REVIEW – Palm Solutions Group Tungsten E

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The Palm Tungsten E is intended as a low-end business unit to supplement Palm’s high-end models. Though it may not be exactly what everyone expected, as a cheap workhorse it may be without equal.

The styling is a cross between the Tungsten T2, and the old m500 series. The buttons and directional pad are pure ‘new Palm’ style, but the rest of the design is strongly reminiscent of the m500s. You can see how closely they’re related in the photos here, as I’ve put the T|E next to my old Palm m505. From the curved edges to the open sided stylus silo, the flip cover to the form factor, the T|E is very similar to the m500s. They may not be siblings, but they are definitely related.

TE in sunlight

Left, Palm m505. Right, Palm Tungsten | E.

The casing is almost entirely of silver plastic, very lightweight but very strong. The case did not creak, flex, or twist when stress tested. The silver color is intrinsic to the plastic, rather than painted on, so you need not worry about scuffing or scraping resulting in an nasty looking Palm. The color and plastic are very reminiscent of the silver portions of the Zire 71’s case. And like it, the T|E’s casing is somewhat smudgy and easily takes fingerprints. The problem isn’t quite as bad as on the Zire 71, but the style-conscious will doubtless take issue with the plastic case.

TE top

Top, Tungsten|E. Bottom, Palm m505.

Left to right: stylus top, power button, headphone jack, IR port, SD card slot.

The stylus is excellent–the body is solid aluminum, with a very well-secured plastic writing tip, and a plastic cap that unscrews to reveal a reset pin. Very very nice.

The T|E’s power button is top mounted, on the right hand side. The button itself is a little soft, but otherwise fine. Unlike most handhelds, pressing and holding the power button neither toggles the backlight nor brings up the backlight controls. The only way to adjust the screen’s brightness is by tapping on the brightness icon in the Grafitti area. Also, the T|E still lacks a battery status light.

The infrared port is completely and totally unmarked, and invisible to the naked eye–if you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t.

The SD slot is more or less unchanged, sitting at the bottom of a beveled edge on the left-hand side.

TE cover

Left, Palm m505. Right, Palm Tungsten|E

Here you see the T|E with its flip-cover. Similar to the m500 series, the T|E’s flip cover attaches to a rail on the left-hand side of the case. Sorry, but the left rail isn’t compatible with the m500s’ left rail, nor the original Palm V. You can insert an m500 stylus into the T|E, but it’s a bit of a tight fit.

TE back

It took me a minute to find the reset button the first time, because it’s been moved to the bottom center of the T|E, just below the sticker.

TE bottom

The bottom is plain except for the sync and charge connectors. The T|E doesn’t come with a cradle, but rather a simple USB cord and AC adapter. Unfortunately, that is ‘USB cord’ in the sense of a USB cord, rather than a Universal Connector sync cable. The T|E uses a mini-USB plug in the style of the original Zire. In addition to being a cost-cutting measure, removing the UC is also a message to users: if you want peripherals, buy something more expensive. The AC adapter uses what appears to be the same small barrel-type connector as the Zire, and is rated at 5.5 volts, 1 amp.

Let’s take a look inside.

Processor: 126 MHz ARM-class Texas Instruments OMAP311
Operating System: Palm OS 5.2.1.3
Display: 320×320 pixel 1/6-bit color transflective display
Memory: 32 MB RAM, 28 MB accessible to user
Size & Weight: 4.5″ long x 3.1″ wide x 0.5″ thick, 4.6 ounces
Expansion: SD expansion slot, with support for SDIO
Docking: Mini-USB plug, AC adapter jack
Audio: Stereo 3.5mm headphone jack, monaural internal speaker
Battery: Rechargable Lithium Ion Polymer cell rated at 3.7 volts, 900 milliamp-hours
Input: Four remappable application buttons, five-way directional pad, touchscreen
Software: Palm Photos, RealOne Mobile player, Kinoma Player and Producer, Audible Player, PalmReader, Acrobat Reader for Palm OS, PhoneLink, SMS, Dialer, MobileDB, powerOne Personal Calculator, Documents To Go 6.0, PDA Money, PrintMe, WorldClock, SMS, Magic Dogs, VersaMail
Other: Serial infrared port

 Processor

The T|E is driven by a Texas Instruments OMAP brand ARM processor. The spec sheet lists this processor as an OMAP311, but I could find no information on a processor by that ID. Presumably, the 311 is a version of the 144 MHz OMAP310 previously used in the Zire 71. [Correction: the processor is 126 MHz, not 144.] Speed is excellent, on par with the Zire 71, and the T|E burns through even the most intensive applications. When playing back some video, the greatest bottleneck seemed to be reading it from the SD card–after moving the file into RAM, the video played perfectly. In all, speed is rarely an issue with Palm OS 5, and the T|E is no exception.

Operating System

The T|E runs on Palm OS version 5.2.1.3. The only thing notable about the core programs on the T|E is that Palm has tweaked the PIM applications a little, adding more options and fields for addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and other various enhancements. Also, the press release lists ‘larger memos and notes’–it appears that Palm has finally removed the 4K memo and notepad limits. This should certainly make some users happy.

Display

Similar to previous Palm models, the T|E uses a 320 x 320 pixel transreflective LCD display. Unfortunately, the T|E’s display is slightly less brilliant than other higher-end Palms, both in colors and brightness. It is an excellent display, and still very respectable, but not as nice as its more expensive relatives. This may be a cost-cutting measure, or a battery-saving one, but either way it is what it is. My T|E also suffers from a slight lighting defect, causing a very noticible shadow in the bottom left of the screen. This may be particular to my unit, but it is there.

TE screen comparison

Left, Palm Tungsten|E. Right, Dell Axim X5. Both set to maximum brightness.

Like the screen on the Zire 71, there is no way to deactivate the backlight. I can’t understand why Palm insists on a mandatory backlight these days, given how much longer a battery will last if you can turn the backlight off. Speaking of inability to adjust the backlight, there is almost no difference between the 50% mark on the slider and the 100% mark–to tell the difference between them, you have to be looking very closely, and even then it’s minimal.

Memory

The T|E sports 32 MB of RAM, of which 28.3 MB is user-accessible. However, when you take the T|E out of the packaging, only 20 MB is immediately available. The rest is occupied by preloaded software such as Kinoma, RealOne, and Documents To Go. Fortunately, unlike preinstalled software from Sony, you can remove the bundled applications, but it does mean that if you want to use all of your memory you will have to do some major housecleaning before it’s all available.

Size & Weight

The T|E is 4.5 inches long by 3.1 inches wide, 0.5 inches thick, and weighs 4.6 ounces. This places it on the extreme low end of the scale, and also makes it the smallest and lightest OS 5 Palm yet produced. It feels great in the hand, and is almost exactly the same as the old m500 series in size and weight. Due to the way it is designed, with the front lip on the bottom swelling out a little bit, it is just a tiny bit longer than my m505, and a little bit thicker in that spot. Otherwise, the form-factor is nearly identical.

TE thickness

Top, Palm Tungsten|E. Bottom, Palm m505.

When compared to my old Palm m505, the T|E is noticible lighter. According to the specs, the difference between the two is only 0.3 ounces, but you can tell it’s there. Besides the actual weight difference, the construction of the T|E also feels lighter. This is partly due to its plastic case, which not only cuts down on the weight but also makes the T|E feel less dense.

I must admit, the T|E actually feels a little better in the hand than my m505. The sides are smoother, and lend themselves to holding a little better. The only thing that I dislike about it is the quality of the plastic. While it’s very hard and durable, the smudging would get to me after awhile.

TE side

Top, Palm Tungsten|E. Bottom, Palm m505.

Expansion

The T|E sports Palm’s ordinary single SD card slot, which supports SDIO. Hopefully, Palm OS 5 drivers for the available Bluetooth and WiFi cards will be available sooner rather than later, which could make the TE an attractive low-cost wireless Palm.

Docking

Docking capabilities are where the T|E suffers tremendously. With only a USB plug, the T|E cannot use the cradles, sync/charge cables, keyboards, and all the other peripherals designed for the Palm Universal Connector. The only options for a keyboard are infrared keyboards, which are still a far cry from being as good as a connected keyboard.

Because I know it’s going to come up, I’m going to take a moment to address a common misconception. I frequently see people suggest that you can connect two USB devices together with an adapter cable. This is untrue. The fact that the T|E has a USB port does not mean that you can attach USB keyboards. There are two kinds of USB: Host and Device. Palm sync ports and keyboards are both ‘devices’–they cannot communicate without a Host. This goes for any USB peripherals.

Audio

The T|E’s audio hardware is fairly standard, with a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack and a single internal speaker. Audio quality is also fairly standard–good with headphones, but the speaker lacks range, bass, and quality. What it does not lack, however, is volume. Audio volume on the T|E is very impressive both through the speaker and through headphones. It’s easily louder than my Axim, and about as loud as the iPaq 5550. There were some complaints about low audio volume on prior Palms, specifically the Zire 71, but you can’t say the same about the T|E.

Battery

The T|E is powered by a built-in rechargable Lithium-Ion-Polymer cell rated at 3.7 volts. Palm is notoriously poor about telling us the capacity of the batteries they use, and the case of the T|E is no exception. In this case however, given that the characteristics are the same, it’s reasonable to assume that Palm is again using the 900 milliamp-hour batteries also used in the Tungsten T-series and the Zire 71. [Correction: Palm has broken habit and said that they are using an 840 mAh battery.]

For the battery tests, I looped a short Kinoma video with audio, and kept running it until the battery reached critical and the T|E shut down. The results this produces are pessimistic, since not everyone will run around playing video continuously, but are meant to reflect a minimum life that a user can expect from their battery.

Unfortunately, the results of the T|E’s battery tests weren’t as good as I hoped. While it isn’t that poor for a thin-and-light model, I had expected better given the performance other recent Palms have shown. The Zire 71 scored far better on similar tests while set at a much higher brightness.

Brightness on Minimum, with audio/video 4 hours, 6 minutes
Brightness on Maximum, with audio/video 2 hours, 50 minutes

Input

The T|E has the Palm standard four application buttons, directional pad, and touchscreen. The buttons are great, very good response and key travel, and provide an excellent click. The directional pad was mixed. For the large part, it worked well, however the down-direction on my T|E is a lot harder to press than the others, and provides almost no tactile response. This may be an issue unique to my unit, but it is there. The overall feeling of the directional pad is rather flat. There isn’t much room for key travel, and I don’t like the square shape of the pad. Still, it is reasonably usable.

TE buttons

The Touchscreen is very firm, and feels excellent for writing, with no hint of being too slick or causing the stylus to stick. I did encounter one odd thing–whenever I used the touchscreen, a faint buzzing sound could be heard through the headphones. It wasn’t very noticible, but you may hear it if you have good ears. It is also present from the speaker, but so quiet you have to hold the T|E up to your ear to hear it.

Software

For being a budget model, the T|E is bundled with a surprising amount of software. Besides the usual applications like Kinoma, RealOne, PalmReader, and the like, the T|E also carries some nonstandard and even commercial software. Palm’s own telephony package is preloaded, including PhoneLink, Dialer, and SMS applications, despite the T|E’s lack of either cable or Bluetooth options for linking to a phone.

Several Handmark apps are bundled, such as PDA Money, MobileDB (and a slew of example and reference databases), and Magic Dogs.

Notably, the entire software bundle is preloaded onto the T|E, taking up some 8 MB of RAM. I can understand Palm’s desire to make it easy for new users to get at their software, though some may take exception to having to remove software they don’t want. You can also reinstall any of the software bundle from the CD.

Doubtless, the crowning jewel of the T|E’s software bundle is Documents To Go version 6. Only recently released, DTG6 provides native support for MS Office documents–an obvious advantage for a Palm intended for business use.

All in all, the T|E has the software bundle of a much higher-end Palm. I’ve ripped on Palm in the past for their poor software bundles, but this one is pretty good. They even remembered to include example books for PalmReader.

Conclusion

The Tungsten|E is exactly what it is billed as–a low end unit intended for business use. It is important to remember that, because that is exactly what you will get. What it is not is equally important–it is not an OS 5 replacement for the old Palm m500 series. It may share the m500 series form factor, and some of its styling, but the lack of a Universal Connector, the fingerprint-prone chrome plastic casing, and the virtually uncontrollable backlight will, I think, be major turn-offs for m500 series users looking to upgrade. The T|E lacks some of the flexibility and style of the m500s, and that’s important to the people who have stuck with the old models. Irregardless though, it shows that Palm is looking at the old m500 form-factor, which is very good. I wouldn’t be surprised if next spring Palm releases another Tungsten based on this design and featuring some of the things that the T|E lacks. In the mean time, the T|E is excellent for what it’s intended for.

Pros:

  • Thin and light
  • Inexpensive
  • Includes m500 style flip cover

Cons:

  • No UC cradles, cables, keyboards, etcetera
  • Cannot turn off backlight
  • Marginal battery life

Bottom Line:

For a business-oriented OS 5 Palm, the Tungsten | E is pretty good. It may not be a renaissance Palm, but for $199 it will make a fast and inexpensive workhorse.

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