Product Review: Palm’s Zire 71 Has Spark, But No Fire

I admit that I was unimpressed when I saw the first PalmPilot, way back in 1996. I was given a sneak peak by the company, and though I had already become a fanatic about Palm’s Graffiti software on the Apple Newton, I was convinced the new device was a dud. With its clunky frame, primitive user interface and hard-to-read screen, I expected the Pilot would take a short trip to nowhere. “No one’s going to pay $300 for that piece of *#@%!” I exclaimed.

History proved me wrong. Palm went on to sell millions of the devices and, in the wake of the flameouts of Go Computing and General Magic, finally proved that the handheld computing market could be a success. The Pilot’s primitive features — frugal, to be kind — were part of a strategy to include just enough frills in each release to keep consumers interested while staying out of the way of desktop giant Microsoft.

Just Good Enough

Palm’s latest trick in the “good enough” department is a combination organizer/camera/MP3 player/movie player called the Zire 71 — the second version of the company’s consumer-model PDA. I’ve been testing a Zire purchased with my own money, synchronized with a Power Mac G4 350 runnng the Palm Desktop 4.1 software on OS X.

The bad news is, the Zire 71 has a slow camera that takes fuzzy pictures and an MP3 player that’s never quite loud enough. The good news is, for US$300 you can get a fast organizer with a bright, beautiful screen that takes “good enough” photos and can play music in a quiet room. That’s really the way to think about the Zire: not as a replacement for a digital camera or an MP3 player, but as a slightly more luxurious organizer.

Walking down a city street wearing headphones, the built-in RealPlayer from RealNetworks was always too quiet to compete with street noise, even with the player’s volume turned way up and the Palm’s own volume set to “high.” In particular, Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz was hard to hear, though The Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop fared a little better. Your results may vary, depending on how you rip MP3s from your collection. Basically, though, the player just doesn’t blast as loudly as it should. Palm tells me this is because there are volume restrictions in some of the countries to which it exports. The company suggests that software hacks may yet be able to fix the matter.

Candid Camera

Sensibly, the RealPlayer can be set in “background” mode, which means it continues to play while you jump to other programs, and it will even play after the machine turns off by itself. (If you deliberately turn off the Zire by pressing the power button, however, the RealPlayer will stop.) Another nice touch is that it will play even if you turn off the Zire’s sound effects for button taps and such. However, I think Apple Computer is right when it says an MP3 player should hold most, if not all, of your music collection. Someday, a gigabyte Secure Digital card will let you carry much more music in this player, but right now those cards cost more than the Zire.

As for photos, it’s great having a spy camera, even when the device lends a gloomy, washed-out air to your shots. There’s no zoom, and you’ll be surprised by how fuzzy some shots look once uploaded to your computer. Still, the ability to take quick sketches of your daily jaunts is a nice feature for a handheld. The Kinoma movie producer, included on a bonus CD, does a good job of compressing MPEG and QuickTime films to be played back on the handheld. The quality is jagged and unlovely, but satisfying nonetheless.

Bringing Your Baggage

A lot of buyers of the Zire 71 will be old-time users who are upgrading. For them, there are some nice surprises and a couple of gotchas. Replacement of the Palm’s two-button navigation with a four-directional mini joystick provides a lot of nifty ways to navigate address-book or date-book lists. In addition, pressing down the joystick momentarily jumps to the applications list, while pressing it when the Zire is turned off starts the clock program, so you can easily check the time in a hurry.

Moving all of your data from an old Palm is not as easy as it should be. I tried to be clever and use a backup card to move information from my m515, but it didn’t work. Too many programs on the m515 were incompatible, causing the Zire to crash repeatedly. However, Palm provides some instructions on how to transfer data to the new handheld, and these are fairly easy to follow. The biggest problem is that for programs linked to a certain handheld username, you may have to use a more tedious method if you wish to continue using the licenses you’ve already purchased.

The toughest thing for current Palm users is the requirement to switch from the old Graffiti writing system to Graffiti2, the new-style cuneiform used on the Zire. Because of a suit brought by Xerox, Palm has stopped using Graffiti, which was an easy-to-learn, fairly consistent set of writing shortcuts. Graffiti2 isn’t all bad, but it’s a confusing mix of old Graffiti strokes and new characters, and I find it frustrating even after a bit of practice. A version of the original Graffiti for the Zire may be a necessary addition.

Spare a Paper Clip?

My biggest beef with the Palm Zire is actually related to a tiny design flaw. With other Palm models, there has always been a simple way to reset the device when it crashes, namely a stylus whose tip is small enough to depress a recessed button on the back of the machine. The Zire’s stylus is too big to reset the machine. Instead, you have to carry around a paper clip to do the job. In at least one instance, I was traveling with no paper clip when the Zire suddenly crashed, meaning I was bereft of an organizer for several hours. The omission of a suitable stylus — or even a pocket to hold paper clips — is so disgraceful that it almost compelled me to give the Zire a thumbs-down.

The biggest long-term question about the Palm Zire is how it will fare as a connected device. Unlike its Tungsten cousins, the Zire has no wireless capabilities. You have to wonder, with all the razzle-dazzle cell phones coming out, containing cameras and even video cameras, whether the Zire will end up being a great communications device or an also-ran.

The Zire uses a version of the OMAP processor from Texas Instruments. Though it’s adequate for Bluetooth and other wireless data connections, it can handle voice calls only after the addition of some extra chips not included with the Zire. Here’s hoping we see some add-on hardware that can easily provide that capability.

No Flash on This ROM

The other issue is that unlike Palm Tungsten models, the Zire does not have what’s called a flashable read-only memory (ROM). This is important because the ROM contains the operating system. A flashable ROM can be updated as the OS changes to handle new communications devices that come on the market. The Zire cannot be so modified.

In the final assessment, if you’re still using an m515 or older Palm, ask yourself if the improved screen quality of the Zire — or any of the new Palm machines, for that matter — is important to you. To me, it’s very important, and I feel the price is fair for that. If you’re happy with the m515 and screen resolution isn’t a big deal for you, wait a while. The Zire will come down in price, and in the meantime, Palm will find ways to apply the lessons it no doubt will learn from this latest batch of handhelds.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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