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Palm Tungsten T

Field testing Palm's new flagship

by David MacNeill

Posted May 23, 2003

In an uncharacteristic act of techno-faith, I recently spent 12 days visiting ports in Central America with a single computer: a Palm Tungsten-T. I'm the kind of guy who usually travels with a PowerBook G4, a PDA or two, a mobile phone, two digital cameras, and sometimes a smartphone-even on an overnighter. For me to trust a single computer to serve me for almost two weeks seems extraordinary to those who know me well. However, I found that fellow TT users are not surprised at all.

Having relied exclusively upon my TT for over three months now for all my PDA needs, I can tell you with utter conviction that it is the most reliable and satisfying handheld computer I have carried since my Newton MessagePad 2100. And beyond this, the TT's wireless communications features propel the little gray powerhouse into a class by itself.


For me to call a device "reliable" involves more factors than many users would consider. I'm hard on my devices, dragging them literally everywhere I go, 24/7. A PDA, for example, must not only be virtually uncrashable, never causing data loss more significant than a word or two, it must also be able to survive bouncing around in both briefcase and pocket for days on end. The TT is an all-metal design that can take a beating. Built more like a top-shelf digital camera, it has a reassuring solidity with smoothly rounded edges that are extremely hand- and pocket-friendly. Perhaps the most discussed aspect of the TT is the slide-out text entry and soft button section. When open, this adds almost an inch in height to the device, held open by two metal rails with spring steel tensioners. I'm happy to report that after three months of continuous use, mine feels as solid and holds its position as well as it did the day I took it out of the box. When I asked the TT's product manager about the mechanism's longevity he said that, according to their extensive torture testing, the mechanism would outlive the rest of the machine. 'Nuff said.

True reliability also means that you can always rely on a device to be there when you need it. For me, a PDA must pack enough battery power to make it through at least one full day of hard, regular use-not eight hours, but 16 hours or more. A typical tradeshow day for me usually starts with an 8AM breakfast meeting and ends with a working dinner followed by another press event that goes until 11PM. Throughout the day, I'm taking pages of meeting notes, verifying locations, looking up phone numbers, responding to reminder alarms, and checking email. I simply won't use a machine that poops out before I do. (I'm not naming any specific brands here, but most Pocket PC people know exactly what I'm talking about.) Like every Palm in my experience, the new TT goes the extra mile in the battery life arena. Though powered by a smokin' ARM-based Texas Instruments OMAP processor with a clock speed approaching 150MHz, Palm managed to retain the robust battery stats loyal users have come to expect.

This is even more remarkable when you see the TT's bright, 320 x 320 pixel, 64,000-color reflective display-easily the best and brightest display Palm has ever offered. The display of any mobile computer is the single largest consumer of milliamps, usually accounting for 1/3 of power drain when the brightness is on full. I use the excellent SplashPhoto ( to optimize and transfer hundreds of my favorite photos to the 256MB SD card I keep in my TT, where the snappy performance and bright, dense screen makes them pop up instantly, looking as great as they do on my PowerBook.


From the concrete considerations of reliability, let me now enter the more subjective realm of what makes for a satisfying computing experience. I'm a committed Mac user, so you already know that I'm an insufferable, opinionated snob about user interfaces. The Palm OS, even in the powerful new Version 5 employed in the TT, retains the most accessible, discoverable, and just plain pleasant UI of any handheld computer. People who know nothing about PDAs can figure out any Palm device in about five minutes, while experienced users appreciate the lack of hunting and digging to find what they are looking for. The hierarchical complexity is concealed from the user for virtually everything they might want to do with the machine. This transparency is the key concept of the Palm philosophy, and it's what keeps me coming back to Palm-powered devices as my personal choice out of the dozens of machines available to me at any given time. People who value their time tend to choose machines with superb user interfaces.

Satisfaction also comes from physical beauty, and the TT is one elegant design. Some may consider it Spartan, with its gunmetal gray color and minimalist graphics. Closed, the TT looks understated, yet purposeful. A TT is no flashy Porsche or Ferrari, but rather more like a confident Lexus or Audi.

Thoughtful little design touches abound in this machine. Like the expanding case, the metal stylus expands to a comfortable length as it exits its silo, a design inspired by the 1995 Newton MessagePad 110 stylus. The voice recording button, unlike some other PDAs, rests partially submerged in a little valley to prevent unintended activation. The power button is flush with the top of the case for the same reason. The reset button hole, which is concealed when the case is closed, does not require bending a paper clip or dismantling your stylus like MacGyver. You just insert the stylus tip into the hole and it resets. You can power the TT up by opening the case and power it off by sliding it closed, if you like. Just open up Prefs and make it so.


At the top of this story I compared the TT to the Newton MP2100, and everything I've discussed so far has been directly comparable to that magnificent machine of the past. Where I depart from this is when discussing the TT's communications abilities. Palm engineers will tell you that the TT was really designed to be complete only when used in combination with a Bluetooth-enabled, GPRS-capable mobile phone such as the popular Sony Ericsson T68i. Much work was done to make these two devices act as one with a minimum of configuration fuss, and I can report that in this they succeeded admirably. It's the integrated Bluetooth short-range wireless these devices share that makes it possible. I use the TT and the T68i as a virtual smartphone, using the TT's built-in VersaMail app to connect to my three email service providers (one corporate, two commercial) at speeds rivaling a decent landline modem connection. I also use the built-in Web Pro microbrowser to access favorite websites such as Wired News, Yahoo Weather, and Initial connection typically takes fewer than ten seconds, and the devices remain connected without incurring additional charges until I request more data. The two machines gracefully auto-disconnect after I leave the TT alone for a few minutes or simply close it to end the session. It's a simple, fast, and utterly reliable way to stay in touch from just about anywhere. Yes I admit that, unlike carrying a smartphone, my approach does require that I carry two devices instead of one. But it also means that I have both a world-class phone and a world-class PDA with none of the compromises inherent in every smartphone design I've seen to date.

My Tungsten T has rendered a flawless performance, from the Costa Rican rainforest canopy to the frozen high desert of central Oregon, from jeans pocket to snow parka. I've had an iPAQ owner get that certain look in her eye when she held my TT, and I've seen a Samsung smartphone user's eyebrows rise when he saw what my rig could do. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. US$349.

-David MacNeill

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