The Tungsten W is Palm’s third generation wireless handheld. It follows the path blazed in 1999 by the Palm VII and furthered by the i705 three years later. But the Tungsten W is more than simply a device for grabbing your email — and other important snippets of information — on-the-fly. It’s also the first handheld from Palm capable of making and receiving phone calls. That’s right, Palm’s been bitten by the convergence bug too.
But that’s not its only first. The Tungsten W ($549) is also the first Palm handheld with a built-in keyboard — think Handspring Treo — and it’s Palm’s first color wireless device as well. It’s also Palm’s first worldwide wireless handheld, thanks to its tri-band GSM radio.
Still, the question is, does it do the wireless thing well, and will it prompt you to set aside your pager, your Blackberry, your PDA, and even your cell phone for this jack-of-all-trades?
Well, yes and no. Palm believes there are different mobile devices for different folks, from traditional PDAs to traditional phones, with several types of hybrids — some data-centric, others voice-centric — in between. Palm is positioning the Tungsten W as a PDA with a major in Wireless Data and a minor in telephony, so its market is mobile warriors looking to whittle their load down from a pager, a Blackberry, and a PDA (but likely not their primary cell phone) down to a single device.
But before we delve into the specifics of how the Tungsten W fares as a complete solution, let’s look at what it is.
The W is an attractive handheld, but certainly not a head-turner like Sony’s Clie NX series. Encased in a rounded, grayish-silver plastic shell, it looks more like a business tool, ready to compete in the corporate sector against the likes of RIM’s Blackberry, than a fancy consumer gadget.
On the face of the device are its color display and its built-in thumb keyboard (more about both of those in a second). The power button is found on the bottom right, a reasonable placement since you’re likely to hold the W in your left hand and turn it on with your right thumb.
On the back are the reset button and the door to access and insert your subscriber identity module (SIM) card, which provides the key to your wireless service.
On the left side there’s a channel used to slide the included flip cover into, and on the right side is a similar channel for the stylus, as well as the expansion card slot. Obviously, the Tungsten W wasn’t designed with southpaws in mind.
Finally, on top there’s the infrared port, a voice jack (for the included hands-free headset), and the antenna nub that’s also the home for the indicator light. On a side note, Palm will be releasing an audio flipcover ($39.95) later this spring that will allow the W to be used as a phone without using the hands-free headset.
Size and Weight. The Tungsten W measures 3.1″ wide, 4.8″ tall, and 0.65″ thick — about the size of an extended Tungsten T (see comparison picture below), though slightly wider. It weighs 6.4 ounces, lighter than both the original Palm VII (6.9 ounces) and T-Mobile’s Pocket PC Phone (7.1 ounces) but heavier than the Handspring Treo and RIM Blackberry.
Speed. The W is powered by a 33Mhz Motorola Dragonball VZ processor running Palm OS 4.1.1. This has raised the eyebrows of Palm enthusiasts since it’s neither the fastest processor nor the latest version of the operating system. But there’s likely some method to this apparent madness. For one, the relatively low-power processor draws less juice from the battery, thereby extending battery life, a critical factor for wireless handhelds. And as we’ve pointed out in several recent reviews, there doesn’t appear to be a significantly noticeable difference in response times between 33, 66, and even 150 MHz processors when it comes to the standard Palm apps. The choice of going with Palm OS 4.1.1 rather than Palm OS 5, meanwhile, is simply a byproduct of the processor selection, since it takes an ARM processor to run Palm OS 5.
Memory. The Tungsten W comes equipped with 16MB RAM and 8MB ROM, same as the Tungsten T. And as with the T, we believe Palm should start including 32MB RAM with its high-end devices. Again, RAM must be constantly powered — the more RAM, the more juice — creating just another in a line of power tradeoffs, and a possible reason for sticking with 16 megabytes.
Display. The Tungsten W’s screen appears to be the same high-resolution (320×320) color display used in the Tungsten T. It’s an excellent reflective TFT LCD capable of supporting 65,000 colors. As with the T, it allows you to control the screen brightness (hold down the function and tab keys and the brightness slider bar appears).
Keyboard. As mentioned earlier, the Tungsten W is the first Palm handheld to forego the hard Graffiti area in favor of a thumb keyboard. (In fact, Jot has replaced Graffiti on the W.) And, for the most part, the keyboard is easy to use, except in low light situations, since the keys are unlit.
There are three rows of ten keys, in the familiar QWERTY layout, above a row of five special keys (function, caps/find, space bar/symbol, command stroke/menu, home). Below that are four application launch buttons — date book, address book, email, and wireless — surrounding the navigator button.
Palm claims that the navigator button is the key to the W’s one-handed operation but I found it to be somewhat awkward due to its position at the bottom of the unit. In fact, I longed for the feel of a well-placed (i.e. side-mounted) scroll wheel.
Expansion. There are two ways to expand the Tungsten W: the Secure Digital slot, which supports SDIO, and the Palm Universal Connector. So all of the cards and accessories developed for the Tungsten T (such as the ultra-thin keyboard, modem, Xircom 802.11 Wireless LAN module, Margi Presenter-To-Go, and travel charger) will work just fine with the W.
Power. The key to a handheld — especially a wireless handheld — is battery life. Palm claims that the Tungsten W will supply 10 hours of talk time and 200 hours of standby time on a full charge and although I didn’t conduct any formal tests I’ve found no reason to doubt its figures. By comparison, the RIM 6710 claims 5 hours talk time, the Treo 300 three hours, and the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone five hours.
Radio. Palm’s included a Class 10 (4+2) tri-band GSM/GPRS radio in the Tungsten W. This compares favorably with the Pocket PC Phone, which has a Class 8 (4+1) dual-band GSM/GPRS radio; the RIM 6710, which has a Class 2 (2+1) dual-band GSM/GPRS radio; and the Treo 300, which has a CDMA radio.
Palm has announced carrier relationships with AT&T Wireless, Vodafone, SingTel, and Rogers AT&T Wireless. AT&T Wireless offers wireless data service plans for $20, $30 and $40 a month, plus additional charges for roaming and data in excess of plan limits.
The Tungsten W does all of the standard Palm functions — manage your calendar, store your contacts, and, in general, organize your life — as well as you’d expect from a Palm handheld. But it’s the wireless functions that differentiate it from its siblings.
Telephony. You may have heard that the Tungsten W isn’t a very good phone. What we found was that while it’s no match for the majority of cell phones on the market, it’s certainly capable of doing the job.
There are several factors that hold it back from being an excellent phone. First, there’s the form factor. The W is larger and wider than many high-end cell phones and therefore not as portable. Also, you can’t simply hold the device up to your ear, since it lacks a receiver and microphone (or speakerphone, for that matter). So you’re relegated to using the included ear bud — at least until the Audio Flip Cover becomes available. (Sorry, the Tungsten W doesn’t support Bluetooth headsets.)
Second, there’s the system for dialing. Rather than the standard button setup found on most cell phones, the Tungsten W uses virtual “on-screen” buttons in its Palm Mobile app. While these are easy to “press” with a finger, it doesn’t provide the immediate tactile feedback that promotes ease-of-use.
Third, there’s the sound quality. People I spoke to on the W mentioned that they heard a significant amount of ambient noise, much more than they heard when I called them back on my Sony Ericsson T68i cell phone. And on my end, they sounded somewhat hollow and deeper on the W than the T68i.
Still, it’s not a bad phone, and it does include many advanced phone features, including caller ID, conference calling, call forwarding and speed dialing (but no voice dialing capability). It also offers one-tap dialing from your Address Book and the ability to view information on your PDA while carrying on a conversation on the phone.
One last thing worth mentioning is that the use of the W as a cell phone is completely optional. Nothing stops you from signing up for Wireless Data access only — no voice — and using the W for email and web browsing only, in addition to the standard PDA features.
Email. Palm includes its VersaMail email application with the Tungsten W. VersaMail offers secure inbound and outbound messaging for a wide range of email types, from POP3 to IMAP to Exchange servers, and even your Hotmail or Yahoo account. (AOL mail requires the free AOL Anywhere app available from Palm.)
VersaMail allows you to set up eight separate accounts and supports many features including folders, filters, and sorting. You can even save attachments (up to 2MB) to your memory card.
It was a simple process setting up access to my standard POP3 accounts and getting my email. I’ve been using a Tungsten T in conjunction with a Sony Ericsson T68i cell phone for the past six months and find the W’s one-piece solution to be incredibly liberating.
Corporate email access requires the setup of a third-party email redirector, such as Visto’s MessageXpress, which forwards email (with 128-bit SSL encryption) from behind your company’s firewall. However, AT&T Wireless currently charges extra for this option. (We did not test corporate email access.)
Messaging. The Tungsten W comes with an ICQ chat and SMS messaging client.
Web browsing. Palm’s Web Pro is a full-featured HTML browser that offers a decent browsing experience. Pages typically loaded in 30-60 seconds (longer for pages with large graphics files) and can be saved for offline viewing. The quality of the text and graphics was impressive on the Tungsten W’s high-resolution color screen.
Other software. Palm provides an extensive array of extra software with the Tungsten W, including DataViz’s Documents To Go Professional Edition, Copytalk, Handmark’s MobileDB, and ArcSoft’s PhotoBase. However, there’s no MP3 player since the W doesn’t support stereo.
While the Tungsten W’s $549 price tag is generally in line with that of other wireless PDA/cellphones, it’s the monthly service charges that add up. AT&T charges separately for voice and data, and based on our calculations you can expect to pay between $50 and $100 a month if you get both, depending of course on usage. However, as competition in the voice/data carrier market increases, we’re sure to see these prices drop.
Palm’s latest wireless handheld is an excellent PDA and a highly capable email device, and while it may not make you give up your current cell phone, if you need to make a phone call it can do that too.