Brighthand Reviews the Palm i705

by Reads (30,290)

Last spring Palm’s then-CEO Carl Yankowski referred to Palm’s wireless VIIx handheld as "…a lump of coal." It was certainly harsh criticism for such a first-of-its-kind device, but Yankowski must have been acutely aware that even a lump of coal can be transformed into a diamond, given the right amount of pressure. And few critics would deny that Palm’s been under extraordinary pressure as of late.

Which brings us to the question of the day: Is the new Palm i705 handheld–heir apparent to the VIIx–a diamond or simply a lump of coal?

Well, it may not exactly be a diamond but it’s certainly no lump of coal. Palm has made improvements all around in this new model, from its size and looks to its speed and capabilities. So although I’m not a gemologist, I’d have to say that the Palm i705 is at least a ruby, if not an emerald–definitely a gem of a wireless PDA.

I’ve been testing a Palm i705 ($449) for a few days now and in this first look we’ll take a tour of the device, focusing first on form and then on function. We’ll take a closer peek at what it looks like, feels like and all of its physical nuances. And then we’ll cover what it can (and cannot) do, how well it does it and just what it’ll cost you.


Inside the box

Palm i705 boxInside the Palm i705 box you’ll find the following items:

  • Palm i705 handheld
  • Black flip-style screen protector
  • USB synchronization and charging cradle
  • AC adapter
  • Palm Desktop Software CD-ROM
  • Getting Started Guide
  • Accessories Catalog
  • Solutions Guide
  • Registration Card

Contents of Palm i705 box

Specifications

The basic specifications of the Palm i705 are:

  • 3.06" x 4.65" x 0.61", 5.9 ounces
  • 33MHz Motorola Dragonball VZ processor
  • Secure Digital (SD)/MultiMediaCard (MMC) expansion slot
  • Universal Connector
  • Palm OS Software version 4.1
  • Transreflective monochrome LCD with backlight (160 pixels x 160 pixels)
  • 8MB static RAM
  • 4MB Flash ROM
  • Rechargeable lithium-ion polymer battery
  • USB/IrDA/RS232 Serial ports

Form

The Palm i705 handheld is bathed in a smooth silver plastic casing. While elegant in its understated simplicity it falls slightly short of the drop-dead gorgeous looks of the classic Palm V.

But it does have a striking new feature, a wave-like antenna cap (see picture below) that runs along the top of the unit. The cap is composed of off-white translucent plastic and it houses the standard Palm infrared port, an indicator light, and the i705’s radio antenna. That’s right, Palm VII users, gone are the days of raising the flag.

Top view of i705

The indicator light glows green (see picture below) when the i705 is charging in its cradle, flashes green when the device is in range for wireless transmissions (red when you’re out of range) and flashes red–only faster–to notify you of incoming e-mail and other alarms and notifications. (A dialog box appears with details of the notification as well.)

Indicator light

In dark or low-light conditions you’ll find that a good portion of the antenna cap glows green, reminiscent of those illumination sticks they sell at concerts. I can see it now, hundreds of i705’s held aloft at a future Aerosmith concert instead of lighters and matches. Freebird!

At the base of the i705 is the serial connector (see picture below) that works with two small slots on the back of the unit to form the Universal Connector. This means that the i705 should accept most of the latest accessories designed for Palm’s Universal Connector.

Bottom view of i705

Well, at least that’s the theory.

In practice, however, there’s a subtle flaw. The problem is not with the standard connector, but with the "non-standard" casing of each handheld. For example, the m125, m500 and i705 all use the Universal Connector, but all have different depths and curves to their base.

So although an accessory maker now has a standard connector around which to develop an accessory, it does not have a standard for the curve and depth of the base of the unit. That means that accessory makers may still have to make different accessories for each Palm model if they want to follow the contour of the base of the unit.

To illustrate this (refer to picture below) I tried the PalmPix camera for the m500 series with the i705. It fit and worked perfectly. However, when I attemted to use Targus’ new ThumbPad keyboard I could not get it to make a complete connection.

My suggestion for accessory makers looking to make a "one size fits all" accessory would be to take a close look at Palm’s PalmModem. That should be your model. It uses the minimum profile needed to fit the three-pronged Universal Connector and seems to be the best compromise between form and fuction. Just my suggestion.

If you’re worried about a keyboard for your i705, don’t. Palm has gotten Northstar Systems (remember the MemPlug?) to make a new Mini Keyboard (see picture below) for the i705. It resembles Seiko’s ThumBoard and Compaq’s Micro Keyboard (in fact, all three are manufactured in China) and comes with a vinyl drawstring tote bag.

The 44-key Palm Mini Keyboard ($59.99) is one of the best thumb-style keyboards I’ve tested. At 1.4 ounces, it’s 25% lighter than most others (with the exception of the 1.3 ounce Targus ThumbPad) and at the same time it has the best feel and response. The keys are neither too big nor too small, too hard nor too soft. And the keys are arranged nicely for easy use.

Above the serial connector are the four standard Launch buttons set to launch (from left to right) the Date Book, Address Book, the wireless MyPalm application and MultiMail Deluxe. There are also individual Up and Down scroll buttons between the launch buttons.

To the right of the application buttons is the Power button, which also invokes the backlight when you hold it down for a few seconds. Unfortunately, the i705 uses that funky reverse backlighting (where the background becomes dark and the text and graphics are illuminated in white) and does not illuminate the Graffiti area.

Surrounding the Graffiti writing area are four stenciled on-screen application launch buttons: Applications Launcher, List, My Favorites (which replaces Calculator and defaults to Notepad if you do not set it to something else), and Find.

The i705’s monochrome screen has more contrast than its predecessor, making it much easier to read in different lighting situations. It’s also 1/8" narrower and 1/8" shorter than the Palm VIIx’s screen so it should give the appearance of higher contrast, despite remaining 160×160, since there are more pixels per inch. However, the blacks on the i705’s display seem a bit faded, certainly not as black as those found on the Palm m125.

As with most screens of this type (i.e. transreflective), it works best in daylight, both ambient and direct. Once the sun sets or the room is dark you’ll have to resort to its backlight, which seems to have been set to provide the lowest amount of reasonable brightness. The problem time with these screens is dusk and dawn, when there’s not enough natural ambient light to take advantage of the reflective nature of the display and it’s not dark enough to make the backlight effective. Ahhh, Mother Nature at her trickiest.

Back view of i705

When you flip the i705 over (see picture above) you’ll notice that two Universal Connector slots I mentioned earlier, along with the Reset Button in between them. (The cap on the included stylus can be unscrewed to reveal a reset pin.)

Also on the back you’ll notice the Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard slot, which is on the lower right side of the unit. The Palm m125 handheld also has a side-mounted SD/MMC slot, however, its slot is located higher up on the left side.

Some handheld enthusiasts may complain that the i705 contains only 8 megabytes of RAM, while 16 MB units are popping up all around. But the SD/MMC slot offers plenty of ability to expand the i705’s memory.

And corporate IT will be pleased to learn of Palm’s upcoming Enterprise Software Suite, which will enable customization of an SD/MMC card with corporate apps that can be flashed to the i705’s 4MB flash upgradeable ROM.

One thing you may notice about the back is that there’s no battery door. Palm has chosen a rechargeable lithium polymer battery for the i705. However, you’ll also notice that it doesn’t appear to be easily user replaceable. Aww, shucks.

The i705 introduces yet another in a long line of Palm cover designs. Palm’s moved from its integrated flip-over lid on the Palm III to the removeable flip-over lid on the Palm m100 to the slide-in rail on the Palm V and now to another version of the slide-in cover (see picture below) for the i705. It appears that the whole purpose of this change was to reduce weight as much as possible to offset the additional weight of the radio transmitter/receiver and antenna.

Cover connector

How does the Palm i705 stack up in size and weight against other popular PDAs?

As you can see in the picture below it’s slightly larger than a Palm m505 and smaller than an iPAQ. The iPAQ weighs in at 6.5 ounces, the i705 weighs 5.3 ounces (without cover) and the m505 weighs 5.1 ounces. (All weights were taken with the same digital scale.)

Palm m505, Palm i705 and Compaq iPAQ 3850

Now let’s take a look at what it takes to setup and get the i705 running.

Installation and setup

The Palm i705 handheld is relatively simple to get up and running. Within 30 minutes you should be able to set up your desktop synchronization, sign up for Palm’s wireless service, tailor your i705 to access your email and configure it to allow you to chat wirelessly with AOL’s Instant Messenger.

The i705 comes with a single CD that contains Palm Desktop 4.0.1 software and a few bonus apps: DataViz’s Documents to Go Professional Edition (for accessing Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents), Palm Reader (for reading e-books), MGI PhotoSuite Mobile Edition (to view photos on your handheld), and Adobe Acrobat Reader 4.05 (to read the manual on your desktop).

The first step in the process is to install Palm Desktop, deciding along the way whether you’d prefer to use Palm Desktop or a 3rd party conduit for your desktop PIM.

Next, you must HotSync your Palm to synchronize the data with your desktop. (If you’re switching from another Palm device we highly recommend that you perform a HotSync with that device before you even start this whole process.)

Once you’ve HotSync’d your i705 the desktop installer will automatically take you to Palm’s wireless activation page on the Web. That’s where you select a plan ($19.99 a month, or $39.99 for all you can eat), provide your billing information, and set up your Palm wireless e-mail account. As a current Palm.net user, it was an especially easy process for me to transfer my account to the i705.

When you complete registration, you receive an activation key that you use to activate your wireless service (with Cingular Wireless’ nationwide packet-based network) using the Activate app (see screenshot above right) on your handheld.

Next, you can install MultiMail Deluxe Desktop Link if you want to forward e-mail from your Windows 2000 Microsoft Outlook business e-mail account to your i705. However, I skipped that and went to Palm.net and downloaded and set up ThinAirApps (see screenshots below) for direct access to my Earthlink e-mail account.

MyPalm Portal

The MyPalm Portal (see screenshot below left) is your doorway to wireless services. It offers some basic personalization, access to the Palm Store, and the ability to download web clipping applications.

And of course the key feature of the new Palm i705 is its integrated messaging. Thanks to the i705’s "always on" technology, your email and messages find you, you don’t have to find them–even when your Palm is off.

If it receives something it will notify you with a flashing red light, or quiet device vibration, your choice. What could be cooler?

The wireless email provided through the Palm.net service is secure, encrypted on the sending end and decrypted on the receiving end. And by summer (with a beta expected sometime in February) there’ll be a Palm Wireless Messaging Server to handle corporate email on Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino servers.

For "chatters" the i705 includes a Palm client for AOL’s popular Instant Messenger service. And just like on your desktop you’ll have access to your Buddy List, which is pulled down when you sign on.

And, yes, you can browse the web, either through web clipping apps or by directly accessing explicit URLs (although it oddly has no "bookmark" feature). Granted, the current browser is not as rich as Blazer but we hear there’s a better one coming soon.

Still, you can do a lot with a few select custom wireless apps. A couple of my favorites that display the practical power of the Palm i705 are Weather.com and Moviefone.

With Weather.com you can specify a city or zip code or simply tap My Weather to access the weather wherever you are. I found this to be quicker and easier than any other automated weather solution I’ve tried in the past, including apps included with cellphones and web browsing with a Pocket PC.

Moviefone works along the same lines but with movies and theaters. In another town and looking for a nearby theater? A couple of taps and a list of local theaters is displayed. Another tap and you see what movies are playing and showtimes.

Bottom Line

The Palm i705’s critics will belittle its monochrome screen, lack of multimedia capabilities, relatively small memory and slow wireless access, and underpowered processor. But as I’ve pointed out in previous articles, devices must be evaluated holistically. A device is a sum of its parts, and its sum is what it’s all about, not simply its parts.

Sure, you can add a color screen, or any of the above mentioned items for that matter, to the i705, but it would likely increase its size, weight, and cost, while decreasing its battery life. And battery life and size are two of the most important factors when it comes to a handheld wireless device.

The biggest downside to the i705 is that it will likely show its wireless "age" when faster 2.5G and 3G networks using GPRS and CDMA come along later this year. But until then the i705 can stand tall.

After using the Palm i705 handheld for a few days I can safely say that, although it’s certainly not perfect, it is the best device with integrated wireless messaging I’ve ever used. It’s small and lightweight, highly expandable, and always connected. For less than $450 and between $20 and $40 a month, you can stay in touch wherever you go. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.


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