PalmOne introduced the inexpensive Zire line two years ago in an effort to lure more consumers into the handheld market. The strategy worked, and the Zire quickly became the company's best-selling PDA (at least until the Sony CLIE PEG-TJ27, which offers a higher-resolution screen, more memory, and an integrated camera.
The stylish, blue PalmOne Zire 31 is slightly bigger (4.4 by 2.9 by 0.6 inches; 4.1 ounces) than the Zire 21. Still, this incredibly compact and light PDA feels comfortable in the hand and will have no problem riding shotgun, whether tucked into your pocket or stowed away in your bag. A five-way navigation keypad and two shortcut buttons sit below the screen, and they were both easy to use one-handed.
The 160x160-pixel color display sits front and center. The screen is bright, but with its low resolution, images weren't always clearly defined, and eyestrain set in after extended use. By comparison, the TJ27 sports a 320x320-pixel, 65,536-color display that produced sharp images. PalmOne includes a flexible screen cover, but if you want a sturdier structure, you'll need to spend $15 on a carrying case.
As noted, the Zire 31 supports audio playback via RealOne Mobile Player (MP3s and RealOne audio, no video playback), and we're glad to see that PalmOne integrated an SDIO/MMC expansion slot and a 3.5mm stereo jack that accepts Walkman-style headphones. Both are located on the top of the device. The slot is deeply recessed into the case, making it difficult to insert and remove the card--a minor but noticeable inconvenience.
The Zire runs the most current Palm OS 5.2.8 and the latest Contacts and Calendar apps, which sync better with Microsoft Outlook than their predecessors do and have enhanced features, too. Also onboard are Tasks, Memos, and Note Pad, along with extras such as Handmark Splash Money to track expenses, PalmOne Photos to view and share pics, Palm Reader for eBooks, and Solitaire.
Thanks to the Zire 31's robust Intel Cotulla 200MHz processor, we had no problem operating these programs and suffered no delays when switching between apps. The 16MB of memory (14MB of which are user accessible) provide plenty of space to store contacts and to add apps. Audio quality was also impressive, as MP3s played clearly and loudly through the device's speakers.
For CNET Labs' tests, we installed Kinoma Video Player and looped a video clip, with screen brightness set at 50 percent. The battery called it quits after 2 hours, 50 minutes, which isn't great, but the Zire 31 isn't meant to be a full multimedia device. When playing MP3s, the unit's performance improved, clocking in at 3 hours, 20 minutes. The company says the rechargeable (non-user-replaceable) battery should last up to one week with normal use.
The Zire 31 is a good fit for anyone on a budget looking to organize his or her life without all the frills of a full-featured PDA. But if you're looking for a better buy, the TJ27 holds an edge over the 31 with the added camera and enhanced features at just $50 more.