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Palm Zire 31

The most bang for the buck of any Palms produced to-date

by Shawn Barnett
SUMMARY--The palmOne Zire 31 is the first color Palm that truly lives up to Palm's old mantra of "cheaper, faster, smaller, lighter, smarter, and longer," the latter referring to battery life. The 31 is the first low-end Zire that is not only cheap, but offers good bang for the buck and is actually useful for more than just the most basic PIM functions. And the battery lasts for weeks, not hours, something which is rare these days. Don't expect the world, though. The screen is only an old-fashioned 160x160 pixel STN that's neither fast enough for games nor very visible in bright light. There is no email or wireless of any kind, unless you want to do it via infrared. And to play MP3 music, you need to buy an optional SD card. But considering how little it costs, the Zire 31 is the perfect first PDA for those who want to learn or know what Palms are all about.

FULL REVIEW--Congratulations to palmOne for creating a low-end Zire that's really worth carrying. The Zire 31 is the first color Palm device that truly keeps to the credo of cheaper, faster, smaller, lighter, smarter, and longer--battery life, that is. Indeed, it's the first low-end Zire that I'd recommend to someone like my mother or sisters: people who think such a device might be useful for them, but don't want to lay out the money necessary for a Zire 71 or 72 so they can find out. Unlike the Zire and Zire 21, the Zire 31 offers the most bang-per-buck of any Palm device before it. I wasn't terribly enthusiastic about either of its predecessors, but that changes with the Zire 31. I keep thinking, "Emergency backup device." It even makes me think of ditching my T3 and taking a simpler route, if you can believe that. Between you and me, that is saying something.

On first inspection, the Zire 31 is little different from its forebears. Its body consists of a white plastic back shell and a blue plastic front shell. Simple. Across the top is a dark translucent plastic piece that caps it off; its translucency, though not apparent, is important, because of the infra-red port that resides here. The 31 is still light, at 4.1 ounces with the flip cover. Its smooth tapered back sits comfortably in the hand. Flip open its rubbery blue lid and it often flips right back. I generally remove it for this reason. On the back, you see one of the 31's newest features: six holes for a real mono speaker, one that not only beeps but also plays music.

On the left side is a rubber door, borrowed from the world of digital cameras. Pull it open and you'll find that while it pulls out a little, it's tethered permanently to the body. The USB and power jacks are behind this cover, far better placed than they were on the top of the older Zires. On top are the 3.5mm audio jack, SD card slot, and stylus silo. And somewhere behind that shiny plastic is the IrDA port. The SD card slot gets a nice high-end feature, a spring-loaded door to keep out dust.

The rest of the action is on the "Zindigo Blue" front panel. Keeping with low-end Zire tradition, the 31 has only two application buttons: Date Book and Contacts. A little sophistication is added with the 5-way navigator in the center. Now all current palmOne handhelds have the 5-way, a menu/program navigation system that's becoming standard on all manner of digital devices, including digital cameras.

The standard static Graffiti 2 pad has one change, a HotSync icon. This is a better idea than making new users hunt through the Applications window for this important icon.

Hit the power button and a whole new range of change is visible. All of the enhancements made to the basic applications on the palmOne Tungsten T3 and E are now available on the Zire 31, plus some new features. The first one you see is the ability to place pictures in the background of the Applications and Agenda view. You can even fade the pictures out so that you can both see your favorite picture and read the names that accompany the icons better. You can categorize Date Book entries using colors, displaying only the relevant ones, and export categories to other handhelds so that your partner can track your schedule. Photos can be embedded into Contacts entries. This was possible long ago with Sony CLIEs, but this special palmOne application requires no link to an external database, and the original file need not remain on the device: the photos are now included in the Contacts data file.

Using the 5-way navigator, it's easy to jump around in applications, pressing the middle button to enter a list, then the four sides of the navigator to move around through lists and icons. Just about everything can be opened and browsed without taking out the stylus, an improvement worth noting.

For text entry, the Zire 31 defaults to Graffiti 2. Using an application like TealScript, you can restore old Graffiti if you prefer. The 31's 200Mhz StrongARM processor is more than capable of handling the extra work.

Yes, 200Mhz is the speed of the processor on this low-end device. It also has 16MB RAM onboard, of which 14 are available. The SD slot means this new device is capable of just about everything most need a Palm device to do, including music playback. The bundled RealOne Player software plays MP3 songs from an SD card with ease. It's best to use headphones, but the built-in speaker is a respectable music maker in a quiet room or office. No, it's not stereo, and it doesn't thump, but it's decent for what it is. With headphones on, you don't know the difference from any other MP3 player.

The greatest limitation of past low-end Zire offerings has been the 160 x 160 monochrome screen. For some, it's a more versatile solution, because it works for text both indoors and out. I agree that this is important. But to be honest, most handhelds are used indoors in dim light, and what the monochrome Zires lacked was a backlight of any kind. Users were forced to find good lighting and angle their handheld to gather the most they could. Putting a color screen into the Zire 31 makes this low-cost handheld more accessible to its most common users. To those of us who've already gotten used to the brilliant 320 x 320 screens of our higher-end Palm devices, the Zire 31 screen appears blotchy and grainy, and the fonts jaggy. But to those used to an older device, the screen really is decent. It has a blue-white background, and its colors are bright. palmOne says the screen has "thousands of colors." That's probably true, just not 64K colors as we see on the more expensive devices. As a result, photos aren't perfect, but you can tell who you're looking at in most shots. The screen on some colors will flicker or sparkle, likely due to the changing of pixels between slightly different colors. This is the method the 31 uses to simulate greater color depth.

This is no TFT screen, either, but an older-style STN (super-twist nematic) display. As such it doesn't work well in direct sunlight. You can squint and look something up in a pinch, which is better than previous designs, but I wouldn't suggest reading a book outdoors in sunlight. Shade is passable. Action games are also out of the question. The STN display just doesn't respond fast enough, and fast moving ships, bullets, and cars look like blurry ghosts that will attack you before you see them in some cases. Expect to stick with puzzle games like Bejeweled and you'll be happy.

Right out of the box, the Zire 31 is able to do almost everything most users will need. The only exception is MP3 playback, which will require purchase of an SD card. Get yourself at least a 128MB card to reasonably enjoy this feature. This size will hold up to four albums worth of songs, depending on the compression ratio you choose. When I compress to 128K, I can get two full albums on a 128MB card. Another audio product bundled with the Zire 31 is Audible Player. Audible is a subscription service that allows you to download audio books to your computer that you then sync to your handheld device. You can listen to them with headphones or plug the handheld into your car stereo with a cassette adapter or one of the line-in jacks available on more car stereos.

PalmReader allows you to download books in a simpler but no less powerful format: text. It's surprisingly easy to read a book on a Palm device. Text reads more like a newspaper column than a book, and the PalmReader application can even scroll the text for you as you read. Two books are included for free: Last of the Mohicans and the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Others are available for free or pay from the Palm Digital Media website.

Other bundled applications include the Photos application, which allows you to sync photos from your desktop computer. You can also receive photos beamed from other handhelds, like the Zire 71 or 72 and immediately display them on your device. The other obvious source is any digital camera that uses an SD card for image storage.

Probably the most played game in computer history is Solitaire for Windows, and that's included as well, only in a Palm version. If you like the Windows version, you'll waste hours with this one; only now you can waste them wherever you are.

I'm continually surprised by how much I like the Zire 31, especially considering how little I liked the past models. They sufficed, but only badly embodied some of what we liked about Palms back in the day, but this model could meet most of my needs for a handheld device--if I weren't so dependent on the concept of email everywhere as I am with my Tungsten T3. Still, email isn't everything, and if you're looking for a simple handheld that is light and easy to use, with a great battery life (measured in weeks if little-used), the Zire 31 is an excellent choice. If you're looking for a first handheld for a friend, spouse, mom, or child, the Zire 31 is ideal. Most newcomers don't need wireless; and if they ever do, IrDA is built right in for email and Web access via a great many modern cell phones. For US$150 it's tough to beat. --Shawn Barnett