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TRG pro

Industry standard expansion, sound, and greater speed in a plain gray wrapper

It looks like an ordinary Palm III. Until you flip it over. Or turn it on. It's TRG's new TRGpro, and it's a Palm that packs a wallop. First let's turn it on. Looks like your basic Palm OS screen. But wait. What's that next to the battery icon? Looks like a little speaker. Tap it, and up comes a volume slider, complete with a mute checkbox. Tapping in the open area of the slider moves it up a notch and gives off a sample beep. Holding the pen down and sliding the "knob" gives off a sample beep when it is released. Standard stuff, but not for a Palm. Complaints about the Palm's weak speaker can now be quieted with the very loud speaker on the TRGpro. Alas, there is no microphone on the TRGpro. Where the Handspring Visor has a mic and no speaker, the TRGpro has a speaker and no mic. Still no complete audio solution for the Palm (to clarify, the Visor, like other Palm OS devices, has a piezo buzzer for status beeps and alarms, but not an audio system capable of delivering voice and music like the TRGpro; and even though the Palm V has an actual speaker, it has no audio subsystem). The TRGpro's speaker is intended to play audio instructions to field users, and can be used to play other short .wav files just for fun.

Turning the unit over, you see the eight holes arranged in a half-inch wide circle with one in the middle, all to give the unit's sound a clearer path to your ears. Above that, you see that the IrDA window got a lot bigger. But that's more than a window: it's a door that conceals a Compact Flash slot, ready to accept dozens of Compact Flash-compatible expansion options. That's what I call Value Added.

Base-equipped, the TRGpro comes with 8MB of RAM, 2MB of flash ROM, a Type I and II Compact Flash expansion slot, enhanced audio, complete compatibility with most Palm III and IIIx hardware, and the new Palm OS 3.3. It also comes with a few software add-ons that only TRG can bring you. If it's one thing TRG knows how to do, it's enhance Palms with memory and memory access software. So it's logical that they'd bundle FlashPro for moving applications and storing data in flash ROM for instant recovery in an emergency. With the new Palm OS 3.3 and the added TRG programs, however, there's less room in the standard 2MB of flash ROM: only 526K compared to the Palm III's approximate 850K. The presence of Compact Flash makes that less of a problem, of course.

The other two applications included are CFpro and CFBackup, both from TRG. CFpro works much like FlashPro, and allows you to easily copy data to and from any CF memory card. You can't run programs off the Compact Flash card, but you can copy standard .prc and .pdb files into RAM and run them from there. There is a feature for playing .wav files through the onboard speaker. The CF card is viewed as secondary storage, not primary.

Because Compact Flash cards are set up like IDE disk drives, data on the CF card is accessed in a standard DOS directory format, and navigation requires minor knowledge of basic DOS conventions. For example, it is unclear how to get out of a directory once you've entered by double tapping. DOS command-line veterans will know quickly to double tap on the ".." directory. Yes, both "." and ".." directories are the first listed in a CF card subdirectory, since it's a standard FAT (File Allocation System). While DOS was never double-tappable, ".." was what you typed to go back one directory, and so it is here. Thankfully, it does not appear that the 8.3 file naming convention is necessary, judging by the names of the files created by the next program included with the TRGpro: CFBackup.

CFBackup is a very simple program that can backup a full 8MB of data to a Compact Flash card in about 45 seconds. I did a test and it handled 4.2 MB in 20 seconds, so it's clearly fast; once purged, all data was restored in 29 seconds. Do that with a serial port, or even USB. It can store more than one backup, naming it by date and time, or with whatever name you choose. A machine can conceivably be reprogrammed for different tasks as necessary by invoking a different backup set from a CF card, or a whole fleet of TRGpros can be updated every morning in a matter of seconds per unit, ensuring that the whole workforce has the same information. It's a powerful tool.

The case of the TRGpro is indeed nearly identical to the Palm III, a fact which many will criticize or find disappointing. It has the same flip lid, the same buttons, the same screen icons, and comes with the same Palm III cradle. The back piece is different, however. On the unit I received, the mold was rough, still untextured, and it showed tool marks from the mill; clearly a prototype back. In addition to the nine speaker holes I mentioned earlier, there's a bulge where the CF slot is, to allow room for Type II cards. This appears to have added only 1/16 or 3/32 inch to the unit's thickness at the top, depending on where you measure from. Palm III's are so curvy in the first place, it's hard to decide where to begin and end a measurement.

Inside, the motherboard of the TRGpro is completely redesigned. TRG has asked me not to show what's inside until the unit ships in December 1999 or January 2000, as there are a few proprietary methods they've used to achieve their goals. I can tell you what those goals were, though. Their first goal was to make the unit "radio ready" ensuring that it will neither interfere with, nor be bothered by 900 MHz pager modules or 2.4 GHz Bluetooth modules. There's also an improved power supply to be able to handle higher peak power requirements like those demanded by the IBM MicroDrive.

As for speed, the TRGpro is the fastest unit to date, clocking at 161 percent of a Palm IIIx using Neil Bridges' Benchmark program. The Handspring Visor comes in at 158 percent, and a Palm Vx clocks at 122 percent. Interestingly, a Palm IIIx running Palm OS 3.3 and BackupBuddy's Cruise Control scores 161 percent as well, and a Palm Vx with Cruise Control scores a whopping 183 percent because of its 20MHz processor, whereas adding Cruise Control to a TRGpro or Visor has no effect. Cruise Control modifies the Palm's wait states, among other things, and it appears that TRG and Handspring have built the same types of changes into their units.

Moving back to the case, the door that conceals the CF slot is an oddity. It appears black and completely impermeable to light, but hold it up to the sun or a halogen bulb, and you see that it's a very dark blue or violet, but light transmissive; this is to let the IrDA signal through, because the IrDA sensors are right in there with the CF slot. Putting a standard CF memory card or IBM MicroDrive in the slot, you can still slide the cover into place, and no one would be the wiser to the presence of such vast--and expensive--storage. This cover is easy to lose, unfortunately, because when it comes off, it is completely removed from the unit, not tethered like we've seen with many Windows CE machines. At least it won't break off like many of these doors can. It is easy to remove, but not so easy that it'll be falling off all the time.

We just happened to have an IBM MicroDrive around the office when I got back from PalmSource with the TRGpro, and it was the first thing I went for to test the compatibility that TRG claimed. They weren't just making claims. All 340MB was accessible to my little Palm III lookalike. We could hear the little drive whirring away inside. What a moment in Palm history. Massive, removable storage.

Other Compact Flash-compatible cards will be available as soon as drivers can be written for the TRGpro. The unit is "CF plus 1.4 level zero compliant," meaning that it'll work with almost any modern Compact Flash peripheral, Type I or II. Currently tested to work with the TRGpro are basic memory CF cards from Delkin, Kingston, PNY, SanDisk, and Simple Technology, as well as IBM's MicroDrive. Pretec's 56K Compact Modem is also tested to work with it, as well as two products from Socket: their Serial I/O CF+ card, and their Bar Code Wand CF+ card. I'm sure there'll be many more to come, like 3Com's upcoming CF Type II Ethernet card, and Motorola's CF Type II pager card.

TRG, in case you were wondering, stands for Technology Resource Group. They were the first suppliers of flash ROM on the Palm platform, even before Palm Computing came out with the first flash ROM-enabled device, the Palm III. But before they made upgrades for Palm, they were a fast-turnaround manufacturer of products for some other handheld manufacturers, something they still do today. So it is no surprise that one of their goals when they began designing the TRGpro around a year ago was customizability with the fast turnaround capability they're known for. Not for end users, although the CF card offers a lot of expansion options. But the TRGpro can be built with certain features for large enterprise customers. For example, the onboard flash ROM can grow from 2MB all the way up to 16MB of on-motherboard, non-volatile storage.

Sixteen megabytes? Yes, though the Motorola DragonBall processor's controller is limited to accessing 8MB of DRAM, it can access up to 16MB of flash ROM. This kind of customizability makes the TRGpro a machine that can solve a lot of the problems companies have been having with deploying Palms in more mission-critical jobs. Important data can be stored in flash without any danger of loss, or the burden of having to re-sync that data if it is lost. I would dread having to reload an entire Physician's Desk Reference through a serial port when, if it resided in flash, it could be back out in the emergency room in seconds with a quick battery change.

ROM is not the only customization available. TRG has said that if a large operation wanted an earphone jack instead of a speaker, that could be arranged. If they wanted to have their name printed on the right front of the unit, that could happen (removal of the TRGpro label on the left would require negotiation and licensing from Palm). Even different color cases could be done if the quantity were sufficient. Naturally, they're not going to do this for one or two orders, so we're talking large enterprise installations, or even large retailers who want to be able to sell such units. TRG appears to be open minded about what their little TRGpro can do, and they certainly have the capability to make it do many things, so those with ideas to meet their needs should be advised to pitch them to TRG and see what they can do.

The standard TRGpro can be purchased one by one from the company's website for US$329. It's a very exciting product that will enable the Palm to do many new jobs. But from an enterprise perspective, the TRGpro should be seen as more than just another Palm OS device, it should be seen as an opportunity to work with a major Palm vendor to build the precise Palm that your enterprise needs.

-Shawn Barnett

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