Palm Tungsten C Wi-Fi PDA
A Reg in-depth review
Each member of Palm's Tungsten line of pro-oriented PDAs offers wireless connectivity of one form or another. The original member of the family, the Tungsten T, has built-in Bluetooth. Earlier this year, Palm shipped the W, which can talk to cellular networks. The newest addition to the line, the Tungsten C, sports integrated 802.11b Wi-Fi connectivity.
In addition, the C provides a more general upgrade to the Tungsten line, offering the latest version of the Palm OS, much more memory and a significantly faster ARM-based processor. A must-have purchase for the discerning Palm owner then?
Not quite. Wi-Fi may be the IT world's flavour of the month right now, but we'd question how useful it is to the average PDA user, and for all the C's power, we think the T remains the best mainstream machine Palm has produced. Indeed, when a faster, more capacious version of the T ships, we think it will relegate the C into something of a niche role.
That's not to say the C is a poor product - it's actually a rather good one. A look at Palm's product page will show you its chief physical attributes. To add to that, the C's construction is solid, feeling meaty rather than heavy (it's 178.6g or 6.3oz). Alas it's case is scratchable plastic rather than the T's durable metal. It's bigger than the T, being thicker, slightly wider and an inch longer when the T is shut. It's the same length as an open T.
Hidden within the T's slide-open case is the PDA's Graffiti character-entry pad. The C has a Blackberry-style micro keyboard instead, which makes for faster (with practice) writing. The C also has a T-style five-way navigator button, though it's smaller and thus more fiddly than the T's.
Graffiti vs Graffiti
Despite the keyboard and lack of a dedicated character-entry area, the C retains Palm's pen-based text entry mode, offering Graffiti 2 rather than the original version, which the company was forced to ditch after being successfully sued by Xerox for patent infringement. CIC, the developer of Jot, which Palm has rebranded as Graffiti 2, presumably has as a licence from Xerox.
Graffiti 2 lets you use the whole screen to enter text. Text is entered on the left-hand side of the screen, numbers on the right. It will display your pen strokes on the screen if you wish so you can see what you're writing.
Graffiti 2 is an improvement over its venerable predecessor. Some character shapes are different and require two strokes of the stylus, but it took us almost no time to get the hang of them. It makes mixing upper and lower case characters far easier that the original did - you just write in the middle of the screen for capitals. That's much better than having to manually select caps or caps lock mode as you do with Graffiti 1. Entering symbols is much easier too. For many of them you no longer need to select symbol mode.
The sooner Palm offers a Palm OS 5.2 update for the Tungsten T, the better, though we suspect licensing issues and the commercial realities of today's PDA market may prevent this.
While we like Graffiti 2, we wish Palm hadn't implemented it in the C. Pen input may be part of the operating system, but the hardware hasn't really been designed with it in mind - hence the lack of a dedicated (or even virtual) text-entry area. If you don't use the keyboard for text entry, you can run into difficulties. For instance, if you write a line of characters with Graffiti on, you can't highlight the selection to delete it - you have to switch Graffiti off first, select it the text, then switch full-screen entry back on if you want to use a stroke of the stylus to delete the text. Use the pen this way is how most existing Palm users work, and they'll be surprised when the C doesn't accommodate them.
Incidentally, this isn't an issue with Palm's other Graffiti 2 PDA, the Zire 71, as we'll explain in our upcoming review of that product.
Despite the C's keyboard centricity, users will still need to pull out the stylus to work with the UI. You need it for UI elements like on-screen buttons, moving the text caret and entering symbols that don't appear on the keyboard, such as % and £. Buttons on keyboard provide access to menus, the app launcher and the Find... dialog. But while you can type in your search string, or call up the list of applications to beam, you can't select which application you want to send, or activate the search without the pen. Actually, you can do the latter - pressing the centre button clicks the dialog's left-most button, which is fine if the app developer has put the default button there.
Palm really should have gone all the way and configured the C to operate without the stylus. That doesn't necessarily mean forcing one way of working on the user, but giving the choice to use one or the other, not requiring they use a mixture of the two.
Palm OS 5.2
Graffiti 2 is part of Palm OS 5.2 - the Tungsten C ships with a minor update, 5.2.1 - which also incorporates some under-the-hood enhancements such as support for 64MB of built-in memory, which the C duly provides. Rather more fun is the ability to change the UI's colour scheme, including a theme called Nostalgia for folk missing the PalmPilot's green and black monochrome display. Alas you can't create your own themes out of the box, which defeats the object a bit.
Palm offers all the usual PIM applications in the C's ROM, where it has also installed bundled apps, including updated versions of Palm's own VersaMail e-mail package, WebPro browser and PhotoBase picture gallery software (the last two now renamed Web and Photo, respectively). All contain worthwhile enhancements and like Graffiti 2 should be made available to Tungsten T users.
New adventures in Wi-Fi
Web and VersaMail naturally take advantage of the C's integrated Wi-Fi adaptor. Palm has integrated 802.11b access rather well, and once we'd made the necessary security adjustments to our base-station, we could connect to the Internet via the C with ease. Palm wisely prints the device's MAC address on the back of the case, making it easy to add the device to your WLAN base-station's list of permitted clients.
Public Wi-Fi access should be a doddle, but with so few hotspots around, how often owners will connect this way is open to question. Palm probably has its eye on corporates rolling out Wi-Fi at the campus level, allowing the C to be used as a mobile email terminal or for wireless vertical applications. Of course, you can check your email in Starbucks, etc. but how often would you want to? Many users will, but most, we reckon, will prefer the freedom of movement offered by a cellphone/Tungsten T/Bluetooth combo. Yes, it's slower, but until hotspots become more widely available (and cheaper), it may be the preferred mode, particularly since the PDA, even with Palm's fine Web software, isn't really a browsing platform of choice.
At home, most WLAN users will surf using a Mac or PC, for that very reason. The C might make a good portable music terminal, pulling songs off a desktop system via the WLAN, but the software's not there yet - RealPlayer, Palm's preferred MP3 playback software can't yet see music files stored on the network, only on the PDA.
And you'd have to use the device's built-in speaker - the headphone socket isn't a standard 3.5mm job, nor is it stereo.
The C displays the Wi-Fi signal strength in the Command bar, once you're connected, but for such a key component, you'd have thought it would be more prominently displayed, like next to the battery life indicator. Speaking of which, Wi-Fi eats into the battery life - the battery fell from 100 per cent to 84 per cent after just an hour's usage. You can set the Palm to conserve power by shutting down the WLAN connection when it's not being used.
Irritatingly, though, the device continually pops up a Connecting... dialog box every time you access the WLAN. It does this even when you tell the device to stay powered up permanently.
The C can HotSync via the WLAN, but only if your computer is a PC - Mac HotSync software doesn't support this mode, alas.
T or W?
As a Tungsten T owner, we were keen to see how the two compared. The C certainly has the better screen. The new 'transflective' display is much brighter than the T's screen - and readable at wider vertical angles. Colours are more vivid, more realistic - a white screen looks more like paper, less like a backlit LCD. The backlight is always on, by the way. A Big improvement, we thought. Well almost. In bright light conditions, there's less of a benefit, and in some instances, outdoors, we even found the T's screen easier to read.
The C lacks the T's voice memo facility. We don't use the latter very much, but it's a nice feature limited only by the T's memory capacity. The C has the memory capacity, but not the built in microphone. Palm has chosen not to bundle a headset.
Where the C definitely does beat the T is speed. The T seemed quick after years spent using a Palm V, but the C seems another order of magnitude faster again. That's thanks to its 400MHz Intel PXA255, the mainstay of PocketPC PDAs. It runs 178 per cent faster than the T's 144MHz CPU. The C's 64MB of memory (51MB for user data and apps) outshines the T's meagre 16MB too, though both are expandable with SD cards.
So would we swap our Tungsten T for the C? Sorry, Palm, but no, we wouldn't. We'd certainly like to add Palm OS 5.2 and Graffiti 2 to the T, not to mention more RAM and a faster processor, but we prefer the broader utility of the T - the standard headphone socket makes it a better media player, it's got voice recording built in, and Bluetooth lets gets us quickly online whenever we can't find an Wi-Fi signal. We prefer the T's smaller size too.
Wi-Fi is a strong draw, but we'd happily wait for SanDisk's SD card Wi-Fi adaptor, which is due this autumn. Wi-Fi access isn't widespread enough to warrant buying into for PDAs just yet - having to find a specific location just to check your email on the move defeats the object of portable computing that the PDA was designed to provide. That said, the C should appeal to corporate users with on-site WLANs.
And the keyboard? Like Wi-Fi, there will be users who demand it, and heavy-duty email users will want the speed it brings to writing messages. Graffiti is good for basic stuff, but for anything long you really need a keyboard. It's an important feature of the C - just as it of the Tungsten W - though it's a shame that its integration isn't as tight as it might be. ®