Posted May 20, 2003
Palm's Tungsten W is a fine PDA, a good data communicator, and a handy Web device that can also be used as a phone. Unlike other recent convergence devices, it does the work of a PDA first, then focuses on voice communication. I've spent quite a bit of time with the device, but even after only a few hours, I found myself wondering why Palm didn't take it just a few steps further toward making the W a better phone, because it has some features that few others have.
Long in development, the Tungsten W was meant as a follow on to the data-only Palm i705. While refined, only months after its release parts of its design already seem aged, as it is clearly an amalgam of old and new. Despite its gorgeous 320 x 320 64K color frontlit TFT display and Palm OS 5-style icons (perhaps better called Palm Solutions Group icons, since they appear on no other Palm OS licensee devices), the W only runs Palm OS 4.1.1 using a Dragonball 33 MHz processor. It is arguable that the decision was made to use Dragonball to maintain a longer battery life, and the Tungsten W does indeed have a long battery life, even for a cell phone: six hours talk time and 212 hours standby, continuing Palm's reputation for long battery life into its first cell phone product.
A quick look at the Tungsten W also reveals its hybrid makeup. It has a flip cover that attaches and functions just like the Palm i705. The main difference is the window cut in the screen to reveal the number and name of the person calling. You can open the cover and wrap it around the back where it hides reasonably well. There's a lanyard loop beneath the flip cover, but no lanyard is included. The face of the product has a keyboard similar to the Handspring Treo or RIM Pager, and a seam across the bottom of the screen that makes it look like the W will slide open like the Tungsten T; it does not. The five-way navigation disk does function like the T, however, complete with Address Book navigation assistance, though the disk is a little smaller. At the back on the right side, the i705-style slot accepts SD and SDIO cards. A flip door on the back is released with a thumbnail and reveals the SIM card. Also a round rubber door up by the antenna bud conceals an external antenna jack. We've not seen any peripherals for this yet, but a 3-watt booster would be interesting, wouldn't it?
Overall, the W is evocative of Porsche design, with smart color choices, strong curves, and items that look like they were drawn on vellum with a protractor: stuff that looks like it made it straight from the designer's sketchbook into the finished product. The antenna bud is perhaps the best example of this trait, but even the buttons and the stylus have that aircraft feel. The back of the unit is purpose-built with Germanic flair, all except that flimsy plastic SIM card door. The material they chose for the product is good and bad. It looks pretty good, like metal at first, but then it's clearly plastic. Where this is good is in the product's relatively light weight for a phone/PDA with such a large battery, and also in its relative ruggedness. Though I haven't drop tested it, it does have a stronger, cell-phone-like feel.
The stylus continues that aircraft feel, with a machined appearance, the metal tapering down almost all the way to the tip, the last three centimeters of which are plastic. Unlike the T, the stylus does not have a spring top; instead it has the more traditional plastic top with an embedded reset pin. Gone is the reset hole made big enough for the stylus tip, by the way. This pin or a paper clip will be necessary.
As with the T, the screen is gorgeous. It's a frontlit design, and while not as bright as the backlit transflective TFTs, it's still great indoors or out. And the resolution is such that all manner of fonts are possible. As I mentioned, it's a Dragonball 33Mhz, hardly the equal graphically to the Tungsten T. Sure, all the colors are supported, but it couldn't have the same speed, right? Indeed, it does not, but it's no slouch. Palm has built in the MediaQ processor to speed graphics performance so it can handle high-resolution video via the Kinoma player with as much apparent speed as the Tungsten T, only without the audio.
The four application buttons on the W start with the traditional Date Book and Address Book, then go to the VersaMail and Web browser buttons, flip flopping the two from their locations on the i705. You can dial any number in your database with a quick press on the Address Book icon, a quick lookup via either the keyboard, writing Graffiti onscreen with the included Jot application, or using the 5-way navigator. Then just tap on the entry you want to display the full record, and tap on the number you want to dial. The call is sent. Tap on an email address, and you're taken to VersaMail where a new email screen comes up complete with the address you need.
The Mail button launches Versa Mail, and holding it launches the dialer to automatically connect and download your mail, just as in the i705. VersaMail now displays two progress bars, one for each email and one for overall progress. Download of email via the GPRS radio is very fast, aided by the Texas Instruments TCS2100 baseband processor, which helps the W offer one of the fastest data-transfer rates available over GPRS, according to Palm.
Another difference from the i705 is that the W's mail is not push. In other words, you have go open the email app and tap "get and send" to get your mail, whereas the i705 was more like a pager: email arrived instantly when sent directly to the Palm.net email address, or you could have your own email collected by Palm.net and sent to you at intervals. That just isn't built into the W. Instead, users can opt to sign up for VistoMail, an email collection service that performs similarly to the i705. In my use it worked very well. This is a fee-based service, however, available for an additional US$49.95 a year.
One of the snafus I ran into with the W was the lack of an SMTP (Send Mail Transfer Protocol) server. Neither AT&T nor Palm is offering an SMTP, so though you can receive your own email, and send instant messages, you can't reply at length to anything unless you sign up with a service like Yahoo, HotMail, or Mac.com, services that will allow you to send email through your existing account from a computer that you don't dial in from. Your own ISP will see that email as coming from AT&T and disallow relay in most circumstances, and that left me hanging for weeks until someone at Palm got me a Yahoo email account (I have so many email accounts, there was no way I wanted to pay for another just for testing). In theory, any IMAP account should allow you to send and receive via password authentication, but most POP servers won't.
The Web browser launches Palm's Web Pro browser, a proxy browser that worked very well in my testing. It's gotten me out of a few scrapes while on the road. Its browser is faster than my i705, and worked in more places. As GPRS continues to expand across the country, that'll become more and more true. Much like Handspring's Blazer browser, the Web Pro browser of necessity strips pages into their components, resizing graphics to fit the screen. So pages that were designed to display three columns across will appear as one long column. You can usually get all you need, though.
For data, it's all here. You can receive complex emails and view them with applications like the included Documents to Go, or compose Word and Excel documents and email them to colleagues. With the large expansion cards available today, big documents can be moved to and from the device with ease, either via card or wirelessly via email.
It's just the phone function that's not quite fully developed. Don't get me wrong, the W is a great in-car phone solution, perhaps the best I've seen. Clipped into my Revolve Design Palm VII holder, into which it fits perfectly by some twist of fate, my truck is transformed into a moving communicator. The bright screen makes dialing easy, and the earbud is within easy reach. Even the keyboard is handy for quick lookups of names in the Address Book, all without having to worry about the W sliding about the cab, nor do I have to hold it to my head like other cell phones. It's as if I have a small terminal to the outside world right there at my right hand.
And the beauty is that the W need not stay in the car for curious and thieving individuals to desire, I can take this terminal with me wherever I go. The only drawback is that earbud. Convenient in the car, it becomes a menace as I take to my feet. I have to wrap it around the device or bundle it messily in my hands, shoving it in my pocket. Here's where the Treo design shows its colors, since it doesn't rely on an earbud to do its work. It has a mic and speaker built in. With the W, the user is slave to the earbud.
In my meetings with them, Palm expected that users would view the W as a device for data, with the added ability to make an occasional phone call. I'm not sure most users will. Most will want their device, for which they're already paying a monthly fee, to function well as both a phone and data device. Like it or not, if a device is capable of phone functionality, it will be judged on the relative effectiveness of that component. Most certainly, as soon as you give that phone number out, or else swap your own existing SIM in place, you're going to have to have that earbud along, ready to plug in--or you're going to miss a lot of calls. Bluetooth might have made this easier. The promised phone flap screen cover replacement mentioned in last issue's news would have helped too, but this hasn't materialized yet, so for now it's the earbud or nothing.
Those things aside, the W is an amazing product. It'll grab your email from wherever you are--even around the world--and both you and your IT department can choose which method to use. Corporate customers will find that the W makes an excellent all-around communicator, one that is relatively easy to use with its onscreen keyboard. It also offers the highest resolution screen of any cell phone/data communicator on the planet. Combined you have a cell phone, Palm device, and pager with a simple input method (keyboard) and beautiful interface (display). Most already know how to use all three, now they only have to carry one.
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