Palm's Got Competition

First there were PC clones. Then (for a while) there were Mac clones. Now it's 3Com's turn to compete in the world of licensed operating systems. That's right: the first Palm OS clone is here. And rather than being satisfied with the me-too approach taken by most budding clonemakers, this clone's inventors have added some intriguing features that may radically change the handheld computing market.

The new handheld device, the Visor, comes from Handspring--a company founded by the original creators of the PalmPilot. Featuring built-in Mac support, complete Palm software compatibility, low prices, and an innovative expansion slot, the Visor is the opening salvo in Handspring's battle to take over the handheld-computing world.

What's new?
For starters, the Visor is the first Palm OS-based device with built-in support for Universal Serial Bus (USB). The Visor and Visor Deluxe models automatically come with a USB cradle--serial is an  option, not the norm. Some of Palm's built-in applications have been replaced with versions updated by Handspring: the Visor's calculator supports scientific and financial calculations, the clock can display time in five time zones, and the datebook can display and automatically forward to-do items. All Visor models feature a built-in microphone for use with future expansion modules.

Expansion
Springboard is Handspring's name for the Visor's expansion slot. The rear and top of the slot are open, allowing for modules that wouldn't fit in a traditional PC-card-shaped slot. Springboard cards can thus extend beyond the top or back of the Visor. Springboard was designed with consumers in mind: modules are hot-swappable and contain all necessary software, which automatically loads and unloads when you install or remove a module. That means you can simply insert a card when you want to use it (even with the power on), then remove it when you're done.

Initially, Handspring will offer a Springboard modem and various types of memory, as well as a module that can automatically back up your Visor when inserted in the slot. The latter feature is especially useful if you buy the $149 Visor Solo, which does not include a synchronization cradle. Handspring will also sell a game, EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Golf Tour, which comes on a Springboard card. Looking ahead, Handspring is working with other companies on possible add-ons, including products for voice recording, MP3 audio playback, and wireless communication.

How it Looks
While the Visor's Springboard slot is a radical addition to the Palm OS family, the Visor's look is not. Put a Visor in your hand and you'll notice that it doesn't seem quite as elegant as any of Palm Computing's products. It's got a sharp-edged, boxy feel. The snap-on plastic lid is a step backward compared to the flip-open covers on Palm's III, V, and VII series. However, the Visor's buttons, which perform the same functions as those in Palm Computing products, have a more modern look. All Visors include backlit LCD displays, just as in Palm's latest models.

Our only major beef pertains to the overall Palm Computing platform. Aside from Handspring's limited improvements, the basic Palm applications--and the Palm OS itself--haven't changed much since the release of the first PalmPilot. Apple much-maligned Newton allowed for simple entry of such items as "Lunch with Bob on Tuesday," but the Palm OS offers no such built-in functionality. Handspring's ability to display to-do information in the datebook is a step in the right direction, but a small one at best. Finally, Palm software still suffers from data synchronization problems between Palm devices and Palm Desktop 2.x, the synchronization software that you run on your Mac or PC. Handspring is, pardon the pun, hamstrung by the inconsistencies between how data is stored in the Palm OS and in Palm Desktop.

However, unlike Palm, Handspring has included both Mac and Windows software on the CD-ROM that comes with the Visor. If you have a USB-equipped Mac, the Visor should work with it right out of the box. However, when we tried a prerelease Visor with a USB-equipped Mac, we were unable to get it to work--perhaps a sign that the Visor's USB driver software for the Mac OS isn't quite ready. With any luck, Handspring will have corrected this problem before the product's debut.

Where to Buy
Initially, Handspring's products will be available only through its Web site, www.handspring.com.  Handspring plans to expand distribution to retail channels in 2000. The basic Visor, with a list price of $179, includes a synchronization cradle and 2MB of RAM, and is available in dark gray. The $249 Visor Deluxe includes 8MB of RAM, synchronization cable, leather carrying case, and is available in five colors--dark gray, green, orange, blue, and ice. The $149 Visor Solo model, which only comes in dark gray and does not include a synchronization cable, will be available exclusively on Handspring's Web site beginning in November.

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