DATELINE: February 2000 Issue
MAC-FRIENDLY PALM CLONE IS A GOOD VALUEBy David Pogue
In 1998, Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the PalmPilot organizer, left Palm Computing to found a rival palmtop maker called Handspring. The high-tech world held its breath. What could top the elegant simplicity of his first creation? What could Hawkins and his team possibly build for an encore?
The answer: a PalmPilot clone.
In most regards, Handspring’s exciting but oddly named Visor is identical to a Palm-branded handheld. It uses the same OS; can run the same 20,000 add-on programs; and sports the same four buttons that launch your calendar, phone book, to-do list, and memo pad. And as with any Palm computer, pressing a button on the included cradle synchronizes the palmtop with your Mac’s calendar and phone-book software. The Visor runs for two months on a pair of AAA batteries, beams information by infrared, and doubles as a travel alarmjust like traditional Palm PDAs.
The Visor is noticeably faster than Palm devices. When you write with the Graffiti block-printing alphabet, each letter appears nearly instantly. The optional Date Book Plus program adds several powerful features to the traditional Date Book, including two-week, list, and year views, as well as the ability to view to-do’s and appointments simultaneously. The four-function Calculator is similarly beefed up, now offering a scientific mode.
However, what sets the Visor apart isn’t on the screen but, rather, behind it: the back half of the device pops out, exposing a cartridge slot. Into this space you can insert what’s called a Springboard modulea black plastic cartridge that contains its own self-launching, self-configuring software. Handspring says there are 50 such modules already under development by various companies. Some contain nothing but extra RAM (such as Handspring’s $100 8MB expansion module) or software (such as e-book collections, foreign-language dictionaries, and so on).
Others do fancier hardware tricks. In the works are a standard modem, wireless modem, pager, Bluetooth wireless network module, digital camera, thermometer, MP3 player, GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver, voice recorder, and cell phone. The irony is delicious. Among the features Hawkins stubbornly resisted putting into the original Pilot, in the name of simplicity and low cost, was an expansion slot. Now it’s the Visor’s biggest selling point.
As of this writing, the Springboard concept remains but a thrilling possibility. The only third-party module currently available is Electronic Arts’ Tiger Woods Golf game. The game runs the instant you plug the module into the Visorplug and play, just as Springboard modules are supposed to bebut otherwise it’s not much of a technology demo. Navicom’s GPS receiver elicits audience gasps at trade shows, updating on-screen maps as you drivebut it’s still only a demo. You’ll have to wait until March 2000 for a decent catalog of actual shipping modules; the day when you’ll pull out your Visor’s antenna and make a cell-phone call is even more distant.
The Visor Economy
On the other hand, you don’t pay extra for the Springboard slot. The basic 2MB Visor costs exactly the same as Palm’s 2MB Palm IIIe: $179. (Without its sync cradle, a Visor is $30 less.) Better yet, the $249 Visor Deluxe, which comes with 8MB of RAM, is $200 less than Palm’s 8MB model, the Palm Vx.
In some ways, the cost-cutting measures show. The Visor’s case is boxy and feels cheapa leap backward from the graceful lines of Palm’s handhelds, especially the attractive, ultrathin, brushed-aluminum Palm V. The Visor’s scroll buttons don’t have indentations for your stylus, as the Palm’s buttons do, so you must use your thumbs to scroll. Instead of the handy flip-up cover of the Palm III line, the Visor cover is a separate, easy-to-lose piece that you must snap onto the back of the device when using it. And you don’t get a printed manual.
More worrisome: Unlike Palm handhelds (except the IIIe), the Visor doesn’t contain flash RAM. That means you can’t upgrade the device as new OS versions, such as Palm OS 3.3 or the recently announced Palm OS 3.5, become available. You’re stuck with Palm OS 3.1 forever.
But for Mac fans, the Visor Deluxe is still especially attractive. For starters, the cradle is a USB device, which speeds synchronization and saves modern-Mac owners the $40 Palm users must pony up for a USB adapter. (Conversely, you can buy a non-USB Visor cradle for your older Mac for $20.) The Palm Desktop softwarethe Mac calendar and phone-book programs that exchange data with the Visoris included on the Visor CD-ROM. (Palm Computing charges $10 extra for a Mac CD, or offers Palm Desktop as a
Web download.) And the Visor Deluxe is available in four translucent iMac-style colors.