Review – PalmOne Zire 72

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One year ago, PalmOne–then Palm Solutions Group–released the Zire 71, a mid-range consumer model that hit it big. Now they’re back with an update that adds a 1.2 megapixel camera and integrated Bluetooth wireless.

Design

The very first thing I noticed about the Zire 72 after freeing it from its blister-pack was the overall design changes compared to the Zire 71. Gone is the large, rounded case resembling the entry-level Zire models. The 72 is slimmer, sleeker, and has gotten a brilliantly eye-catching redesign. While still following somewhat the silver and blue color pattern of its predecessor, the 72 has altered both the colors and design to great effect. The plasticy sky-blue of the 71 has been been replaced by a truly gorgeous metalic royal blue that is a perfect example of my all-time favorite color. It’s just such a rich and beautiful color that it seems to glow. The smudgy chrome-colored plastic that marred the back of the 71 has been reduced and replaced with a plastic less apt to take fingerprints, though it still suffers from it a little. The blue plastic has a ‘rubberized’ feel that gives the 72 a nice non-slip grip, and just feels good in the hand. The blend of design elements means that the 72 doesn’t greatly resemble any of PalmOne’s other models, nor does it look particularly ‘out there’ or like anything else–it’s distinctive without being strange.

Overview

The use of the blue frame and silver highlights really draws the eye and holds it–it’s flashy with class, which is not easy to achieve. Someone in PalmOne’s design lab deserves a raise. To summarize, the Zire 72 is very, very pretty. I see no reason why business users and private users shouldn’t feel equally comfortable carrying and displaying it.

Along the top is all the usual fun stuff–from left to right is the stylus quill, headphone jack, power button, IR port (unseen, but lurking there nonetheless), SD card slot, and power LED (upper right; we’ll talk about that in a minute).

The 72’s stylus is pure light plastic, and fairly cheap, but not so much that it’s unusable. The barrel has a textured non-slip grip, and is all cast in a single piece with nothing to unscrew. It doesn’t have a reset pin, but thankfully one is not needed. PalmOne has finally woken up and made it possible to hit the reset button with the stylus tip, elimainating the tedious twist-twist-flip-poke-flip-reassemble juggling act of a soft reset. Hurrah for PalmOne! It only took them three years. The barrel of the stylus is the same size as the one used in the PalmOne Tungsten line, and PalmOne will sell replacement styluses that work on the 72 or any of the Tungstens, needing only a replacement quill (which will be included with the styluses).

I’m not too fond of the power button. Like so many of PalmOne’s power buttons lately, it is top-mounted, which I’ve never thought is a terribly good place for a power button. Also it is smallish, and somewhat hard to press due to its size and flatness. I still miss the power button of my old (old old old) Palm m505, with its good placement, distinctive click, and good key travel. That, along with a two-color LED for displaying the charge status, would be most welcome on PalmOne’s part.

The SD slot is basically the same as on most PalmOne models. It sits in a little depression in the plastic top, and has a spring-loaded door that closes when a card isn’t present to prevent dirt and other contaminents from getting into the inner workings of the machine.

In the top left corner of the case, sharing space with the silkscreened PalmOne logo, is a tiny crystal clear bit of plastic. This is the 72’s power light. Whenever the 72 is connected to an external AC power adapter, this will light up green. While this is a nice thought that has been overlooked in recent PalmOne models, it would be nicer if the light changed colors–amber, say, to indicate charging, and green to represent a full charge. The LED also flashes to notify the user of alarms.

Top to bottom: PalmOne Zire 72, Dell Axim X3i, Dell Axim X5 Advanced

The left side of the 72 is featureless save for the voice recorder button. By default, pressing this turns the Zire on and brings up the voice notes program. At that point, pressing and holding it will record a note, and releasing it stops the recording. It’s a very nice and elegant design. The button is well-placed and responsive, the recording of decent quality, and the whole system easy to use. Of course, if you don’t have any need of voice recording, you can always re-map the recorder button to another application.

The right side of the 72 is taken up entirely by the open-sided stylus silo.

The 72’s predecessor, the Zire 71, was something of an experiment in terms of its directional controller. While almost all handhelds have a 5-way directional pad, the 71 had a 5-way miniature joystick. An interesting concept for games, perhaps, but ultimately I agree with Palm’s decision to drop it in favor of a standard directional pad on the 72. The joystick ended up being less comfortable for non-gaming use than a traditional pad, as well as being easily activated when bumped. All in all the pad on the 72 is good, though not great–it could use a little more key travel and tactile response, particularly in the Up, Left, and Right directions. The Action button is seperate from the directional ring, and is good enough for its job. Again, a little more key travel wouldn’t hurt.

The front application buttons are a tiny bit mixed. They produce a very satisfactory ‘click’, but they’re a little too flush to the case for my taste. It’s not always easy to find them with your fingertips. Still, they’re not bad at all compared to some, and are more than suitable for the purpose of application launching. Gaming would be a little more touchy, but that’s as much due to the ‘vertical pairs’ arrangement they’re placed in as it is to the key travel. As you may notice, the left two are by default mapped to the usual Calender and Contacts applications, however the two buttons on the right launch the Camera applet, and RealOne Mobile Player. These assignments can be changed of course, though the default setup isn’t bad for a consumer unit.

The bottom of the Zire 72 is nothing surprising, merely disappointing. Instead of the PalmOne “Universal” Connector, the 72 has a mini-USB plug and AC adapter jack for syncing and charging, respectively. For shame, PalmOne. For the amount of money that people are paying for the 72, they deserve to be able to use the existing base of PUC cradles, cables, and peripherals.

On the back of the case, at the top, the plastic casing gives way to something a little unusual–aluminum mesh. Yes, you heard me. It’s a very unusual design element for a handheld, but it is what it is. The quite-rigid mesh covers the top rear of the case, surrounding the camera lens, and houses both the internal speaker and the microphone. The camera lens itself bears no focal length information, so one can only guess at the ideal range, which I would put at about 5 feet. I would guess the lens is the same 3.6mm as the 71. Unfortunately, the only protection afforded to the camera lens is its recessed niche, and the layer of clear plastic placed over the actual sensor. No lens cover, nothing. Not a great design.

Placed dead center is the large grey-on-grey sticker that has all the 72’s approvals and certifications listed on it. Down and to the right, you’ll see the reset button, better than ever since it doesn’t need a pin anymore, and beside it the imprinted PalmOne logo.

 

Hardware

Processor 312 MHz Intel XScale PXA270 “Bulverde” processor
Operating System Palm OS 5.2.8
Display 320 x 320 transreflective hybrid LCD panel
Memory 32 MB RAM, 24.7 MB accessible to user
Size & Weight 4.6 inches long x 2.95 inches wide x 0.67 (0.5) inches thick, 4.8 ounces
Expansion 1 SD card expansion slot with support for SDIO
Docking Mini-USB plug, 5.2 volt AC adapter jack
Communication Bluetooth (specification 1.1, class 2) wireless module, 10 meter (34 foot) range
Audio Integrated microphone and monaural speaker, stereo headphone jack
Battery 3.6 volt Lithium-Ion battery, rated at 950 milliamp-hours of capacity
Input 5 remappable application buttons, 5-way navigational pad, touchscreen
Software Documents To Go Standard edition, VersaMail, Web Pro, SMS, Audible Player, RealOne Mobile, Dialer, Media
Other 1.2 megapixel integrated fixed-focus digital camera

Processor

The Z72 is one of the first handhelds available that uses Intel’s brand new next-gen XScale PXA270 series of processors. This means that although its processor is clocked at 312 MHz, it performs above the level that would be expected of a similarly clocked PXA255, while simultaneously using less power. In the case of the 72, most of that horsepower is unneeded and unused in day-to-day operations, since Palms require very little base speed. In some cases though, it will definitely come in handy–video, games, large office files, emulation, anything that needs to sort big chunks of data should benefit from the new processor. Particularly video, since the new PXA270s include Intel’s Wireless Multi-Media eXtenstions, or Wireless MMX, instruction set for improved multimedia performance.

Operating System

The Zire 72 runs a more or less stock version of Palm OS 5.2–to be specific, Palm OS 5.2.8.3.4 according to SuperUtility’s diagnostic read-out. If you’ve been following the news about the Palm Operating System, you probably know that PalmSource has decided to rename Palm OS 5, A.K.A “Garnet”, to reflect the fact that it is still in use as a lower-end alternative to Palm OS 6, A.K.A. “Cobalt”. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell the Palm OS version being used by the 72 is not, in a technical sense, “Palm OS Garnet”. The renamed version of Palm OS 5, according to statements by the developers, starts with version 5.4, while the Zire only has 5.2. Also, none of the Zire’s documentation refers to it using Garnet, just OS 5.2.8. It’s unlikely that this will be an issue, since it seems that there is little difference between OS 5.2 and OS 5.4/Garnet. What difference there is is mostly support for screen sizes not used by the 72. If this has you confused, try checking out our article on Palm OS Garnet and Cobalt.

Display

One of the most dazzling attributes of the 72’s predecessor was its screen. The Zire 71 set new records for brightness and color clarity, and while the 72 doesn’t go for the Guiness, it’s hardly a let-down. Colors are precise and vibrant. The screen itself is sharp, clear, and free of visible defects like dead pixels and streaking.

Unfortunately, like all recent PalmOne models, the Zire 72 allows for very little control over the screen’s brightness. There is no option to turn off the backlight–so as to save power while in direct sun–and the difference in brightness between the settings is minimal. So minimal, in fact, that I was able to percieve only the barest fraction of a difference between the 50% and 100% positions on the brightness slider. Personally, I prefer having a maximum of control over the backlight, so that I can set it very low at night, and very high when needed. With the 72, there’s little point in changing it at all.

Memory

 

The Zire 72 comes stocked with 32 MB of RAM, of which 24.7 MB is available to the user. This is almost double the memory of its predecessor, and the same as the slightly lower-end Tungsten|E. It also has 8 MB of ROM, but none of this is natively available to the user. All of this is pretty standard, and will probably continue to be for the discernable future. PalmOne doesn’t seem to be in a blind hurry to put 64 MB into its consumer models, no matter what PocketPCs are doing.

Size & Weight

The thickness of the 72 is actually rather deceiving. While it’s rated at 0.67 inches, the same as the 71, it’s actually quite a bit thinner. PalmOne’s own thickness measurement must have been taken at the small hump at the top, where the camera lens is, for it to have registered so high. In actuality, the main body of the 72 is about 0.5 inches thick, a not insignificant difference. The footprint is fairly standard, and the weight is a very low 4.8 ounces.

Expansion

The Zire 72 features the standard PalmOne expansion slot–a single SD card slot with support for SDIO. Unfortunately, like all its siblings, the 72 lacks many expansion options because of driver issues. No OS 5 drivers exist for the Palm Bluetooth SDIO card, though this is moot thanks to the 72’s internal Bluetooth. The Sandisk WiFi card is also lacks the proper drivers, meaning that for expansion, Zire users are pretty much limited to cameras–again moot–barcode scanners, a spreadsheet presentation card, and additional memory. On the last count, the 72 should have no problem using any available size of memory card, up to and including 1 gigabyte, though I personally was only able to test it up to 256 MB since that’s the largest card I have.

Docking

Big losses for the Zire 72 in this category. PalmOne decided to strip out the Universal Connector which the Zire 71 had featured, in favor of a simple USB cable and AC adapter system, similar to that used by the entry level Zires. This means none of the cables or clip-on accessories for the Zire 71 or any of the higher-end Tungstens will work on the Z72. Phone cables, connected keyboards, cradles, etcetera are all out. The sync/charge cables for the Tungsten|E may work, but I can’t be certain since I don’t have one to test with. Unlike the T|E, however, the Zire 72 supports trickle-charging from the USB cable, with two caveats. The unit must not be powered on, and the battery must not be fully discharged.

I find this very disappointing. What’s the point of a “Universal” Connector if it isn’t universal? Leaving it off the low-end Zires, and even the Tungsten|E, could be forgiven. The 72 is a midrange end-user model, and denying it the use of all those cradles, cables, and the like is just stupid. These are not bare-bones organizer users, these are people who will probably want to accessorize their Palm and you’re telling them “No, we don’t want your money.” The only thing I can think of is that PalmOne is trying to protect sales of its Tungsten|T3s, but that’s still not a very good reason–for the price difference versus the Zire 72, the T3 has several clear advantages apart from the Universal Connector. It’s just inexcusable to intentionally cripple your mid-range models to protect your high-end sales, particularly when they don’t need protecting.

Communication

The 72’s Bluetooth module is a Class 2 transceiver, which means that its range is limited to ten meters, or approximately 34 feet. Supported profiles include serial, phone, network, and hotsync connections, amongst others. I tussled quite a bit trying to get the Bluetooth to work, but I can’t be sure if that’s due to the Zire’s software or simply the fact that I’ve never connected a Palm by Bluetooth before. Also, my stubborn reluctance to read the manual might be contributing to the problem. In any event, with the 72’s Bluetooth module, you can connect it to a Bluetooth phone for mobile internet, to a network or the internet via Bluetooth access point or PC, to a PC for Hotsync and file transfers, to a Bluetooth printer, and to Bluetooth GPS recievers. Most of these things require additional hardware, of course–anything you want to connect the Zire to must also be Bluetooth enabled. And if Bluetooth enabled devices were more common here in the U.S., I’d be lauding PalmOne for giving consumers such a nice convenience in a mid-range model. Unfortunately, Bluetooth adoption is very low, and for a lot of average people I suspect the Bluetooth is going to turn into an ‘also has’ rather than a major benefit. Outside of power users and the European market, PalmOne might have done better to include WiFi in addition to–or possibly even in place of–the Bluetooth in the Zire 72, since there is already a vast installed base for WiFi. Still, Bluetooth is a lot better than nothing, and it gives the Zire 72 a laundry list of capabilities that you can indulge in if you want.

Audio

The 72 has all the standard sound hardware you expect in a mid-range Palm handheld plus one unexpected bonus–a voice recorder slash microphone. The quality is not the best–though it’s a bit hard to tell whether that’s the effect of the microphone, or the format of the recording program. I would suspect the former, since the same effect happens in the video recording program. The microphone has decent range, the audio just ends up sounding tinny.

Potential Zire 71 upgraders will be pleased to know that the 72 has a much higher volume level than the 71, which recieved a certain number of complaints about its slightly sub-par headphone volume. Sound quality is typically excellent. Practically any handheld these days makes a fine MP3 player, so its hard to go wrong on that score.

Battery

The Zire 72 is powered by a Lithium Ion rechargable battery with a 950 milliamp-hour capacity. This is within the average range for battery capacities, and slightly more than the 71 used (50 milliamp-hours more, to be specific). The set of tests I used are more or less self explanatory.

Brightness at minimum, playing MP3s, Bluetooth off: 4 hours, 36 minutes.

Brightness at maximum, playing MP3s, Bluetooth off: 3 hours, 22 minutes

Brightness at maximum, processor moderately active, Bluetooth ON: 3 hours, 18 minutes

I must say, the battery performance was a bit puzzling. Competing models like the Dell Axim X3i and Sony TH55 can last as long or longer using the much more power hungy WiFi. Even the 72’s predecessor, the Zire 71, got better results on similar tests with a smaller battery and older processor. I’m not quite sure what to say. It’s possible that there’s something off about my battery, of course, but I doubt it. Quite probably, what we’re seeing is simply the effect of an extremely bright screen coupled with a very fast processor.

Input

Since we’ve already talked about the buttons, navigational pad, and microphone, all that leaves for here is the touchscreen. The touchscreen is fairly standard, being high-gloss and very reflective. It has a little bit of give when writing, but not enough to be really noticible. If you press down too firmly on it, you can cause the LCD to distort, resulting in a ‘ripple’ effect. This is standard for LCDs, so don’t be alarmed if it happens.

Software

The 72 includes all the standard software for a PalmOne handheld. Since the 72 has Bluetooth, it includes Dialer and SMS for phone control, along with Web Pro and VersaMail for internet access. Documents To Go Standard Edition is included as well for working with Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel documents. MP3 playing is under the aegis of RealOne Mobile Player, and Audible is included if you want to buy audio books. I bashed the 71 for a poor software package, and while the 72 is still marginal it’s a lot better than its sibling. For one thing, they finally got smart and started pre-installing most of their software extras, including the exact same sample ebook that I complained about being hidden in the depths of the 71’s software CD. You’d almost think that they actually read these things we write.

There is, however, one interesting bit of software that warrants further mention. It’s called Media. Just ‘Media’. Not catchy, but it works. It includes all the usual stuff you need in a camera-bearing handheld like basic image viewing, but it also plays video. More specifically, it plays what appears to be Microsoft’s Advanced Streaming Format (ASF) flavor of MPEG-4, natively, from the memory card. Unfortunately, I can’t be definite about it, because I was unable to get it to play another ASF file–the program claimed that it was “too large or incompatible”. So, we have a mystery… does it or does it not play native video? More time and experimentation will tell.

Camera

The 72’s camera is a very simple 1.2 megapixel CMOS sensor with a fixed focus at about five feet. The maximum resolution is 1280 x 960 pixels, though it also supports shots at 640 x 480, 320 x 240, and 160 x 120. Additionally the camera has a 2x digital zoom, but this isn’t very useful. All a digital zoom does is stretch the existing image to a new size, which does nothing to enhance the clarity, unlike an optical zoom. On the contrary, digital zoom usually results in more pixelization of the image.

The camera on my Zire 72 definitely seems to be off somehow. For one thing, the camera’s performance in anything less than full sunlight is rather poor. It seems downright insensitive to lower lighting, even when the Low Light option is turned on. Photos come out blurred or totally black even when there should be ample light. Second, it suffers from a ‘tunnel vision’ effect, where the edges of an image are blurred, foggy, and grey. This is present to a greater or lesser degree in all the pictures I took, but it’s most noticible in the low-light shots. It’s possible that I got a bad unit, but I can’t be certain.

In addition to still photos, the Zire’s built-in camera can also record video. Bear in mind that to do this, you MUST have a memory card–video can not be captured to internal memory. Video is of moderate quality, and can be captured with or without audio from the microphone. Videos are recorded straight to the same ASF files mentioned earlier in regards to the Media application, and all you have to do is copy them to a PC to be viewed, no conversion or renaming neccessary. Unfortunately, the video suffers from the same image quality problems as the still photos. It’s a shame, since even at 15 frames per second the video is quite fluid, and at about 70 megabytes of storage needed per hour, the 72 could serve as a quite creditable basic camera.

Conclusion

There are two things that hold me back from really letting go and raving about the Zire 72. The first is the lack of the Universal connector. I’d even feel less inclined to complain about this if PalmOne would just get it together and make a cradle for the mini-USB models. It isn’t that hard, and it would eliminate one of the primary gripes about them. Beyond that, I may not be thrilled with the setup, but it looks like PalmOne is committed to using the mini-USB connectors on their mid and low-end units, so I’d better get used to them. The second is the quality problem with the camera. I hope, I really do, that my unit just has a random issue, because otherwise the 72 is a very fine unit, admirable not only as a Palm but as a very basic digital camera and camcorder.

In the end, the Zire 72 is still a good unit even if it may have a problem that needs to be corrected. That’s what warranties are for. It has a good screen, great looks, integrated wireless, and more than enough horsepower to take on all comers. It should be equally at home doing all the things that its owners want, from playing multiplayer games over Bluetooth to surfing the web, even if they have to splurge on a Bluetooth USB adapter.

Pros:

  • Sleek and stylish design
  • Integrated 1.2 megapixel digital camera
  • Bluetooth wireless

Cons:

  • No Universal Connector
  • Moderate battery life
  • Camera suffers from quality problems

Bottom Line:

Like its predecessor, the Zire 72 is a good consumer unit with a few flaws–and with the addition of wireless and a boost in the camera, it makes a very attractive mid-range option in spite of them.

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