First Thoughts – PalmOne Tungsten T5

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I’ve had my review unit of the PalmOne Tungsten|T5 for about 8 hours now, and I’m ready to make a first pass at PalmOne’s newest high-end model.

Construction & Design

When I opened up the packaging, my worst fears were immediately relieved. The T5 does not have the same cheap, smudgy plastic casing as the previous unit in this form-factor, the Tungsten|E. While the T5 is made of plastic, the quality is considerably higher and it doesn’t take fingerprints the same way that the T|E did. It’s also a very hard and inflexible plastic, which contributes to an almost metal-esque feel. I still wish that PalmOne had opted for a genuine metal casing on the T5, but what it has is a decent imitation.

Like the T|E, the T5 comes with an optional side-mounted flip cover inside the box. The cover is made of what is often sarcastically referred to as ‘pleather,’ a term for plastic that tries to imitate leather and does so poorly. Unlike the T|E’s grey cover, that of the T5 is a flat black closer to the old Palm m500 series. It does, however, share the narrower styling of the E’s cover, protecting a strip over the screen and buttons, while leaving the edges of the device in view. Under the pleather is what feels like a cardboard stiffner to give the cover extra strength.

The T5 retains almost all the physical design of the T|E, with a few noteworthy exceptions. The T5 is slightly thicker, presumably to accomodate a larger battery than the T|E. The difference in thickness is about 0.14 of an inch between the T|E’s 0.47″ and the T5’s 0.61″, little enough that it’s not really that noticible unless you’re really particular about form-factor. The case is a darker grey than the T|E, more metalic looking, and of a different kind of plastic–a very good thing, as already mentioned. I think that the buttons and directional pad on the T5 are larger than those on the T|E, but I don’t have the latter around to compare against. The directional pad feels pretty good, and doesn’t have the mushiness in the down direction that our review unit of the T|E suffered from. The overall form-factor is classic, similar to that of the old Palm V and m500 series, a very simple single-piece design without unneccessary complications.

Regrettably, the T5 features a new connector, called the Multi-connector by PalmOne, that renders all previous cables, cradles, keyboards, sleds, and attachments 100% null and void. Naturally, this isn’t thrilling people who have an extensive investment in the old Universal Connector. The cynical assessment is that changing the connector is the simplest tactic to renew sales of accessories. PalmOne’s claim, however, is that the new connector design will make possible new accessories which couldn’t be built for the old Universal Connector. I suppose time will tell. Still, many users aren’t thilled, an annoyance added to by the fact that the T5 doesn’t come with a cradle in the box.

The other most noteworthy downside of the T5’s hardware is the power button. This is one place where I would have been thrilled if they had deviated from the T|E design, because the E’s top-mounted power button was recessed and mushy enough that you could sometimes press it without toggling the power. Unfortunately, the T5 follows exactly in the E’s footsteps, including the bad power button. I suspect that most people who use the T5 will end up using the Today screen button to power the unit on.

 

Features & Functionality

The T5 uses the 416 MHz varient of the newest XScale PXA270 processor. Because of its increased efficiency, this chip is notably faster than the older 400 MHz PXA255 found in the last T-series model, the T3. The PXA270 also has a decreased power consumption, making for longer battery life. I haven’t been able to perform any battery tests yet, but it seems pretty good. The combination of a higher capacity 1300 milliamp-hour battery and a more efficient processor should go a long way towards alleviating the short battery life concerns that many T3 owners complained of.

There’s been a lot of confusion about the T5’s memory arrangement, so permit me to clear it up. The T5 has 55 MB of memory that is dedicated to applications and their databases, the way that RAM is in any other Palm OS handheld. Data stored in this memory is not lost if the battery dies, no matter how long the T5 goes without power. The T5 also has the equivalent of an internal memory card, a 160 MB area that can be used as any other memory card is–for applications, files, MP3s, etcetera. It is this latter area that can also be accessed by using the T5 as a removable USB drive. This area is also protected if power is lost. Together, the application and Storage memory totals up to roughly 215 MB of internal memory that is available to the user.

The T5 makes a very big deal about it being able to function as a removable drive, via its sync cable. The idea is that you can plug it in to a desktop or laptop and transfer files directly to the internal Storage area, or to the SD memory card. The USB drive functionality, like similar functions for the Sony Clie family, the Treo 600, and other PalmOS based handhelds, requires that you run an application on the handheld end, and then activate ‘drive mode’ from within the app. While this is active, you cannot use the T5 for anything else without first deactivating the drive function. Likewise, you can’t Hotsync while the drive mode is enabled either. The host PC automatically mounts both the 160 MB Storage area and whatever size SD memory card is in the T5 as two new drives, making the T5 not just a USB drive but also a memory card reader.

Though it’s been somewhat done before, this is the first time that a handheld has had the capability of acting as a portable drive out of the box, without additional software on the host computer. It also isn’t dependant on the host computer’s operating system, working just as well on Windows, Mac, or Linux. The downside of this function is that to take advantage of it you must either carry around a USB sync cable for your T5, or have a sync cable/cradle available wherever you intend to use the drive. Not a problem if you’re hauling files between work and home, or plan ahead on using the USB drive function, but if you just intend to travel light you’d be unable to access the flash device from a desktop/laptop.

As part and parcel of its new position as a portable file-store, the T5 ships with a basic file manager, quite cunningly named Files. It’s a simple single-pane file manager that can browse both the internal 160 MB drive and the SD card. Natively, Files recognizes Office documents, MP3s, pictures, and certain types of video. When you open one of these files, the application hands it off to the program responsible, whether that is Documents To Go or RealOne Mobile. It is nice to finally see the implementation of at least some kind of file system, something that I and others have been agitating for for years. Hopefully, the T5 can be taught to deal with other native files like text, rich text, HTML, ZIP, and a mountain of other file formats that it would be a real boon to be able to work with on the go.

The T5 also ships with the 4.0 version of the Blazer web browser, a phone dialer, SMS application, and the usual suite of software that is sent along with a Bluetooth enabled PalmOne model–for that is exactly what the T5 is. The integrated Bluetooth radio supports the 1.1 standard and the usual range of profiles including network access, phone connection, and Hotsync.

The displays on both of the T5’s that we have in hand are immaculate. Two examples aren’t statistically valid, but hopefully the T5 will avoid the issues that the T3 had with different quality screens from different manufacturers.

There’s plenty more to come from us on the subject of the Tungsten T5. A full review will follow soon with complete specs, more photos, and even more detailed analysis of PalmOne’s latest high-end Tungsten.

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