REVIEW – Palm Solutions Group Zire 21

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Palm Inc. introduced its low-cost entry level PDA, the Zire, almost a year ago to the day. Since that time, Palm Inc. has become PalmOne and the Zire has become…the Zire 21. Both changes at first glance appear to be cosmetic in nature. Time will tell on Palm’s name change. If the Zire 21 is any indication of what a company name-change will get you, however, I say name-changes are a good thing. The Zire 21, like the original Zire, is clearly aimed at entry-level users, or for those of us who are looking for a cheap replacement for address & date books. Compared to the original Zire, the Zire 21 wins hands down — more features for the same price. While the cheapest Palm OS PDA on the market and a fine unit in its own right, I’m afraid the Zire 21 leaves out too many features compared to other entry-level options. If you only have $99 to spend, read on, otherwise, I recommend you find a few more dollars and look elsewhere.

Overview
On the outside, the only difference between the original Zire and the Zire 21 is the “Zire 21” logo. Dimensions, weight, external connections, color, screen (160 x 160 monochrome), even the price ($99) remain the same.  On the inside, however, the Zire 21 begins to leave its older twin behind by featuring four times as much RAM (8MB versus 2MB), the latest Palm OS (5.2.1 versus 4.1), and with a better collection of 3rd-party software. Lightweight and stylish, the Zire 21 offers a decent PDA solution for those on a budget.

Zire and Zire 21 comparison

However, the Zire 21 has some serious deficiencies that may hurt its position in the entry-level market. For starters, there is no backlight which means using the Zire 21 in bad lighting conditions will be difficult. Second, the Zire 21 is the only current Palm PDA that lacks a Palm Universal Connector or an external memory card slot. This limits the growth potential in terms of accessories or memory space. Third, the Zire 21 features the same dubious Zire stylus that lacks a reset pin, so keep a paper clip handy. Lastly, the Zire 21 is one of the few remaining PDAs that features a monochrome screen.   

Despite these deficiencies, the Zire 21 is good PDA — assuming you only need to do those functions it was designed for. It delivers a low-cost, yet stylish PDA option to those with minimal needs. Hopefully, the detailed review below will help you determine if the Zire 21 is the right solution for you.

Packaging & Accessories


Figure 2. Box Contents

Cost-cutting measures for the Zire 21 are apparent starting with the packaging, with PalmOne opting for those near impossible-to-open plastic containers. I was able to get the container open with a pair of scissors, but still — how much does a simple cardboard box cost? At any rate, I’ll quickly summarize the box contents and discuss some of the items in detail later in this review. Included in the box, as shown above in Figure 2, are the following:

 Zire 21 PDA (with plastic stylus & flip lid)
 USB HotSync Cable
 120V AC Power Adapter
 CD (Containing Palm Desktop Set-up, Manual, and 3rd Party Applications)
 Graffiti 2 stickers

PalmOne currently offers several accessories for the Zire that should also work with the Zire 21. These accessories include several cases, styli (replacement and multi-function), keyboard (connects via infrared), card scanner (USB), and screen protectors. See details at PalmOne.

Initial Setup
The initial setup of the Zire 21 was quick, simple and flawless. Following the enclosed quick setup guide, I first allowed the PDA to charge for a minimum of 3 hours. Next, I inserted the Setup CD and quickly installed the Palm Desktop and 3rd-party software. Finally, I performed my initial HotSync and I was ready to go. Total setup time, excluding the initial charging time, was about 30 minutes.

Case and Hardware


Figure 3. Front View

The Zire 21 case is made of thick solid plastic, with a white face and gray-colored back. The white face kind of threw me at first — very different from the typical conservative PDA coloring of black or silver (or even the blue Zire 71 — see Figure 4). Reminded me of an “accessory” you’d find at Saks Fifth Avenue. Once in hand, however, the balance and solid construction made it feel like it could take a beating and keep on tapping. If the intent of the Zire 21 design was to appeal to both men and women, then I think they accomplished that nicely.


Figure 4. Zire 71, Zire 21, Tungsten T

As mentioned earlier, the Zire 21 exterior is a near exact duplicate (other than the “Zire 21″ logo) of the original Zire, measuring in at 4.4 ” (L) x 2.9″ (W) x 0.6″ (H) and weighing 3.8 ounces. The screen area measures 160 x 160 pixels and features a typical silk screen area that provides access to the PDA desktop, menu, HotSync, find, clock, screen brightness, and virtual keyboard. The power button is on the bottom left corner of the front face, as shown in Figure 3. Note that there is no LED light to indicate the PDA is in a charging status — the green stripe on the power button is simply there for identification purposes. The power button small size and slight indentation does tend to prevent cases of accidental power-on.

The Zire 21, like its predecessor, has two application (date book and address book) buttons instead of the typical four. While bad for game players and power users, it makes sense considering the intended market — entry level users who typically only use the PDA for date book and address book tasks, not gaming and multimedia. Between the two application buttons is a pair of vertical scroll buttons. All buttons felt solid and designed to minimize cases of accidental power-on.

 
Figure 5. Top View

Access to the stylus, a mini USB HotSync port, and the charging port is provided at the top of the Zire 21 as shown in Figure 5. The nice thing about this design is that the HotSync and charging cables route away from the PDA and the user, rather than curl around from the bottom as with most PDAs. The bad news is that it basically rules out any chance of developing a desktop charge/HotSync stand typically preferred by power users. But then again, that is not who the Zire 21 is designed for.


Figure 6. Back View

The back of the Zire 21 (Figure 6) features a small reset hole and a slot for attaching the plastic flip lid. My only complaint here is that the reset hole is small enough to prevent access from anything much larger than a bent paper clip. Why the same company that brought us those nice large reset holes found in the Tungsten T can’t do the same here is beyond me. But remember to keep a paper clip handy for those eventual reset conditions, like installing certain types of software.


Figure 7. Styli – Zire 71, Tungsten T, Zire 21

And speaking of resets and styli, the Zire 21 comes with a stylus that appears to be a Zire (i.e. Zire, Zire 21 and Zire 71) standard — a black plastic tapping instrument that does not carry a reset pin under the head tip (as seen in other styli designs — see Figure 7). In addition to the lack of resetting capability, I found the lightweight stylus just didn’t feel comfortable when trying to write Graffiti with the Zire 21. Of the entire Zire 21 package, I recommend that the current stock Zire 21 stylus be redesigned with the addition of bulk (i.e. metal instead of plastic) and a reset pin. 

Included Accessories
As one may expect with an entry-level system, the Zire 21 comes with limited accessories — a plastic flip lid, USB HotSync cable, and a 120V AC power adapter. There is nothing unique about the USB cable, other than the fact that it also provides a trickle charge (i.e. recharges the battery more slowly than with the power adapter).


Figure 8. HotSync & Charge Connections

Performing a HotSync and Charge is straightforward, as shown in Figure 8 and described here. To HotSync, simply plug the USB end into your PC, the mini USB end into the HotSync port on the top of the Zire 21, and tap on the HotSync silk screen icon (or tap on the HotSync application in the PDA desktop). The 120V AC power adapter, though not a true folding travel design, measures in at a small 2″ x 1.5″ x 2″ and hence should travel well. To charge the Zire 21, simply plug the adapter into a wall socket, and the cable end into the charging port located on the top of the Zire 21.


Figure 9. Flip Lid Cover – Closed


Figure 10. Flip Lid Cover – Opened

The plastic flip lid is installed quickly and easily by sliding a rib on the lid into the slot located on the back of the Zire 21 (see Figure 6). When installed, the flip lid provides impact protection for the screen, buttons and the USB HotSync port on the top of the PDA. Given the lack of any other external buttons or sensitive areas on the Zire 21, I found the flip lid provided adequate protection. I was able to press the application buttons through the lid to power on the Zire 21, but it was harder than without the flip lid installed. I had a difficult time pressing the power button through the flip lid and hence, I found the lid provided decent protection against cases of accidental power on.

Software
Considering the low price of the Zire 21, I found the amount and quality of the provided software to be a pleasant surprise. In addition to the Palm Desktop 4.1, the Zire 21 comes with two groups of applications: the Palm OS5 applications, and 3rd Party applications. In addition to the more standard Palm applications such as address book, date book, memopad, and todo, the Zire 21 also comes with World Clock, Palm Quick Install, and NotePad. The 3rd Party applications provided with the Zire 21 are listed and briefly described below (trial or demo versions are in Bold and noted with a “**”):

 HandMark Mobile DB Version 4.05** – excellent list creator and manager. Comes with several example databases. Note that he program did not work properly at first in my Zire 21 (Menus did not correctly display). Seems to work fine now after closing and re-opening the program.
 HandMark PDA Money Version 2.95 — Personal finance program that is normally a part of HandMark’s PDA Wallet.
 HandMark Magic Dogs — Hearts and War card games
 PalmReader Version 1.2.8 — Freeware that allows you to read e-books in doc format. Comes with two e-books — “The Last of the Mohicans” and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. Note that PalmReader version 1.52 is currently available as Freeware from Handango.com
 PowerOne Personal Version 2.1.1 — Very nice calculator

Performance

The performance specifications for the Zire 21 are as follows:

 Memory:    8MB RAM (7.2 MB actual storage)
 Operating System:  Palm OS version 5.2.1
 Processor:    Texas Instruments OMAP 311 ARM
 Screen:    160 x 160 Pixel Monochrome 4-bit Grayscale Display
 Battery:    Rechargeable Lithium Ion/Polymer
 Audio:    None

For the intended use as an entry-level device, the Zire 21 performs well. Complete installation of all the provided 3rd party software left me with plenty of room (i.e. several MBs of RAM) for additional software and records. I found the resolution of the grayscale display (see Figures 11 & 12) as being acceptable for normal tasks, and could easily view the screen in all but low light conditions due to no backlighting. The Zire 21 comes with Graffiti 2 installed, which can be easily replaced using one of several programs out there such as TealScript, GraffitiAnywhere, etc., should you not like this input method.

 
Figure 11. Desktop Screen Shot

I conducted a test to illustrate the performance capabilities and limitations of the Zire 21. This test basically consisted of running a grayscale movie continuously until the battery drained and the Zire 21 shut down. The test conditions were as follows:

Zire 21 — Fully charged (12 hour charge)
Kinoma: Freeware movie player.
Wildlife Waystation 1: Movie (28s, grayscale, 160 x 120, 1.1MB)
TealTools: Used to bypass the automatic shutdown feature
Battgraph: Used to monitor the Zire 21 battery voltage over time

 
Figure 12. Movie ScreenShot

The results are illustrated in Figure 12 and Figure 13. As shown in Figure 12, the Zire 21 does a reasonable job of displaying a detailed picture like a hairy tiger. You can’t see the individual tiger hairs, but you can enjoy a decent movie. As expected for a grayscale device, battery life was very good — warning threshold was reached in 6.9 hours, Critical Threshold in 7.6 hours, and it took 8.1 hours of continuous intensive operation before the unit shut down (Figure 13). Battery life is not an issue with this unit.

 
Figure 13. Zire 21 Battery Potential Vs Time

Pros:
 Low cost
 Decent selection of included Palm and 3rd party software
 Stylish, yet sturdy design
 Easy to set up

Cons:
 Poorly designed stylus — could be bulkier and include a reset pin
 No backlight — unable to view the screen under poor lighting conditions
 No audio output

 Although not the intent of the design:
 Only two application buttons (Gamers)
 HotSync/Charging stand not available (Power users)
 160 x 160 black & white screen (inhibits use of complex programs)
 No external memory slot — you will eventually be forced to upgrade.

Recommended Buy: Yes — as a gift for someone else, or if you only have $99.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) 

The Bottom Line:
The Zire 21 is designed for the entry-level user, and those of us who do not use a PDA for much more than basic record keeping or playing of simple games. The Zire does this and at a cost less than all other PDAs currently on the market. However, it is not usable under low-light conditions, offers no built-in method to conduct a reset, and does not allow for growth as the entry-level user becomes more experienced. In the end, let your budget be your guide. If you can/want to spend more, Sony offers low-end devices with color and better expansion opportunities. If not, the Zire 21 is likely a perfect solution.

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