Palm fans have been waiting impatiently to see the company's answer to the innovative new PDAs from Handspring, Compaq, and others. But while Palm's latest model, the m500, offers an expansion card slot and a smattering of nice refinements, it lacks the sort of innovation we had hoped for. In fact, with the m500's predecessor, the Palm Vx, for sale at discounted prices, smart shoppers will likely find themselves choosing between the older Palm model and the flashy newer models from other manufacturers. Palm fans have been waiting impatiently to see the company's answer to the innovative new PDAs from Handspring, Compaq, and others. But while Palm's latest model, the m500, offers an expansion card slot and a smattering of nice refinements, it lacks the sort of innovation we had hoped for. In fact, with the m500's predecessor, the Palm Vx, for sale at discounted prices, smart shoppers will likely find themselves choosing between the older Palm model and the flashy newer models from other manufacturers.
With its elegant, brushed-aluminum case, the m500 looks nearly identical to the Vx, although it's a hair shorter and wider. Inside is a 33MHz Dragonball VZ processor. On the Quartus benchmark test, the m500 did not fare well. However, that may be due to an incompatibility between the application and the new Palm OS 4. The m500 is as fast as or faster than the Handspring Visor Edge when searching for words and playing the first level of the game Dreadling. But Dreadling, too, is incompatible with OS 4 and crashes after one level.
Along the top of the m500, there's a slot that accepts either MultiMedia Cards or Secure Digital cards, though Palm includes only a dummy card in the package. These cards are a handy way to bring big databases with you, including city guides or the Physician's Desk Reference. But many people will find that the provided 8MB of internal storage is more than enough room for contacts, calendar, and some extra applications. For many apps, you won't even notice that the PDA automatically copies the file from the card to the RAM to run, then automatically deletes the file when you close it. In addition to the card slot, we have seen prototype wireless modems and digital cameras that attach to the connector on the bottom of the m500. If such prototypes become real products, the ability to simultaneously attach both an add-on and a card could be useful.
The m500's monochrome screen is less green than that of the Vx and has a digitizer made of plastic instead of glass (the digitizer sits on top of the LCD and recognizes the taps of the stylus). According to Palm, the plastic version is more flexible and less likely to crack if you accidentally drop your Palm.
A new buzz
Our favorite new feature on the m500 is the vibrating and flashing alarm. If you're in a meeting and want a silent alarm, you can choose to be notified by setting the power button on top of the device to flash green or have the whole PDA shake. However, the built-in speaker is quite a bit louder than that of the old Vx, so you can use this handheld as an alarm clock while you're on the road. Its rechargeable lithium-polymer battery should last close to a month between charges, so you won't need to bring a charger on trips.
On the software side, the m500 is the first Palm device to run OS 4. USB HotSync support is now built into the OS. Mac users will rejoice at the fact that the m500 comes with a USB cradle. Other changes include the ability to call up the onscreen keyboard and use both keyboard taps and Graffiti strokes simultaneously to enter text. This is very handy if you're fast at writing Graffiti letters but have trouble remembering odd characters, carriage returns, and the like. There's also a new screen that lets you clear all your alarms with a single tap of the stylus as you can with the Pocket PC. Previously, you needed to clear each alarm screen individually. Palm also claims that OS 4 will encrypt your personal data for better security.
In addition to the signature applications, such as Address Book, Calendar, and Expense, which are already installed on the device, the m500 also comes with two CDs with extra software. The CDs include the Palm Mobile Connectivity Software for connecting your Palm to your cell phone to access the Internet, Palm Desktop 4.0.1, and the conduit software to sync with Microsoft Outlook.
The m500 is elegant, and it works like a dream except for the incompatible software. (Publishers have been pretty quick to update popular applications for new versions of the OS in the past, but you might want to wait a few months before buying.) The nearly identical Palm Vx is now available for $299, $100 less than the m500. If you're content with a monochrome PDA and don't need the expansion card slot, the earlier item is a better deal. And if you're not that concerned about the cost but would prefer more features, then consider either Palm's color m505 ($449) or Sony's new CLIE PEG-N710C ($499).
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