Palm debuts two slim, expandable handhelds

Feeling the competitive squeeze from Pocket PCs and Handspring Inc. Visors, Palm Inc. is releasing a new model that combines some of the major attractions of each while trying to keep the sleekness of a Palm V.

Palm announced Monday the M500 and the colour M505, both due to ship in April. A key feature: Both include an expansion slot for Secure Digital (SD) or Multimedia (MMC) cards, which means you can add memory, media content, and communications functions -eventually – without giving up Palm’s pocket size and simple operating system.

But Palm’s initial expansion is incomplete. The snap-on accessories and SD content are purchased separately, and you’ll have to wait months for SD cards that add functions like Bluetooth or GPS. And despite 16-bit colour, the Palm M505’s display is disappointingly dull, favoring battery conservation over a bright color screen.

The Palm M500 will cost US$399, and the M505 $449. But if you already have a Palm and its accessories, be prepared to replace the lot, because the add-ons won’t work with the new line.

The new Palms are clearly intended to compete squarely with Pocket PCs and Handspring’s Visor Edge and color Visor Prism. Pocket PCs have gained popularity for their glitzy multimedia functions and productivity software, while the Handspring models’ easy expandability has made them an increasingly attractive alternative to Palm.

Palm’s M500 announcement comes just one week after Palm OS-licensee Handspring unveiled the Palm V-like Visor Edge. Since its release last year, Visor has been praised for expanding the Palm OS through the Springboard slot. The new Visors, however, lose their sleek shape when you add the Springboard modules; in order to support the large Springboard connector and modules, Handspring made the slot an add-on to the Visor Edge.

Expandability options emerge gradually

The biggest innovation in the new Palms is the small slot on top, which accepts postage-stamp-size MMC or SD cards. While MMC is the likely format for memory, SD cards at launch will add secure content, says David Christopher, director of product marketing in Palm’s consumer markets group.

Initially you’ll see cards like Lonely Planet travel guides and a games card with a handheld version of Sim City, Christopher says. But you probably won’t see input/output SD hardware peripherals (similar to Springboard modules) for things such as Bluetooth until at least fall, he adds.

The reason for the delay: The input/output standard for SD cards isn’t yet ratified. “The SD I/O specification is due in March,” says Kimberly Cook, assistant general manager at Panasonic’s E-Net group, a major developer of SD devices.

As for MMC memory, it costs as much as, if not more than, CompactFlash or SmartMedia, but less than a Springboard Flash module. Few SD cards are available yet, but Palm’s 16MB SD memory card will cost about $50, Christopher says.

Besides SD, the M500 Palms have 8MB RAM, a 33-MHz processor, and Palm OS 4.0, updated for SD expansion. The Palms also sport a new universal connector at the base that supports USB synchronization as well as serial, and will become the standard interface for all future Palms, Christopher says.

While that makes sharing peripherals easier down the road, you can’t use existing Palm modems, keyboards, or cradles with the new devices.

More apps in lean package

Even with the addition of a memory card slot, the new Palms are lightweight. At 4 ounces, the M500 weighs less than the Palm V, while the color M505 weighs about the same as the Palm V and is 1 millimeter thicker, Christopher says.

Palm increased color support from 8-bit in the Palm IIIC to 16-bit in the M505, but managed to maintain Palm V-series battery life, which is about two weeks without recharging, Christopher adds.

However, the M505 display – while more visible in sunlight than that of the Palm IIIC – seems dark in office lighting even with the backlight on. And it pales next to the brilliance of the screen on Compaq’s IPaq Pocket PC.

Besides expansion and 16-bit colour support, “Palm OS 4.0 includes wireless connectivity software that lets you use a mobile phone as a modem via the infrared port or a cable,” Christopher says.

A nice convergence feature lets you click on a phone number in your address book to place a call on the mobile. Or you can beam Vcal appointments. Palm OS 4.0 also offers a common interface for alarms, time zone support, and enhanced security.

The M500 includes several programs that mimic Pocket PC productivity apps: MGI PhotoSuite, DataViz’s Documents to Go (read and edit Word and Excel documents), AOL for Palm OS, AvantGo, Infinity Softworks’ PowerOne personal calendar, and Palm Reader for electronic books.

Partners prepare add-ons

Palm’s hardware partners are rallying around the new line. Most Palm add-ons will be available in M500 versions shortly after the April release.

Palm will offer a new Palm portable keyboard, a 56-kbps PalmModem, SD content cards, and cases, Christopher says. Both the PalmModem and Palm Portable Keyboard will cost $99.

Kodak plans to release a new PalmPix camera for the M500 line in late May. The $129 camera improves image quality from the VGA (640 by 480) resolution of the current PalmPix to SuperVGA (800 by 600). The camera also has a folding design for better portability, says Elizabeth Sullivan, a Kodak spokesperson.

Also due in May is the Minstrel M500, Novatel Wireless’ Minstrel CDPD wireless modem, for use with popular services such as OmniSky.

“Priced similarly to the Minstrel V, the Minstrel M500 has an MSRP of $369, but carriers could reduce it,” says Al Hernandez, a spokesperson for Novatel Wireless.

In April, Shinei expects to ship a new IVox voice recorder for the M500 series that fits over the Palm as a hard case.

“The $50 recorder holds eight minutes of voice or 99 messages,” says K.C. Lim, director of business development for Singapore Shinei Sangyo.

A major SD developer, Panasonic, has announced portable music players, cell phones (in Japan), and projectors. The company expects that SD card capacity will hit 256MB by the third quarter, with 1GB cards due in 2002.

SD: Palm moves beyond a PIM

While Palm’s SD support may seem like catch-up to Pocket PC and Handspring, IDC analyst Kevin Burden says that Palm isn’t merely following the competition. Rather, Palm realizes people want to do more with handhelds than just manage calendars and contacts, he says.

“Palm OS products made up 75.9 per cent of the 9.2 million PDAs sold in 2000,” Burden says. Pocket PCs had only about 16.5 per cent of those sales, but are gaining, he says. Burden thinks Pocket PC sometimes gets the sale because people decide they can’t do enough with a Palm. But the Pocket PC’s gains also reflect general growth in the handheld market, which can now support multiple devices, he adds.

The capability to add memory and share cradles and accessories among Palms could raise Palm’s appeal to the enterprise, where you need enough expansion to support corporate applications, Burden says. But if size and battery life matter, and you like the Palm OS, the new software and SD slot extend Palm beyond an organizer.

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