Brighthand Reviews the palmOne Zire 31

by Reads (195,088)

Until today, the palmOne Zire line of handhelds has consisted of polar opposites on the quality/capability scale. Despite a few internal hardware advances in the Zire 21 last year, the $99 Zires had small monochrome screens and minimal memory. Their true power was in their light weight and low cost, and of course the remarkably powerful Palm OS itself. The Zire 71, on the other hand, rivaled the Tungsten line in capability, and remained the only palmOne device with a built-in camera. Today saw the high end of the Zire line tick up a notch or two with the introduction of the Zire 72, and the Zire 31 has moved in to fill the middle ground between the high and low end.

The Zire 31 brings several significant improvements to the low-end Zire line, while maintaining the 4.1-ounce weight and small size. It’s a melding of features seen in both the two-year-old Palm m130 and last year’s popular Tungsten E in a $150 package.

In short, the major new features are a color screen, SD slot, 5-way navigator, and MP3 playback via both a built-in speaker and headphone jack. A 200 MHz Intel processor powers the device, and most of the basic software enhancements that first appeared in the Tungsten T3 and Tungsten E are incorporated into the Zire 31.

Tour

Externally, the Zire 31 looks very much like its $99 predecessors, with a wrap-around, shiny, white back shell made of thick plastic, and a simple contoured front shell.

The color of the front bezel now very closely matches the color of the Zire 71, which palmOne calls Zindigo Blue.

Flip up the included rubbery translucent blue lid and it’ll still quite often flip right back, forcing you to grab it and fold it over the back of the unit. When you do so, it still fits well in the hand, and rests at a nice incline on a desk.

With the flip cover out of the way, we see the new palmOne logo on the left above the Zire 31’s screen. The power button is well placed on the bottom left, and to the right is the new minimalist button arrangement, with Date Book and Address Book buttons flanking the 5-way navigator. The 5-way is a smoke-colored translucent plastic looking a lot like a Halls cough drop. It’s easy to use, and works better than expected — certainly much better than the Zire 71’s joystick design.

Though I wouldn’t mind some kind of grip on the back, I really do like the way the Zire 31 fits in the hand. It’s comfortable and simple.

On the upper left inside the label area is the reset button, which must be activated with a paper clip. New to the back is a speaker, with six real and six faux holes for sound to pass through.

Upper right (from the back) is where the new HotSync (USB) and power ports are, protected by a rubber door. This is much better than the previous arrangement, with these ports on the top, covered by the rubber flip lid.

The top of the Zire 31 is a dark translucent plastic that has the IrDA port, a headphone jack, SD slot — complete with a dust door/cover — and the stylus silo.

Screen The screen is a deep black when off, and the silk-screened area matches this tone and depth. As a result of this deep black, contrast on the screen is excellent. The default background is a bright white with a slight bluish cast.

Part of the new operating system provides the ability to put photos and textures in the background, allowing users to make the unit more individual. Because putting full-contrast pictures into the background can make text and icons hard to see, they’ve also included a fade feature, where you can either darken or wash out the image to work better as a background. The Tapwave Zodiac could have benefited from this feature, since fonts tended to disappear against black or white (depending on the font color).

Getting back to the screen, it’s not a TFT LCD, but an older-style STN (super-twist nematic) LCD, of the type we saw on the original Palm IIIc and Palm m130. These screens are fine for pictures and slow games, but tend to refresh too slowly for action games. In a game like Zap!, you’ll find the approaching bombs are mere ghosts that appear too faintly for you to see in time.

Resolution is 160 by 160 pixels, in keeping with the low-end of the Zire family. The screen size is also as small as the Zire and Zire 21, which keeps the pixels small. The Palm IIIc had a problem that is still with this screen, partly because of the high contrast, and that is the tendency for the pixels to “print” a pattern on your eyes when you get close to it, making it harder to read. Hold it about a foot away and the problem disappears.

Like most backlit STN screens, it goes almost completely black in direct sunlight. You can move it around to eliminate reflections and get a phone number in a pinch, but it’s pretty difficult. It works a little better in shadows, including the shadows in cars, so it’s not all bad. Brightness can be set low or high, and contrast can be adjusted in the same dialog box.

It’s not clear how many colors the screen supports, because images beamed over from the Zire 71 have significantly less nuance on the 31. The company only says it supports “thousands of colors.” The screen does flicker and sparkle quite a bit on subtle transitions and light tones.

Looking at the screen as a newcomer, I think most will be plenty happy with this very contrasty little number. But those used to the refined 320-by-320 TFTs on the higher-end Zire and Tungsten devices will think something’s wrong with the screen and reach for the reset pin. This is especially true if you have put a picture in the background of either the Application launcher or Agenda view. Do yourself a favor and use the fader to take the background image down to 10 percent and the screen will look better.

The Graffiti area has the typical silk-screened icons, with the traditional calculator or star icon replaced by a HotSync icon. This makes a lot more sense than a star, because the low-end Zires have never had a HotSync button, and expecting new users to hunt for the icon on the display is asking a lot, especially with all the new features bundled with the 31.

I won’t gripe about the inclusion of Graffiti 2, but know that it doesn’t quite work like your old Palm V. You’ll have to learn a new way to write on screen, or buy a product like TealScript to put your old Graffiti back in there. You can write on the screen or in the Graffiti 2 area, which is a nice novelty. It allows you to see the strokes as you write. Oddly, it doesn’t seem to work in the Applications view, probably to avoid confusing new users.

Performance At the heart of the Zire 31 you’ll find a 200 MHz Intel ARM processor and 16 MB RAM, a good combo for the average consumer user. In fact, Zire 31 tests quite a bit faster than the Zire 71, scoring 1172 on the Speedy benchmark program, compared to the Zire 71’s 612. The new Zire 72 outstrips both at 1765; but among the handhelds at my disposal this is bested only by the 400 MHz Tungsten T3 at 1875. So if nothing else, you can say the little lightweight Zire 31 is no lightweight when it comes to performance.

I’ll have to get back to you about battery life. I’ve had it for over a week and the battery is still at 71 percent. I haven’t even taken the charger out of the box yet. Not bad for a 200 MHz machine.

Applications

The Zire 31 includes most of the enhancements to the Date Book and Contacts applications that came with the Tungsten T3 and E, now with a few more enhancements. For example, you can now add pictures to the Contacts database. It’s a field that appears in every Contact listing. Just tap on the associated square in the edit window and you’re taken to the built-in Photos application where you can pick from available images. The picture that gets integrated is only about 30 by 30 pixels, so if you want to recognize a face, you’ll need to get in close. I was impressed that I was not only able to pull in images from the Photos database, but grab JPEG images straight from the card of a 4 megapixel Kyocera digital camera that captures images on an SD card. In just a few seconds the little Zire 31 was able to display a thumbnail, and in about 30 seconds more distill an even smaller thumbnail for the Contacts database. Not bad. The 200 MHz ARM processor is made for stuff like this, but it’s impressive to see it at work in such an inexpensive device.

It should be noted that this feature is nothing new, having first appeared in Sony’s first Clie device back in 2000. With the Clie, however, you had to keep the image in the device’s photo program. palmOne says their method integrates the image into the database permanently, a more practical solution.

As we already saw with the aforementioned Tungsten T3 and Tungsten E, the enhanced applications include an Agenda view, which summarizes appointments and to do items, with an optional photo background.

Appointments can be categorized just like Contacts entries for easier comprehension of the day’s tasks. New fields enable complete compatibility with Microsoft Outlook on the desktop, including synchronization of multiple addresses in a single contact.

Third-Party Software Bundled applications include the previously mentioned Photos app, the RealOne mobile player, Audible Player, PalmReader, powerOne Personal Calculator, Handmark Splash Money, Handmark Mobile DB, Solitaire, and Addit.

The Photos application allows you to sync pictures from your Palm Desktop application to the handheld for use in backgrounds and slideshows on the device. Photos beamed to the device also sync to the desktop.

The RealOne Player seems unmodified from past versions, allowing playback of MP3 files from an SD card. Buyers of a Zire 31 will need to get an SD or MMC card to take advantage of this application.

Audible Player is bundled and includes a few samples of programs, but Audible is a pay service. Those who commute long hours will appreciate the ability to download books and listen to them on their car stereos or through headphones on the train.

PalmReader is also a pay service, with a few sample books included. Reading a book on a Palm device is surprisingly easy, because it’s very much like reading a news column. You can even set the program to auto scroll at the speed you’re used to reading.

The PowerOne Personal Calculator is an enhancement to the already built-in calculator. You can purchase additional calculator types to enhance the capabilities of the program to include financial, scientific, or business functions.

Solitaire will likely be the most popular application, since it remains the most-played Windows game in history. It has the added benefit of teaching people to use the stylus onscreen, just as the Windows version taught millions to use the mouse.

Conclusion

Far from being crippled — as could be said of past Zire models — the Zire 31 is a very capable handheld. It has been updated with just about everything users need to communicate and work with their Tungsten-based brethren, including the same expansion and user-interface enhancements.

It’s a shame they didn’t put the HotSync and power ports on the bottom as they are on the Tungsten E, because this might have paved the way for a third-party to build a compatible cradle. In some ways, it’s the Palm m130 updated with the latest software and a new processor.

With MP3 capability just a card-purchase away, I’m sure the Zire 31 will make an excellent companion for kids and parents alike, and it should hurt sales of single-purpose MP3 players whose Storage is limited to the size of a card. After all, those devices don’t have the ability to handle contacts, dates, photos, books, documents, email, and all the other myriad things people find to do with their handhelds.

Anyone considering a small multi-purpose handheld computer would be foolish not to put the Zire 31 on their short list. As happened with the m130, users of higher end handhelds like the Tungsten T3 might have to give their expensive handhelds another look, especially if they seldom use the wireless capability. Those deploying handhelds across an organization might also be impressed with the Zire 31. A device that weighs just 4.1 ounces and is less complex but still offers the same software capabilities — not to mention inexpensive replacement when lost or damaged — is hard to overlook. The Zire 31 is the best of what palmOne has to offer in an impressive, light, and inexpensive package.


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