The Palm Zire 21 is an updated version of the original Zire, which debuted almost exactly a year ago. The new model is everything its predecessor was, and more.
The original Zire has been a phenomenal success for Palm. Over a million of them were sold in its first 7 months. Its combination of low price and good looks made it practically fly off the shelf. So when it came time to update this model, those were two things that didn’t change. But lots of improvements were made under the hood.
The designers took a minimalist approach with the original, giving it very little memory and a slow processor. The Zire 21 is much more powerful. It has four times as much memory as its predecessor, and a processor that is almost eight times as fast. It also uses Palm OS 5.2, the latest version of the operating system.
I was able to talk to the woman at Palm who oversaw the development of the Zire 21, and I asked her why they made the changes they did. She said they were surprised by how quickly users of the original model had begun to use third-party applications. So she and her team developed the Zire 21, a version better able to handle advanced software.
It’s all about the software
To help get you started, the Zire 21 comes with a nice collection of applications.
The two most important of these are the calendar and address book. Actually, if you are like most folks, the reason you are considering getting a Zire 21 is so you can keep track of contact information and your schedule, so you’ll be happy to learn the Zire 21 handles these beautifully.
If you use a Windows computer and already have all your addresses and appointments in Outlook, you can automatically move all that information onto your Zire 21. Or you can synchronize your info with the Palm Desktop, an application that runs on a Windows or Macintosh computer.
One of the main advantages handhelds have over paper organizers is, if you lose your handheld, you can get another one, hit the synchronization button, and all your information is back. If you lose your paper calendar or phone book, you have to manually collect all the information again.
Another major advantage of handhelds is paper calendars don’t have an alarm that goes off when it’s time to go to a meeting.
The Zire 21 also comes with applications to help you keep track of expenses, read digital books, balance your checkbook, monitor your carbohydrate intake, and a lot more.
Award Winning Looks
Palm won awards for the design of original Zire, like a Gold award in the 2003 Industrial Design Excellence Awards. That’s why they were smart to not mess with it. The Zire 21 looks exactly like its predecessor.
It has a 160 by 160 pixel monochrome screen. Unlike the original, the latest Zire displays 16 shades of gray. You aren’t going to want to show off your vacation photos on it, but applications look better than they did on the original.
The contrast is good, which means it is fairly easy to read in medium or bright light. However, the Zire totally lacks a backlight, so you won’t be able to use it dim light or darkness. I know Palm saved weight, cost, and power by leaving the backlight off but there are just too many times when I need to know a phone number or address at night to be willing to put up with no backlight.
The company does offer a replacement stylus with a built-in light, which lets you see the screen when you are writing in the dark. If you end up frequently straining to see your Zire 21 in dim light, you might consider picking one of these up.
One of the advantages of Palm’s minimalist design for this model is its very light weight, just 3.8 ounces. This is noticeably lighter than most other handhelds. It’s 4.4 inches tall, 2.9 inches wide, and .6 inches thick.
The Zire 21 has a port to plug in an AC adapter to charge its battery. It also has a mini USB port which allows you to run a cable to your computer to synchronize the data on the handheld with that on the computer. In another nice design move, the USB cable will also trickle charge the battery.
In a typical model, almost everything plugs into the bottom because you are supposed to put it in a cradle. The Zire 21 doesn’t have a cradle and some perceptive person at Palm realized that putting the plugs on top made the most sense because the wires will be stretching down across people’s desks to reach the handheld, not up from the front of the desk. This way the wires don’t have to twist around to reach the plugs.
It doesn’t use the standard HotSync port that most handhelds made by Palm have. This means it can’t use the peripherals that connect to the handheld by this port. However, Palm makes an external keyboard that wirelessly interacts with the handheld, so it works just fine with the Zire 21.
It comes with a full-sized plastic stylus. This is comfortable to hold and cheap to replace if you lose it.
I don’t really like the rubbery blue flip cover. It’s kind of heavy, makes the handheld look bad when it’s flipped around to the back, and is just generally unappealing. However, it does provide some much-needed protection for the screen.
On the inside
While Palm mostly left the exterior unchanged, the interior of the Zire 21 is radically improved.
The processor in the original Zire was only 16 MHz, which meant it could choke when trying to handle difficult tasks. The new Zire 21, on the other hand, uses a 126 Mhz processor from Texas Instruments. This is up to the job of running just about any application you throw at it. For example, I’m writing this review on the Zire 21 with the latest version of a word processor called WordSmith, I’ve also tested a few games and the Zire 21 has come through beautifully.
This handheld includes 8 MB of RAM, which is where you’ll store applications and files. This might not sound like much, but handheld applications are smaller than desktop ones. Trust me, this is a pretty good amount for a beginner device.
The Zire uses a rechargeable internal battery. This saves you from having to worry about changing batteries but means you occasionally have to remember to plug the Zire in to recharge it. However, you won’t need to do this very often. The Zire 21 is good for about 10 hours of use on a charge. If you use your handheld about a half hour a day, you should only have to recharge it every week or so.
By making a device with a rock-bottom price but not rock-bottom features, Palm has created an outstanding handheld for first-time buyers.