Posted May 20, 2003
Finally, the speed and simplicity of the Palm OS has been applied to the power of the Intel XScale processor. Palm's new Tungsten C is such a powerful device, it's almost hard to grasp. The power of the Palm OS has always been in its interface, battery life, and quick access to programs and data. Most of us didn't buy them for speed--video, music, audio; if you wanted those things you could get a Pocket PC. If you wanted your data quickly--phone numbers, addresses, email--and wanted the battery to last for weeks or months, you got a Palm.
Now there's serious power at hand. The Tungsten T was, and still is, quite powerful, with its 144MHz Texas Instruments OMAP processor and Bluetooth wireless. Its power is still hardly harnessed with the various multimedia applications that are starting to appear. But the Tungsten C has an even faster processor with the 400MHz XScale PXA255, more than double the clock speed, and faster wireless than the T's Bluetooth with 802.11b. Palm will tell you that clock speed isn't that important, and that's generally true when comparing the 206MHz StrongARM with the TI OMAP, due to several enhancements in the latter, but clock speed surely does something, because there is a noticeable speed improvement from the T to the C.
The C has basically the same shell as the Tungsten W, its GSM/GPRS uncle. I use the term because though they're related in looks, they're quite a bit different inside. The W has the same shell, the same keyboard, the same stylus, and basically the same flip cover, as well as the same 1500 mAh battery. But the W uses a 33MHz Dragonball VZ processor and OS 4, while the C is OS 5. This is important to mention so people don't get confused, thinking similar looks mean similar characteristics.
Like the new Zire 71, the C has a stunning transflective TFT. Get used to this baby, and all other handhelds look like their backlights are failing. In this case, the brightest competitors pale indoors; outdoors, others are slightly better (see Zire 71 story for more). The screen has amazing viewing angles as well, and colors are vibrant. Photos definitely pop on the new screens, and contrast is excellent. You really have to see them.
Other changes from the W are found on the back: a speaker is planted back there, where it's not as loud as it should be, and the SD slot has moved from the lower right side, as it is on the W and i705, to the top, a better choice, especially for SDIO peripherals. The top has the IrDA port, a charging light, and an audio jack, intended for the same headset that the W uses. Available as an optional accessory, the headset will serve two purposes. Initially, it's for voice recording, since the Tungsten C has no built-in microphone (as is included on the T). A press on the headset's mic button starts and stops recording. Soon Palm hopes to announce several Voice Over IP solutions from third parties. This solution would enable inter-campus phone calls without requiring callers to be at their desks. I don't think the jack is capable of stereo output; but I can't be sure, because the jack is 2.5mm instead of the standard 3.5mm. The four conductor jack is supposedly equivalent to the Nokia-style.
Like the W, the Tungsten C is big. It's fairly heavy at 6.3 ounces, but the rounded edges all around make it bearable. It's a chunk compared to the Tungsten T or Palm V. In fact, it marks the first time in Palm, Inc. history that the smaller, thinner, flagship model didn't have the most power. But what the Tungsten C gives up in cutting edge looks and light weight it gives back in pure functionality. I do think it's handsome in its own right, but it's not really a competitor to the Tungsten T.
As they did with the Tungsten T, Palm has done some software work in important areas. This time they've gone beyond bundling applications from third parties on the included CD and have begun integrating them smartly into the software, both on the devices and the desktop. Programs like DataViz's fine Documents to Go are now in Flash, coming up on the device automatically, even after a hard reset. The photo viewer, VersaMail, VPN Setup, Web Browser, Wi-Fi Setup and World clock apps are also built in. World Clock is one of my favorites, simply because it has an automatic update to Atomic Time. Just tap on the Atomic symbol in the clock application and the device goes out over WiFi to a time server for an update (this is also included on the Tungsten W). Computer clocks are notoriously inaccurate, so I'm glad that Palm devices have this feature now available on most notebooks and desktops.
Just as the T had a helper application to connect to a cell phone via Bluetooth, the C comes with two major aids, one to easily set up your Tungsten C for network HotSync, and one to quickly find and connect with a WiFi access point (AP). The HotSync setup was most impressive. You just go to the HotSync app, choose Network (Local is default), then tap on the "Tap to Select PC" box that appears below the HotSync icon. The unit then goes out on the LAN, finds and lists all the available computers, and you simply tap on the name of the one to which you want to HotSync. Then go to the PC, click on the HotSync icon in the tray, check Network, look back at your Palm and hit that HotSync icon and you're in business. Amazing. That's the way it should be. Of course, you first have to run the WiFi Setup, but this is also easy. Just a few clicks with most networks, and you're online in no time.
I say most networks because I ran into a problem with ours here at the office. The particular brand we're using doesn't seem to want to serve up more than a few IP addresses via DHCP before it decides it doesn't want my C to work anymore for that day. I fiddled with it for a while, then decided to just give the device a static IP on that network, and it works fine.
The problem comes up because of the Tungsten C's tendency to shut down the 802.11b radio after 3 minutes of inactivity to save battery. It also shuts off if the device is turned off. Perfectly normal. Unfortunately, my router wants to give it a new IP address every time I turn the device back on, leaving the old one active. After a few times of turning the unit on and off, I run out of IP addresses, apparently, or the router becomes unwilling to give another IP address to any computer bearing my MAC address. The Palm guys are on it and should have either a fix or instructions on how to properly set things up to avoid this problem. After some research, it appears that the router we're using (which I'm not mentioning for security reasons) defaults to giving an IP address "lease" for the entire day. Changing this setting to only a few minutes seems to be compatible with both my handheld usage and the other computers on the network, but I've only just made the setting, so we'll see how it goes.
With the C on a fixed IP, it's amazingly fast at finding and connecting to the network. Email just zips into the included VersaMail 2.5. I keep blinking and shaking my head each time I download, because it's just so fast. Apparently the upgraded VersaMail is tweaked for speed, as well as better email listing, using two lines for each email instead of cramming it into one, something that was frustrating in the past. Fonts can also be chosen, and checking email at intervals can be set, so that the C will function just like your desktop. It's not quite push, but it'll do, and it doesn't cost extra.
Of course, the model that Palm is putting forth for mobile wireless access does cost extra. Corporate employees will use their devices extensively on campus, and as WiFi networks are built out into more public places, they'll just subscribe to a service like T-Mobile, available at most Starbucks coffee shops, or Cameta Networks, a consortium of Intel, AT&T, and IBM, scheduled to roll out in places like McDonald's across the nation. Subscription rates vary, but the T-Mobile network I've tried is US$39.99 a month, or US$29.99 a month if you sign up for a year, or US$6.99 an hour. At the current time, this is better suited either for the frequent traveler who finds himself in airports a lot, or the avid coffee drinker who gets greeted by name every time he walks into a Starbucks or Borders books for "the usual."
Incidentally, I ran into the same problem I had at the office in the first Starbucks I tried. I was able to sign on four times, but the fifth, just as I was trying to sign up for my free 24 hour pass, the WiFi access point refused to give me an IP address, leaving my device searching for my office networks. Another Starbucks, up in Truckee, CA of all places, worked fine, never locking me out no matter how many times I turned the radio off and back on. Check with Palm's Knowledge Base if you run into this problem.
Another potential pitfall is SMTP. Just as with the Tungsten W, many ISPs won't allow relaying when the email is coming from another carrier. You'll either need to find out the SMTP address of the carrier, or hope that your ISP supports authentication.
This device is going to be used frequently for Web browsing, so this is an important item. And here, at least so far, the story isn't that good. It's not that the browser, Palm Web Pro 2.0, isn't good. It's fast and sets the pages up just like it would on the desktop. But that's the problem. Most pages don't fit on the small screen, despite its relatively high resolution. Most modern Web pages are designed to display on an 800 x 600 screen. Somehow the browser seems to scrunch it a bit, but to read most pages, including the Pen Computing website, you have to scroll left and right as you read. This is okay in a pinch, but not really comfortable. Palm Web Pro 1.1 on the Tungsten W goes through a proxy to break the page up into a single strip, both text and graphics. It's not pretty, but it is practical. With 2.0, you can scroll more easily by sliding the stylus on the screen, either up or down. The software locks slightly diagonal motion into horizontal or vertical, whichever is closer, to allow for easier reading. It's okay, but I prefer the option of a proxy. Because this device is meant for corporations, Palm has a dilemma, since most corps won't want to send their intranet data out to a Palm proxy, nor is a company like T-Mobile likely to want to send all their packets through the equivalent of a Palm.net or Blazer proxy server just for handhelds.
The final problem with the browser is a tendency to crash when the "X" or stop button is pressed during a download. Each time I've pressed it, not only does the download stop, but the entire Tungsten C stops responding, and a hard reset is required. This is a known bug, according to Palm, and will be fixed soon.
The scroll bar in the Application Launcher has an unexpected feature, and it appears only in this application: Tapping in the gray area doesn't just move you forward one screen, it takes you to the relative position in the list. Hence, tapping on the bottom of the scroll bar will take you to the bottom of the list. If you wanted to go to the middle, you have to tap in the middle. I mention it because at first I thought there was something wrong, like an over-sensitive digitizer registering a double-tap, something I've seen in other devices.
Graffiti 2 is also built into this device, accessed by enabling the Writing Area option in Preferences. When enabled in certain applications, a purplish-gray rectangle appears in the lower right corner. Tapping here turns the feature on or off. Onscreen Graffiti can cause quite a bit of confusion, so I'm glad they put in this switch. Selection of text becomes difficult, for example, because the screen driver is first going to assume you want to write something onscreen rather than select. To select, you have to press and hold, then drag. Taps must be precise, or else even the smallest movements can be interpreted as letters or strokes. Some will love this onscreen Graffiti 2 feature; those of us who love Graffiti Classic will be driven to using the also-dreaded keyboard for punctuation. Makes me want to Xerox something unsavory and mail it to Xerox for messing with my favorite computer.
I haven't even mentioned the 64MB RAM on this device. Or should I say 51MB? That's what's really left after formatting and hidden files. I probably forgot to mention it because, again, it's just unprecedented on a Palm. I haven't even exceeded 10MB in my tests because I'm not used to having so much space; instead I put the big stuff on SD cards. Well, it is a lot of space, but as has happened on every computer I've owned, it will soon be as insufficient as hard drive space, and we'll be thankful for ever larger SD cards.
Palm's Tungsten C is another jump forward. The last jump was the T, and we've seen what that has wrought in just a few months. Developers have already started to harness the C's power, including Colligo, whose bundled Calendar application allows peer-to-peer synchronization of meeting times (yes, that's Palm-to-Palm, no APs or LAN required); and the Mergic VPN client, which connects using PPTP to enable Internet HotSync to your PC from anywhere, including Starbucks, as well as remote control of your PC. While I haven't seen these at work yet, the possibilities they suggest are tantalizing.
The Tungsten C's software bundle makes it a fine business tool that will better compete with the Pocket PC in a corporate environment. Its screen, processor, WiFi, and certainly its keyboard--however vexing to Graffiti enthusiasts--attack both RIM and Microsoft where they're strongest. The battle is joined. May the users win.
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