Palm Strengthens Its Connections

Call it a case of dueling handhelds. Right on the heels of Handspring's unveiling of the Visor Edge, Palm has come out with two new handhelds to pique the interest of both Palm and Mac fans.

Palm's latest PDAs sport a new expansion slot for memory and peripherals, a universal connector that -- when it catches on -- will work with all cradles and peripherals, and an updated Palm operating system. But the first thing Mac users notice may be a perfectly ordinary connector: a USB cable that finally lets Mac users HotSync with their Palms right out of the box.

The $399 m500 and $449 m505 might sound like variations on the m105, announced by Palm earlier this month. But the m500 series features a new shape that more closely resembles a Palm V.

The latest handhelds are thin and wrapped in a metallic case. They ship with 8MB of RAM. The m505 comes with a color display; like the Visor Prism, it supports 16-bit color for more-vivid pictures than the 8-bit color Palm IIIc has. But unlike the Prism, it's no larger than its monochrome counterpart.

Parlez-Vous Mac?

For the Mac community, Palm's move to a native USB cradle is very good news. Previously, Mac users had to shell out an extra $40 for a converter, enduring a less-than-intuitive method for connecting the Palm to a Mac. Combined with Palm's decision to put Mac software on the accompanying CD -- a practice it began with the m100's release in August 2000 -- it's clear the company has listened to Mac users.

David Christopher, director of product marketing in Palm's Consumer Markets Group, confirms that he's heard much criticism of Palm's past Mac support. "Mac users have told us that they'd like to see us go USB, and that they'd like to see a much better out-of-the-box experience," he says. "With the new products, we think we've addressed this need."

Mac users make up about 10 percent of Palm's current customers. With USB cradles, Christopher says, Palm hopes to attract many more. The company has also tried to woo the Mac customer base by rewriting all of the documentation to make it Mac-friendly, clearly describing all Mac-related topics.

Outward Bound

Mac friendliness aside, the SD slot marks the most groundbreaking of the new features in the m500 series. SD, or Secure Data, is a storage format similar to SmartMedia and Memory Stick, though it's smaller than both those formats. It can store 64MB of data.

As with the Visor's Springboard slot, peripherals can be built to fit the SD specification, so the slot can accommodate devices such as MP3 players, GPS receivers, and Bluetooth modules. Disks or peripherals that fit the SD specification can initiate events when you plug them in -- another Springboard similarity. But Palm's SD slot is so thin that it doesn't add any bulk to the handheld. Also, the SD spec isn't a proprietary format -- a number of manufacturers use it for digital cameras, printers, and MP3 players.

OS Update

The latest Palms ship with Palm OS 4.0, which supports the SD slot, 16-bit color, and USB. The new OS could also breathe some new life into your cell phone. Any cell phone with an IR port combined with a Palm will be able to act as a wireless modem, turning even the least-expensive Palm into the equivalent of the Palm VII. (If your phone doesn't have IR, you can get the same effect by using a cable.) With Palm OS 4.0, you can also dial your phone directly from the PDA.

The new OS also has a greater variety of security preferences, so you can lock down your PDA whenever you turn it off, for example, and encrypt or hide individual records. A new Attention Manager feature allows you to view more than one alarm at a time, solving the problem of one alarm "stacking."

Palm OS 4.0 supports time zones, a long-requested feature. And it's savvy enough to import vCard and vCal files into Address Book and Calendar, respectively.

The new OS includes Clock and NotePad applications (formerly available only on the m100), a new calculator, Palm Reader, MGI Photosuite, and Documents to Go, along with the Mac desktop component.

Handheld Rumble

Palm is introducing the m500 series at a time when it could be facing tougher competition from Handspring. Executives at Handspring made it clear last week that they're targeting the Visor Edge at the Palm V-buying crowd.

So what do Palm executives think of the latest Visor? "It's a nice product," Christopher says. "But it's almost the opposite of what we're doing. The Edge is a small device that has no expansion, unless you add bulk to it, whereas we're making a smaller product that does have expansion. Even as it is, the Edge is bigger. We think we've designed the most wearable, elegant, expandable product in the marketplace."

The m500 will be released in late April. The m505 follows in May. You can order both now at the Palm Web site.

Talk about this and other Palm-related stuff in our Portable Macs and Handhelds forum.

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