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palmOne Tungsten T5: the Mixture as Before

December 16, 2004



Excursion into the historical domain

It's no easy to keep an eye on the constantly changing world of handhelds. One can say that the PDA epoch started in 1992, when Apple presented Newton NotePad (in 1993 it entered the market as Message Pad). Electronic organizers had been manufactured before (by Psion), but their appearance, features, and names (Organizer 1, Organizer II, WorkAbout) do not allow to call them ancestors of the modern handhelds.

Approximately at the same time Palm Computing, Inc. was developing its first project in alliance with Casio, Tandy, AOL, Intuit, Datalight. The company was in a hurry to release this model (to outstart Apple and "skim the cream" off the customers). But, firstly, it was late for two months anyway, and secondly, it released not quite the product customers wanted to see. The device was positioned (Zoomer, the model was on sale under the names Casio Z-7000, Tandy Z-PDA and GriDPad 2390) as a competitor to a personal computer. The model was not a success and the project eventuated in failure. The PDA specification was impressive: Display resolution was 320x256, built-in OS was object-oriented, multitasking, multi-threaded with GUI support! But end users couldn't install third-party programs.

In 1995 Palm Computing was swallowed by U.S. Robotics corporation. The merger had its positive effect on Palm Pilot 1000 released in 1996: About 5 million dollars were spent on manufacturing and advertisement of the new model. The model was obviously successful, but the company didn't stop at what had been accomplished. In 1997 Palm Pilot Personal and Professional were released with built-in Palm OS 2. U.S. Robotics together with the PDA department was bought by 3COM in 1998. Palm III was launched at that time. The founder of the company, Jeff Hawkins, starts a new project (and a new company — Handspring). That's the beginning of happy days for Palm OS.

Palm OS devices domineered the PDA market up to 2001. The market share of Palm Computing was over two thirds. Released in 2000, Windows CE had a more modern architecture, wide range of features, and... high requirements to the hardware platform. It was high time to think about expanding functionality of Palm OS devices. But 3COM had different tasks: to conquer the market of wireless devices and corporate sales. They failed to achieve these goals, and in 2000 Palm Computing again found itself on sale as an independent company. Still 3COM managed to retain control over it.

Such a state of affairs did not suit the largest player on the computer market – Microsoft. Several steps were taken to eliminate the drawbacks of handhelds based on Windows CE. The most important of them (a high price) disappeared after several large manufactures started PDA production. It was Compaq that excelled most with its aggressive pricing for the iPaq series. There remained childhood problems with the weak hardware base of PDAs of that time: disappearing small operating time, dimensions and weight of Windows-powered handhelds. But the functionality of these models surpassed noticeably Palm-based devices.

At that time the largest corporation took the side of Palm OS: Sony. It brought new ideas into the stagnated world of Palm OS devices, including high-quality color displays, additional chips to play back music, wireless interfaces (bluetooth), built-in cameras, and other multimedia features. The world took fancy to Palm OS for some time again.

After the merger with Handspring in 2002, Palm changed its name to palmOne, Inc. Simultaneously a Palm software department was withdrawn from the ranks of this company. In 2003 there appeared a new company called PalmSource. The palmOne company continued prosecuting the 3COM course: the main emphasis was laid to Treo smartphones, the project from Handspring.

Launching Zire handhelds was a successful move from palmOne. Having taken the low end market, the company managed to increase its sales considerably. Added multimedia functions increased popularity of these models and decent pricing helped get rid of the pressure from Pocket PC.

And in 2004 Sony decided to abandon the world PDA market retaining their sales only in Japan. This strange decision looks like an attempt to bide the time and analyze the present situation. Sony may quite possibly return with a dozen of new models after some time. It's not necessarily that these handhelds will operate under Palm OS: Services offered by Windows Mobile or Symbian are none the worse. All of it is just long shots, but in fact the absence of Sony on the world PDA market is noticeable and consequently the share of Palm OS devices is considerably decreased.

What are we having now? The twilight of Palm as a platform. Or, to be politically correct to the pioneer PDA company, a transition of palmOne from the rank of market lords into regular manufacturers. A recent announcement of palmOne about considering to manufacture handhelds on Linux or even Windows Mobile only confirms this fact. Thus, the market will have a clear distinction set between software companies and hardware manufacturers at least for some time. Microsoft, PalmSource and Symbian will be the former. The latter — various well-known companies.

If PalmSource does not release the sixth version of Palm OS in the nearest future, the PDA market risks becoming a copy of the desktop market. The largest share will be taken by Microsoft, tiny portion will belong to Linux and other original projects. However, even if Cobalt is released very soon, its success is not guaranteed.

Meet Tungsten T5

Expecting a miracle is a gripping process. Though palmOne did not promise anything extraordinary, the users hoped for the best. At minimum, Palm OS 6 (Cobalt). A properly supported VGA display would also be good. Wireless interface, preferably WiFi, or rather two. Much memory and long operating time. And here it is – meet Tungsten T5 in iXBT.com lab!




Specification

General hardware unification tendency is felt here too. Hardware characteristics of Palm OS and Windows powered handhelds are getting increasingly similar.

  • Transflective HVGA (320x480) touchscreen. In the pioneering days of VGA displays a semi-VGA display in a top model may give rise to unfavourable criticism.
  • Intel XScale PXA270 processor (416 MHz). Even 312 MHz is more than enough for the majority of Palm OS applications. Increased frequency will be good for multimedia applications, but the slow memory used in this device nullifies this initiative.
  • 225 MB of user available RAM, where 63.8 MB are used for applications, 161.2 – a flash drive for users, the rest is used by the system.
  • SDio expansion slot. Unfortunately, the list of compatible devices cannot be called long. Expansion slots of other types in Palm-based devices are not to be expected yet.
  • Wireless interface – Bluetooth. The new model was expected to support at least WiFi if not two wireless interfaces! What is really sad is that users, who really need WiFi, will not be even able to buy an SDio expansion card – no one cared to write a driver for Tungsten T5.
  • Dimensions 120.9x78.2x15.5. You cannot call this handheld tiny.
  • Weight 144.5 g, it won't weigh down your shirt pocket.
  • Palm OS 5.4 (Garnet). Another disappointment. The public expected a handheld based on Palm OS 6 (Cobalt). But the same Palm OS 5 is hidden behind the decorated updated front instead. As you may remember, it was designed as a transition version. Transition solutions are truly the most permanent!

Package Contents

Moderately sized box weighs much. Willy-nilly you expect an impressive bundle inside. But in fact the package contents are disappointing: half of the box is filled with paper manuals, catalogs of accessories, stickers with Graffiti 2 symbols and CDs with software. AC adapter with various extensions, a sync cable and a protective cover do not look serious against a pile of documentation. The bundle does not include a case. To say nothing of the cradle. They even didn't put an extra stylus. These are obvious signs of maximum price reduction. palmOne should have called this model Tungsten E2: the appearance is also a perfect match.




Design

It's an image of Tungsten E. The same color, the same dimensions. There is even no reinforcing metal frame. Aluminium housing was used in the previous model of this series (Tungsten T3). Rumours about T4 release are not corroborated. The four is considered an ill-fated figure in Asia. Remember the past: there were no such model as Palm IV, Palm V appeared after Palm III.

Another T3 brand feature disappeared from T5: slider. It's a controversial solution: with all its mechanical disadvantages this slider helped shorten considerably the device. But most users will like this change: the housing has become solid, no creaking or flexing. The plastic is pleasant to touch and looks solid. It's painted well, for the time I tested the device there appeared no abrasions, peeled paint, or scratches on the housing, unlike Zire 72.




Rounded design makes an impression of a slim body. In fact, T5 is 15.5 mm thick, which is even more than in modern Pocket PC models. Device dimensions are on the verge of being "bag held" instead of "hand held". If you are using a case, this PDA may not fit into your breast pocket. T5 is convenient to hold in a palm. Despite the lack of any elements that facilitate the grip (for example – rubber plates in HP iPaq 2210), the new Tungsten does not slip out your palm.

The first impulse (to turn the PDA on) is not that easy to do. The Power button is on top, buried to the surface, and has a long stroke with its small size. It's not a simple task to grope for it, to say nothing of pressing it. I didn't learn to turn the PDA off blindly for a week. It's much easier to use the other buttons to turn the PDA on (calendar, contact list). Their design was inherited from Tungsten E. Their properties were also retained: legible click when you press them, easy to grope for. The 4-way joystick with the Action button in the middle is traditionally inconvenient in games, especially left-right directions. Because of the lack of a jog dial you'd better read ebooks in landscape orientation, in this case you will scroll text using more convenient up-down directions of the joystick.




palmOne traditionally keeps on remapping application buttons. T5 has the following mapping (from left to right): launch/switch between the two views of Favorites/Application launcher, Calendar, Contacts, File Manager. Functionality of the latter is limited, it allows viewing files located only on the built-in drive and an expansion card. You will have to use third-party utilities to work with the main memory.




The front panel of the handheld houses nothing except the display and the buttons. Entirely. No illumination sensor, no mic, no speaker. Even no LED to signal notifications. To say nothing of indicating external power. The top side, except for the mentioned power button, hosts a headphone jack (standard 3.5" jack), SDio slot, Infrared port, stylus bay along the right side. The left side is virgin blank.

The rear panel contains a speaker and a reset button. The latter is deeply recessed to the housing, you cannot press it with a stylus point. Speaking of the stylus: it's made of metal, weighty, very convenient to hold in hand. The top of the stylus can be removed, there is a needle inside to press the reset button. According to the author, the bundled T5 stylus is much more convenient than a stylus of any other handheld.







Frankly speaking, you cannot call the T5 design successful. The lack of indicators, vibra alert, dictating mac in a business-class handheld is no win. But T5 is positioned as a top model! The only positive moment against the generally negative background is its extremely convenient stylus.

Memory and Processor

The new model is equipped with Intel XScale PXA270 processor at 416 MHz. As is well known, a powerful processor is not necessary to run the majority of PDA applications. This rule especially applies to Palm OS devices. The heaviest tasks will be video playback and opening large spreadsheets in Documents to Go. Unlike Pocket PC, Palm OS still requires converting video into its own format for software players on a handheld. This procedure is not complex and is easily automated, but it takes much time. But its results are not always predictable. For example, a test fragment of "Shrek" was played back with noticeable jerks after being converted into 480x320. While we had no problems with watching "Knockin' on heaven's door" encoded from scratch. So we can draw a conclusion that processor is powerful enough to replay video, but the software component must still be improved.

Smooth playback depends noticeably on video bit rate. Flash memory is slower than DRAM.


  

  

The old OS (Garnet) does not use the full potential of the new processors from Intel. It would be much more interesting to test this handheld on Cobalt, but alas, no such devices are available on the market. Even considering that PalmSource started licensing this OS a lot of months ago. Actually we have a lot of complaints about the software part of T5. For example, our tested sample was extremely unstable. We had to reset the device several times a day, this procedure taking 40 seconds, by the way. The vaunted reliability of Palm OS does not stand up to criticism. Compatibility with old programs is also not good enough.


  

  

This handheld is equipped with 256 MB flash memory. This solution is highly original: no need in backup battery, no need in maintaining memory when the handheld is off. Before palmOne, only Casio PocketViewer could boast of a similar scheme. 63.8 MB are available to a user to install programs, plus 161.2 MB can be used as data storage. Unfortunately, the most logical use of flash drive — to store backups — has no sense in case of T5: hard reset erases all the data. Including the data on a user's disk. You'll have to buy an SD expansion card to create backups. By the way, in Drive Mode this card will be visible as another disk. T5 is good at working as a card reader, but its data rate is not high (from 160 to 600 Kbytes/sec.).




Operating time

palmOne Tungsten T5 uses a built-in 1300 mAh Li-Ion unexchangeable battery. There is no backup battery as superfluous (the data are stored in flash memory). Operating time has not been a trump card of Palm OS devices for a long time: hardware elements are almost identical with those in Windows Powered devices. As a result – comparable figures in battery tests. So, according to BatteryTime the operating time was 4 hours 43 minutes with an average backlight level, after which the handheld operated 15 minutes more in the book reading mode. The device operates from 6 to 8 hours in mp3 playing mode (depending on the music volume and choice). Minimum operating time (2 hours 10 minutes) was demonstrated during video playback.


  

  
Click a photo to enlarge it

It takes the battery less than three hours to charge from an electricity supply network. As this handheld offers no indicators to monitor external power and charge process, you have to turn it on from time to time to see the battery status. T5 can also be charged from USB, but this is real slow, so you'd better not take this feature seriously (about 25% for 6 hours). Perhaps it was only a problem of our sample.

Touch screen

Resolution of the T5 touchscreen is 320x480 pixels. The number of pixels is twice as low as in new Pocket PC models. But even half-VGA (hVGA) is a good achievement for palmOne. With the virtual area Graffiti 2 the display is square. As in Pocket PC, you can use the keyboard or graffiti recognition, or you can minimize this input area to increase the usable display area.

Display looks good against Tungsten E. But it's far from the high quality of HP iPaq hx4700 or LOOX 720. Moreover, the display of the older model, T3, is brighter and more vivid! Colors on the T5 display look subdued.




Fujitsu-Siemens Pocket LOOX 720 display is on the left. palmOne Tungsten T5 is on the right. Click an image to enlarge (400 Kb)

The backlight is controlled within narrow limits. Interface does not allow to switch it off completely. The difference between the lowest and the highest brightness is not large, but this range is quite enough to work comfortably.

Sensitivity of the touchscreen is average. In order to protect the expensive device from scratches, you'd better buy a screen protector right away (T3 protector will do). I want to note the low processing speed of screen touches (the lines appear with some delay). It's quite possible that the previous models worked in the same way, but their Graffiti area was not virtual and the delay was not visually noticeable.

As a brief summary one can say that there is nothing special about the display in Tungsten T5. The new model does not support VGA, the display quality is subjectively only satisfactory.

Audio System

Traditional description of the audio system will be as brief as possible. Speaker – present. It's located on the rear panel of the handheld. If the device is lying on a soft surface, the sound is muted and the reminder melody is hardly audible in the loud environment. Considering the lack of vibra alarm and LED indicators, chances to miss an alarm are not that low. If you put the handheld with its display down, the speaker volume is impressive. It goes without saying that it cannot be used to listen to music.

The sound in headphones is loud and clear. Results of output analysis using RightMark AudioAnalyzer are very similar to those demonstrated by Fujitsu-Siemens Pocket LOOX 720. However several users noted noise in headphones when no sound was played. Long operating time and 160 MB of user available memory make this device a good replacement of an mp3 player even in its basic configuration.

This model does not have a dictating mac. No voice recording at a price of almost 400 USD is insulting. This function was available even in inexpensive Zire 72!

Wireless Interfaces

Positioned as a business model, Tungsten T5 supports Bluetooth. It's a pity that there is no WiFi, but you couldn't expect any different solution at the price, which palmOne wants to get for this new model.


  

  

So, it has a Bluetooth module, which operates perfectly. Convenient configuration wizard, profiles for the majority of mobile handsets, wide opportunities to connect to desktop computers, and even LAN via an access point. Everything Pocket PC could do a year ago is now available in Palm OS. Developers were smart to reuse the code written for Zire 72, to which they added simple configuration procedures. Bluetooth implementation in Tungsten T5 is the best among the existing ones in Palm OS devices.

HotSync with a desktop computer required minimum configuration. Connection speed is low due to the limitations of COM-port emulation via Bluetooth (characteristic feature of all Palm OS devices).


  

  

Connection to Internet is possible via a mobile phone or a wireless Bluetooth access point. We had no problems with this function. Tungsten T5 uses Blazer as a preinstalled browser.

The distance of stable operation is from 6 (with SonyEricsson T630) to 14 meters (MSI Bluetooth Dongle). Handsfree, headset and audio gateway profiles are not supported. You can hardly call it a drawback: you will hardly want to listen to music via the Bluetooth headset or to use T5 in this capacity.

The top side of the handheld houses an infrared port. Its radiation power is obviously not enough: maximum distance for data exchange does not exceed 1.5 m. It goes without saying that CIR specification is not supported. The port speed is limited by the serial interface throughput (SIR is not faster than standard COM port).

Software

Tungsten T5 operates under Palm OS 5.4 (Garnet). A couple of useful utilities and a new version of Documents To Go (very convenient package, which allows to work with Microsoft Office files without any conversion) are added to the usually bundled set of software. But more does not mean better: operating stability is compromised. The first deliveries of Tungsten T5 had a bug in Calendar, which required reset after you set the view to "day", "week" or "month". The patch is available on the palmOne web site together with installation instructions (not a trivial process, I should say).


  
Click a photo to enlarge it

We also had problems with third-party software. Almost half of the programs written for old OS versions won't work. Part of them won't start referring to the wrong display resolution, the others happily require reboot. Developers are in a hurry to release patches and new versions of their products for T5 compatibility.


  
Click a photo to enlarge it

Conclusions

palmOne disappointed even its fans with the new model. Quite a contrary move was expected from this company — a worthy answer to the new wave of Pocket PC with VGA displays. New OS version (Cobalt), built-in WiFi module. But we get a regular Palm device instead, incompatible with a noticeable part of old software, with a built-in memory drive, which is erased at hard reset.

This device is frankly weak. For the sum of money, which palmOne wants to get from customers, one can buy a Pocket PC with two wireless interfaces, two expansion slots, exchangeable battery, and bugs-free software.

Tungsten T5 can boast of the time it may lie in a storeroom without losing the data in its memory. But an SD card will be much cheaper, it will have considerably larger capacity and the data on this card won't disappear after hard reset.

palmOne will be able to achieve success on the market with this model, only if it considerably drops the price (at least to $300). Otherwise old models (Zire 72, Tungsten T3) may be much more advantageous purchases.

Pros

  • Long operating time (especially when it's turned off)
  • USB drive mode

Cons

  • High price for a moderate bundle
  • Excessively "economic" design
  • Poor implementation of the Power button
  • Insufficiently debugged system software and incompatibility with software for old OS versions



We express our thanks to palmOne for the provided handheld.

Maxim Fedorov (dane@ixbt.com)
December 3, 2004



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