First Look: Handspring Visor Edge

Call it a remarkable example of parallel evolution in technology if you want. But just two months after Apple unveiled its sleek Titanium PowerBook G4, Handspring introduced the thinnest palmtop computer in the world. And it just happens to come in Titanium -- er, silver, that is.

Handspring has won past kudos for producing PDAs with greater expandability -- thanks to the Springboard expansion slot -- and better Mac connectivity than rival products from Palm. But Palm often gets the nod for having the sexier designs.

How does Mountain View, California-based Handspring respond? By releasing the $399 Visor Edge Monday.

The handheld measures just 4.7-by-3.1-by-a breathtakingly-thin-0.44 inches. It weighs a scant 4.8 ounces. And while the design may be tiny, it's also dramatic -- featuring a metallic flip-up cover, color-coordinated semi-translucent plastic bumpers running around the edge, and a contoured pen that clings to the PDA's right side.

The Visor Edge sports chrome buttons with accentuated screws on the left side, giving the handheld a decidedly modern look. "We like screws," said Jeff Hawkins, chief product officer and cofounder of Handspring. Hawkins, who once worked on the Palm V before founding Handspring, notes Palm worked hard to hide the screws in its thinnest handheld model.

inished off the Edge's lower right corner with a translucent white triangle, which doubles as a power button and silent alarm. A red LED blinks when the unit is charging or when an alarm in Handspring's Date Book Plus application is activated.

The Edge comes in three colors -- blue, red, and silver. That last color scheme makes the Edge look like a tiny Titanium PowerBook -- a distinction that won't be lost on TiBook buyers looking for a PDA peripheral.

Handspring executives insist that the similarities between its newest palmtop and Apple's latest portable is a case of convergent design and not imitation. Both products were developed under the utmost secrecy; neither engineering team at either company knew what the other was doing.

If you're wondering whether the sexy new handheld comes with a color display, the answer is, unfortunately, no. Color screens are still too expensive and too thick to reach Handspring's design and price goals for the Edge, Hawkins says. What's more, color screens don't perform well in direct sunlight and require considerably more power, Hawkins adds. Until these problems are resolved, Handspring believes there will always be demand from reflective grayscale screens.

The Edge features the same screen used on Handspring's other grayscale Visor models: a sharp 4-bit (16 shades of gray), 160-by-160-pixel display with electroluminescent backlighting. The handheld includes a 33MHz Motorola Dragonball VZ CPU, comes with 8MB of built-in RAM, and uses a Lithium Ion rechargeable battery. If the slim design wasn't enough of a clue that Handspring is targeting Palm V buyers with its newest PDA, the realization that the Edge has identical specifications will remove all doubt.

The USB-based Edge has a built-in microphone and infrared port (still positioned inconveniently on the side). The cradle, which connects the palmtop both to a computer and to power for recharging the battery, only works with the Edge. However, it does have a dark gray translucent stand in the back. (What was that about not copying Apple's designs?) The combination of bundled Mac synchronization software and the standard USB connection make all Visor models the most Mac-compatible PDAs currently available.

One of the Handspring's most touted advantages over Palm's line of PDAs is its Springboard slot, which allows users to add on modules -- from RAM to cellular phones. The Edge has not lost this unique feature, although it has modified the slot.

Described by Handspring as a "superset" of the Springboard slot, the Edge's expansion bus is hidden behind the cover hinge. You must slide off the cover to access it and then slide on a Springboard cradle to use standard modules. The cradle more than doubles the thickness of the Edge. Developers can also build modules that slide directly into the Edge's proprietary connector.

All three Visor Edge color schemes are now available from Handspring's Web site; authorized resellers will have the blue and silver models by the end of March.

The new Visor Edge models.The new Visor Edge, from the side.The cradle for the Visor Edge
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