The Palm Tungsten C is the best PDA I’ve used in a long time. It’s also the worst. Why the duplicity? For professional users who want WiFi access and an integrated keyboard, no Palm device is better. But the multimedia hardware and software are non-existent, closing the door on a large part of the potential market for this device.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the TC is designed for business users who want WiFi access. Given this market, the TC is an excellent fit as it excels in many areas Sony PDAs do not. But even the stiffest business user wants to have a little fun, don’t they? Ok, maybe notand if that’s the case, then the Tungsten W may just be the perfect enterprise solution.
Don’t let the Tungsten name fool you, the TC looks nothing like the popular Tungsten T. What it does look like is the PDA/phone combo Tungsten W, minus the antenna. I find the overall look of the TW to be very appealing and professional. The shell is plastic, but this doesn’t detract from maintaining a solid feel.
At 4.8″ x 3.07″ x .65″ it does feel a little thick. As with other PDAs though, there are always compromises. Being a little thick is necessary to accommodate the keyboard and other internal components related to the WiFi radio and other high end features. Perhaps my biggest complaint about the outside of the TW is the flip cover.
I appreciate what Palm is trying to do, but in more cases than not, these flip covers add little value. I do appreciate the way Palm mounted it in a sliding fashion on the left, so at least it doesn’t take up any space or leave a hideous scar like the most recent Clies. It will protect your screen from a direct hit from the front, but it offers little protection for the keyboard and none for the body. If the TC is going to leave the office very often, you’ll quickly want to ditch the flip and go with a properly designed case. There are very few options right now, it usually takes 4-8 weeks after a device is released before popular accessories catch up.
The front of the TC is really where much of this PDA separates itself from the others. The most obvious feature is the inclusion of the QWERTY keypad, which is the best built-in keypad I’ve ever seen in a PDA. The keys are large, approximately 25% larger than those in the Treo series. The keys are simply fantastic. The feedback is great, and I like the little hardware click it makes to tell your fingers the press has been detected. The travel between keys is just right as well and the placement of special keys like backspace and enter are just where I expected them to be. While this seems like a base line feature, not all PDA keypads work this well, take a look at my review of the TG50.
As for numbers, symbols and other functions, they are all accessed in a very intuitive manner. The numbers run across the top row of the letters and are accessible with a blue function key. Pressing this key twice will lock it giving you access to the numbers and the more popular symbols like @, _, *, # and punctuation. Should there be symbols you use more often than those selected, you may re-map any of the keys to produce the symbol you want. Alternatively, the blue function button and the space bar will let you select any symbol you wish one at a time. Palm has opted to take a different stance than the one Sony took on the TG50, where they jammed at least three functions onto almost every key. While some may appreciate that, I think more will enjoy the simplicity of Palm’s design. I find it to be more usable and intuitive leading to speedy input.
Like I said before, I’m a big fan of the TC keyboard. I think it’s the best integrated keyboard of any PDA currently being sold. It’s great for writing emails, short chats or anything else you need. Don’t expect to write any novels though, that should be reserved for a portable keyboard expansion unit.
Other items of note on the front of the TC are the four main launcher buttons, the D-pad and the power button. It took a little brain reprogramming for me to stop pushing at the top of the TC to turn it on and off. Not that it’s a big deal, just something that’s a little different.
The left side of the TC holds the slot for the flip cover. Mine is still in place, but this slot will soon be naked as soon as leather cases start becoming available.
Along the right side of the TC runs the stylus silo. The stylus is a nice heavy weight metal with a plastic top that unscrews and doubles as the reset pin.
The top of the TC contains the 2.5mm headphone/mic jack, IR port SD slot and status light. The headphone jack is a major disappointment as it’s mono, not stereo. There is no internal mic on this unit for voice recording, but the headphone jack does support microphones that are integrated in headsets.
A minor concern I have about the SD slot is the fact that it’s not covered. The slot is completely exposed to the elements, so it might be easy for lint and other dirt to get caught in there causing a bad connection. I think this could have been easily fixed, Sony has a flap on most units. I’m not sure why or how Palm overlooked this, so be careful.
The back of the PDA contains the reset pin and mono speaker, yes, I said mono. Another minor gripe is the reset pin hole. Most newer units no longer require a mini reset pin or paperclip, the tip of the stylus is enough. This is not the case with the TC and causes a little trouble when you need to reset. Soft resets do occur with this unit when leveraging the WiFi, so a small annoyance can build up.
Palm continues to leverage their universal connector, which means you can use the TC with other Palm accessories that have appropriate drivers.
The Tungsten C uses the fastest processor currently on the market, an Intel XScale PXA255 400MHz CPU. As a result, the TC flies, but I really have to question the need of the processor they selected for this unit. The intended user group won’t be watching many videos and leveraging multimedia software, so I wish they would have gone with a 200MHz processor and spent the difference on something else. That said, maybe the price difference between the CPU’s isn’t really that much.
The end result is the TC is fast, but there’s not much I’ve found to push it when compared to 200MHz Palm OS units. It is faster when working with very large photos, spreadsheets and databases and maybe that’s why Palm included the extra power. They may be assuming that enterprise users will want access to large data files on their TC. I don’t think that’s the case, but if you need processing power, the TC has it.
Note Palm is using the new PXA255 instead of the older PXA250. The difference seems to be huge in the area of power management. The Tungsten C sports a 1500mAh rechargeable Lithium Ion/Polymer battery, which is the same as the Tungsten T. It’s not user replaceable, but it does last a long time, much longer than the TT I have. Palm estimates about a week with WiFi on and normal use. Based on the time I’ve spent with it over the past few weeks this claim seems to be true. Given the feature set, there is no other PDA that will outlast the TC in the battery department.
The TC breaks through a major barrier that has faced Palm OS devices for a long time. For the first time ever, a Palm PDA has more than 16MB RAM. The TC features 64MB of which 51MB is user accessible. It’s great to have the extra memory on board, not just for applications, but for things like web browser cache and the ability to receive hundreds of emails without issue.
The TC leverages the latest Palm OS, version 5.2.1. There are a few improvements over prior versions of OS 5, the most obvious being a completely re-worked preferences area. The new preferences area does away with the lengthy drop down menu, replacing it with intuitive groupings of options.
All the old preferences are still there, but a few new things have been added:
Writing area – This feature allows the user to turn on/off Graffiti 2 with or without pen strokes displayed.
Graffiti 2 Contains a special character tuner which allows for a few options when entering three letters and the dollar sign. More on Graffiti 2 later.
Keyboard You may specify the repeat rate, enable key clicks and set another very useful feature that allows a button hold to capitalize the selected character. This also allows for the remapping of the keyboard buttons.
Sounds and Alerts There are three profiles to manage the TC sounds including silent, all off and custom. The TC does have a vibrating alarm which works fairly well.
Color Theme There are thirty or so different color schemes, most of which are visually offensive, but a very nice inclusion. For some reason, I really like the nostalgia option.
Security The password and security area has improved a little bit with privacy levels and auto lock options.
The 320 x 320 pixel screen is nearly perfect. Palm has included a Transflective screen in this unit and the Zire 71, making them arguably the best screens in any PDA. It’s the most bright, white and crisp screen I’ve seen in a Palm OS device and maybe even the venerable iPAQs. Palm has certainly done well here, surpassing the most recent efforts from Sony. The screen will feel squishy, especially if you come from another Palm made device. I think this is largely to improve the recognition of Graffiti 2 characters entered on the screen.
Graffiti 2 is not necessarily virtual graffiti as some think. In this case, Graffiti 2 gives you the ability to write text characters on the left side of the screen and numbers on the right. A few characters have changed, so there will be a slight learning curve for those of us used to the old way. I’m not sold that Graffiti 2 is any better than the original, but it makes little difference. It’s your only choice unless you want to install a third party application.
One of the core reasons you’re interested in the TC is the integrated WiFi. I’m pleased to report that Palm has done an excellent job of integrating the WiFi in a seamless manner. As part of the initial boot up, there is an option to configure your WiFi network. The TC will search and find all available networks and indicate the power of the signal it’s receiving. There are advanced options to force the TC to pick up your network if you have the SSID and WEP Encryption information.
After you have been connected, the program displays signal strength and allows you to either complete the setup or configure a VPN. I don’t use a VPN at home or work so I did not test this feature, but the setup works quite similarly to the WiFi connection setup. I think it’s safe to assume the setup is just as intuitive and works as advertised.
There is no WiFi light on the unit, so there’s not a quick visual to see if the WiFi is on or off. The WiFi operates in a battery friendly mode, shutting down after a few minutes of inactivity. You can still check WiFi status by pushing the command button, the one to the left of the home button. The icon on the right side shows the WiFi strength if it’s connected. You may also force the WiFi to engage from this menu.
If you’re anything like me you have more than one WiFi network. You might use one at home, one at work and even the T-Mobile network at Starbucks. The TC handles multiple networks very well. It will try to connect to the most recently used network first. If that one is not available it will go through your list of connections one by one until it finds the one that works. This makes jumping between networks a breeze.
A nice feature, but one that might go unnoticed, is the ability to sync via WiFi with any machine on your network. In the sync application on the TC, switch from local to network. Your machine should be listed, but if not you may search all of the machines on the network and select one from there. I found this ability to sync via network very useful, essentially killing the need to sync with my laptop via IR.
Another pleasant surprise is the web browser. The TC comes with Web Browser v2.0.1 which is made by PalmSource, based on the NetFront 3.0 architecture. With the WiFi connection, page loads are very fast. I encountered very few errors loading pages, which is nice given the problems of prior versions of NetFront and many other Mobile Web browsers. I did find the browser had a tendency to get stuck loading some pages. When this happens, the cancel page load button doesn’t seem to work and a soft reset is required to resolve the problem. A more significant issue is that links on pages that open in a new window don’t work. This happens more than you might think, so beware. Even with these issues, this web browser is one of the better ones on the market, although I’m still holding out hope for something more robust.
The other program that can leverage the wireless connection is VersaMail 2.5. VersaMail continues to be the best email program I’ve used on a Palm OS PDA. Versa makes it simple to set up multiple email accounts and has new features like the ability for the device to auto retrieve mail. This feature is actually quite advanced as you may specify interval, start and end time frames and days of the week for the agent to run. My main issue with the mail program is that it doesn’t allow for the management of profiles. If you use a single WiFi provider this is a non issue, but if you bounce around more likely than not you’re outgoing email server will change with each location. When this happens you have to edit the account information to reflect the change for each email account. I’ve suggested the ability to better manage outgoing mail servers to Palm, we’ll see if they do anything about it.
No, the Tungsten C does not come with Bluetooth. I really wish it did, because then it would be fast approaching perfect PDA status. However there is a significant problem that needs to be addressed quickly by Palm. At the time of this review, Palm’s SD Bluetooth card does not work with the TC. Palm has not made any comment regarding future support, but I think it’s safe to assume they will release drivers for the TC. I just hope it’s sooner than later, as the target audience will often find a need to use the wireless features outside of WiFi hotspots.
Sadly the TC falls short in the multimedia area. The unit ships with very few multimedia tools. There is no MP3 player, but it does come with Kinoma player for watching videos. Kinoma is free and is quickly becoming the market leader for Palm video. The processor handles the video well, but sound is an overwhelming disappointment. For business users Kinoma will let you have a product demo video or product VR’s, so that’s nice, just don’t expect to watch anything that requires deep sound. That lack of stereo speaker doesn’t mean you can’t play MP3’s and games that use sound. It just means the experience won’t be as rich. Audio books and other more content related audio do very well.
As noted earlier there is not a built-in microphone, so voice recording has to be done through an alternative external microphone. I think this is a major shortcoming and I’m quite disappointed that such a standard feature set on high-end PDAs was left out. Further, Palm doesn’t even toss in a cheap headset, forcing buyers to shop for one. There has been some talk of enabling the TC with voice over IP functionality in the next few months. VoIP would leverage this headset jack, so hopefully this software will be released and Palm’s vision will appear more clear.
In general the mono speaker, lack of a standard size headphone jack and no MP3 support may really hurt this PDA. Sure, the inclusion of those items would increase cost, but they would have more than made up for the cost in perceived value. Palm thinks business users don’t want those multimedia features, I disagree. I think business users will appreciate the productivity tools the TC possesses, but on the lack of fun software and hardware may keep this device from being used as much as it could have been. I’m not sure if this will end up hurting sales much, but it will deter some potential buyers.
Beyond the software already noted and the basic Palm applications, the TC ships with the following:
- There is a new desktop installer tool which works much the same way as the old one, but is more XP-ish in its design and makes moving items to the memory card take one less step.
- Documents To Go The best option for managing MS Office files comes installed in system ROM and is already integrated with VersaMail 2.5. You will still need to install the desktop application though.
- Adobe Acrobat Reader
- powerOne Personal Calculator
- PrintBoy enables wireless printing with support for numerous printers via WiFi or infrared.
- WorldMate fantastic software for travelers. WM allows for multiple clocks, currency conversions (live updates via WiFi), measurement conversions, phone extensions and more. This is perhaps the most useful free software I’ve seen included with a PDA in a long time.
- Colligo this application lets two WiFi enabled Palm users share calendars to book a meeting.
Palm has shipped the standard Palm cradle and a pretty solid stylus as already noted. There has been a slight modification in the cradle, as the power cord has its own slot in the rear, instead of tying into the USB cord. There is still no direct charge option though.
Palm has crafted the best enterprise PDA on the market. Not just Palm, but Pocket PC as well. The specs are amazing when you run down the line of processor, memory, screen, keyboard, WiFi integration and more. If you can get past the lack of stereo output and a few other misgivings, I think you’ll be quite happy with this unit. At $500 the TC seems a little expensive, I think they’ll really move at $425 or so.