Review – Palm Zire 71

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When Palm Solutions Group released the original Zire, a bargain-basement PDA for technophobes and late-adopters, practically every perpetual naysayer either screamed or laughed over it’s ultra-low-end nature. As if the original Zire’s sales of 800,000+ units weren’t enough to silence critics, Palm has now released a new model that puts down some of the last great complaints against Palm.

The Zire 71 (Or, for those who enjoy tracking Palm Solutions Group’s model numbers, the ‘m200’) is a mid-range handheld aimed at the individual buyer. Intended to compete with the newest round of PocketPC devices in the $200-300 market, the Zire sports a $299 MSRP, the newest Palm OS, and a snazzy feature set. And though the new Zire 71 isn’t for everyone, no one should be laughing now.

Packaging and Contents
The Zire 71 comes in a rounded plastic package with a paper insert for the ‘box cover’ and a paperboard frame to hold the contents in place. Not as swank as the packages of some of Palm’s high-end models, but serviceable. The plastic doesn’t unsnap–you’ll have to cut it open. It’s not as rigid as some plastic packages, so you shouldn’t have to worry about cutting yourself on it. The contents consist of the Zire 71, prominently displayed in the front of the package, a generic USB Hotsync cradle, AC adapter, a carrying case, some documentation, and two CDs.

Included Accessories
I’ll get the unpleasant part out of the way first, so that we can proceed to the good parts. The carrying case is worthless–well of course it’s worthless, it’s an included slip case, but this one comes close to setting new records for worthlessness. It’s two clamshell halves are made of some kind of poly-foam over cardboard, lined by material with a felt-like texture, and held together by elastic. The closure is a polyurethane band and two bits of cheap velcro. Oddly enough, it comes with a feature not standard on cheap cases–a metal eyelet with a wrist-strap attached. At first, I could not insert the Zire into the case without the 5-way navigator getting pressed by the tight fit of the case, and automatically turning on. After trying this a dozen different ways, I ended up stretching the elastic enough that I could fit the Z in without it turning on. Unfortunately, because of the tightness of the case, the 5-way navigator is still remarkably easy to trigger with just the slightest pressure on the case. I, for one, would not feel comfortable carring the Z around like this knowing that the slightest bump could turn it on and drain battery life.

The cradle is of nearly the same mold as those sold with previous Palm Universal Connector models, with a couple differences. For starters, the AC adapter no longer plugs into a jack on the end of the USB cable–it now hooks directly into the back of the cradle. I don’t really know why they did this, since it means more wires running to the cradle, and it’s not like you can detach the AC adapter and plug it directly into the Zire. It’s also much lighter than the cradle of similar design for my old Palm m505, which is good news for those who travel with their cradle rather than a sync cable.

My cradle’s connector doesn’t seem quite right. When I connect the Zire to it, the connection is tenuous at best, and flexing it left and right a little will break the link. It’s definitely a cradle problem, since I put the Zire on my m505’s cradle and it clicked perfectly. I also tried the m505 on the new cradle, with the same problem. A tech support email to Palm resulted in the suggestion that I get the cradle replaced. I’ve only seen a couple other reports of this problem, so hopefully it’s not widespread.

There is nothing at all remarkable about the AC adapter. It’s a typical wall-wart type, rated at 5 volts, 1000 milliamps. It appears to be the exact same large-barrel type sold with other Palm handhelds for years. Reverse compatibility is good, even if it is bland.

Zire 71 – Case and Hardware

 

The body of the Zire 71 is made of slick two-tone plastic. The forward portion is a glossy sky blue, with the Palm logo silkscreened top center, and the Zire 71 name beside it to the left. The back of the Zire is crome-colored, and sports the usual sticker providing serial number, trademarks, etcetera, as well as two attachment points for accessories, the notch for the stylus, and the speaker. The dividing line between the blue and chrome areas is also the seam for the Zire’s slide-mechanism. Press up on the two small ridges at the bottom of the Zire, and the two pieces of the case will slide apart about an inch and click into place. When slid open, the portion revealed at the top contains the camera lens and reset hole. The area revealed on the bottom contains a ‘Shutter’ button for taking pictures with the integrated camera. I got no creaks or problems when I flex-tested the case both open and closed. When closed, there is a little space between the two halves of the case at the bottom, but unless you’re dropping your Z in the sand at the beach, you shouldn’t have any worries. This space only leads to the slide area, so there is no danger of something getting inside the case itself.


Bottom of Zire 71 while slid open

When slid open, all the Zire’s connections remain active, and you can even charge the Zire while the case is slid open. While the application buttons are still connected, they will not function while you are in the camera application, which is automatically launched when you slide open the case. When you close the case, the Zire activates the Photo program. More on this under Camera.

Along the top of the Z71 are most of the important features. From left to right are the SD card slot, the IR port, the headphone jack, and the stylus silo. The SD slot is situated in a small depression in the case, probably to make it easier to eject the card without having to use a fingernail. The IR port is, curiously, entirely unmarked–if you didn’t see it indicated on the packaging, or know what to look for, you might miss it.


Top to bottom: Palm Zire 71, Palm m505, Dell Axim X5

Regrettably, the Z71’s stylus is almost everything that is hated in a stylus. It’s plastic. It’s cheesy. It’s flexible. In fact, it’s so flexible that it feels like I could break it in half with one hand. The good news is that the basic design is fairly thick, and nicely shaped, so a good quality replacement stylus will be able to fit in the silo. Furthermore, it lacks a reset pin. I haven’t found this to be a critical liability though, since whenever I’ve had a fatal error occur while using the Zire the reset button that was on the screen functioned after a couple seconds.

Occupying the upper right corner of the Zire is the power button. This is a little soft in my opinion–it’s easy to press accidentally, and you don’t get a satisfactory click when you do press it. Also, there is no indicator LED to tell you when the Zire is charging, or when it’s fully charged. This is a problem, since there’s no other way to tell the battery status of the Zire other than removing it from the cradle and using the battery meter.

The Touchscreen has the same typical ultra-high-glare, reflect-everything-in-sight surface as found on other PDAs. I’m still waiting for a manufacturer to get smart and provide built-in–or at least factory installed–the kind of durability and glare reduction that is available in third-party screen protectors.

The four application buttons have a good tactile feel and response, with a solid click accompanying each press. The third button is the only deviation from normal, being mapped to the Palm Photos viewer/categorizer that’s included in the ROM. In the center, between the buttons, is the Zire’s 5-way navigational controller. Unlike previous Palm navigators that used a directional pad, the Zire’s controller is almost a miniature joystick. It’s simply a plastic stick seated in a depression on the case that you can push in four directions, plus in. While it’s not quite as comfortable as a directional pad, it’s quite easy to use. Each direction has solid response and a great ‘click’.

I really like the Zire 71’s look. The combination of silver and blue is very attractive, and the case fits in the hand very nicely. There are no protruding edges or anything uncomfortable about the shape. You could very easily use the Zire 71 for long periods of time without a second thought. But of course, looks are only a part of the appeal of any PDA. The real challenge is seeing whether the Zire 71 can perform as nicely as it looks.

Zire 71 – Specifications

Processor: 144 MHz ARM-class Texas Instruments OMAP310
Operating System:  Palm OS 5.2.1.4
Display: 320×320 pixel 16-bit color transflective display
Memory: 16 MB RAM, 13 MB accessible to user
Size & Weight:  4.5″ long x 2.9″ wide x 0.67″ thick, 5.3 ounces
Expansion: SD expansion slot
Docking: Palm Universal Connector
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 navigation joystick, Touchscreen
Software:  Palm Photos, RealOne Mobile player, Kinoma Player and Producer, Audible
Player, PalmReader, Acrobat Reader for Palm OS, PhoneLink, SMS
Other:  Serial infrared port, full-VGA integrated fixed-focus camera

Processor
The OMAP310 processor that powers the Z is a slightly scaled-down sibling of the 1510 that powers Palm’s first OS 5 device, the Tungsten|T. After examining spec sheets, the only significant difference between them is that the 310 lacks the 200 MHz DSP that’s found on the 1510. What long-term effect this will have on performance, I don’t know, but I could not perceive any point when the Zire 71 performed less than speedily, so I doubt it will be sorely missed. And let me tell you, this thing screams! The Z tears through programs that choked my m505 like they were tissue paper. Even things like the app launcher feel incredibly peppy. I have aboslutely nothing bad to say about the Zire’s speed. It takes advantage of every ounce of it’s processor, and it shows.

Operating System
The Zire runs 5.2.1.4, the most recent version of the Palm OS, which includes several new pieces of software. For starters, Grafitti 2 is built in. Honestly, I noticed no real difference other than with a couple letters, and the ability to write anywhere on the screen isn’t used to full potential since the Zire 71 has a silkscreened Grafitti area.

Also new in 5.2.1.4 is support for color themes. Under the Preferences appliction, there is now a dialog to select from a list of color combinations. Selecting a theme will change the color of the background and title bar. Not an earth-shattering feature, but there are some nice combinations, and the themes look good on the Zire’s screen. There’s even a setting called “Nostalgia”, which mimics the black-on-green style of monochome Palm devices. Now if we could only get background image support . . .

I have to admit, one of the first things I noticed when I turned on the Zire was the new high-res icons for OS 5. All the old low-res buttons from OS 4 have gotten a facelift in the new version, and they look great. Okay, call me petty, but that’s a nice touch.

Palm Photos is also new in this version, but since this is specific to the Zire 71 I’ll talk about it under Software.

Display
The Zire is one of the first Palm models to switch from using older reflective displays to new transflective ones which provide better color accuracy and brightness. This was one of the classical complaints lodged against Palm Solutions Group’s handhelds–their screens were poorer quality than those found on competing models by Sony. No more. The Zire’s 320 x 320 pixel transflective screen is a wonder to behold. Photos can not do it justice. The brightness and color saturation are astounding, even compared to other transflective displays, and the accuracy in color reproduction is excellent. Comparing a photo on the Z71 to the same photo on my desktop’s CRT monitor, the Z provides a nearly flawless duplication, with not even a tiny hint of color-shift, and only a tiny saturation loss. The extremely small dot-pitch (space between the pixels) makes me wish that either PocketPCs would adopt a 640×480 screen or some company would make a Palm that would enable me to switch back. Sharp, clear, and colorful. The previous record holder for ‘best screen’ was the iPaq 1910 PocketPC. I don’t have a 1910 on hand to compare against, but I’m informed that the Zire 71 beats it for brightness and quality, and I have no problem believing it.


Left, Palm Zire 71. Right, Dell Axim X5. Both set to maximum brightness.


Left, Palm Zire 71. Right, Dell Axim X5. Both set to maximum brightness.


Left, Palm Zire 71. Right, Dell Axim X5. Both set to maximum brightness.

The downside of this lovely screen is the fact that unlike other transflective screens, you cannot turn off the backlight to save battery life. You can turn it down, but on the Zire even the lowest setting is pretty bright. This, however, is somewhat compensated for by the Zire’s battery life, which I’ll get to in a moment. The brightness is adjusted by pressing and holding the Power button, which pops up a slider along the bottom of the screen. Using the 5-way joystick, you can adjust the brightness without having to touch the screen. The slider is a continuous range, rather than a series of steps, so you have a lot of leeway in choosing a brightness as long as the minimum isn’t too bright for you. People with very sensitive eyes may have problems with the Zire in the dark even at minimum brightness, but most people should be happy.

Memory
The Z71 comes stocked with a fairly standard 16 megabytes of RAM, of which 13 megs is available to the user for storage. It also features a standard issue SD card slot, for Storage up to 512 MB, and presumably pheripherals, once there are some SDIO pheripherals that work with Palm OS 5.

Size and Weight
The Zire is a midsize unit, similar in footprint to the old m500 series, but thicker.


Top to bottom: Palm Zire 71, Palm m505, Dell Axim X5

My opinion is that the Zire is in that ‘sweet spot’ for size and weight, where it’s not too big or heavy, but not trying to be an ultra-slim. It’s reasonably pocketable, though a case may take it beyond the comfort level for some. I think that only someone really demanding could take issue with the Z’s size.

Audio
The Zire features much the same audio equipment as any Palm OS 5 or PocketPC machine. On the rear of the Z71 is a monaural speaker intended mostly for basic sound and alerts. While you can play any audio from the built in speaker, it’s range and bass is as limited as any PDA’s speaker. It does seem a bit louder than my Axim’s speaker, though in normal use the speaker will be pointing away from the user, rendering it effectively less powerful.

The more practical option for quality sound is the Z’s 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. Sound quality through headphones is good, about on par with my Axim. The volume though headphones is a little bit lower, though not that much. It might be an issue if you have low-volume headphones, or want to listen in a noisy environment. In that case you may want to invest in Aeroplayer with it’s 12 decibel boost mode, or an inline amplifier (or if you REALLY like your music loud, both).

There’s much ado about a ‘clicking’ sound made when you tap buttons on the screen. Well, it does exist, but it’s not a defect as far as I can tell, it’s just a system sound. If you don’t like it, turn off System Sounds under Preferences, Sounds and Alerts. I did, and it went away. And yes, you can still listen to MP3s with the system sounds off.

Battery
The Zire’s power cell is a Lithium Ion Polymer battery with a 900 milliamp-hour capacity. While this is pretty small compared to PocketPCs using 1000 and 1440 mAh batteries, the Zire holds it’s own. I ran three battery tests, with the screen set to low, medium, and high brightness, each with Aeroplayer running MP3s–standard methods of testing battery life.

Brightness at Full: 4 hours, 45 minutes until power-off
Brightness at Medium: 6 hours, 8 minutes until power-off
Brightness at Minimum: 7 hours, 10 minutes until power-off

As you can see, the Zire stands stong, even beating out most PocketPCs that feature higher capacity batteries. Good power management will win out any day. I would say that the Zire 71 is perfectly safe for moderate to heavy users, and anyone above this level is probably looking at machines that feature replaceable batteries anyway.

Camera
One of Palm’s main selling points on the Zire 71 is it’s integrated camera. Personally, I’m a supporter of the idea of integrating cameras in PDAs, cell phones, and what have you. Multifunction devices are an important goal, and successfully integrating the devices that capture our lives in images with those that do so in words, music, notes, and text is a logical next step. Unfortunately, most integrated or attachment cameras are of poor quality, producing fuzzy and unpleasant pictures, and lacking in the desired quality.

The pros and cons of the Zire’s camera can be summed up in two words: fixed focus. With a fixed focus camera, you’re saved the difficulty of having to find just the right focus level to get a sharp picture. The downside is that you’re denied the ability find just the right focus level to get a sharp picture. The camera lens is preset for ranges of under 15 feet, and is best suited for around 5 or 6 feet to the target. Forget having wide-angle or scenery shots come out anything other than blurry. Like all the other mini-cameras, the Z71 will not replace a real digital camera.

That said, the Zire’s camera is a lot better than nothing, if you happen to be without a proper digital camera. The pictures are a bit blurry at times, and it seems to have a tendancy to overexpose in bright light, but otherwise there It’s also worth noting that it’s the first integrated camera on the Palm OS that doesn’t require the bulk of a Sony RoboClie to go with it. Sure, personally I would trade the camera for integrated wireless or a CompactFlash slot in a heartbeat, but I understand that this is a model aimed at the less demanding who wouldn’t care what wireless could do, or what a CompactFlash slot is, but think ‘Oh, a camera, I could use that.’

The camera automatically turns on and the camera application loads when you slide open the Zire revealing the lens. You can then use either the revealed ‘shutter’ button or the ‘action’ button on the 5-way joystick to take a picture. There’s about a one-second delay before the camera snaps the image, so if you’re photographing something time-sensitive you’d better have good reflexes. Also, the camera seems to take a little longer than normal to adjust to the current lighting. If you open the camera outside, it could take 4-5 seconds before it will adjust to where you can take a picture. Issues neither trivial, nor major; file them under “It’s not professional photography”. When you slide the case closed, the Palm Photos application opens in the ‘Camera’ category to let you see the photos you just took. Kinda cool.


The open top of the Zire.


My cat, requesting her morning feeding.


Lots of hungry fish swarming some bread.

Software
When you see two CDs in the package, one labeled ‘essentials’, you might get excited that Palm is jam-packing the software bundle of the Z to create brand loyalty with new customers and upgraders. Well, sorry but no. The first CD entirely consists of Palm Desktop and the USB Hotsync drivers. The Zire comes with the newest version of Palm Desktop, version 4.1, which is considerably improved from the last time I upgraded. There’s now a right-click “Send To > Palm Quick Install” option, an interface update, and other additions. Most of the changes are in the Hotsync Manager and the Install Tool, including drag-and-drop support for both PDB/PRCs and ZIP files. That’s cool.

Also new in Palm Desktop, an application called Palm Photos. PP is designed to organize, categorize, synchronize, and provide minimal retooling ability for your photo collection. There’s also an equivalent application on the Zire, which acts as the viewer, and resides in the system’s ROM. Given the excellence of the screen for photos, it makes sense for Palm to include an image viewer, even without the camera.

The second CD is the software bundle. Palm Reader, Audible player, RealOne Mobile, Acrobat Reader for the Palm OS, etcetera. As a commercial software package, the Zire’s bundle is nearly non-existant. Except for Kinoma Producer, all the other significant software is freeware. I suppose I can understand this, given the desire not to give away the fort, but at least they could include some other things. In a small package like this, there’s barely anything to whet the user’s appetite. They include Palm Reader, why not include a couple of etexts to introduce new users to reading on their Palm? Why not include the demos of some games like Ricochet that could really show off the Z’s screen and processor? They included Kinoma Player and Producer, why not throw in some demonstration movies to wow us? It just seems like they didn’t go to any extra effort on the bundle.

Come to find out, ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is included on the CD if you dig down to the Palm Reader directory, but it’s not mentioned in the install interface. Huh? Why bother to include something if you’re going to hide it? And why something so old? There are more and better choices if you insist on public domain. Even better is this: advertise ‘one free book of your choice from Palm Digital Media with the purchase of a Zire 71 handheld’. Surely they can afford that, and it would guarantee that a far greater number of people would actually try out reading on the Zire, and thus a much higher rate of repeat business for PDM. I can’t be the only person who sees this.

Maybe I’m just nuts, but the whole software bundle CD seems incomplete and ill-conceived. There are so many better ways to do it.

Conclusion
The Zire 71 is a solid, high-quality PDA that’s going to be taking some names in the mid-range Palm OS market. Despite a few snafus, the Z has been very impressive in it’s abilites given it’s price. In fact, most of my dissatisfaction stems from poorly thought out or defective accessories, rather than from the Zire itself. If you’re going to buy a Zire 71, plan on also purchasing a good case or screen cover, and a replacement stylus. With those, you’ll have a powerful and well-made Palm OS 5 machine for fairly cheap.

For a long time, Palm has been on the defensive technologically. While they certainly had great success with the original low-end Zire, there has been some justification to the argument that they had stagnated in terms of new features. Now though, with the release of the first WiFi integrated Palm ever, the first Palm with greater than 32 megs of memory, and the first mid-range OS 5 unit, Palm seems to be back in gear and outpacing their primary opponent, Sony, who is going to have to fight hard to catch up.

But Sony aside, the real question is, can the Zire 71 compete with PocketPCs in the same price range? I think it can. The Zire has some distinct advantages in the marketplace, including simplicity, name recognition, it’s camera, and it’s great screen, which will help it to stave off the lower initial pricing, the ‘big numbers’ draw, and the Windows factor of the PPCs. Can it beat the PocketPCs? I don’t know. That’s going to be an interesting battle. But after having lost it a few weeks ago when HandEra tossed in the cards, I have faith in Palm Solutions Group again.

Pros:
FANTASTIC screen
Great battery life
Attractive casing
Reasonable price

Cons:
Cheap stylus
No reset pin
No indicator LED
5-way navigator easy activated

Bottom line:
Despite small foibles, Palm Solutions Group has released one of the better models they’ve ever made. Step aside, the honored elder has returned.

Price compare the Palm Zire 71 to find the best deal.

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