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Visor Prism and Platinum

New models: one brings color, both bring hot new processor

by Shawn Barnett

October 16, 2000

Just one month after the first anniversary of Visor's launch, Handspring is announcing availability of two new models in their popular line of Palm OS computers: the Visor Platinum and Visor Prism. The new units have some important features in common. Both have the next generation Motorola Dragonball VZ processor, running at 33MHz, and both run a new version of the Palm OS: 3.5.2H. The most important development, however, is the Prism's new color screen and rechargeable battery, two firsts for the Visor line.

While Palm Inc. was first with color for the Palm OS with their Palm IIIc, announced in February of this year, the Visor Prism breaks new ground with support for significantly more colors: 65,280 more colors, to be exact. That's right, the Palm IIIc displays 256 colors, and the Prism displays 65,536. And the difference is just as dramatic visually as it is numerically. Images that appear with broad color zones as on a paint-by-numbers set on the IIIc's 8-bit color screen, change to images with startling depth and nuance when viewed on the Prism. Even with the limitation of the 160 x 160 screen, the images are amazingly fine and beautiful.

Along with the superiority in number of colors, however, comes a slight drawback: image flicker. This flicker usually only appears in solid colors, and usually only when the unit is being moved or tilted. When held steady, the images are also steady, suggesting a slightly slow refresh rate relative to the refresh rate of our senses; I think the same effect would be produced if we picked up our television and shook it. The flicker is not evident on the Palm IIIc. As with the Palm IIIc, the screen is better read from at least one foot away, since when it is closer, the black lines between the very bright pixels can "print" on your retina and become really distracting.

Whereas color LCDs offer obvious benefits, their typical major downfall is readability in direct sunlight. The LCD on the Prism has this problem as well, though it is just a little bit more readable in sunlight than the Palm IIIc; both of these units are more readable than most of the competition's color screens in daylight, with the exception of the Compaq iPaq handheld, which is a sidelit HR-TFT.

That's not all

In addition to color, the Visor Prism is different in many other ways from the rest of the Visor handhelds, and this includes the Visor Platinum (which has the same case as the others, only in metallic silver). Much of this is due to the difficulties inherent in driving a TFT color screen, which must be constantly backlit, compared to the monochrome transflective screen used on all the other devices. You need a bigger, rechargeable battery, and you usually need a little more space for the thicker backlight, so that puts pressure on the engineers to make it all fit.

Handspring did a pretty good job achieving this goal, though because of their Springboard slot, they did have to make the unit a bit thicker. The Prism is 13/16 thick, compared to the other Visor units, which are less than 11/16 inch thick, an eighth of an inch difference. Height and width remain the same. Palm was able to keep the Palm IIIc the same thickness and width as its other Palm III devices, but they did have to make it a bit taller, so both companies made a tradeoff.

Weight is roughly the same as a Palm IIIc, which weighs in at 6.8 ounces without the flip cover, and the Prism is 6.9 ounces. Oddly, however, the Visor Prism seems a bit top heavy.

Cosmetically, the new Prism is roughly the same, with minor differences. First, it is available in only one color, despite the many colors it can display: Cobalt Blue. Instead of being shifted to the right, as on the other Visors, the new color screen is shifted to the left. Since the beginning, no Palm screens have been centered in the unit; they've all been shifted to the right. Likewise, the four hardware buttons and scroll buttons on the Prism are shifted left, and the power button appears on the right instead of the left, another first. There is no obvious way to adjust screen brightness, but it is as easy as on the Palm IIIc: just hold down the power button, and the onscreen slider pops up.

The microphone is in the same place, at the bottom left, and there's an identical hole in the casing on the right, from which a green LCD shines when the unit is in the cradle, indicating the unit's charge status: it flashes until the unit reaches full charge, at which time it remains steady. For me, this is preferable to the chargers on the Palm V and the Palm IIIc, because the V never indicated when it was full unless you removed the unit from the cradle and turned it on, and the IIIc just lights up to show it's charging, then goes out when it's done. But that system wouldn't tell you if the power was disconnected. Your unit's battery could be drained and you'd think it was charged because the light was out, whereas with the Prism, you always know it's either charging or fully charged. I like that.

There are slight changes to the hardware buttons. The icons remain the same, but the buttons are fully convex, edge-to-edge, instead of only partially convex, as on the other Visors. The scroll buttons have no flat edges, and are very slightly wider for a nicer tactile feel.

From the back, the Prism has six screws instead of four holding it together, and there's a taper right below the Springboard slot that flares back out again toward the bottom. It appears that Handspring is using this bottom flare to hold the Prism in the cradle instead of the hole and pin mechanism of past models, which was necessary to ensure that sufficient pressure was applied to enable good electrical contact. Palm users have been accustomed to pulling their Palms straight out of the cradle along the angle of the back support, but if you try that with a Visor, you pick up the entire base. They had to get used to tilting their Visors forward out of the cradle to release it from the retention pin. With the Prism, that is no longer an issue. It is a good solution that takes advantage of the fact that the unit is a bit thicker on top, and it also keeps the unit level when it is lying flat on a desk surface.

Also from the back you notice that there's a new Springboard connector, with a ridged black plastic protector inside instead of the printed circuit board that is visible on the other units.

No snap-on screen cover is included with the Prism, though existing covers can snap onto the front of the unit. Because of the increased thickness and the above-mentioned flare at the bottom, it will not snap onto the back of the unit for storage. This is important to note, because some case manufacturers, including Handspring, use this lid to secure the other Visors in their cases in lieu of Velcro. It's an ingenious plan that unfortunately will not work with the Visor Prism.

Because the color screen is black when the unit is off, a grid of dots appears on the screen that I hadn't noticed on Palm OS computers before, though I have seen this on other computers with digitizers. On inspecting my Visor Deluxe more closely, however, I see that this dot grid is present there as well, though it is not as visible because the background is so light in color. When the Prism is turned on, the dot grid is completely invisible; I only mention it so that you know it is normal. I have not seen this on any other brand of Palm OS computers, including the Palm IIIc, so it must be a characteristic of the digitizer used by Handspring.

Getting back to the cradle of the Visor Prism, it is different from and incompatible with the other Visors. Naturally, because the unit is thicker, it would have to be. It also has a charger built in, but the really cool thing is that it will charge not only the Visor Prism, but it will also simultaneously charge a Visor Phone module if you have one plugged in. I'm told a cradle will be available soon for other Visors so that they also can perform this neat trick to charge their Visor Phone modules. Of course, the other Visors will not themselves become rechargeable with this cradle, they will only charge the module. Still, that beats having a separate charger hanging out of your module, especially on something as important as your phone.

All modules should be compatible with the Springboard slot in the Prism, but some will need upgrading to be compatible with the new OS and the color software if applicable. The eyemodule will need an upgrade to support display of color photographs, for example, something that is already scheduled for November release and free download. I tried the InnoGear MiniJam MP3 player in the Prism, and it crashed badly. This is a known problem, and will be remedied soon. The SoundsGood MP3 module from Good Technology worked just fine, and its graphics displayed in vivid color, from the orange opening logo to the bright blue control buttons. The Handspring backup module likewise worked without a hitch, though it performed its simple task in black and white.


On these two new units, both the Date Book Plus and Advanced Calculators launch by default when the corresponding button and calculator icon are pressed, a good move that allows new users to access the full functionality and benefits of the Visor's enhanced applications. Previously, a user had to go into the menus to choose to run their enhanced apps, but now they have to choose to turn them off, something that is unlikely to happen.

The CityTime application has been updated with a nice color map, a different one from the map shipping on the current commercial color version of CityTime. Handspring's version has the land in green and the water in blue, with the nighttime plot appearing in darker shades of both colors. The effect is quite pleasing.

On the Handspring site, you can also find a listing of a few color software applications available for download, including their photo application, which allows you to convert and load images onto your Prism. The demo photos that were sent to us for review include both 16 bit and 8 bit versions. The difference is amazing. Other programs include Zap!, AvantGo, and Clock Solitaire.

Other standard features of the Visor are the very important speedy USB connectivity, allowing for incredibly fast HotSync: 1.5 million bits per second compared to 115 thousand bits through a serial connection. You can beam data and programs to other Palm OS users via the infrared port, and Windows and Mac operating systems are both supported out of the box, provided the computer has a standard USB port; serial cradles are optionally available for computers without, but that will reduce HotSync speed to 115K.

Battery life on the Prism is estimated at two weeks without a recharge, or six hours of continuous use. Full recharge from complete discharge is only 90 minutes.

The Visor Prism is priced at US$449, Handspring's highest price to date, equal to the price of the Palm VII, and the Palm IIIc at its debut; and the Visor Platinum sells for US$299, only fifty dollars more than the Visor Deluxe. That's not bad for a computer that is fifty percent faster than its predecessor, and certainly faster than any other Palm OS device out there (the Visor Prism benchmarks at 224 with no modifications, whereas the Visor Deluxe scores 158). Sales of the new devices will be limited to the Handspring website until the first week of November, when they will be available in stores and at other websites.

The creators of the original Palm Pilot have weighed in with their own color computer, and the results are very impressive. Extra weight and slight flicker aside, the Visor Prism is a powerful computer with the ability to display photographs of sufficient color depth to truly satisfy. Its greater processor speed also makes programs like ActiveSky's video playback into a more viable, less jerky option. Searches and program launches are sped up noticeably as well, so if you want the fastest and the finest, you currently have nowhere to go but

-Shawn Barnett

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