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PalmOne Zire 31
Colouring the consumer PDA market
Reg Review PalmOne Zire 31
PalmOne's first Zire was launched as the acme of low-end PDA. Its slow but sure Dragonball processor, 8MB of RAM and "two-colour" - ie. black and white display allowed the handheld maker to put it out for under $100, widely seen as a key price point to attract a whole new constituency of consumers to the PDA market.
And it has. PalmOne has sold over three million Zire-branded PDAs since the family's launch in October 2002, many of the them the basic Zire model. A year on, PalmOne shipped the Zire 21, an update that upped the original's specifications slightly but was essentially the same machine.
Now, six months or so further on in the line's life comes the Zire 31, ready to break price barriers once again, this time by a device with a colour screen.
Said display follows the usual low-end Zire pattern of a low, 160 x 160 resolution and reduced colour depth. PalmOne quotes a total colour range of "thousands" of hues, but this is no 16-bit, 65,356-colour screen like the ones sported by the high-end consumer-oriented Zire 72 or the Tungsten executive range. Instead, it's a rather basic display of the kind found in smart phones, specifically PalmOne's own Treo 600.
PalmOne claims its decision to bring colour to the bottom end of the Zire line was made on the basis of consumer demand, and it's no doubt correct - these days, punters, particularly those used to colour mobile phones, view colour as a standard quantity not an optional extra.
Running the 31 through is paces, I found the screen crude but usable. PalmOne has taken the opportunity of a new model to up the processor to a 200MHz Intel XScale and bring the machine's OS in line with the latest version, 5.2.8. One of the OS' key features is improved graphics, introduced on the basis that PDAs would probably all be running 16-bit colour, 320 x 320 transflective displays. On the 31's more modest screeen, the broad colour range come out as a dithered mess.
Watch as clicked buttons go all speckly as the fading algorithm attempts a smooth fade-out. You can see the same thing when Calculator buttons change colour when tapped. And Palm OS 5.2.8's new application launcher background image facility works far less well than it does on the Zire 72, for example.
It's also hopeless with video. I copied over Kinoma Player as part of my performance test suite. I was able to use it for testing, but you wouldn't really want to run video on the 31. Yes, mobile phones do so with comparable displays, but video looks pants on them too, no matter what the manufacturers claim.
That said, colour makes a big difference to applications like Calendar, where diary entry categories are each displayed in a different hue, because they're working with a fixed palette. Ditto the icons in the application launcher and many of the more basic user interface components. PalmOne's NotePad app would similarly suit such a colour environment - if only there was a way of changing the pen's colour from blue.
In apps like these, the 31's screens works well, and even its low resolution, which shows itself most clearly in the blocky text, doesn't hinder them. PalmOne bundles its Photos picture display app, which made a good stab at rendering my 320 x 320 family shots at 160 x 160, and it's clear the Palm OS performs some cunning trickery to get over the limited number of display colours. But while my own Tungsten T displays the much broader tonal range of the images, even it's not a patch on the crisp, glorious Zire 72 screen.
The Zire 31 offers different screen controls than those two machines. In place of a single brightness control, there are just two settings: low and high, both with a contrast slider, which essentially compensates for whatever angle you generally view the device at.
With the colour screen comes a new screen print for the Graffiti text-entry area, PalmOne's dark hue with white icons. There's one innovation: the HotSync button actually sports the HotSync icon. After years of displaying a generic star icon there, PalmOne finally uses the correct one. Shame it didn't do so on the Zire 72.
Like the higher end PDA, the 31 gets PalmOne's trademark five-way navigation control in place of the simple up and down buttons of the Zire and Zire 21. Alongside the navigator are two application buttons, invoking the Calendar and Contacts apps. Next to the former is the on/off switch.
Previous models have had their power and USB mini-port connectors on top the device, but the 31 places them on the left-hand side under a rubber flap. The top of the machine sports the new 3.5mm headphone jack and expansion card slot, both necessitated by PalmOne's desire to pitch the 31 as a mobile music device. As we noted when we reviewed the Zire 71 last year, the company's chosen MP3 playback app, RealOne Player, will not work without a memory card in place, so the 31 will not work as an iPod clone out of the box, and it's a little cheeky of PalmOne to suggest that it can, though it covers itself with a warning footnote.