internet, in particular, Hero's Quest and Hero's Quest II games. There were no installation problems. It's possible that some applications can work incorrectly under the new OS. In this case they (at least, commercial software) will be improved for proper operation on devices of the new generation, that is why you shouldn't worry that the range of applications will be narrower on the new OS version. 

The situation was quite interesting with system extensions (hacks) for the previous OS version. Theoretically they shouldn't work on the new platform because the developer declared incomplete (at least) compatibility of the programs with the Palm OS 5. In practice the direct installation (classic hack-manager and applications) gives the results in full conformity with the specs: all these tools are successfully installed on the Tungsten T but when invoked, they initiate rebooting or hanging of the system. However, the TileMaster 2.2 announced as compatible with Palm OS 5 provides proper operation of all system extensions. As a result, the users of the Tungsten T get more than they were promised - all software classes including the hacks work on the PDA. 

Impressions and conclusion

The new Palm's model can be regarded as a realization of the new operating system and as a finished product meant for end users to solve their day-to-day problems. The estimation in these cases will differ, and the latter will also depend on whether the current market situation is accounted for. 

The Tungsten T is first of all an interesting "canonical" soft hardware realization of the new operating system made by the OS developer. Working with the Tungsten, we examined the Palm OS 5 and found it quite successful. The advantage is that there are no too revolutionary changes (which scare away rather than attract), but it has new features the Palm OS needed much, in particular, hgih-quality color screen of high resolution, functions of operation with sound, Bluetooth adapter, which makes it simpler to use the PDA together with a mobile phone, and compatibility with the current software for the previous Palm OS version. The weak point is that the multimedia features of the new PDA are realized only in the dictaphone, though I wish it also had audio and video players. Of course, it's possible to install a respective program. But one has to find it first (which can be unsuccessful), then make an effort to install; besides, it's possible that the needed program is not free. Here we approach some problems related with estimation of the Tungsten T as a finished product. 

Let's see what a user of the Tungsten gets. He or she gets a handy, compact and elegant device with a high-quality screen. What can it do? It can store, sort and display entries of the address book, make records for every day and a to-do list, write down expenses, calculate, and make voice marks. After the simple installation of the sync software on the desktop computer and installation on the PDA of various supplied programs you will get functions for data exchange with PC, for viewing and editing documents in MS Office, displaying images, using a mobile phone (via Bluetooth as well) as a modem or for sending SMS, browsing WWW and WAP... The question is what is the main difference from the capabilities of the previous generation? Well, it's a dictaphone, a new wireless interface and a higher screen resolution. All other needs on both platforms can be satisfied with additional software. Here we can see the strongest side of the Tungsten inherited from the previous generation - an enormous lot of compatible commercial and freeware software for any needs. 

As a multimedia platform the Tungsten must be criticized. The RAM of 16 MB means that if you are going to use the PDA as a player of audio and video files you will have to buy a memory card because the integrated memory will hardly house over 10-15 min of music in MP3. Lack of the playing programs aggravates the problem, but they can be fetched free compared to a memory card. 

We found on the Net only two MP3 players but none of them worked. They are pTunes and AeroPlayer. We tried to play songs from the memory of the old PDA and from the SD card. But the programs wrote "No audio files detected". We tried to load songs directly to the memory card passing the Palm, tried with the HotSync, threw MP3 files into different folders but nothing helped. I hope it will soon change for better. As for a video player, we couldn't find it, even the simplest one. 

So, the Tungsten T can be considered a successful model which suits perfectly for business and which has potential multimedia capabilities supported on the OS level, which is a huge step forward. This is not a finished solution but a base which you can use to build a personal soft hardware complex allowing for fine tuning to meet user's requirements. 

But the Tungsten T has a quite high price for Palm compatible PDA and it has a lot of strong competitors among Pocket PCs. On our local market the Tungsten is priced at $500-550 which is comparable to a middle-level Pocket PC. The Palm is more stable, has a much wider range of software, smaller data volumes in business applications and Bluetooth which is available only in high-grade Pocket PCs. The Microsoft's platform is ready for operation with multimedia from the very beginning (it supports WAV, MP3, WMA audio format, MIDI and others through additional software; it supports MPEG-1 and can play MPEG-4/DivX after installation of the codec) as well as can work with MS Office documents. 64 MB lets you load up to an hour of music without memory cards (especially if the compositions are encoded into MP3 at a lowered bitrate). The principle of management which supports free browsing of applications and documents and which has a system of objective and operating menus, is closer to the Windows. All the advantages are also typical of cheaper Pocket PCs at around $300-400 while Palm compatible devices are much less functional at the same cost. 

The current PDA market is guided not by experts in computers but a mass user who won't take to heart two main advantages of the Tungsten over the Pocket PC systems. The conception of a soft hardware base with a possibility to be extended to meet user's requirements means that a user is able to define and phrase these requirements and that he is competent enough to choose and install the required software. An average user cannot and does not want to do it as he has little knowledge in information science, has no time or interest. A user buys a finished product which allows him to work with personal information, entertain, and which is potentially expandable without much expenses and efforts; then it buys it as a mod accessory and only after that this is a machine for solving specific problems. In this respect Sony offers a good strategy which sacrifices the abstract compatibility but offers a finished solution plus such things which are valued by mass consumers (big and high-quality screen, accessories and software supplied, built-in camera etc.). Compatibility is critical only when a user needs a definite program which is unique in its class. An ordinary user doesn't work with such programs. He uses 5-6 applications of the popular classes which have at least several competing solutions. If one program doesn't work, a user will turn to another similar one; if none of such programs want to run, a user will just give up. What does it mean for an engineer if he can't start a CAD packet necessary for his work on a certain PDA? It means that he will turn to another PDA. And what if a data base for home CD collection doesn't work? An average user will just give up the idea of using the PDA for that purpose. That is why, no matter how good the Tungsten, and the Palm platform on the whole, may be, the time of builders and demanding and competent users passed away. The Tungsten T will certainly be popular but mostly at the expense of the "old guards" who are loyal to the Palm mark and who can appreciate and realize advantages of the platform.

Ivan Melnichuk  (ivan_melnichuk@ixbt.com)

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