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PenLab: PalmOne Tungsten T3

The pinnacle of handheld design gets more than a physical makeover (Pen Computing issue #51)

PalmOne's new flagship is the Tungsten T all grown up. There were a few problems with it right out of the gate, problems buyers need to be aware of because they're only fixed with a software update. But that update is available now, and the T3 is the near-perfect handheld computer.

The T3, as the name tells, is the third in the Tungsten T lineup. The T2 was a minor internal upgrade with a brighter, slightly better screen. Though the T2 was technically better, it's the original T and the T3 that have me torn. The original T was just right in so many ways. Its screen was a little dim for indoor use, but it was beautiful and useful indoors and out. The sliding mechanism was sweet, absolutely slick and silky. And it was snappy. Fast program launch and lookup. It opened to just the right size for easy reading and Graffiti input and snapped shut to a nice small package when you were done.

The T3 embodies the same design philosophy as the T, but with superior technology. The result is a unit with far more gains than losses, but the two are different in a few key areas worth mentioning for those in love with their T.

First of all, the T3 is taller, both open and closed. The difference is about 1/4 inch, which seems negligible, but the T3 looks a lot bigger. Width is the same, but thickness is not, with the T3 having the advantage at 1/16th inch thinner both top and bottom. Both units are not the same thickness top to bottom, by the way. The top 3/4 is a uniform thickness, but the bottom slider tapers up a little thicker, again about 1/16th of an inch. It's one of the nuances that gives the T line an organic feel. There appears to be a purpose to every angle, the mark of a designer extremely comfortable with his medium. The impression given with both T designs is a sense of serious business utility and excellence. palmOne has reached a level of craftsmanship in design that is equal to the fine work of their worthiest competitor, Sony Electronics. And they've done it by sticking to their proven and well-developed, pure-PDA strategy. It's a Palm for the Graffiti fan and hardcore wireless user.

One could say that palmOne is late in incorporating some of the T3's key features, but they've done it so beautifully it can equally be argued that they once again waited until just the right time for just the right technology to make it possible in just the right way. I'm talking mostly here about the 320 x 480 screen and virtual Graffiti area. Sony did this long ago, and with aplomb, but without the necessary features to make it truly as beautiful as it is useful on the T3. With a touch on the status bar you rotate the screen. It happens in a flash. A user-selectable option makes it rotate left or right depending on your "handedness" setting (right- or left-handed). The Graffiti area slides out of the way just as it does on the CLIE, and it's customizable in a few different permutations, including the ability to change the four main Graffiti-area icons into any program icon you like.

Across the bottom, whether the unit is open or shut, is the Status Bar. It offers control of many basic functions without the Graffiti area present. Here's another feature that was missing on the original T. Many T users found that they could do so much with the five way navigator that they seldom opened their sliders. That, of course, makes it a burden when you have to, so now many of the functions that were missed are now incorporated here on the Status Bar, which appears in almost every program, whether the unit is open or closed. It includes the little house or applications button, the find button, the menu button, the time (praise be to the designers and their parents who raised them), and a new alert button in the form of an exclamation button that flashes when a reminder needs attending. This is far better than the silly asterisk that flashed in the upper left corner that would often not activate if you pressed it between flashes. Tapping on the time, by the way, gives you a larger status screen that lists the date, battery status, available memory remaining on both the SD card and the device (complete with spiffy graphics and analog gauges), the brightness setting, and alarm conditions.

Then there's the Bluetooth icon, which I find I use almost as much as the little house, because I'm always switching between Bluetooth networks and my cell phone depending on where I am.

Perhaps more important for those who take pride in seldom opening their T-slider is the write onscreen icon. Tap this and you toggle your ability to enter Graffiti wherever you want off and on. Believe it or not, you'll want it off sometimes, like when you want to doodle or make selections with greater ease. Finally there's that rotate button and the collapse-Graffiti-area icon. The only item missing from the T3 and absolutely essential is still present only at the top of the Application Launcher screen: the battery status indicator. A quick bit of code could turn the background of the clock area into a battery status indicator that we'd have almost everywhere, increasingly important as wireless uses for the T3 grow.

Those in love with using their T collapsed have a fine reason to leave their old ways behind. It's that big, bright, fine and vibrant screen. It has the same fine contrast we've already seen on the Palm Zire 71 and Tungsten C, only more of it. And you can rotate it in a flash to see spreadsheets, documents, photos and videos wider and larger than before. This alone gives T3 users more advanced and sophisticated control of how they use their handheld than has appeared on anything other than the now discontinued HandEra 330. Or the Newton line (an interface benchmark that we at Pen Computing maintain has still not been exceeded).

To achieve this quick rotation, it appears that palmOne had to write its own APIs, which, in turn, means that many programmers will have to rewrite their code to work with the new screen. Staples like AvantGo display a long screen on a CLIE, but remain confined to a square on the T3, regardless of rotation, and the Graffiti area cannot be hidden.


Graffiti 2 again plagues all the latest and greatest handhelds. Whether you agree with PalmSource that it's actually better or with me that it's worse, to the Graffiti literate it's an unnecessary impediment to productivity. I removed the impediment by beaming the files for the original Graffiti from my Tungsten T to my Tungsten T3. It's probably illegal, but since I own both devices, they (Xerox) can waste their money trying to sue me if they want to. This will probably be one of the last devices on which it's possible, as the AlphaSmart Dana Wireless completely ignores the procedure.

As was true on Windows CE devices, then HandEra 330, then the CLIE, as you write each Graffiti stroke a trace appears onscreen. That's true whether you write on the Graffiti area or elsewhere onscreen. Oddly, it doesn't always work. Sometimes when writing a character I just get a line between my start and end points. Nevertheless, the character isn't usually affected. This happened before and after my Graffiti conversion. Not a big deal, but worth noting.

Other Graffiti options include eliminating the traditional Graffiti area icons in favor of a three-input area Graffiti pad. The first is for lowercase letters, the middle for caps, and the last for numbers. I'm not crazy about this mode for two reasons: it eliminates the ability to set custom icons, like VersaMail and Prefs, both absollutely nececessary for how I work, and it behaves oddly. Accidentally writing an S between the lowercase and uppercase areas produces at random either an s, an S or a 5. I understand everything but the latter, and the same goes for other numbers that share a Graffiti equivalent, like L and 4. Odd. Give me good old Graffiti on a traditional Graffiti area and I'll be happy. I even leave the Application and Menu icons in the same place, even though doing so makes the menu accessible in three places (the top tab, the Status bar, and the Graffiti area). It just works better for me, testing as many devices as I do.


Since the Tungsten T's debut, one of my favorite applications is AeroPlayer, giving quality MP3 playback from an MMC or SD card. I keep three or four of my recent record purchases on a big SD card for long drives. Plugged into a cassette adapter in my car, I can listen to CD quality audio for several hours. Used to be that the CLIE's MP3 engine was better, but now they're about equal; and AeroPlayer offers a graphic equalizer to improve audio quality. The little speaker gives a respectable performance at low volumes, whether with the included RealOne player or AeroPlayer; but AeroPlayer has a decibel booster, allowing higher volumes to be reached. I use the T and T3 frequently as background music while I write, as I'm doing now. Background playback mode lets me continue to test the device as I work and listen. Not bad for what is still officially a non-multitasking device.

Sounds have also been improved on the T3. I remarked that the Zire 71 was like a better-behaved PDA that knew it wasn't the only thing in the room, and now I can say the same thing about the T3. Instead of a "donk" as you scroll or select with the wider 5-way navigation, it clicks lightly. Less likely to catch the attention of the big boss as you try to find your datebook listing discretely; or show pictures of that new baby to your associate (something I've been wont to do of late).


The T3 has a powerful processor, an Intel XScale running at 400MHz. Very impressive. Most likely due to changes in the OS, it's not as blistering fast as its cousin, the WiFi Tungsten C. I base this only on casual observation, but while programs on the C burst to the screen with ferocity, the T3 takes just a little more time to think about many operations, working just about as fast as a Tungsten T. Photos and videos do play more quickly than on the T, but not always faster than the Tungsten C. The C is posessed of a more powerful battery, so there could be some tweaking possible there with the chip support, or perhaps the greater demands of the larger video screen could slow things down a touch. It's hard to imagine that so few pixels would make a difference today, but it's possible. Email downloads more quickly and so do web pages.


When the Tungsten C arrived with 64MB RAM, I was disappointed; not that it had such RAM, but that the T2 that followed hadn't the same capacity. For all its utility, the C just wasn't for the Palm afficionado. Putting the fastest processor and most RAM in the C was like a car company coming out with their biggest engine ever, but putting it in only in their truck, completely neglecting their sports cars. The T line is the sports line for longtime Palm users, so it must have the best engine, and at least equal capacity. The truck vs car metaphor falls apart here, but you get my point. 64MB RAM makes all that power more useful, because you can now fill your device with things that you'd have left to a slower card. I still default to putting pictures, movies, books, and songs on the card, preferring main memory for programs; but what a lot of programs I can carry now!


Palm was the first to come to market with user-friendly Bluetooth integration, and that only gets friendlier with the T3. Just a tap on the Status Bar's Bluetooth icon gets you ready to go. You can turn it on or off, and pick between your available networks with a simple pull down menu, connecting and disconnecting with a button. Going to prefs, also available on this screen, allows you to adjust settings further. The old Phone Link application is improved with more phones and networks. It's also built into ROM, so it doesn't have to be reloaded after a system failure. So long as your network was on there when you bought the device, you'll be able to connect in a jiffy. Setup could not be easier, because Palm went through all the hard work for you. Just tell it who your provider is and what phone you're using, and the wizard will get you online for both Bluetooth control of your phone and Internet and email access. Pretty amazing.

I still have trouble if I accidentally turn off the T3 while I'm connected to my phone. I have it set to turn off when I close the slider, something I do out of habit when I'm done for the moment, and the unit will first take too long to shut off, then it will refuse to reconnect to the phone until I do a soft reset. Thankfully they're still using the stylus-tip reset button, so it's a quick operation.

Application enhancements

Long awaited enhancements to the basic applications have also come in the T3. Foremost is the Today screen that pops up when you press the datebook button. No only is it convenient, listing both today's and the next upcoming appointments, it shows a few to-dos and unread emails (if you use VersaMail). Datebook screens have also been enhanced to use the full screen area when the Graffiti area is collapsed, much better than scrolling to view a full day. Month view shows the previous and coming month in full screen mode. The greatest enhancement to the Datebook is the addition of categories for Datebook views, making it easier to have both a husband and wife's schedule on one device. You can switch between categories or view them all at once, coded by color. You can also beam them from one device to another; the only exception is that these new enhancements will only work on newer palmOne devices. That's great for palmOne, but not so good for the "Palm Community" that the old Palm Inc used to talk about. Will these features be given back to the community via PalmSource for the betterment of the community? Most likely not. I'm afraid those days are over. Competition is fierce, and there's no going back. Only PalmSource's beating their competing licencees to the punch will create uniform standards. Time will tell.

palmOne's Address Book has also been enhanced--finally. This also is palmOne only, so I don't know what happens to all the third party HotSync apps, and I'm not going to be the guinea pig on this one. My Address book is too valuable. But we finally get Outlook-compatible address listings, meaning more than one address per entry is possible: Home, Work, and Other. It's not obvious at first how it's done, but you just press the Plus button and you can add several new items. My least favorite aspect of the Address Book changes? It's no longer called Address Book. It's now Contacts. Not a big deal until you realize that just adding a few programs in the right place moves your Contacts list off the opening screen of your launcher. It was just right starting with A, because it was almost always on the first screen; now it's one screen down on my unit, and far less convenient.


As I mention, the case is slimmer, but a little taller. I'm not sure why, except that they needed more room for the bigger screen and the new button arrangement. In the first departure from the original four-buttons-in-a-row design, they've instead wrapped the four buttons around the football stadium-shaped 5 way navigator. I complained about the buttons on the T for lacking inspiration, so I suppose I should leave these alone. They look nice and accidental activation is minimized by the raised 5 way nav arrangement. I just miss indented buttons, or better, buttons with small divots designed to easily accept a stylus tip.

One button I'm ready to give up on, by the way, is the voice recording button. Of all the items borrowed from the Pocket PC world, this is the one that's come over with no improvement. It activates accidentally all the time as I hold the unit, wasting my time as it slowly takes me to the Voice Memo app. I've even discovered a nearly dead battery and full SD card when it activated in a bag and recorded hours of my activities without my knowledge or permission. I've since changed it to something innocuous and somewhat useful, the Application launcher. Sony's momentary sliders are a little better than a button, but only a little. I've had the same problem with these devices as well. If you remember, you can also put the T3 into keylock mode by holding down the power button for two seconds. You can have this happen every time your unit powers off, but that would just be maddening.


As long as we're on the subject of SD cards, we might as well get to the big bug that almost killed the T3, and absolutely did kill my birthday present. No, I won't go on about "my precious," but I was pretty pleased with my 256MB SanDisk SD card before it was unceremoniously eaten by a simple HotSync operation. It had been working for two months without a flaw in my Tungsten T, and worked about two weeks playing songs in the T3, but as soon as I tried to write to the card, the T3 fried it, in my case beyond recovery. This had been happening to many others, as reported on PalmInfoCenter and other sites. It reportedly happens to cards above 128MB, which are of course the increasingly more expensive ones as you go up in capacity. Card death is not always the result. Often just a format is required. If you're relying on a card for crucial data storage and you have no backup, the disaster can be worse. The bug may be related to a tendency for the T3 to run at 300MHz instead of 400MHz due to a program loop or some other problem related to the audio player that sucks up clock cycles. Before Palm responded to either problem, a solution for the latter problem was released as freeware. Now you can download the update from Since I patched my unit (it's a complete Flash ROM update) it's worked better, requiring only one complete reformat of my new larger 512MB SD card. No, that's not a perfect record, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed--and my card backed up on my notebook's hard drive.

This is a problem that all T3 owners should be aware of. Neither Palm nor SanDisk, nor any of the other card manufacturers will fully admit whose problem it is. My vague understanding is that there's a new way to write faster to these bigger cards, but that most card manufacturers don't support the standard in the newer, bigger cards. The bottom line is that this should have been discovered in testing at palmOne, and further, memory manufacturers should support the new specs they create if they're already published, or warn the public accordingly.

This glaring and costly potential aside, the T3 is a surprisingly useful and powerful handheld computer. Now that mine's fixed I truly love it. I use it for news, Web browsing, dictionary, calendar, address book, banking, music, task lists, writing, password storage, playback of photo slideshows and videos of my kids, reading, and email. I won't be without it, and lately I don't even carry a backup device. The size is just about right and the screen cannot be beat. So far, this is the best all-purpose PDA I've seen.

-Shawn Barnett

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