Visor Modules

Handspring's Visor handhelds have won the hearts of many a Mac user. After all, they're built with native USB, they're packaged with Mac software, they've got fast processors compared to other handhelds, and they come in an exotic variety of colors. But the most intriguing of the Visor's features is its Springboard expansion slot. Not much larger than a matchbox, this slot accepts not only extra storage and applications but also peripherals. And because the slot is open to third-party developers, these modules have a lot of potential. We gathered all the Springboard modules we could find, and took them out for a spin. Unfortunately, with the exception of the game gear, these tools were all hampered by the same problems - they put an unreasonable demand on batteries, and their portability did not make up for their limited performance. OmniSky Service with Minstrel S Modem

Surfing the Web wirelessly from a handheld sounds like an attractive prospect - imagine buying movie tickets from your car on the way to the theater, or checking on the status of a flight on the way to the airport. The OmniSky service combined with the Minstrel S modem provides wireless Internet access from your Visor, but with disappointing results.

The device itself, when attached to the Handspring, creates a cumbersome, bulky device larger than any cell phone. But because it's a Springboard module, the Minstrel S modem doesn't require software that you need to install using HotSync - a process that you do have to go through on the Palm V version of the Minstrel.

However, once you're set up, accessing the network is a crap shoot. Sometimes I couldn't connect at all, and often, after finally getting access to a page, the connection would drop, and I'd be stuck, unable to proceed any further. I had the same results at the office, in my car, at the airport, even standing on the sidewalk of Market Street - San Francisco's main street in downtown. I've had better cell service in these same areas.-BRETT LARSON

Macworld's Buying Advice: The OmniSky service with the Minstrel S modem needs improvement. If you're looking for wireless Web access, check with your cell-phone provider for any options they might have, or look into the Palm VII or VIIx.

Eyemodule Digital Camera

No matter how much we may want our PDAs to be the digital equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife, there are just some things we shouldn't ask a handheld computer with the raw unbridled power of an Apple II to do, and digital photography is probably one of them.

Case in point: the Blocks Products Eyemodule Digital Camera. While at first glance, the $150 slide-in module may seem like a good idea, the Eyemodule produces results that lack detail, looking grainy and distorted. This is especially true if your subject is farther away than four feet, and moving even a little bit. Also, the Eyemodule's images are very small - the maximum image size is 320 by 240 pixels, whereas Kodak's PalmPix (the equivalent camera for the Palm III series) is capable of capturing pictures in 640-by-480-pixel resolution.-ANDREW GORE

Macworld's Buying Advice: We strongly advise you to take a pass on the Eyemodule. If you really want a cheap digital camera that produces cheesy photos, may we recommend instead the $30 Barbie Photo Designer Digital Camera from Mattel Media?

Wristband ThinModem

One promise of the PDA is that it will keep us connected wherever we go. Thus a modem module would seem to be a must-have for Visor owners.

Yet despite the pledge on the Wristband box that the modem's "low voltage technology consumes one-third the power," it's still too power hungry to be truly practical, and at a speed of 33.6k, you're going to have to leave the device on for a while to retrieve your e-mail or browse the Web. A few connections in a single day are enough to kill the Visor's two AAA batteries. What's more, the device has a setup process that is - to put it mildly - not very intuitive. To even begin entering your network preferences, for example, you've got to page through six or seven preparatory screens.-MATHEW HONAN

Macworld's Buying Advice: Spend the extra $30 and buy the Springboard 56K modem.

HandyGPS

The Visor is meant to travel. And because it can accompany you wherever you may wander, wouldn't it be convenient if your Visor could also point the way, should you get lost? This is the idea behind Nexian's HandyGPS, a receiver that feeds GPS (Global Positioning System) data into your Visor where the information can be displayed using mapping software. Unfortunately, the HandyGPS is hampered by some serious limitations.

Plug the HandyGPS into the Springboard slot, point it up into the open sky, and wait for it to receive the signals from four satellites - the minimum number required to get an accurate reading of longitude, latitude, and altitude. The HandyGPS application on your Visor will display the satellites within range. At this point, you can switch to the mapping software to see where you are, and mark the location for future reference. You can even record a journey from one point to another and play it back at various speeds.

However, the unit has very poor reception. At its best, it took about four minutes to get a fix on the required four satellites; at its worst, it wasn't able to see a single satellite. I was very disappointed during a trip to Lake Tahoe when the HandyGPS couldn't get a fix on a single satellite, all weekend long, from multiple locations.

Also, even though the HandyGPS uses its own batteries, it puts a severe drain on those of the Visor. Though I never had to replace the HandyGPS batteries, I had to replace the Visor's batteries about three times in one week of using the HandyGPS. This effect is made much more dramatic if you use the GPS to record a route - if your route takes about an hour, say, recording that one route will reduce your Visor's batteries to toast. It gets worse -- if you leave the HandyGPS in your Visor, it will drain the Visor's batteries even when the Visor's turned off.-DAVID WEISS

Macworld's Buying Advice: The HandyGPS could be a useful navigational tool if you get lost, but it's also likely that it will fail just when you need it most. And due to the drain it puts on the Visor's batteries, you can only use it for short periods of time. Although it's convenient to have a GPS that connects to your Visor, where you can store your maps, you might feel much safer with a stand-alone GPS receiver and a map.

Pocket Express Entertainment Pack

Flavor-of-the-month games come and go, but there's always another level to Tetris. This game pack, which features Lode Runner, PocketChess, Blackjack, PokerDice, three versions of solitaire, and the aforementioned Tetris is the classic gamers' must-have module. The pack bundles both color and black and white versions, so they'll look great on a Prism. This pack is also available as a download (or CD-ROM) for $10 less than the Springboard module, which is probably a better deal if you have 450K to spare on your Handspring device.-MATHEW HONAN

Macworld's Buying Advice: If you're short on available memory on your Handspring device, this module is the perfect game solution.

Handspring GameFace

This simple add-on for your Handspring will revolutionize your handheld gaming experience. Not a module but a snap-on faceplate, the GameFace adds a joystick to your Visor, thus making it infinitely easier to play games such as Tetris, Frogger, LodeRunner, or any other game that requires on-screen movement. Users simply snap the face on the front of any Visor, set up the buttons to match the GameFace controller, and suddenly your PDA is more of a GameBoy than a handheld.-MATHEW HONAN

Macworld's Buying Advice: If you're a Palm gaming fanatic with money to spend, by all means run out and buy this product immediately. However, if you're more of a waiting room gaming type, you might want to stick to the traditional approach of using the Visor's buttons.

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