Visor Deluxe, Handspring Inc.

I bought my first Palm computer, a PalmPilot Professional, in June of 1997. It had the USRobotics logo silkscreened on, and one megabyte of memory. A year later, I upgraded it to the two meg Palm III standard with the expansion card. In April of 1999, I got the Palm IIIx with four megs. Then, late last year, came the Visor.

Does anyone else remember the rumors back in 1998 that Palm was coming out with an expandable PDA with two slots? Incorrect, of course, but if I recall correctly, it generated quite a bit of interest. There's now two expandable Palm OS computer families shipping (Visor and TRGPro), and rumors that Palm itself may do something with Sony's Memory Stick technology. But the Visor was the first to be announced.

Springboards: Useful or Goofy?

The answer of course, is yes.

Electronics get smaller over time, but people don't. As we move into the future, a greater and greater percentage of various handheld wiffle giddies will be devoted to the user interface, so there will be more of a reason to make the keyboards and screens interchangeable. On the other hand, you don't want to put too many eggs in one basket; it's nice to play your CDs on your computer, but it's not so nice to loose your CD player when the desktop's in the shop.

For example, a one-way pager is small enough and simple enough that while it might be nice to copy pages to other applications or even send applications and databases over the pager network, the benefits of an independent unit probably outweigh the benefits of a Springboard version.

On the other hand, composing a reply on a two-way pager is a tortuous routine of picking it out letter by letter on a three-line screen. Being able to reply to a two-way page using Graffiti would be very useful. And personally, I'd rather carry a Diskman than an hour or two of MP3 files anyway.

Although the only Springboard I own now is the backup module, I'm very impressed with the way it works: plug it in, and get a screen with two buttons: "Backup" and "Restore." Pressing "Backup" verifies the databases against the last backup; a suspicious condition -- like the backed-up copy of an application having several times as many records as the one in RAM - will prompt a confirmation message describing the condition and giving an option to restore instead of back up.

I'm told that pressing "Restore" will copy the applications from the backup module into RAM, but as I haven't actually done this myself I won't vouch for it. This module's perfect for long trips away from the desktop.

A few other Springboard modules are currently shipping, including a modem, TealLight flashing alarm, and eight meg flash ROM module; nothing I can't live without for now. The eight meg flash ROM is probably the coolest, but a compressed copy of War and Peace in DOC format only amounts to 1.5 megs, and I usually have at least three megs free on my Visor. There's a point where you have to ask yourself how many copies of War and Peace you really need to access on a daily basis. It's probably less than you think.

Speaking of which, book publishers are interested in Springboards as they provide a pirate-resistant means of distributing electronic text. The utility of this will probably rely on the way these are marketed; I wouldn't spend $30 for an electronic copy of Brothers Karamazov, but for The Complete Works of Dostoevsky it would be well worth considering. I'd like to know how big a dictionary you could fit into eight megabytes.

The Visor comes with a pinhole microphone on the lower left hand side of the face. The microphone connects to the Springboard slot, and not to the Visor itself. This sounds a bit bizarre until I happened to hold the Visor to my ear as though it were a cellular phone. If the microphone is held in front of your mouth, then a Springboard which extended a bit past the top of the Visor would cover your ear; my guess is that the Visor was designed to accommodate a Springboard cellular phone module which would also form the earpiece. If this is so, Handspring gets points for thinking ahead.

Some of the modules in development sound very interesting, particularly Innogear's Six-Pack multipurpose module and Quo Vadis' upcoming GPS module. Unfortunately, early adopters are doomed to staring wistfully at an empty Springboard slot and dreaming of Springboards Yet to Come.

Every Visor owner has a fantasy Springboard. I noticed that the compact flash card I bought for my Psion 7 is quite a bit smaller than the Springboard backup module; it's easy to imagine a Springboard module with a CF slot, which would let the Visor compete directly against the TRGPro. I'm not sure if I'd buy it, but it would be interesting to see what happens.

FLASH ROM

One of the chief differences between the Visor and most of the Palms is that the Visor does not have flash ROM. While it can be loaded with RAM OS patches, you cannot reload the entire OS. It is rumored that the ROM chip can be replaced, which would make upgrades possible if perhaps more expensive and cumbersome.

It really comes down to how much you're willing to spend for flash ROM. The Visor Deluxe's stats are comparable or superior to Palm OS devices selling for $450; the fact that the Palm IIIe budget model also lacks flash ROM seems to imply a hefty chunk of this price disparity comes from cutting this feature.

Localization aside, Palm never offered a flash ROM OS upgrade until a competitor offered a unit which couldn't make use of it; in the past four months there have been two. It's a curious coincidence.

The Good

Ignoring the Springboard for the time being, I like this machine a lot. The Visor Deluxe is both the least costly and most capable Palm OS computer I've purchased. It either meets or exceeds the specifications of devices selling for $150 more when it was introduced. Even loaded for a trip with maps, AvantGo and a novel or two, I have over three megs remaining.

The Visor seems at least as well made as Palm I've owned, and the buttons have a more pleasing feel to them when pressed. The buttons (except for page up and down) are concave, making it easy to press them with the stylus, which is a lot more useful than it sounds.

While the "stylus" that ships with it is a mere contemptible stick unworthy of the name, the Deluxe Styli are quite nice. They include a reset pin - longer and thinner than the one in the Palm III stylus; the Palm III reset pins don't work with the Visor - and a tiny Phillips screwdriver in case you are away from your jewelers screwdriver set and you need to disassemble the thing. You never know, I guess.

The Benchmark utility from Quartus.net rates the Palm IIIx at 100% and the Visor Deluxe at 158%. This was done partly by optimizing the code, so it is possible that after removing a wait state or two the Visor uses a bit more power than the Palm IIIx. I use NIMH rechargeable AAA batteries, and swap them out when voltage starts to hover around 2.20 volts; this takes about fourteen hours of continuous use according to Uwe Klimmek's Runtime freeware - call it about twenty hours with NIMH rechargeables if you change batteries when the 2.10 volt warning pops up. Alkalines, of course, last a bit longer.

The Neutral

USB hotsynching is quite a bit faster than the serial port, but synchronization never took very long anyway, so this doesn't overwhelm me. I have, however, noticed that periodically I'm unable to establish a connection to my Win98 desktop - a simple Visor reset has allowed the connection to take place each time so far.

The infrared port is on the upper left side of the device, so it's necessary to hold the Visor sideways when beaming. The screen's at least as good as that of a Palm IIIx, although the bright white background of the Palm IIIc admittedly blows it away. The Visor is a bit slimmer and longer than the Palm IIIx - my RhinoSkin SportsPac holds it, but with a bit of wobble. Rhodiana's Visor belt pack has a cutaway for the IR port and is, I believe, the only case made by a third party specifically for the Visor. Of the two, I prefer the Rhodiana, but there does seem to be a need for a belt clip pack which will allow the use of Springboards which bulge outside the form factor of the device.

The Visor runs a variant of Palm OS 3.1 called 3.1H. 3.1H includes upgraded versions of some of the existing ROM software: Datebook 3+, an improved calculator based on Parens, and the CityTime world clock application. All these are available as shareware for the Palm platform as well.

A Euro currency symbol is also available. One of the more amusing side effects of this is that the score line of the "Hardball" application is padded with Euro symbols; I'd guess that the programmers of the application padded the score with "blank" characters which have since been reassigned to the Euro.

Less amusing is the fact that the VisorCentral website maintains a list of applications which can't run on the Visor. It's not a terribly big list, and I've only encountered two personally, despite the fact I play with new applications all the time. In each case, I was able to find a compliant program which did the same job. Still, this is worth considering if you have an application which you must run for whatever reason.

The Bad

If Handspring goes under, I fully expect it to be blamed on customer service. Handspring will appear in case histories of how a great product can be torpedoed by a mishandled launch and poor follow-up. I seriously doubt this will be the case, but it's certainly a possibility.

Customer service is an intriguing thing. If it's perfect, you don't notice it. But you can't really judge customer service until something goes wrong and you can see how they handle it. I personally rate both RhinoSkin and PalmGear very highly because the issue or two which came up were solved almost immediately, with polite emails that explained what went wrong yet didn't stoop to making excuses. I love dealing with RhinoSkin and PalmGear.

I'm completely underwhelmed by Handspring's customer service. Although they never quite descended to the level of PsionUSA, they certainly did nothing to convince me that I'm safe giving them my credit card number. While people have had exceptional service from Handspring, and assure me that they've turned the corner on this problem, my experience makes me reluctant to deal directly with Handspring again.

I've heard it claimed that the styli from Handspring are made of a hard plastic which scratches the screen, but I usually use a Stylus+ 4-Way so I can't really comment on that.

Summing Up

One of the more disturbing trends in Palm-brand PDAs is that apart from the Palm VII and clip-on modem (and arguably Palm V and Palm IIIc) the 3Com years were astonishingly static. Apart from important, but still obvious improvements like expanding RAM and improving performance, there's been a remarkable lack of innovation in both software and hardware.

I hope, for the sake of the parent company, that the recent spinoff of Palm will take some of the cutting edge back from third party developers.

John Nowak - John_W_Nowak@att.net


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