By Stephen H. Wildstrom When Palm Inc. (PALM) officials started talking about a "Palm economy" made up of a variety of handhelds all running the same compatible software, it sounded mostly like marketing happy talk. A year or so later, Palm is still mostly a hardware company, and it dominates the market for devices running Palm operating system (OS) software. And yet the Palm economy is becoming a reality, with Palm's licensees moving beyond the manufacture of simple clones to developing truly original products.
HandEra (www.handera.com) has joined Sony (SNE), Handspring (HAND), and Symbol Technologies (SBL) in building genuinely innovative Palm handhelds. In its earlier incarnation as TRG Products, HandEra actually built the first Palm with room for memory expansion. The TRGpro, aimed mostly at vertical business markets, included a CompactFlash slot that could hold memory cards or other devices such as Ethernet cards or modems.
The new $350 HandEra 330, a unit about the same size and weight as a Palm III, aims at a broader audience. True, the new Sony CLIE, with its ability to show still pictures and movies and play MP3 music brings entertainment to the Palm platform (see BW, Tech & You, 5/14/01, "Sony's Handheld Gets Best of Breed"). But the HandEra is an industrial-strength handheld with a power supply that doubles the available juice by using four AAA cells or an optional rechargeable battery pack. HandEra keeps the CompactFlash slot and adds a second slot that can hold a smaller SD/MMC card -- the same type of expansion the new Palm m500 and m505 use.
MORE OPTIONS. This dual-slot approach has two advantages. When using expansion slots on the old TRG, the new Palm, or any Handspring, you have to make a choice. If you add memory, there's no room for a camera, a modem, or a wireless card. Choose one of these devices and you lose the memory slot. With two slots, you don't have to choose. In addition, the HandEra can use both the considerable range of CompactFlash accessories that are already on the market for handhelds based on Microsoft's PocketPC software and the new SD devices that are being developed to work with Palm.
Another important HandEra innovation is a very clever display. Until recently, every Palm OS model had used a 160-by-160 pixel display. Sony broke the mold with a 320-by-320 color screen on its new CLIE. HandEra takes a different approach with a 240-by-320 display that shows 16 shades of gray.
The display functions in two modes: The bottom 3/4-inch of the screen is used to enter Graffiti shorthand or display an onscreen keyboard. It also holds the four "soft buttons" that are silk-screened onto other Palms and are used to launch applications. Because this data-entry area is an active part of the display, it shows Graffiti characters as you enter them, which can improve accuracy.
LESS-GRAINY GRAPHICS. In this mode, the 240-by-240 pixel remaining area serves as the main display. It's about the same size as the screen on other Palms. But on applications, it can make use of the higher resolution: Text is much clearer, and graphics are less grainy. In the other mode, the full 320-by-240 area is used for display. This is especially useful for things such as maps, which can use all the display area they can get.
HandEra ships the 330 with a nice assortment of software, including a program for moving files between main memory and storage cards. It also includes Cutting Edge Software's QuickOffice, which lets you view and edit Microsoft Word and Excel documents that are downloaded to your handheld when you sync with a desktop PC.
My only real complaint with the 330 is its use of the increasingly obsolete serial port for synchronization. Even Palm's latest models finally let go of the serial cable in favor of the newer, faster, and much easier to use universal serial bus. With serial ports beginning to disappear from new computers, especially laptops, the 330's use of a serial cable can be a real drawback. And it gives a bit of a quaint feel to a product that's otherwise helping to lead the Palm economy forward. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online