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Is this handheld for you?

Handspring made radical changes to the Visor design, but it bumped up the price in the process. CNET's Joe Wilcox examines whether it's worth the tradeoff.

    The ultimate in the Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury science fiction vision of the future is the computer that fits in the palm of your hand or shirt pocket. Perhaps the most compelling new entrant in this booming market is Handspring's Visor Edge.

    Palm Computing popularized handhelds about three years ago, despite long-standing efforts by Sharp and the failed but novel entrant of Apple Computer's Newton. The devices are handy electronic rolodexes with calendar capabilities and also manage tasks or conduct specialized business functions using third-party software.

    Handspring has emerged as a major competitor to Palm, also using the Palm operating system. Palm and Handspring face competitive challenges from Compaq Computer's iPaq H3670 and similar models running Microsoft's Pocket PC software, Research in Motion's Blackberry wireless e-mail pager and even from some cell phones. For the most part, these devices are designed as adjuncts to PCs rather than replacements.

    Edge, or off the ledge?
    Handspring made radical changes to the Visor design with Edge and bumped up the price in the process. One of Visor's most compelling features was Springboard, an expansion slot capable of taking add-on components that could add global positioning (GPS) functions, wireless e-mail access or game playing, among other options. One module even turns some Visor models into a cell phone.

    With Edge, Handspring made Springboard a separate component that now must be attached to the handheld. In some ways, the approach makes sense. While the expansion slot seemed like a good idea, Handspring took a long time getting a sufficient selection of Springboard modules to market, and many cost more than the Visors they attach to.

    By removing Springboard and going to a Lithium battery--rather than two AAAs--Handspring could reduce the new Visor's size and weight. Edge measures 4.7 inches by 3.1 inches by .44 inches and weighs 4.8 ounces, compared with the original Visor's 4.8 inches by 3 inches by .7 inches and 5.4 ounces.

    The changes give Edge a svelte look and feel in the hand, particularly when compared with iPaq's 5.11 inches by 3.28 inches by .62 inches and 5.77 ounces. But Palm Vx--and the new m500 and m505--has the size edge over Edge, measuring a smaller 4.5 inches by 3.1 inches by .4 inches and weighing a lighter 4 ounces.

    Handspring traded in the Visor Deluxe's translucent appearance for metallic, which in some ways borrows from the Palm Vx. I must admit that the silver Edge--blue and red also are available--looks great alongside Apple's Titanium PowerBook G4. All three colors sport anodized aluminum cases, which give Edge a sturdier feel than the older translucent models.

    But Visor Deluxe's more hip appearance and lower cost--$199 vs. $399 for Edge--could give the older model the edge with younger buyers. At $149, the original Visor has similar appeal as the Deluxe, aside from packing one quarter the memory. There are no real differences in other Edge and Deluxe features, such as memory and processing power, potentially making the $200 savings on the older model the most compelling feature of all. Both Visors come with 8MB of memory, crisp 160-by-160 pixel backlight displays and adequately fast processors.

    Small advances
    Using Edge is a fairly straightforward process. The handheld connects to a PC or Mac using universal serial bus (USB). In fact, I easily synched up the handheld to Outlook 2002, part of the forthcoming Office XP. Similarly, I had no trouble synching Edge to Palm Desktop Software running in Mac OS X's Classic mode. Classic is Apple's Mac OS 9.1 compatibility mode for running older software.

    Two annoyances: I found Edge's flip-on lid to be a total nuisance. Palm introduced a similar lid with the Palm III that made the handheld look something like a Star Trek communicator. But unlike Palm III, Edge's lid did not flip over far enough out of the way. I also found the stylus difficult to remove or replace.

    Edge's biggest advantage over older Visor models may have more to do with the software than hardware innovations. Edge comes with Palm OS 3.5.2, which offers silent alarms and faster data look-up features not found in Palm OS 3.1. Visor Deluxe and many other Handpsring models use the older version. This wouldn't be a big deal if Handspring provided an easy way to upgrade the Palm OS software, which it does not. I consider this a fatal flaw with all Visors.

    Most Palm models come with a flashable ROM (read-only memory) that can be upgraded when needed. ROM is the hardware that holds the handheld's operating system software. With Visor, Handspring chose to use a non-flashable ROM that cannot be upgraded. This is a big problem should Palm issue a bug fix for problems or upgrade Palm OS, as it will do later this year. A memory glitch put Handspring in a bind last summer because of non-flashable ROM.

    Handspring claims cost was the major reason for its approach to ROM. But Palm is able to sell comparably-priced models capable of receiving updates or fixes. Given Palm Vx's or m500's smaller size, lower weight and ability to take Palm OS 4 updates, I would pass on Edge if given the choice. But other buyers looking for style, convenience and made-for-the-masses usability might find Edge is the best choice.