Matt Gemmell

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More PDA thoughts

general & tech 4 min read

I had the chance to try out a few PDAs at the weekend (in John Lewis in the Buchanan Galleries). Here are a few thoughts.

I tried out several models, including a couple of Palms (the TX and the aforementioned LifeDrive) and various flavours of Pocket PC and Smartphone. The first thing I gained from the experience is certainty that I was right to not want a phone/PDA combined device. All the PhoneDAs I tried were either the wrong form-factor for a phone, too fragile, or had “thumb-boards” which gave me wrist-ache just looking at them. I tried typing for a while on several of the devices, and it just killed my hands. They also sacrifice screen size in order to fit in the phone-related hardware keys, obviating the point of a PDA for me. So, it’s between Pocket PCs and Palm-powered devices.

First, the Palms. The Z22 isn’t up to the spec I need; enough said. The TX is a gorgeous device, but I wanted a VGA screen and perhaps a slightly faster processor (the TX has a 312MHz Intel). I was really tempted by it though. So, on to the LifeDrive. I think it’s a really attractive machine (it’s smaller in real life than it looks on the web), and it’s by far the niftiest Palm I’ve ever used. I like the Favorites launcher, and the sidebar thing which holds the clock and various shortcut icons. The collapsible virtual silkscreen area is a long-awaited improvement too.

It also looks great on paper. 4Gb internal drive, ability to easily mount the device as a volume on your computer (via USB2), native Mac synchronisation, a huge catalogue of third-party software and a large developer community. They even have an Eclipse-based IDE for development. And it’s not Windows! So far, so good.

But, I happen to know that pretty much all current Palm devices (with the exception of the Treo smartphones, which actually run Windows Mobile, believe it or not) ship with Palm OS “Garnet”, i.e. version 5.4. That’s an operating system that’s a couple of years old (maybe even 3 years old). Since then, PalmSource (the company which makes and licenses the Palm OS, as opposed to Palm itself which makes the hardware and used to be called PalmOne) have created a version of the OS called “Cobalt” (Palm OS 6.x), which has many more whiz-bang graphical features (they also acquired technology and engineers from Be Inc of BeOS fame to work on it, so you can understand the graphical niceties). But, no Palm devices ship with Cobalt yet. That makes me uneasy - new mobile hardware shipping with a years-old OS, despite a newer one being available. My assumption is that the hardware manufacturers just don’t want Cobalt due to it presumably having much heftier processor/graphics requirements, such as to reduce the perceived performance of their devices whilst increasing unit costs. Ergo, it’s a much hungrier OS that no-one wants to license (actually, that seems to be the case: here’s an article on it). That spells trouble for PalmSource.

The latest news is that PalmSource has been acquired by a Japanese company called Access (read the press release here) in November 2005, bang in the middle of when they (PalmSource) were working on another new version of the Palm OS, this time based on a Linux microkernel. The Linux thing sounds good, but the financial murkiness of the past year or so of their operation raises a note of caution for me. I also recall recently reading (though I can’t seem to find it on the web) an article about an analyst group advising companies not to build a new PDA strategy on the Palm platform right now. You can take such things however you wish, but I kind of agree with them at this point. Which is a shame, because I love Palm’s design philosophy, and I’ve enjoyed owning and using several of their devices in the past.

So, we come to Windows Mobile. The HP hx4700 I mentioned before is quite an old machine at this point; I think it was released in 2004, and it runs Windows Mobile 2003 SE which isn’t the latest version of the OS either (the newest release of Windows Mobile is version 5.0, confusingly enough). After looking around quite a bit, I noticed the Dell Axim x51v, which has a spec very similar to (and in some cases better than) that of the hx4700, is cheaper, a much more recent machine, and includes Windows Mobile 5. It’s thus understandably the front-runner at this point.

There are still some issues, of course. The biggest one is that the Missing Sync doesn’t yet support Windows Mobile 5 (though they’re working on it), so I wouldn’t be able to sync it with my Mac until Missing Sync is updated. That’s not actually too huge a deal, and I could wait, but it’s worth taking into account. The solution however is not to just accept a WM 2003 SE device, just on the general principle that newer is probably better. WM5 isn’t a spectacular upgrade, but it does include a few features I’d want (more one-handed navigation, charts in Excel, full-screen mode in Pocket IE, and… oh yes: non-volatile storage as standard).

But back to the Axim. It’s a great spec at a better price than the hx4700, and its few niggles (less vivid colour than the 4700, and a lack of dedicated hardware buttons for Windows Mobile’s softkeys - though that might be reprogrammable I guess) aren’t enough to really bother me.

So I’m thinking of going for the Axim; I’ll keep you all posted on whether or not I take the plunge and actually buy the thing. If all this talk of PDAs has got you interested, take note of these points:

  • Fraser is selling his hx4700 with various bits and bobs, on eBay I think. Could be a good opportunity to get into the Windows Mobile handheld scene at a reduced price.
  • If you want to try out Windows Mobile (just 2003 SE right now, I'm afraid), download the emulator from Microsoft. Doesn't seem to run on my copy of Virtual PC 7, but it ran fine on Lauren's physical PC. Gives you good idea of how the UI works and so on, and you can even take it online with shared networking on your PC
  • You can also download Palm emulators (really old ones for Mac OS X, and up-to-date "simulators" for Windows, with both Garnet and Cobalt versions of Palm OS) from the developer area of PalmSource.

Final note: I researched all this stuff until I could tolerate no more; I wasn’t exactly hugely comprehensive. If I’ve made some factual errors, post a correction here in the comments and I’ll update this post appropriately. I’m posting all this mostly to help document my decision-making process for what is quite a significant purchase, and also as an interest piece for anyone else who’s looking into the idea of getting a PDA. If you’ve got any thoughts on any of the devices mentioned, or even any Palm OS vs Windows Mobile flamebait diatribes, do fire them into the comments form.