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Pump up your PalmPilot with updates and accessories

Each new generation makes Palm handier

March 10, 1999
Web posted at: 9:31 a.m. EST (1431 GMT)

by Russell Kay

(IDG) -- The PalmPilot was the first really popular personal digital assistant (PDA), and it has quite a selection of hardware and software accessories, far larger than for any of the original Windows CE handhelds or the newer, palm-size CE machines. So what add-ons does the Palm sport these days? In looking at many accessories, I learned a lot about what makes sense and what doesn't for this class of machine. The highest-tech hardware turned out to be more curiosities and gadgets-for-their-own-sake than helpful accessories. The hardware that makes a real difference to the Palm user is much more basic: a good case, a better stylus and a way to clean the screen without damaging it.

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A federal case

When I started carrying a Palm full time a year ago, I soon discarded its plastic screen cover, which usually got in the way. But I still wanted to protect the unit. Looking at other types of cases, I learned that protection comes at a price that the right case depends a lot on lifestyle and work habits. There's a trade-off between bulk and features. The naked Palm is a slim, shirt-pocket-size unit. Put it in any case, and suddenly it's a lot bigger.

If you're on the go and don't want to be encumbered, the belt-clip models from 3Com, PalmPilot Gear H.Q. and others are a convenient way to go. Of all the cases I tried, those add the least bulk. However, you have to remove the Palm from the case to use it.

The Devian Enterprises DVP8 Supreme Wallet Case ($60) is a nicely made, midsize leather case with a shaped leather pocket for the Palm (there are other models for bare and modem-attached units) along with a notepad, space for stylus or pen and slots for credit cards, cash and more. This case makes no pretense of fitting into a pocket, but it could be a good choice for anyone who routinely carries a briefcase. Of course, if you're into prestige leather, you can get even nicer (and pricier) cases from Dooney & Bourke and Coach Leatherware ranging upward of $100.

I tried two hard-sided cases, HRP Products Inc.'s $20 POD (Protective Organizational Device) made of plastic foam and Rhinoskin Inc.'s $100 Cockpit, made of industrial-style titanium. They offered great protection, but each made an awkward package that was too big for a pocket and lacked carrying clips or straps. Moreover, using the Palm inside these cases was much less convenient than with other styles.

I didn't find any case that offered what I really wanted, but I was happiest with a small leather case (the $22 Copilot from E&B Co.) that also carries a few credit cards. Like most cases, the Copilot makes the pocket-size Palm too bulky. It will fit into a jeans pocket, but it makes a big lump. Still, the Copilot was the best compromise for me.

Stylistic differences

All the Palm models from the original PalmPilot to the newest Palm V stow their stylus in the unit. For many users, especially those with big fingers, these styli are too short, too lightweight and too thin. The III and IIIx styli are the best of the lot with a heavier, metal center section but still awkward. Because the stylus is a primary input device, many accessory styli are available.

I tried an all-metal unit from Panache PDA ($15) that fit into my Palm III's built-in stylus slot but lacked a projecting rib to help remove it. I really liked writing with this stylus, but getting it out was slow, awkward and frustrating.

Pen-like styli are widely available, including several Cross Pen models at around $30 and up. More interesting, however, is the $30 Platinum Executive from PalmPilot Gear H.Q., which offers the convenience of a PDA stylus, a 0.5-mm pencil and a ballpoint pen in a single, twist-cap stainless-steel unit (colors are $5 more). Less fancy, plastic triple-threat units cost only $8 to $10.

Concept Kitchen recently unveiled a PenCap Stylus, but I'm still most intrigued by its $20 Fingertip Stylus. You put this unique and attractive sterling silver cage over your index fingertip, then write with it. It does take a little getting used to, but it's both comfortable and effective. The main drawback is the lack of a pocket clip to stow it when it's not in use.

Clean and careful

The PalmPilot III screen rarely is bright enough for me, even when backlit, so keeping it clean provides clarity and prevents dust from scratching the screen. Concept Kitchen has an interesting array of products dedicated to PDA maintenance. Its $50 PDA Survival Kit includes the Fingertip Stylus (described above), a year's supply of two-part screen-cleaning pads, special cleaning cloths for daily maintenance and a set of replaceable plastic screen overlays called WriteRights.

These protect the screen against scratching, and their textured surface gives your stylus a more pen-on-paper feel, though they do decrease visual contrast. The kit works with all PDAs, not just Palm products.

Speaking in tongues

The neatest software I found was Concept Kitchen's Small Talk, an $80 language aid that goes well beyond the usual dictionary model. Available for German, French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, Small Talk takes advantage of the Palm's portability.

You tap an icon to select from eight categories: basics, transportation, lodging, money/shopping, emergency, business, food entertainment and social. This brings up subcategories, and another tap gives you a group of questions or statements.

Tap the one you want, and hand the Palm to the person you're communicating with. He sees the query plus several possible replies, all in his language. He selects a reply, taps "translate," and hands the unit back. This is a surprisingly useful way to get some basic needs met in an unfamiliar country.

Where to get the stuff

In looking for accessories, I found the Web the best source. Computer superstores generally had few items in stock. 3Com offers a number of accessories, mainly hardware. But the best overall source was PalmPilot Gear H.Q., which offers a wide variety of accessories and an extensive selection of third-party software. Most Palm-related Web sites are linked in an extensive Web ring.


  • Most Palm software is downloadable in trial versions, so you can determine if it's what you want.

  • Surf the Web and the Palm Web ring; you'll be surprised at the variety of software and information available.

  • Don't expect too much from your PDA. It's not so much a computer as a really good datebook.

Three short takes: Sex and the single PDA

The assignment was exciting: Round up and review the newest, neatest PalmPilot III accessories. Doing it was an eye-opener, though, leading to unexpected conclusions about what's important and what isn't for this PDA. I found that all the highest-tech accessories, the sexiest hardware, worked pretty much as advertised, but I also learned that I didn't particularly want or need to use any of them.

  • Palm Modem: Using the Palm with the $129 3Com 14.4-K bit/sec. modem for e-mail is possible but not nearly as useful as I'd hoped. If all you ever do is get short messages without attachments and send even shorter messages, then the Palm will do. The modem works, the software works, but it's all pretty basic. Using the Palm's Graffiti handwriting recognition for creating long replies wears quickly and caused me to shorten my outgoing messages considerably. That's my observation, and I know folks who feel differently. I also used the modem with AvantGo Inc.'s software for Web browsing. I don't recommend this. It's like the talking dog: The wonder isn't how well it performs but that it performs at all. Without color graphics, a better screen and a faster modem, the Palm platform isn't well-suited to the Web.

  • Palm Navigator: This $40 modem-size attachment from Precision Navigation Inc. turns your Palm into a pretty accurate magnetic compass. You can use it with maps stored on the Palm, but overall it seems of limited use. It doesn't work inside a car, for example. It doesn't claim to be a poor-man's Global Positioning System and it isn't.

  • The GoType Keyboard: A small, $70 keyboard with full-size keys that your Palm plugs directly in to sounds like a convenient alternative to Graffiti handwriting input. But because the Palm, like most PDAs, can hook into and exchange information with your PC, you've already got a decent keyboard for inputting data albeit through a two-step process. However, if you use the Palm without ever connecting to a PC, this LandWare Inc. keyboard can be very useful.

Palm update: V earns victory; X hits the spot

Right after finishing the accompanying review of Palm accessories, what should arrive but two brand-new Palm personal digital assistants (PDA) from 3Com that address two of the most annoying problems I've encountered using Palms since their introduction in 1996: poorly lit screen and bulkiness when they're in a carrying case.

The Palm IIIx ($369) updates the Palm III's too-dark liquid crystal display with a screen that's noticeably clearer, has more contrast and has a yellowish cast compared with the original greenish-gray. The backlight still isn't as bright as I'd like, but when you switch it on, the display changes to light characters on a dark background, which is more readable in the dark. Also, the IIIx comes with 4M bytes of RAM, double the Palm III's. Overall, the Palm IIIx is a slight but worthwhile improvement over its predecessor.

The $449 Palm V, on the other hand, is a new machine that offers the IIIx's better screen quality (different color, slightly smaller but clear and sharp) in a package just half as thick. It manages this trick with an aluminum housing and by eschewing replaceable AAA cells for fixed, rechargeable batteries. 3Com claims the batteries are good for a week of normal use, though I didn't have time to verify this. Putting the V onto its new cradle (which isn't usable with any older PalmPilot, III or even the newest IIIx) will automatically recharge it and let you sync up with your PC. With older Palms, you set screen contrast by turning a small wheel that's prone to inadvertent misadjustment. The V uses a handier software application.

The V's thin profile finally gives the Palm the portability it has needed: Now you can put it in a case that fits in your pocket without stretching the seams. A new 33.6K bit/sec. modem ($169) is a flat package that snaps onto the back of the V, adding only 1/4 in. or so in depth, and a $50 travel kit lets you leave the comparatively bulky cradle at home when you travel. Finally, a note of concern: The standard production unit I reviewed froze up on a few occasions, necessitating a hardware reset. But I never lost any data, and I expect Palm will resolve this problem.

Both the IIIx and the V use the same operating system, PalmOS 3.1. Synchronizing either with the PC was simple and straightforward.

So which Palm should you get? Overall, the IIIx is a good machine, well worth the $70 premium over the now discounted Palm III. But the one you really want to have is the Palm V. It's the most user-friendly Palm yet.

Neither of these new Palms is the ultimate small handheld, though the V is the most powerful and convenient pocket organizer I've used. Palm aficionados are eagerly awaiting the release of the Palm VII, which will incorporate a wireless modem for instant e-mail and Internet service in major population areas. The VII is due out later this year, but given my personal experiences using the Palm III as a communications device, I'll be surprised if the new unit is much more useful overall than the handy, dandy Palm V.

Opinion: Will color screens brighten up handheld sales?
March 2, 1999
Two new Palms make their debut
February 23, 1999
IT risks chaos in handheld boom
February 9, 1999
Palm-size Windows PCs get colorful
February 5, 1999

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