Now you can do it all with one machine
by Shawn Barnett
It's actually only a minor upgrade from one perspective, but the refinements added to the Palm VIIx do more than bring the wireless machine up to speed: they make it the only Palm you really need.
The Palm VII was launched last year after a long trial run with beta testers. It was such a long run of beta testing, in fact, that when the Palm VII came out to the public, it had the oldest processor and screen technology in the lineup. The Palm Pilot Professional, with the same screen and processor was already phased out, and the Palm III, with the same amount of RAM, was on its way out as well, supplanted by the Palm IIIx (4MB) and the beautiful Palm V (2MB), both with their more sophisticated processor and 16 gray scale, greater contrast displays. Over the past year, all manner of improvements have gone further still: machines with 8MB of RAM are now common, and the OS has gone from 3.1 to 3.3, and now to 3.5. What the Palm VII lacked in performance and capacity, it made up for with the superb integration of wireless access, allowing users to get email and specially prepared data via what Palm called Web Clipping Applications (WCA).
With the Palm VIIx, all of the refinements that have come along from Palm in the last year have been added to the proven wireless platform, except for color, rechargeability, and the Note Pad application that's found in the new Palm m100. Like the current Palm Vx and Palm IIIc, the Palm VIIx has a 20MHz Motorola MC68EZ328 Dragonball processor, 8MB of RAM, 2MB of Flash memory, and can display 16 gray scales. It still runs on two AAA batteries, which charge the radio's separate battery, yet still power the new unit for several weeks on a single set.
Price at launch will be US$449, and the existing Palm VII will go down to US$399. Its case is identical to the old Palm VII, though it is now "slate gray" like the Palm IIIxe, or almost black. Its Palm III cradle compatibility means that it will work with all the peripherals currently available for this most widely spread Palm adaptor specification.
As I predicted in my initial review, the Palm VII has been successful, contrary to what many skeptics said. Though Palm will neither say how many units have shipped, nor how many are in use, the sheer number of Palm Query Applications (PQAs) available show that it is no failure. It may not yet be as wildly influential in the wireless space as the Palm has been for handhelds in general, but Palm does say that both unit sales and the wireless service are profitable. At any rate, the Palm VII is the first commercial, fully-integrated wireless data device, and it has attracted a number of competitors, ushering in the wireless data revolution with confidence.
At its release, many thought its built-in features would be insufficient to make it a success, but naysayers forgot one of the main reasons for the Palm's success: third party programmers. Just as IBM PCs in their infancy were little more than machines that shipped with MS-BASIC loaded in ROM, the Palm just handles basic organizer tasks-albeit a lot better than BASIC-until users venture out on the Internet to find the scads of software applications to make their little devices into just about whatever they want. Palm had seen this with their other non-wireless products, with Palm web portals springing up--eventually hosting thousands of downloadable programs--so they created their own portal for Palm VII users on the Palm.net site.
There are currently over 400 programs for Palm VII and OmniSky Minstrel V users to download, and the new Palm VIIx comes bundled with a few of the most useful. Interestingly, the new Palm VIIx even features an application that will allow nearly complete access to the Palm.net settings, including account management and the ability to download Web Clipping Applications wirelessly, directly into the Palm VIIx without using a computer. This feat was first accomplished by PalmGear HQ, but is now included with the Palm VIIx. It is unclear at this time whether this will be an option with older Palm VII devices, given that no OS 3.5 upgrade has been announced by Palm.
The heart of wireless
In addition to the iMessenger email application shipped with the original Palm VII, which requires that email be sent to your special Palm.net email address, the package comes bundled with three other email applications. First and most useful is ThinAirMail, which came out soon after the Palm VII debuted. It has been free from the outset, and remains so. It allows you to enter up to three POP3 or IMAP email accounts and download email through the ThinAirMail proxy server which then queries your ISP or other email server and relays the information back through Palm.net to your handheld. To save airtime, the entire email is not downloaded; instead just the headers are downloaded ten at a time, and the user selects what he wants to see. ThinAirMail has been extremely popular, so much so that ThinAirApps has released the very exciting ThinAirMail Server software, an application that resides on your server and makes downloading email into your Palm VII speedier and more secure.
The other two email programs currently bundled allow access to your Yahoo mail and Juno mail, popular web-based email services. In the near future, even chat applications will be available for the Palm VII, like Yahoo Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger.
Unfortunately, missing from the new Palm VIIx is the one feature that would easily make the Palm VII the killer communication device: pager notification. Its closest competitor, the Palm V-based OmniSky Minstrel V, has a light that flashes to indicate that the server has received new email. Ideal would have been a vibrate feature or similar light, or even just the obvious beep, to indicate that a message has come in. Unfortunately, the new PalmVIIx doesn't have any of these things, nor can it currently receive email-or perform any wireless transactions without the antenna up. The user must raise the antenna and check for email. It is this omission that will give OmniSky and other rival products like the RIM Blackberry 957 a competitive edge.
For almost everything else, however, the Palm VIIx has the edge, for one very important reason: coverage. Though its modem, at 9600 baud, is slower than the OmniSky Minstrel V at 14.4K, the Palm VIIx wins when just getting in communication is what matters, because the BellSouth Wireless network is far better distributed than the CDPD network that the Minstrel V runs on. BSW's building penetration is also superior in most cases, meaning you're more likely to get a connection wherever you are, and that's very important when you make a big investment in a wireless device. Coverage is available in 260 US metropolitan areas, according to Palm.
There are three service plans now available, each allowing different maximum amounts of data. For US$9.99 a month, you get the Basic Plan, offering 50K of data. For US$24.99 a month, you get the Expanded plan, with 150K, and for US$49.99 a month, usage is unlimited. Most casual users would do fine with the US9.99 a month, and when they go over limit, they pay twenty cents per additional 1K of data. That's not really a big deal. Say I want to find out what the weather is going to be for the next five days with the Weather Channel PQA. If I place a call to find out, that could be a couple bucks on my cell phone; getting the info when I need it, and in a graphical form, is worth twenty cents to me.
Taking advantage of the new PQA download feature, however, could run up quite a bill if you're not careful. I was on the US$39.99 300K plan, which I was told will now be discontinued for new subscribers, and I never went over the 300K even under heavy use. Since I've switched to the US$9.99 plan, I do go over sometimes, but I haven't paid more than US$18 total, so I saved myself around US$22 by staying with the lowest plan. As you approach 150K, it ceases to be a bargain, and if you go over 150K on a regular basis, the Expanded plan would be preferable. Palm.net can analyze your usage patterns and recommend a better plan after a few months.
Other new PQAs
There are a lot of PQAs bundled with the new Palm VIIx. Let me summarize a few.
Amazon.com - this revised version of the original is a little easier to navigate, allows account access, and gives you more than just the first three hits the previous app gave. You have to hit the link to go to them, so it's still appropriately conservative with bytes. You can buy everything Amazon offers: books, music, DVD and video, home improvement, toys and games, electronics, software, and more.
B&N - Barnes and Noble is not left out of the wireless purchasing of books and music. This app allows you to search or just download the top ten books or music selections.
Barpoint.com - An ingenious service that allows you to enter the barcode numbers of any product they've catalogued and get reviews and competitive pricing from the Internet, all wirelessly.
Brandfinder helps you search for brand name items in your area, and even gives you directions to the store. The first time I tried it, the program returned data that was so accurate it was scary, telling me I was 290 feet from the nearest Radio Shack. Near as I could tell without a long measuring tape, they were right.
Britannica - If you're like me, you're always getting into conversations about this or that fact, only you too often have nothing to back you up. With this little baby, you can find out the truth with a quick lookup in the Britannica encyclopedia. You can also search for interesting facts about the places you're near. The Britannica application identifies the tower your Palm VII is speaking to and downloads biographies and stories for the nearest cities. A great resource for information geeks.
CBS Marketwatch gives you up to date news on what's going on with a particular stock, or on the stock market in general.
Etak Traffic gives you updates on local traffic snarls in your area. By paid subscription.
MapQuest will show you how to get where you're going with detailed instructions to take you from point A to point B. The new application also includes traffic reports.
Moviefone tells you what's playing in your area and at what time, and where the local theaters are, including an address and phone number.
Traveler SOS is a new service that promises to help Palm VII users with road emergencies, offering connection to local tow truck companies, hotel information, taxi services, rental car services, and even where to find food in your area. Membership is required, costing US$59 per year, and that includes roadside assistance of up to US$100 in cost.
There are quite a few more applications bundled, including banking programs, stock tracking services like e-trade. There are PQAs that give you access to flight schedules of United, Delta, and American Airlines. You can even buy a ticket using Travelocity. There are several news service PQAs included as well, like USA Today and ABC News. Then there are the hundreds of applications available for download from Palm.net, including Pen Computing Magazine's own Pen News PQA, allowing download of our Daily News content.
I have carried the Palm VII for over a year now, and while I've found it indispensable, its 2MB of RAM has limited its usefulness. So I've also had to carry another device for reading books, accessing email and browsing web pages via landline, and reading AvantGo channels. With the advent of the Palm VIIx, that is no longer a problem. I've loaded all I normally want to carry, including several books, 52 Web Clipping Applications, all the AvantGo I can read, and I'm even using the Kodak PalmPix camera for snapshots, and I currently have 4881K free.
I've used the unit for only a week, but I'm sold. I welcome its improved screen and faster clock speed. Running the basic applications, it is quite a bit faster, though some applications seem slower. I have no explanation for this, except maybe the new OS. I notice that applications which used to cause some screen noise as they launched, like AvantGo, no longer cause this noise, so I could be perceiving that blank screen as a slower process, when it's really just a cleaner one.
I do have trouble now entering Graffiti commands, and that's not welcome at all. I find that sometimes the already problematic and complex Y stroke will sometimes launch OS 3.5's command bar and forget about entering my Y altogether. I'm probably reducing the pressure before the upstroke, and the interpreter is seeing that as a lifting of the stylus; but it didn't used to be a problem, so I don't like it. You also used to be able to find out how much data you'd just retrieved in a PQA by tapping on the screen tab in the upper left hand corner, but now when you tap there the menu is activated. Thus a formerly excellent feature has been made unavailable to make menu access a smidge more convenient. It's a little vexing, but I can live with it. There may be a workaround that I haven't found yet.
Since I've only had a week with the unit as I write this, there will be more I'll discover, and I will include it in a future version of this article (look for "updated" at the top of the page in the future).
The new Palm VIIx is here at long last, and it will be my new carry machine for some time to come. The colors for the m100 are great, and the color on the Palm IIIc is neat, but when it comes to getting crucial work done, nothing beats the Palm VII beefed up with more RAM and a faster processor. Wireless data access is where it's at, and the Palm VIIx offers the capacity to load up on data at the desktop, and augment it with wireless when on the road. It is clearly the Power User's Palm of Choice.
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To get the complete story of the Palm VII line of handheld computers, read my initial review from last year's launch.