Brighthand Reviews the Palm Tungsten C

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The Tungsten C runs Palm OS 5.2.1 on a 400 MHz processor. It also offers 64 MB of RAM and built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking, as well as a high-resolution color screen and an integrated miniature keyboard.

Hardware

Processor It’s sometimes hard for me to remember that about a year ago, Palm released a high-end handheld with a 33 MHz processor. What a difference a year makes. The Tungsten C uses a 400 MHz Intel XScale processor, the fastest one currently available.

This power makes the handheld respond almost instantly to almost anything I ask of it. Large images are opened instantly. Complicated spreadsheets are recalculated instantly. Applications are opened instantly.

Memory While the Pocket PC crowd probably aren’t impressed, this is the first Palm OS model to offer 64 MB of memory. This is a major breakthrough for a platform that was stuck at 16 MB for far too long.

Actually, I have to point out that the user doesn’t get to use all of that. A big chunk is reserved solely for the operating system’s use. Still, I think most people will be satisfied with the 51 MB that is available. It is more than three times as much as any Palm OS model has ever offered.

Tungsten C Casing At 4.8 by 3.1 by .65 inches, I would say that the Tungsten C is an average-sized handheld. It isn’t as small as the classic Palm V series but it offers far more features than those models ever did. It weighs 6.3 ounces.

The casing itself is all plastic. I think the Tungsten C’s looks are a bit dull but I’m not an art critic.

Screen For years, Palm used reflective screens in its models. These had some advantages over the other options but reflective screens don’t look their best indoors, which is where most people primarily use their handhelds. The Tungsten C and the Zire 71 are the first models from Palm to use transflective screens.

The transflective screen on the Tungsten C looks great, at least as good as the screens on comparable handheld. Colors are bright and crisp, the background is a clear white, and “ghosts” don’t follow moving objects. As I said before, they look their best indoors. Outdoors the screen is usable but not great looking.

Like most recent high-end Palm OS devices, the Tungsten C uses a 320 by 320 pixel screen. This can display 65 thousand colors.

Keyboard Keyboard Rather than depending on Graffiti for text input, the Tungsten C uses a built-in keyboard. Of course, this is so small that touch-typing is out of the question. Instead, you hold the Tungsten C between your hands and press the keys with your thumbs. This is why these are sometimes called thumboards.

I would rate the one on the Tungsten C as above average. The keys are easy to push, though they are a bit close together. I like that you can hold down a key and have the letter automatically become capitalized.

Thumboards are still a bit controversial. Some people refuse to use them. On the other hand, some people refuse to learn Graffiti and will be very happy with a keyboard. I personally prefer a keyboard, even a miniature one, to Graffiti for writing anything longer than a few words. I find it easier to use and faster, too

Graffiti 2 Speaking of Graffiti, because it has Palm OS 5.2.1, the Tungsten C also allows you to use the new version by writing anywhere on the screen. Graffiti 2 is similar to the original except that a few of the strokes used to enter letters have been replaced with ones that look more like the letters. For example, most of you know that the Graffiti character for the letter T looks little like the actual letter. In Graffiti 2, you take two strokes and draw an actual T.

Other Buttons Because the Tungsten C has a keyboard, the buttons that were previously in the Graffiti area have been moved to below the keyboard.

Below them is the directional pad, usually shortened to D-pad. This replaces the Up/Down buttons on older Palm models. This makes it easier for you to use the Tungsten C with one hand. You can open applications with it and scroll through long lists, too, all with just your thumb.

Wireless Networking

For all its other great features, Wi-Fi (802.11b) is at the heart of the Tungsten C. This allows the device to connect to the wireless networks that are being installed in offices, homes, coffee shops, airports, and lots of other places.

I think this is an excellent time for Palm and its competitors to be releasing Wi-Fi enabled devices. I went to a mini conference over the weekend whose topic was wireless. At this, a panel of experts was asked which was going to be more significant over the next five years, Wi-Fi or the wireless networks provided by the phone companies. The panel agreed unanimously that Wi-Fi would be more important.

If you are new to all this, Palm makes it easy to set up the Tungsten C to connect to your wireless network. It comes with an application called Wi-Fi Setup that automates this process as much as possible. When you open the app it displays a list of Wi-Fi networks in your area. Choose the one you want to use and you are connected.

You should be able to connect to an access point from anywhere within an average-size house. Your range might be a bit less in an office, especially between floors. Reinforced concrete can be hard on wireless networks. In my tests, I’ve found that the Wi-Fi range on the Tungsten C is slightly less than I’m used to from its competition. The range isn’t bad by any means; it just isn’t outstanding. I suspect this is because Palm decided to pass on using an external antenna, which most Wi-Fi devices have.

Data transfer speed with any Wi-Fi network depends on distance between the two devices, in this case the Tungsten C and a wireless access point. I’ve found that the Tungsten C generally gives me an acceptable Web surfing experience even on the opposite end of my house from my access point.

The Tungsten C has been primarily designed for corporate users and corporations are nervous about using Wi-Fi because it is so insecure. That’s why this handheld has an integrated VPN client that is compatible with the Microsoft Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP).

Internet Apps This model comes with a fairly comprehensive suite of applications for making use of this wireless connection.

Its web browser is based on NetFront 3.0 and does a pretty good job of giving you an experience close to what you are used to with a desktop browser. However, this is the first version of this app and it still needs a bit of work in a few places. The only one of these really worth mentioning is that it doesn’t allow you to follow links that, on a desktop browser, would open in a new window. You don’t realize how many of these there are until each one becomes a link you can’t follow.

The Tungsten C also comes with VersaMail 2.5, the latest version of Palm’s email application. This has almost as many features as my desktop email app. It can get email from multiple accounts, allows you to work with attachments, has filters, and lots more.

You can even use Wi-Fi to HotSync. Palm has simplified the process for setting this up, too. Just tell it you want to do a network HotSync and you are presented with a list of available computers. Choose the one you want and the process starts right up.

Bluetooth There is an area of wireless networking where this model has a gaping hole: Bluetooth. As a machine designed for business use, Palm should have realized that business people want to be able to check their email away from the office. The best way to do this is to connect to a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone. The Tungsten C should have included built-in Bluetooth. Even worse, there are currently no drivers for the Bluetooth SD card Palm sells. The company needs to get those drivers out as soon as possible and seriously consider adding Bluetooth to its next Tungsten model.

Battery Life

Even the best handheld in the world becomes a paperweight when its battery goes dead. Probably the main drawback of Wi-Fi is that it draws a lot of power. I use a Symbol Wi-Fi card in my Pocket PC all the time and I can drain its battery in an hour or so of constant use. Palm’s goal with the Tungsten C was to make a device that could make it through a workday on a single charge even with heavy Wi-Fi use. That’s why it includes a 1500 mAh Lithium Ion/Polymer battery. This thing isn’t small and it adds to the bulk of the handheld but I think it was absolutely the best decision Palm could have made.

I’m a heavy user of my handheld and the Tungsten C has been my primary one for the last week. I have yet to completely drain the battery in a single day. I still had power left even on the day I set VersaMail to check for email every fifteen minutes. I’ve spent hours online and not run out of power. I also went two days when I used my Pocket PC for Wi-Fi and just used the Tungsten C as a regular handheld. The battery meter barely budged. I could have gone at least another week without a charge.

Partially this is because the Tungsten C uses the PXA255 processor, which uses less power than the PXA250 did — 30% less when running applications and 60% less in idle mode, according to Intel.

Another reason is the Tungsten C is very frugal about its Wi-Fi use. If you connect to your network and then don’t use it for a while, the handheld will shut Wi-Fi down to save power. Actually, one of my few complaints with Wi-Fi on the Tungsten C is that there is no indicator light to show you when you are and are not connected.

This battery is not replaceable, which means you can’t switch it out for a fresh one when you run out of power. I’m OK with this. As I already said, completely draining your battery isn’t likely to be a daily occurrence. For the people who want to take their Tungsten C on long trips, one of the many recharging cables available on the market is a good option. I would rather buy a $20 or $30 cable than a replacement battery that is likely to cost a lot more.

Audio

You’ve probably heard by now that the audio jack on the Tungsten C is mono, not stereo. It’s also not the standard size for a pair of headphones. Instead, it is a two-way jack like the ones on mobile phones. This has definitely proved to be a controversial decision. As it is, Palm has laid the groundwork for using this handheld for voice over IP (VoIP), which will allow users to make telephone calls with it once the software for this is available. VoIP via Wi-Fi isn’t commonly used by businesses now but interest in it appears to be growing.

This wasn’t some “built it and they will come” dream. I know of at least three companies developing VoIP applications for the Tungsten C. Sorry, none of them are ready to make formal announcements so I can’t tell you who they are but the first applications should appear this summer.

If these companies can create a compelling VoIP experience for this handheld, it could be a real selling point with businesses. Current dedicated VoIP handsets cost more than the Tungsten C and don’t offer the many other features it does.

The downside of including a headset jack rather than a headphone jack is this has given the Tungsten C less than stellar capabilities for those who want to listen to MP3s. However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t listen to music on this handheld; it just isn’t in stereo. The headset for my mobile phone works fine.

Also controversial is the fact that the Tungsten C doesn’t have a built-in microphone. You have to use the one on a headset. Really, I think Palm should have included a headset with this model. While it is true that it is targeting it at business users who might be less interested in music, voice memos are important to this group and the Tungsten C makes this unnecessarily difficult.

It does come with an app for doing voice memos, which you have to install from a CD. Of course, you have to plug the headset in if you want to record one, but the app automatically launches whenever you insert a headset.

Still, I’m sure there are plenty of you who want to listen to MP3s. I’ve tried the audio players written for the Tungsten T and all of them work fine. Of course, all the music is in mono but if you can get past that, sound quality is decent. There’s no question of audio playback being too quiet. For example, I have to set the RealOne Player down all the way to its lowest setting to keep from being deafened

Speaking of the RealOne Player, the download page for it on Real’s site says repeatedly that it is only for the Tungsten T but the app runs fine on my handheld, with one exception. Don’t use the feature in the RealOne desktop app that installs audio files on your handheld. It doesn’t work correctly and the second time I tried it hard reset the Tungsten C, which caused me to have to reinstall everything on the device from a backup. Palm has developed a new desktop app called Quick Install that simplifies the process of installing files and applications to the Tungsten C. Use this instead.

The 400 MHz processor seems to have no problems playing audio in the background while running another application. I tested it by doing processor intensive tasks like opening large JPEGs with a song playing and saw no slowdowns.

Music isn’t the only thing people want to listen to on their handhelds. Audible.com is working on a version of its audible book application that works on the Tungsten C and it should be available soon. This offers more than just books; you can also get audio versions of newspapers and magazines.

Video

Though multimedia isn’t the Tungsten C’s strong point, you probably know by now that it comes with Kinoma Player and Kinoma Producer. To test these, I downloaded a trailer for the next two Matrix movies and used the desktop app to convert it to Kinoma format.

The conversion process was painless. There is a special version of Kinoma Producer that comes with this model and the Zire 71 that has a simplified set of controls. The good news is this makes the conversion process a no-brainer. You simply tell it what file you want to convert, pick a size (Normal, Large, or Full Screen), specify whether you want it to go on to RAM or a memory card, and hit “Convert”. The down side is you don’t have any other controls. You can’t change frame rate or anything like that. If you want to be serious about your handheld movies, you’ll need to get the full version of Kinoma Producer for $30.

Converting a 24 MB QuickTime file took just a couple of minutes on my slightly elderly PC. I used the Large setting and the final file is 3.2 MB. I put it in RAM because I have memory to burn on the Tungsten C. Playback looks pretty good, though a bit bit-mappy. Sound through the internal speaker is good, though not very loud. With a headset sound was deafening. I turned it to the minimum setting and volume was about right.

Software

I’ve already covered the suite of Internet applications that come with the Tungsten C and the multimedia ones, too, but its list of bundled software doesn’t end there.

Office Files Probably the most significant of these applications is DataViz’s Documents To Go. This is a collection of applications that allows Palm OS handhelds to work with Microsoft Office files. The actual files aren’t copied over; instead, their contents are converted into a format that can be used by the handheld application. Documents can be edited on the handheld and, during the next HotSync, the desktop version of the files will be updated with the changes.

A useful addendum to this is Bachmann’s PrintBoy. This allows you to print out the documents or spreadsheets you’ve created with Documents To Go. You can even send print jobs to a network printer via Wi-Fi.

Games Because people shouldn’t work all the time, the Tungsten C also comes with Handmark’s Solitaire.

Peripherals

Tungsten C I’m happy to report that this handheld comes with a leather flip-cover. Too many handhelds are made with no good way to attach one of these, requiring the use of bulky cases. The Tungsten C’s can be flipped around to the back so it is out of the way when the handheld is in use but provides some much needed protection for the screen when you are carrying the handheld in your pocket. It slides into a slot on the left side and is removable if you get a full-fledged case.

The stylus is a solid piece of aluminum with a plastic tip and top. It’s a good size for a stylus in both length and width. It has been machined to have a slight texture so it won’t slip in your hands.

The USB cradle is pretty much the same one Palm has been using since the m500 series.

The Tungsten C uses the Palm Universal Connector, which means it can use lots of peripherals already on the market, like keyboards, cables, and cradles.

Value

The best way to determine the value of a handheld is to compare it to other models with similar features. The only other handhelds with built-in Wi-Fi are the Toshiba e750 and the HP iPAQ h5455. In addition, all of these offer 400 MHz XScale processors. They don’t all have the exact same features, of course. The Tungsten C has a higher resolution screen while the e750 has more RAM. The h5455 has a biometric security system and Bluetooth, which the other two lack. But I think these three models are comparable. The Tungsten C costs $500, the e750 costs $600, and the h5450 costs $700. In my book, that makes the Tungsten C an excellent value.

Conclusion

This device sets a new standard for high-end Palm OS models. It offers features no Palm OS model ever has before and is easily comparable to high-end Pocket PC devices that cost more. Any company looking to arm its employees with handhelds should seriously consider the Tungsten C.

People looking for a handheld for their personal use might be unhappy with the lack of stereo audio but this model is head and shoulders above other Palm OS models in many other areas.


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