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Palm m515

Improved screen, double the RAM make a great color PDA

by Shawn Barnett

March 4, 12:01 am EST

Both a fix and an upgrade, the m515 is a worthy investment. The already popular m505 is replaced with a device that finally has an excellent screen and 16MB RAM.

Physically the new device is identical to the m505, with its anodized aluminum case and top-accessible SD slot. It is the same weight, speed, and color. It's all about that new screen.

In the photo below, both the m505 (left) and the m515 (right) have their frontlights on. The light source is 2.5 feet from a shaded window on a sunny day around noon. The units are lying flat on a table.

I spent a considerable amount of time trying to analyze and explain what was wrong with the m505 screen when it was announced in March 2001 (see my Screen Test). I wanted to love it, but I just couldn't. In too many lighting situations it just didn't perform. Contrast was too low because the frontlight just wasn't strong enough. When compared to the other color screens of the time, including the Compaq iPAQ and Sony CLIE N710C, the Palm m505 was a muddy disappointment.

When you went outside with it, it got even worse, because long before the daylight could penetrate the screen's coating, the frontlight was no longer visible. Yes, it was the slimmest color device to come along, an impressive achievement, but if a portable device's main user interface is difficult to use in most lighting situations, it might as well not be portable at all.

I'm pleased to report that the m515 has vanquished all concern about brightness. Palm has even seen fit to allow for user choice. We can now choose Off, Low, or High for frontlight settings; when set to the latter two, illumination comes on automatically when the unit is powered up. Even set to Low the m515 is brighter than the m505, which lacked any brightness choice at all. Users will want to choose low when on long trips for longer battery life.

There is now some shadowing left and right when viewed from a lower angle, but make yourself perpendicular or higher on the screen and they're barely noticeable. Because the lights are actually behind the Graffiti area, this is normal, something exhibited on the Sony N-series CLIEs as well (the iPAQ is sidelit, and with a lot more light, so this effect is less pronounced).

Interestingly, when comparing them outdoors in full and direct sunlight, the m505 is slightly more contrasty and clear, but the tradeoff for viewability in more lighting situations is well worth it, since the m515 is otherwise always more contrasty than its predecessor.

One note: just after removal from the cradle, pressing the power button often resulted in the m515 coming on with the frontlight off. Pressing and holding the power button returned it to the High setting. So far, the "no USB HotSync" bug has not surfaced with my demo unit. This was exhibited with the m505 early on, but replacing the original cradle with a "Rev. E" cradle has solved that problem for all units tested.

Necessary Losses

As a result of the changes, we've lost a nice feature of the m505: the lighted Graffiti area. In darkness, it was helpful to have the illuminated icons and Graffiti area outlines, so you could see what you were doing. But there must have been a reason they omitted it. It may be that some of the brightness gained in the m515 is due to moving the lights up a half an inch, thus shortening the light guide (the long wedge that directs the light as evenly as possible across the screen), which increases the light that reaches the screen.

Whatever the reason, the results are dramatic and make the m515 an excellent and very usable Palm OS device, like it really needed to be the first time around. 16MB RAM makes it worth the upgrade, able to hold more onboard in the coolest and smallest of color devices. SD gives it even more room. I can now give Palm's flagship color device the Palm Editor's Seal of Approval.

-Shawn Barnett

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