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A first look at the Palm Tungsten-T

By Matthew Sparby, November 11, 2002

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With Microsoft’s PocketPC devices eroding its market share and OS licensee Sony stealing much of the thunder in its own camp with the multimedia-savvy Clié line, Palm has been long overdue for an outstanding product release. Their latest device, the Tungsten-T, may be it.

The Tungsten-T is Palm’s first device based on the new Palm OS 5. It is also their first device to shake off the Motorola Dragonball processors that have powered their devices for years in favor of a faster ARM-based chip from Texas Instruments. The Tungsten-T boasts built-in Bluetooth wireless capability, a new five-way navigation pad for easier single-handed use and a unique collapsing case design. A higher resolution screen and full audio support round out the short list of new features, but once the device comes out of the box the fun and work begin.

I don’t enjoy reading manuals but I figure it’s the least I can do to read the brief “Read This First” pamphlet included with techno gadgets. In this case it made a rather sane recommendation; plug in the cradle and let the device charge while you install the accompanying software and prepare to use it. It was here that I would make my first critical observation. Unlike Palm OS devices I’ve used in the past, I really had to pay attention when placing this one on its cradle. There are no sides on the cradle to guide the unit into place. You must rely on two small nibs on the back of the unit which line up with small grooves in the cradle to align it.

With the juice now flowing to the Tungsten’s built-in Lithium-Polymer battery I opened the two-CD software package. The first disc is labeled Desktop Software and contains instruction manuals in PDF, as well as the Palm Desktop software for both Mac and Windows. Under Mac OS X 10.2.1, the installation went flawlessly. I was mildly annoyed by the required reboot at the end of the install process (reboot? I never have to reboot Mac OS X!) but at least I only needed to do it once.

While I waited for the computer to restart, I got to do what I had been waiting to do since the package arrived at the door. I could now turn the unit on. My first impression as the Palm logo spash screen flashed before me was that this screen looks beautiful. The Sony Clié line of Palm OS devices have used a 320x320 screen for a while now, but for clarity and brightness Palm has outdone them with the Tungsten-T’s new screen. The familiar screen calibration scheme that all Palm OS devices show the first time they’re turned on hasn’t changed, but removing the stylus from its silo to complete the process is different. The stylus has an interesting telescopic design which lets you press it to extend its end allowing easy removal from the silo. A minor detail, perhaps, but it all adds up in the end.

In its compact form, the Tungsten-T seems to be missing a critical component – there is no visible Graffiti area. The bottom third of the device slides down to expose the Graffiti area when you need to enter text. When the bottom is slid back up, this device becomes the most compact Palm OS device to date. A hard, clear plastic cover is included which snaps on the front of the device allowing you to access the five-way navigator while protecting the screen from your keys, loose change or anything else you may have bouncing around your pocket.

I launched Palm Desktop to confirm that it had remembered all of the information from my previous installation. Now that the basic device setup was completed, it was time to synchronize it. I placed it carefully back in the cradle and crossed my fingers as I hit the Sync button. If you’re cynical like me you’re waiting for a description of the error message sure to follow. You’ll have to wait a little longer, because everything worked. My fresh new Palm was quickly populated with my old contacts and calendars courtesy of iSync. So far, so good.

Next it was time to examine the second CD labeled Software Essentials. Here were a few surprises, some good and some not so good. The software is separated into three categories: productivity, entertainment and communications.

The productivity applications include Documents To Go, Acrobat Reader, powerOne Personal Calculator and MobileDB. Documents To Go and Acrobat Reader both provide fully carbonized installers that worked fine under OS X. powerOne Personal Calculator and MobileDB, unfortunately, require the Classic environment to run their install applications.

The entertainment applications were also mixed. Demo versions of the games Magic Dogs, Monopoly and Scrabble all require the Classic environment to install. The installer for PhotoBase, however, is carbonized for OS X and PalmReader skips the need for an installer application altogether by simply including the native Palm application and two eBooks which can be installed just by double-clicking.

Of the three categories, it was the communications applications I was most interested in. I have been using a POP3/IMAP client called MultiMail III since January with a Samsung I300 Palm OS phone and wasn’t entirely satisfied with its clumsy interface. VersaMail is a completely refined update to MultiMail and makes good use of the extra resolution afforded by the 320x320 screen. There are two installation directories, one for OS9 and one for OS X. The OS9 directory just contains the raw Palm application files which you can install by dragging to the Installer window of Palm Desktop. The OS X directory has a carbonized installer app that creates a folder on your desktop containing the same files along with an AppleScript that launches and immediately terminates without actually doing anything. Opening the script with Script Editor shows that it is meant to have a nice installer interface with multiple language options, etc., but it just doesn’t work under OS X 10.2.1. Double-clicking each file manually adds it to the install queue, though, so Jaguar users aren’t completely out of luck. Unfortunately for all Mac users, one of VersaMail’s key features, the ability to sync your mail with a desktop mail application is only supported under Windows. If, like me, you only plan to use the mail software for wireless mail retrieval via a GPRS connection with a Bluetooth phone then this won’t matter to you anyway.

BlueBoard and BlueChat are, as the names suggest, Bluetooth-enabled applications for communicating and collaborating with other Bluetooth Palm users in your immediate vicinity. Dialer and SMS are designed to interface with a cell phone either via infrared or Bluetooth connections and provide a simple interface for dialing the phone and managing your SMS messages while the phone remains conveniently in your pocket.

Real-world performance with these Bluetooth applications was a bit problematic. Setting up the Tungsten-T to synchronize with my desktop system via Bluetooth was remarkably easy – I just needed to create a new connection on the device and tell it to search for a PC. Once it found the PC and the two were paired I was able to launch HotSync Manager and enable the Bluetooth port. Integration with my Ericsson T68 phone was not so smooth. Palm provides an application called PhoneLink which is supposed to streamline the process of setting up a GSM/GPRS data connection with your phone. The process is supposed to be pretty straightforward. It asks you to select the brand and model of phone you have and whether you want to connect via IR or Bluetooth. For Bluetooth connections, it then attempts to initiate a trusted pair with the phone and this is where it fails for me – it never successfully establishes a pair. If I try to skip the PhoneLink application’s wizard and do it manually, it still fails. If I attempt to create a pair by initiating the process from the phone itself, it works...sort of. As soon as you return to Palm’s PhoneLink application to configure the actual GPRS connection, it wants to detect the phone again. After some quality time on the phone with Palm tech support, they eventually concluded that I must have a bad unit and quickly set me up to have a replacement shipped out right away. Not content to just sit around for two days until my replacement arrived, I decided to do some tinkering and was evantually able to configure a GPRS connection manually and it worked wonderfully.

The web browser provided on the second CD is dubbed Palm Web Pro and has a few tricks not found in its competitor, Handspring’s Blazer, such as support for colored text as well as higher resolution graphics and horizontal scrolling thanks to the 5-way navigator. Some pages viewed with Web Pro may be difficult to read, though. The browser doesn’t handle background colors very well which can leave you with light colored text on a white background – a very hard-to-read combination. I haven’t been able to try out the AvantGo browser on this new device as they don’t currently support Mac OS X. The CD also included a WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) browser as well. WAP is most commonly used on telephone handsets which have poor text-input capability and tiny screens even compared to a Palm device. I was able to view several WAP websites and the browser worked as expected. I also installed the AIM and ICQ instant messaaging applications and both performed well over the Bluetooth GPRS connection.

The Voice Memo application is limited but functional. You can record memos and give them a title. I think it would be a nice touch if you could add text annotations or even draw diagrams to go with the memos but that isn’t possible. The unit itself is capable of playing multimedia content such as full motion video and audio. An MP3 player application is apparently in the works.

Possibly my favorite telephone integration feature on the Tungsten-T is built into the Address Book. Using either the stylus or the navigator you can select a contact from the Address Book and automatically dial their number on your phone, compose e-mail to them in VersaMail or write them a quick SMS message. If you have a headset for your phone (preferably a wireless Bluetooth headset) you could feasibly leave the phone in your pocket all the time and manage everything from the PDA.

The five-way navigation wheel is useful as well. Besides the addition of horizontal scrolling you can also use it to navigate through applications in the launcher and control cursor positioning in text entry fields. When the unit is switched off, the center button will display a World Clock on the screen momentarily when pressed. If you hold the button down for a second, it brings you directly to the app launcher.

I have run across a few programs that are not compatible with the new Palm OS 5, such as MiniLedger and ptelnet; and the games Hardball, ZIO Golf and Subhunt. There are likely many other classic Palm applications that won’t work with this new OS such as various hacks and other applications that use undocumented tricks to accomplish different tasks.

All in all, I’d say the device is definitely the best thing to come out of Palm so far. The speed is fantastic thanks to the extra muscle afforded it by its 144MHz ARM processor. The screen is wonderful and the bundled applications are exceptional tools for those with a mobile lifestyle. A few rough edges remain but for a device that has only been on the street for two days, that can be forgiven.

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