Brighthand Reviews the palmOne Tungsten T5

by shawnb Reads (223,297)

It’s always amazed me how well you can often see the faces of both parents in the countenance of a child. I often try to guess at the parent’s individual characteristics from a child’s face before I look at the parents to see who gave which traits; it often varies among the different children in the family as well. When thinking about the new Tungsten T5, it’s helpful to remember that this is the first child of the re-merger between Palm, Inc. and Handspring: both companies created by the same team, but companies that evolved during their separation, producing handhelds of slightly different character. I don’t want to make a mess of the genetic metaphor, so let’s just say that many of the features we see, some that impress, and some that disappoint, are a product of this re-merger. In the end, whether you are pleased or put off is dependent on your individual taste.

palmOne Tungsten T5 Let’s just get right down to it. While the PalmOne Tungsten T5 has some innovative and promising ideas–with a few features I’ve suggested for some time–it has been called a disappointment by the Palm enthusiast community. For anyone who’s been watching long enough, this is nothing new. Palm aficionados are often disappointed that more features are not supported with each new release, and Palm itself is usually more content to continue at a slow evolutionary pace. More recently, however, that pace has quickened, most notably in the Tungsten line, with the T-series getting significant upgrades and groundbreaking feature additions, as well as the latest OS replete with small tweaks unique to Palm/palmOne branded devices. The T3 was the pinnacle of performance and capability, with a bright 320 x 480 screen, 400MHz processor, 64 MB RAM, and the high-end features busy businesspeople require. Things like voice recording and multiple alarm methods were viewed as critical to the T’s target market, with the entire T-series including audible, visual, and vibration alarms. Inexplicably, the new T5 omits voice recording and reverts to audio only alarms; no vibrate, no LED. For a good many T3 owners, the T5 is not an upgrade at all.

It does indeed seem that this merger of two different styles — Handspring and the original Palm team vs. the Palm that came to be — has produced a handheld that is at once a leap ahead and a stumble backward. Some might say it is a step leftward, with something for enthusiasts waiting in the wings. At any rate, it was not what the enthusiasts expected and desired in their next handheld.

In their defense, many of the items the enthusiasts wanted were logical and desirable: integration of the latest Palm OS, or Cobalt, would have been reasonable to expect a full nine months after its announcement. With nearly every other handheld on the market supporting Wi-Fi, and palmOne itself with an existing radio that could have been borrowed from its Tungsten C, this was also reasonable to expect. But the T5 did not embrace these technologies. Another ominous possibility for the reduced feature set could be the disappearance of a major competitor from the US Palm OS marketplace, namely Sony; but I prefer to believe that the omission is due to a desire to lower costs and simplify the body, and building in a voice record button would have required too much retooling.

What is the T5?

palmOne  Tungsten T5 If you haven’t already read the basic specs that have the Palm enthusiasts up in arms, I should summarize them for you here. The T5 is a half-VGA (320 by 480 pixel) handheld with a transflective TFT screen, a 416MHz Intel XScale processor, and 256 MB of Flash RAM. It can play MP3 files through a headphone jack or its built-in speaker, and music and data files can be stored either internally or externally on a swappable SD card. Though the 256 MB of Flash RAM sounds impressive, there are a few qualifiers. First, it’s split up into two main sections. The first section is addressed like memory on any other Palm OS device: it can handle programs specially prepared and compressed for the Palm OS, but cannot hold common data that is generally interchangeable with other PCs. This data space is 64 MB, of which palmOne says 55 MB is available for programs and data. That leaves 192 MB, of which 160 is dedicated to the Internal “drive.” The rest is Heap space, which the OS uses like a PC uses RAM, as active space for processes and open data, like Web pages or cached data streams. Because all of this 256 MB is Flash, the data remains secure even if the power goes out. There is unfortunately a problem with this scenario for users who rely on their handhelds to replace their PC while on the road: if the handheld crashes badly enough that it needs a hard reset, the entire 256 MB of Flash RAM is wiped.

palmOne is billing this new design feature as offering greater reliability for your data, because it cannot be lost due to complete battery drainage. Ed and I have both noticed that power hardly drains while the unit is off, and we suspect that’s because Flash RAM does not need to be continuously refreshed, as does the memory of a traditional Palm. That’s long overdue. As long as a person brings a charger to keep things going, they won’t lose use of their Palm device on the road; even if they do lose power due to a button being pressed inside a bag, their data is safe. That is, unless some rogue program crashes. If you’ve used a computer lately, you know this absolutely does happen, even to Palm OS devices. As you’ll read in this review, the current rev of the T5′s software crashes the unit all by itself.

By the way, for those wondering why there’s no T4, it’s for the same reason you seldom see product numbers — or hotel room floors in Las Vegas — with the number 13. In much of Asia, the number four is considered bad luck of the worst kind. Turns out the word for four sounds a lot like the word for “dying” or “death.” It’s pervasive enough that an urban myth persists despite contrary medical evidence that there are more heart attacks at work on the fourth, fourteenth, and twenty-fourth of the month, so some stay home on those days. Thus it’s more common to see major product numbers skip from three to five. Canon, the camera company, took their PowerShot G3 straight on to G5 for the same reason, and Palm, Inc. itself skipped the Palm IV in favor of the Palm V.

Necessary losses — by design?

From a design perspective, focus groups might have told palmOne that a return to simplicity was preferable. Though I’ve heard no official reason, the sliding mechanisms of both the top-end devices–the Zire 71 and Tungsten T–have now been retired. Both mechanisms were at once novel and at times cumbersome. In the T3, at least the slider makes the unit more compact for easy carry, but it too often slides shut when you want it to stay open.

From a cost standpoint, I’m sure the guy sitting in front of the Bill of Materials spreadsheet at palmOne was also pleased to delete the cells that factored all the costs for the custom sliding parts, with the specialized tooling amortized over time. Eliminating sliders lowers the cost of each unit, raising the black ink on the bottom line of that spreadsheet, something palmOne has needed for some time. Add fewer returns due to mechanical failure, and greater product satisfaction, and you can see the logic of not only ditching the slick, expanding metal body of the T3, but of embracing the cheaper, painted plastic body of the Tungsten E.

Naturally, Flash RAM is generally more expensive than regular RAM, so going with a less expensive body would also allow for the additional cost of this component.

Tungsten T5 with Flipcover Thankfully, the Tungsten T5 looks great, as Ed Hardy already pointed out in his preview. It’s a lot nicer looking paint on the outside than is on the E, and the darker, more satin finish looks professional like a T should. People actually don’t believe me when I tell them it’s painted plastic, because it looks so good. You can count that a job well done. The side-mounted rubbery “pleather” flip cover is okay; not as nice as the T3′s leather and suede-lined cover that flips over the top, but it protects the screen and looks decent. Its inherent stiffness keeps it from hanging loose at a sloppy angle when held up as if in a cradle, something I never liked on the nicer m500-series side-flippers (note that I say, “as if in a cradle” because no cradle is furnished with the T5, nor was one given us for review).

Flip open that cover and you see a familiar face, one nearly identical to the Tungsten E, only stretched about a quarter of an inch overall. The half-VGA screen seems long without its silk-screened Graffiti area, at least to longtime Palm users.

Buttons

One look at the four traditional application buttons on the front tells you that it’s still traditional to reshuffle their purpose with each new handheld. Now button one sports the little house icon, which launches the new Favorites screen (a nice browser-like innovation first seen on the Handspring VisorPhone). If you press this button again, it switches to the Application launcher. This is true for all iterations of this house icon, whether on the Status Bar or if you choose to assign it to the Graffiti area. Incidentally, it used to be that all four front buttons could be re-assigned a different application of the user’s choosing, but this particular button can only launch either the Favorites screen or the Applications view.

Tungsten T5 Buttons Button two launches the Calendar application, which by default launches to the Agenda view. As has been reported by many other reviewers, switching this default view to Day, Week, or Month on the units we all received requires you to reset the device. In my case, both times a hard reset was necessary, which blew out both the main application memory and the Internal 160 MB of Storage space, which of course necessitates a complete HotSync and re-installation of the items you copied to the handheld via DriveMode (you DID leave a copy of your internal drive on your host PC, right?). More on this later.

Center is the 5-way nav controller, now made smaller again with a functional and more direct rectangular shape. Instead of bringing up the clock display briefly, pressing the center button while the unit is off does absolutely nothing. This feature started back with the m100 and followed on to the T3, but has apparently been deemed either unnecessary or a potential battery drain. Pressing and holding this center button takes the user to the Alerts screen. On the T3, holding this button backed you out of a program to the Applications view. Now you just press the Favorites/Application button.

Next we have the Contacts button, whose use is obvious. I’m glad that it is still one of the four main buttons, even if it was moved. The return to the four-buttons-in-a-row design from the T3 design moves it all again anyway, so its location is not critical for most of us. Pressing and holding the button still automatically beams a selected business card.

Tungsten T5 Files Application Finally there’s the Files button, which launches a program that palmOne devices have never had: an actual file manager. It is unfortunately limited to browsing the files on the Internal Drive or an external SD card, so you’ll still need a program like the excellent and free FileZ to manage your main 64 MB of RAM. But the existence of the new application, and its inclusion among the four main buttons shows that palmOne is recognizing that file folders and tree structures are necessary for logical arrangement of data in a digital world, especially one that now interfaces with a conventional PC or Mac so tightly, appearing on either platform as a hard disk drive. The main memory space remains devoid of file structure, however; it’s still one big bucket for all the data and programs without any kind of order.

These four buttons, as well as the power button, don’t always activate immediately, to my dismay. Usually after sitting for just a few seconds, it seems like the buttons go into sleep mode, requiring two or more presses to actually bring the unit to life. Holding the button down for a second usually works. This could be a measure to help keep the unit from coming on while it is stored in a bag or briefcase, thus running the battery down. I’m not sure of the benefit, however, because a unit will only drain significantly if it is kept on for long periods by consistent pressure. So it could also be a bug.

Sides, back, top, and bottom

The right side of the unit has a Palm V-like stylus silo with a long metal stylus in place. The top unscrews to reveal a reset pin. I’m disappointed they chose to move away from a reset button that is activated by the stylus tip, as has been on all T-series handhelds from the start. This is another convenience for enthusiasts and power users that was likely omitted due to the switch to the Tungsten E body.

The book-style flip cover is mounted on the left, sliding in from the bottom just like the cover on the E.

The back has that reset pin hole, speaker, and two holes that look similar to the Universal connector’s accessory mount sockets, useful for attaching a sled; though these are quite a bit smaller.

Tungsten T5 Top View Top is the SD card slot, 3.5mm audio out jack, IrDA port, and the well-recessed power button. A record button and mic could have gone here to keep the voice recording feature in, but apparently they had their reasons.

A look a the bottom reveals the new Multi-connector, which works more like the connectors we’re seeing on cell phones. These usually consist of one area for data and another for power input, which allows the user to work with a single solution when at a workstation (via a cradle or cable) or to bring along only a charger to keep the unit running. The included data cable works a lot like the old Sony Clie cables did: with a single connector that has an optional jack for power input. The unit charges more quickly with the AC adaptor plugged in, but will also trickle charge overnight via the USB cable only when plugged into a sufficiently powerful USB port (some newer 15 inch Apple PowerBooks, for example, may not provide enough juice). Where it differs from the old CLIE cables is that the data side of the connector is not required to charge the unit. If you don’t need to sync, you can leave the data cable behind and plug the power cable directly into the power socket on the handheld.

Tungsten T5 Bottom View The Multi-connector’s 13-pin data array left of the power jack includes audio out to work with the company’s new Audio cradle. A 3.5mm jack in the back of this cradle lets you play music through desktop speakers without having an audio plug sticking out the top of your handheld, a wise move to help future designs compete with products like the Apple iPod.

Screen

Tungsten T3 vs. T5 I’ve found it impossible to go back to a 160-by-160 screen, or even a 320-by-320 screen now that I’ve lived with the half-VGA wonder screen on my T3. The screen is so bright, I have to dim it at night when I read news or books on the device. Unfortunately, the screen on the T5 is not nearly as bright as my particular T3. It’s about 1/3 as bright. I know there were some problems with T3 screens, so I can’t be sure how yours will compare with the T5, but all I can say is if this were a digital camera’s LCD display, I’d think every shot was underexposed by at least 1/3 stop. It’s dim. Where photos pop to life with vibrant colors and actual skin tones on my T3, they look dull and cold on the T5. Again, this could be these two units as individuals, or it could be a major difference overall. If you never saw a T3, you might never know. But I know, and it just isn’t what I’m looking for in a PDA screen. It is good for data, but not for photos. Because there were problems before with these screens, and because this is a pre-release model, I have to let you decide on your own.

The digitizer may have also changed, with some complaining that its Graffiti 2 recognition isn’t as reliable as the T3. I found some difference by performing a test recommended by a friend, which was to draw some slow, straight lines onscreen in NotePad. The horizontal lines drawn on the T5 are very jumpy, whether drawn slowly or quickly, jumping about 2mm at a time, more so than the vertical lines. The horizontal lines on the T3 also jump more than the vertical, though not as wildly, nor as far. For reference, on the Sony Clie NX80V, I can quickly draw a straight line with only a few errors. This seems a bit nitpicky, but if it’s a problem, it’s important to explore the possible causes. (As for me, I most likely have a problem with Graffiti 2 input because I refuse to use it, preferring to beam over old Graffiti — which unfortunately locks up the T5 and requires a hard reset.) Looks like the new solution for anyone having a problem will have to be the same as the old one: write big.

Audio

Because the Tungsten T5 now has onboard RAM that can be addressed like any other drive, it can hold MP3 files right on the device. 160 MB won’t hold much, of course, but it’s something. Sound from the small speaker may be better than from my T3, though it’s a disappointment that it comes out the back instead of the front. The idea of a cradle with Audio out is a very good one, one that goes hand-in-hand with the hard drive metaphor for creating one excellent audio device that will compete with a potential next generation iPod.

Doing that will require more than the bundled RealOne player, but it’s a start. It works well enough, but I recommend true audiophiles pick up something like AeroPlayer from AerodromeSoftware.com.

Wireless

I hate to keep using the word disappointment in this review. I’m quite the palmOne and Palm OS fan, but I can only tell it like it is. Though it doesn’t affect me much personally, it is a disappointment that this next unit in palmOne’s “flagship” line doesn’t include Wi-Fi. Oh, I know, they have the $129 SDIO card. But I don’t want a solution that leaves something jutting out of my small, sleek handheld computer; not even half an inch. It could break off, get yanked out, and it will still use the same amount of battery that an internal Wi-Fi solution would have, right? Again, it was probably the Bill of Materials and Flash RAM’s presence on the T5 that killed this feature, but it would have been a good move for the current market. Some would say essential.

Though it would be convenient to have two standards, I’m actually pretty happy with Bluetooth. I know I’m in the minority, but for $20 a month to T-Mobile, I can have Internet access for my Palm Pilot via my cell phone that works wherever I get voice. I’m also fortunate enough to have a Bluetooth access point. Which brings us back to why Wi-Fi is so important. There are places, in buildings, hotels, and just out in the country, where cellular doesn’t work, and my nifty Bluetooth solution is worthless; but finding a Starbucks or other Wi-Fi AP at stores and even in homes is an increasingly reasonable expectation. Suggestion for palmOne: Next handheld, give us both.

The once prominent Phone Link application (so prominent that people often missed it) is now no longer listed in the Applications view, and is instead buried in Prefs as an option under Bluetooth called Setup Devices. I know this well, unfortunately, because this setting is one of the few that doesn’t get restored via HotSync after you blow out the RAM with a hard reset. You always have to run the wizard again.

Please keep reading Part II


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