Brighthand Reviews the Palm Zire 71

by Reads (107,034)

Zire 71 Palm’s latest mid-range handheld, the Zire 71, is all that and a bag of chips. Well, maybe not the bag of chips part, but thanks to its built-in digital camera it can take a darn good photograph of one. With its built-in camera and superb color screen, the $299 Zire 71 redefines what we can begin to expect from a reasonably priced handheld, and completes an impressive six-month overhaul of Palm’s product line.

Despite its price tag, the Zire 71 is a highly capable, and solid, little device. Its slide-down design, unlike the Tungsten T’s, is less flash and more substance. It reveals — and protects — a surprisingly sharp digital camera that we quickly discovered was easily up to the task of capturing life on the go. And when coupled with the included RealOne Mobile Player, it produced full, rich stereo sound that kept us coming back for more.

But the Zire 71 isn’t just about cool technology; it still adheres to Palm’s tried-and-true formula for a pocketable, easy-to-use handheld with long battery life. The only downsides we could find with the Zire 71 were its lack of integrated wireless (and its non-existent support for Palm’s Bluetooth SD Card), its lack of flash ROM (which means you won’t be able to upgrade its OS), and the lack of voice recording (for those who really, really need that feature).

Still, overall the Zire 71 is simply an exceptional device that should give the original Zire a run for its money as the fastest selling Palm handheld ever — and, along with the new Tungsten C, dispel the notion that Palm hasn’t kept up with technology.

 

Form

The Zire 71 resembles the original Zire, which debuted back in October, with a few exceptions, most noticeably its color.. Rather than iPod white, the Zire 71 is blue and silver, along the lines of Sony Ericsson’s T68i cellphone. The silvery back is metal (obviously to protect the camera) while the blue front side is hard plastic.

In a tale of the tape, the Zire 71 measures 2.9″ wide, 0.67″ thick and 4.5″ tall, and weighs in at a mere 5.3 ounces, perfect for the hand or the pocket.

On the front of the device is the display, which has a dedicated Graffiti area (although as we’ll mentioned later you can use the whole screen for Graffiti 2 input).

Zire 71

Below the screen are four application launch buttons (for Calendar, Address Book, Photos, and Notepad) with a five-way joystick-like navigation peg in the middle. As with the Tungsten T, you can press down once on the navigation peg to display the date and time, in large, readable text and numbers, or hold it down and the home screen will display so you can launch any of your apps.

Palm continues to forgo crowding up the sides of its devices with buttons, scroll wheels and the like. In fact, the Zire 71 is completely smooth on both sides; everything is on the top and bottom. And even the bottom is relatively bare. All that you’ll find there is the Universal Connector, which makes it first appearance in the Zire line.

Zire 71

The top, on the other hand, is a bit more crowded. There’s the Secure Digital slot, the IR port, the stereo jack, the stylus, and the power button. Still, the Zire 71 remains one of the most uncomplicated designs we’ve seen, and we like that.

Zire 71

The only shortcoming we see with the Zire 71’s design is that it doesn’t seem conducive to supporting a variety of cases. It comes with an elasticized slipcase, but that requires two-handed removal. Flip cases, unless clipped to the back in the Universal Connector tabs or Velcro’d, seem out of the question.

Still, we give the Palm Zire 71 an EXCELLENT rating based on form.

 

Function

As we mentioned in our review of the Tungsten T, the knock on Palm lately has been that it hasn’t keep up with technical advances; even Palm admits it. While Microsoft and its Pocket PC licensees released devices with integrated wireless, brilliant color displays, fast processors and oddles of memory, Palm struggled with business and market issues, often neglecting the current state of handheld technology. Well, no more. With the Zire 71, Palm has upped the bar when it comes to mid-priced handhelds.

Still, if you’re looking for dramatic changes with the release of Palm OS 5, you may be disappointed. There’s nothing remarkably different about its user interface (UI) besides the crisper new fonts and icons. But as Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing. Palm OS 5 is all about support for faster ARM processors and higher resolution displays.

Speed. If you thought Palm’s plan was to seed its entire Zire line with hand-me-down 33 and 66Mhz Motorola Dragonball processors, think again. The Zire 71 is powered by a Texas Instruments OMAP310 processor running at 144Mhz. Not bad for a $299 handheld, and a far cry from just a year ago and the Palm m130.

Memory. While Palm’s recent memory breakthrough is realized in its new Tungsten C handheld, it isn’t in the Zire 71. The Zire 71 comes with 16MB of SDRAM (13MB of which is usable), which is plenty for most average users but considerably shy of that found on the new Tungsten C and most Pocket PCs. Still, the expansion card slot offers unlimited storage capability.

Multimedia. Finally we get a taste of multimedia on a Palm branded handheld. Palm teased us with the Tungsten T, which had the hardware but not the software, but the Zire 71 actually delivers.

Zire 71 First, there’s audio. The Zire comes with the RealOne Mobile Player for Palm from RealNetworks, which trust me was well worth the wait. The sound (enjoyed either privately through stereo headphones or shared with the world through portable speakers) was incredibly rich, full and clear — truly some of the best sound we’ve ever heard from a handheld. We listened to a dozen different MP3 files — from Beethoven’s Fur Elise to Berlin’s catchy Blink of an Eye — but have yet to try a RealAudio file.

Palm’s also included Audible Player, which we used to listen to a few brief clips, including an excerpt of the book Lost Light by Michael Connelly and an interview with the irrepressible Robin Williams. While we’ve never been big fans of Audible (due to its tinny sound) we’re sure Audible lovers with enjoy it more than ever on the Zire 71.

Next, there’s video. Kinoma Player, version 1.5.1, and its desktop companion, Kinoma Producer, are included on the Software Essentials CD that comes with the Zire 71. We watched two pre-recorded movie trailers, Men In Black II and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We’re not sure the frame-rate they were recorded at, but they were not as smooth as we’d prefer. Also, the sound quality was only fair. However, when we ran the Performance Test on the MIB II trailer, it was quite smooth, and ran at 162 frames per second.

Zire 71 Now for the kicker: the Zire 71 comes with a built-in digital camera — and a pretty good one at that. It’s a 640 x 480 pixel, VGA-quality auto exposure digital camera that’s activated automatically when you slide up the front of the device (which is easily accomplished with just your thumb). Sliding it open reveals the dedicated shutter button on the front and the lens on the back. It also launches the camera application and the screen becomes your LCD viewer. It’s a neat design that solidly protects the camera.

The camera app allows you to adjust the resolution (160 x 120, 320 x 240, or 640 x 480) and where to save the photo (RAM or SD card), among other options. There’s a desktop component called Palm Photos that you can use to view, organize, share and synchronize photos between the Zire 71 and Windows desktop.

Here are links to two pictures we took with the Zire 71’s camera:

 

Screen. As The Beatles sang, it’s getting better all the time. And it sure is when it comes to displays. Palm has jumped on the transflective bandwagon with a color display that tops the one found on its Tungsten T handheld. It’s a 320 x 320 pixel TFT LCD capable of displaying 65,536 colors, which is the minimum required for realistic photo rendering.

Since it’s transflective rather than reflective (which is found on the Tungsten T), it offers better viewing indoors at the sake of outdoor viewing. Bottom line, this is an incredible screen that will please even the pickiest handheld enthusiast.

Communications. The Zire line continues to lack any form of wireless communications. In fact, the Zire 71 (and the Tungsten C for that matter) currently do not support Palm’s Bluetooth Card — so much for pairing it with a Sony Ericsson T68i for a dynamic mobile duo.

You can use an IR-enabled cellphone, a cable, or a Palm Modem to get connected, but it’s certainly not the wireless world we’ve all been promised. Palm certainly needs to correct this shortcoming soon before the masses get too disgruntled.

Expansion. The Zire 71 continues Palm’s support of dual expansion. First, there’s the SD/MMC slot, which is capable of handling most SDIO cards, like Margi’s Presenter To Go card and Veo’s camera card, as well as typical memory cards. And then there’s the Universal Connector, which wasn’t present in the $99 Zire.

Power. Battery life remains a cornerstone of the Palm philosophy and the Zire 71 is no exception, thanks in strong part to the stinginess of TI’s OMAP310 processor. The Zire 71’s rechargeable 900 mAh lithium ion battery should get the typical user about a week’s worth of usage between charges, or five hours of continuous MP3 playing. Unfortunately, the Zire 71’s battery is not user replaceable, and it can only be charged through the serial port (there’s no separate AC port), so you’ll either have to charge it through the cradle or purchase a travel charger.

Applications. The Zire 71 runs Palm OS 5.2.1, which provides new customization options, like color themes, and includes Graffiti 2. An interesting note about Graffiti 2 is that you can select in Preferences whether to use the full screen for Graffiti 2 rather than just the Graffiti area. Using the full screen also allows you to see your pen strokes (or not, if you wish), which will remain on the screen for a couple of seconds.

Palm also includes a new Quick Install application for Windows users that makes it easy to move files, media and applications to the Zire. And the Zire 71 comes with version 2.5 of VersaMail, which brings a host of new features including two-line display. However, this is the first Palm in a while that doesn’t come with DataViz’s Documents To Go, which appears to be relegated to the corporate Tungsten line.

Overall, we give the Zire 71 a GOOD rating based on functionality. The only thing holding it back is its lack of integrated wireless of any kind.

 

Value

The Palm Zire 71 will appeal to a broad range of consumers, including first time buyers and original Zire owners looking to trade up. For $299 you get a fast processor running the latest version of Palm’s popular operating system, an incredible color screen, amazing sound, and a built-in digital camera. However, the Zire 71 lacks the any type of integrated wireless, including Bluetooth, leaving it seriously lacking in today’s wireless world.

Still, it’s a solid handheld at a great price. Therefore, we give it an EXCELLENT rating based on value.

 

Bottom Line

The Palm Zire 71 is a remarkable mid-range handheld that combines style and functionality, while remaining true to Palm’s “pocketable, easy-to-use, long battery life” philosophy. Its only shortcoming is its lack of integrated wireless, which we hope can be somewhat overcome in the near future with support for Secure Digital Bluetooth and W-Fi cards.


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