Handspring’s Visor line gains color, memory

Handspring Inc. extends its personal digital assistant line this week, introducing two Visors that look toward video and wireless communications.

Available Monday from Handspring.com, the Visor Platinum and the color Visor Prism boost performance by using a version of the latest Palm OS 3.5 as well as a faster 33-MHz Motorola Dragonball VZ processor. Handspring optimized Palm OS 3.5 for additional color and USB support.

A grayscale device, the $300 (U.S.) Platinum Visor supports 16 shades of gray and has 8M bytes of memory. Handspring’s first color device, Visor Prism costs slightly more than the competing Palm IIIC at $450 (U.S.), but has a 16-bit active matrix display, compared to Palm 8-bit color.

With its new metallic-colored devices, Handspring is offering solid product line expansion for high-end customers. The original Visor targeted frugal PDA buyers. Unfortunately, the packaging of the new devices isn’t as sophisticated as their internal workings.

Current Visors run Palm OS 3.3 and are not upgradable to 3.5 because Handspring tweaks the OS to support its Springboard expansion slot and USB. Handspring representatives say they’ve again improved on the Palm OS.

“Palm OS 3.5 supports 8-bit color,” says Greg Shirai, product line manager at Handspring. “Developers said that wasn’t deep enough, so we bumped it up to support 16-bit (color), or 65,000 colors.”

With 16-bit color, Springboard modules like the IDEO Eyemodule camera become much more valuable, Shirai adds. “IDEO will offer a free software upgrade for color devices.”

Some analysts see Visor Prism’s display as less than enticing compared to the impressive color LCD on the Compaq IPaq Pocket PC. “The color display on Prism is pretty much same one as you see on Palm IIIC,” says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner. “The Compaq screen, which comes from Sony, set a new benchmark for color displays. Users won’t settle for less.”

Besides color, Palm OS 3.5H — Handspring’s version of the OS — also supports 16 shades of gray. That means even the grayscale Visor Platinum has better video and game performance than current Visors, Shirai says.

Handspring estimates the Visor Prism–similar in size and only slightly heavier than current Visors–will last approximately two weeks with normal use. Shirai defines normal use as “turning it on and off 15 to 20 times a day.”

Still, our review of the Palm IIIC shows power loss is almost inevitable with a color PDA.

Although the grayscale Visor Platinum runs on AAA batteries as do standard Visors, Prism forges the rechargeable road.

“We’ve replaced the AAA batteries with an internal rechargeable lithium ion battery,” Shirai says. “The HotSync cradle can charge the battery from empty to full in 90 minutes, but topping it off 15 minutes a day can keep the charge full.”

Handspring contends both new Visors perform 50 percent better than the Visor and Visor Deluxe–thanks to the faster Dragonball processor–making them ready for multimedia. The faster processor and improved display support by Palm OS 3.5 also suit the new Visors for videos and gaming, Shirai says.

But Dragonball, the Motorola line of processors found in Palms and Visors, may be a fading star among PDA processors, Gartner’s Dulaney suggests.

Although Handspring put a top-end Dragonball in its new Visors, the entire Palm line, including Handspring, will eventually switch to the powerful, battery-saving ARM chips already used in Pocket PCs and mobile phones, Dulaney says.

Since the Visor’s launch last fall, Handspring has touted its hardware’s value and expandability through the Springboard slot, where hardware modules offer plug-and-play additions. The Visor Platinum and Visor Prism support existing and new modules and may provide a better platform for future add-ons that support functions such as multimedia or mapping. Still, retaining support for Springboard may limit Handspring’s capability to shrink the Visor.

Dulaney doesn’t expect many module developers to adopt the Platinum or Visor Prism. Instead, they’ll wait for Handspring’s competitor to the Palm V, he says.

“You might see a few games, but I think people will view Prism as an interim step,” he says. “We were terribly critical of Palm for not using the V form factor for its color IIIC.”

Although priced slightly higher than the $400 (U.S.) Palm IIIC, Visor Prism offers more expansion options thanks to the Springboard modules and has a slightly better color display. And while the Palm IIIC is larger than other Palms, Handspring retains its Visor form factor even when adding color support.

Visor Platinum, arguably Handspring’s current challenge to the Palm V, provides more memory for less money than the $329 (U.S.) Palm V. The Visor Platinum has 8M bytes of memory, while the Palm V has 2M bytes. Platinum’s 33-MHz chip outpaces even the Palm Vx, which houses a 20-MHz Dragonball EZ. Still, the large Palm III-like form factor of Platinum doesn’t imply a sleek and wearable device.

One problem is the Springboard slot. To retain module compatibility, the Visor simply can’t slim down to the size of a Palm V, Handspring representatives say. Still, Dulaney predicts Handspring will find a work-around to improve the size.

“But for now, I think people are going to go for the small size of Palm V over color (of Visor Prism),” Dulaney says. “People want high-end features in a high-end package.”

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