Brighthand Reviews the Palm Zire

by Reads (29,706)

Earlier this week, Palm Inc. released the Palm Zire, its first new entry-level model since the release of the m105 about 18 months ago.

The Zire just barely squeaks under the $100 mark, an important psychological point for buyers. In order to meet this price, Palm included just the features it thinks entry-level users need.

It has a 160 by 160 pixel grayscale screen and 2 MB of memory. Its white plastic casing was designed to appeal to both men and women. Rather than using AAA batteries like typical inexpensive handhelds, the Zire has an internal rechargeable battery.

While Palm calls this the Zire, that’s actually the name of its product line. It’s a bit like saying you drive an Accord, not an Accord LX. The full name of this handheld is the Palm Zire m150, but don’t expect to see it advertised under this name. I suspect this designation will mostly be used by Palm’s tech support people so they know exactly what handheld they are dealing with.

What’s in the box

  • Palm Zire handheld
  • Protective flip lid
  • Stylus
  • Mini-USB to USB HotSync cable
  • Power adapter for charging
  • Installation CD-ROM
  • Instruction manuals

Specifications

The basic specifications of the Palm Zire m150 are:

  • 16 MHz Motorola Dragonball EZ processor
  • Palm OS version 4.1
  • Grayscale LCD (160 pixels by 160 pixels)
  • 4.4 inches by 2.9 inches by .6 inches
  • 3.8 ounces
  • 2 MB RAM
  • 2 MB ROM (4 MB for International versions)
  • Rechargeable lithium-ion battery
  • Mini USB and IrDA Serial ports

On the outside

As I mentioned earlier, the white casing on the Zire was designed to appeal to both men and women. I think there was some heavy influence from Apple’s iPod, which has been quite successful, though I don’t know how much of that can be credited to its design.

When people talk about handheld design, the Palm V almost always comes up, as it was a watershed in that area. The Zire is roughly the same size as a V, though it’s a bit thicker. It’s comfortable to hold, resting nicely in your hand, and it rides easily in a pants or shirt pocket as well.

One of the advantages of Palm’s minimalist design for this model is it’s very light weight, just 3.8 ounces. Really, I was surprised by just how light the Zire was. It almost feels like it will float off my hand, especially after getting used to heavier handhelds.

One of the features of the Zire that has sparked tons of controversy is its two application buttons on the front, rather that the four typically found on a Palm OS handheld. Palm says this was to emphasize the two applications that entry-level users use most: Address Book and Date Book. Critics say that many games require four hardware buttons.

What do I say? I say game playing is pretty much moot on this model, no matter how many buttons it has. The games that require four buttons are typically arcade-style ones like Zap!2000, and the 16 MHz processor on this model makes those painfully slow. The Zire can handle card games and things like that but not much more.

The Zire has a 160 by 160 pixel, grayscale screen that’s slightly smaller than the one Palm uses on its high-end models, but is about the same size as the one on Palm’s previous entry-level handhelds, the m100 and m105. 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.

This is probably my biggest beef with this model. 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 driving in my car at night to be willing to put up with no backlight.

When it comes to plugging things in, Palm has totally changed the orientation of this model compared to the typical handheld. In a typical model, almost everything plugs into the bottom because you are supposed to put it in a cradle. The Zire 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. This way they wires don’t have to twist around the bottom to reach the plugs.

The Zire 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 (Macintosh or Windows) to synchronize the data on the handheld with that on the computer. In another nice design move, this will also trickle charge the battery.

The back is almost completely plain, with just the product sticker, reset hole, and slot for the flip cover to make it interesting.

It comes with a full-sized plastic stylus. This doesn’t have a reset pin built into it but I didn’t really expect one on an entry-level model. You’ll just have to dig up a paper clip if your Zire locks up.

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. I think Palm would be better off dumping the whole idea of a rubbery flip cover on the next model. In the mean time, I predict a thriving business in replacement flip covers.

On the inside

The Zire has just 2 MB of memory, which some have said is way too little. However, I’ll buy into Palm’s argument that this is plenty for beginners. It’s certainly enough to store more addresses and calendar entries than anyone is likely to put in. To give you some idea, my Address Book has hundreds of entries and is only 21 K.

This leaves you with enough room to add some extra programs like some simple games, which, like I mentioned earlier, is all the Zire can handle. You could also use it as an ebook reader. I’ve got a couple of books on my handheld in Palm DOC format and neither of them is over 200 K. And these are whole books, not short stories.

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 other nice side effect of the minimalistic approach Palm’s designers took with this model is it uses remarkably little power. It has only a 16 MHz processor, which draws very little current. The backlight is a big source of power drain but the Zire doesn’t have one of these. Color screens use a lot of power but this model doesn’t have one of these, either. Even RAM draws power so by keeping this down to a mimimum. In short, the Zire may use the least amount of power of any handheld Palm has made since its very first model.

I’ve been using a Zire as much as physically possible since I got it and the internal battery has so far completely defeated my attempts to drain it. I think just leaving a handheld on until its battery is drained isn’t a realistic test, so I’ve been intermittently using this one over the last several days and using an application called UpTime to track how much time it’s active. At this point, it has run for over 22 hours and the battery meter shows it’s nowhere near empty. Being conservative, I’d say you’d definitely get 25 hours of use out of a Zire before needing to recharge and possibly even 30 hours. The usual estimate is someone uses their handheld for 30 minutes a day so you might get away with charging a Zire only once every couple of months. Compared with handhelds that have to be charged almost every day, this is phenomenal.

I’ve mentioned the 16 MHz processor a couple of times and I wanted to make sure you don’t go away thinking the Zire is unusably slow. Its processor is easily capable of handling the Address Book and Date Book, the two applications Palm says entry-level buyers will mostly use. It’s only when you start using games and other processor-intensive applications that you run into performance issues.

The bottom line

I think the Zire is a good handheld… for what it is. It’s an entry level model that only tries to deliver a minimal set of features. It comes in an attractive package that’s fairly small — and definitely light weight. It’s been created to fit the needs of people who want to replace their paper calendars and address books with something smaller and more functional, and it fits that description to a T. However, I think it’s just a bit overpriced when compared with other entry-level models. Hopefully the price will soon drop down to about $80, which is right where I think it should be.


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