Zire 71 Gets Palm Back On Track

Brooks: The Zire 71 is the most impressive Palm handheld I've tested to date.

Palms been the No. 1 player in the handheld device space for quite a while now, but the products the company has released in the last couple of years have left me scratching my head.

First, Palm seemed content simply to tinker with its designs, leaving the development of much-needed new features such as memory card support, multimedia capabilities and sharper screen resolutions to licensees such as Sony and HandEra.

Then, after whetting our appetites with Palm OS 5—a new, more capable, ARM processor-based platform—Palm botched delivery of the operating system by pairing it with the much-too-costly (albeit very attractive) Tungsten T.

Palm then backtracked by following up that first OS 5-based device with a wireless-enabled Tungsten W that ran Palm OS 4.1.1. End users may not care what OS their devices run, but Palms much-heralded development community certainly does. What good is a new platform without devices on which to run it?

However, with Palms announcement this week of two new Palm OS 5-based devices--the $299 Zire 71 and the $499 Tungsten C--I think the firms begun moving back in the right direction.

The Tungsten C is pricey, but with integrated 802.11b wireless networking and 64MB of RAM built-in (a Palm first), the device packs enough functionality to justify its cost. If the Tungsten C ends up striking a solid balance between wireless functionality and battery life, itll be a winner in the enterprise. (Stay tuned for a review of the Tungsten C.)

Ive spent the past week testing out Palms other new handheld, the Zire 71, and I think its the most impressive Palm handheld Ive tested to date.

First, at $299, the Zire 71s price is right. As I mentioned above, the Tungsten T was too costly, carrying the same sort of cachet-premium that Palm has attached to certain devices in its line since the Palm V.

Even at this price, though, the Zire 71 boasts the best of Palms current technology. The Zire sports a very readable, 16-bit, 320-by-320-pixel transflective display. I wish, though, that it was possible to shut off the Zires backlight to save power, since this sort of display works very well without a backlight given decent ambient light.

The Zire runs Palm OS 5.2.1 and is powered by a Texas Instruments OMAP310 processor running at 144MHz. This combo delivers snappy performance, particularly with multimedia applications such as playing MP3s with the units included RealOne player.

More important--now that theres an affordable OS 5-based device available, we may soon see developers producing other applications that will take advantage of the new platform.

Like the Tungsten T, the Zire 71 ships with 16MB of RAM, which users may supplement with Secure Digital cards.

The Zire 71 does lack the Tungsten Ts integrated Bluetooth. And because Palms Bluetooth SD card does not yet work with OS 5 devices, Zire 71 users cant use Bluetooth at all with this device.

The Zire 71 makes up for its Bluetooth-lessness in part with its well-integrated camera. The front and back halves of the Zire 71 slide apart about an inch to reveal the cameras lens and a button for snapping 640-by-480 pixel images—nothing thatd replace your standalone digital camera, but enough detail for casually taken or Web-destined images.

Its tough for me to fairly compare the Zire 71 and the Sony Clie devices with which they most directly compete. Sony wont send us review units because, according to our contact at Sony, Clie devices are not intended for enterprise use (enterprise IT managers being eWEEKs core audience). However, Sonys least-expensive OS 5 device comes in at $399—$100 more than the Zire 71.

It looks as though Palms getting back on track. Do you agree? Were they ever off track? Lets talk it over at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.