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Palm Zire 72

>Lighter, slimmer successor to the already nice Zire 71

by Shawn Barnett

SUMMARY--Improving on the immensely popular Zire 71 was quite a task, but palmOne succeeded admirably with the even better Zire 72. The Zire 72 is lighter, slimmer, faster and more attractive than its predecessor. It has a superb 320 x 320 pixel color display and very high built quality. It also has Bluetooth and a built-in 1280 x 960 pixel digital camera with 2X digital zoom that can even do video. We're not talking excellent imaging quality, but the pictures are far better than what the best cellphone camera can do. And the included Media application is quite entertaining. The Zire 72 is fast thanks to a modern Intel PXA270 processor, and it comes with the heralded Documents-to-Go so you can load, view and modify Microsoft Word and Excel documents. This device is elegant, competent, well made, and full of functionality. A winner.

FULL REVIEW--PalmOne had to be smart and careful when revamping their very successful Zire 71. They had a loyal following. Scads of moms had taken thousands upon thousands of pictures on these somewhat bulky but practical handhelds. Their built-in slide-open camera was both novel and easy to use, making everyone's smiles that much bigger in the grainy VGA pictures it captured, so the new palmOne could only afford to improve upon the design.

It seems they succeeded. The Zire 72 is lighter, slimmer, faster, and more attractive than its predecessor, yet remains appealing to its target audience. And they did it without including the nifty slider that was so popular in the 71. We may find that it wasn't the slider at all that was popular, but the camera itself.

Some might find it offensive that I categorize this as a Palm device that mostly women like and use. I have only my own experience, and palmOne's own studies to draw on as my reason. And then there's my own preference. While I find the Zire 72 to be appealing--certainly more appealing than the 71--I probably wouldn't buy one for myself. Yes, it is futuristic, smooth, rounded and bluish-purple, even appearing space-age. I just find the T3's utility and nifty sliding mechanism to be more attractive; more masculine, perhaps, but also just more gadgety. I also like the larger screen on the T3. That's not to say I would recommend this handheld to every woman, nor that I wouldn't recommend it to men. It's just ideally suited to the busy lifestyle of many women. And by the way, that's whom palm-One had in mind when they designed it.

But enough qualifications and worry, let's explore this very cool handheld. This is palmOne's most professionally executed handheld to date. Fit and finish all speak of a company that has not only reached its stride, but is clipping right along. Build is solid. Try to twist it and you hear not a squeak; indeed, there is no perceptible flex at all. The bluish finish is rubbery soft, providing nice tactile feedback as well as skin-like grip.

Flip the unit over and you see the 1.2 megapixel camera with a little domed fixed-focus lens inside. All around the lens area is a metallic grate (reminiscent of the Star Trek communicator of Captain Kirk fame--James T, not Linksy, that is), from which emanates the audio for the built-in MP3 player (purchase of an SD card is required). Audio is a little tinny, but excellent for a quiet room. The raised portion of this grated area holds the camera, but they wisely put the speaker down in the place that remains open when the handheld is put on a desk, leaving more room for sound to make its way out to your ear. Beneath this is a very large label for all the certification notices, serial number, and other stuff. It also contributes to the slightly improved grip one feels with this handheld. A reset button--easily pressed with the stylus tip--is just right of the Palm Powered logo.

The back appears to be held on by only two Torx screws at the bottom--that is, until you brashly pry up the metallic grate around the camera (hey, I wouldn't have done it if it didn't appear to be uneven on one side). Then you see two Philips screws at the top as well. Far from seeing this as a design flaw in the Zire 72, I rather like it. The metal grate is attractive if not functional, and appears to have been designed with maintenance in mind.

Like the Tungsten E, they've placed the HotSync and charging ports on the bottom. Pray some kind soul makes a cradle for these things, because that was the only sin of omission palmOne committed with these two similar devices.

On the left of the unit is a single black button, somewhat recessed: the Voice Memo trigger, of course. This is far better executed than the button on the Tungsten T3, which sticks out so much that it is accidentally activated way too often. I finally re-tasked mine via the "Buttons" option in Prefs to launch the Applications window. This is much better than filling up an SD card with audio of yourself driving down the road while burning through your battery. Hopefully this will happen less with the 72's new button design.

The right side has an open stylus silo, with a surprisingly cheap plastic stylus in place. On my particular unit, the stylus does not want to stay there, but slides out all the time. Not good. There's a little nib inside the silo, almost all the way down, that's supposed to grab a grove on the stylus, but it does not. The silo is also mounted toward the front bezel, and I keep trying to put it in further back, as I've done for years with most Palm devices. From the side, the arrangement looks attractive, but doesn't work well enough on the unit I have.

On top is the SD card slot--complete with dust door--then the IrDA transmitter, power button, and headphone jack. I don't like the power button up here. It's better on the front as we see on the Zire 31.

Up front is where it gets beautiful. Starting from the upper left, there's a new charging indicator light. This also lights when an alarm goes off. Below that is the new palmOne logo, and to the right you see the Zire 72 logo.

Mounted quite low and arrayed differently are the four application buttons. On the left, stacked one over the other instead of side-by-side, are the Date Book and Contacts buttons. The two buttons on the right have been re-tasked for more important matters than Tasks or Memos. These activate the camera and MP3 player, much smarter choices for this multimedia handheld. Center is the 5-way navigator, a welcome replacement to the joystick on the Zire 71. It was a good idea, but really required a sturdy case to cover the joystick to prevent it from accidental activation. Many a disappointed user took out their 71 only to find a dead battery. I wasn't happy with this until I got an aluminum case from Proporta that safely covered this wayward control. It shouldn't be as much of a problem with the 72.

The Graffiti 2 area is mostly traditional, with the star icon set for HotSync by default. Not a bad idea for a handheld that has no HotSync button or cradle.

Hitting any of the four buttons on the front, the voice memo button, or the power button on top activates the stunning screen. It is contrasty, high-res, and colorful; just beautiful. It's not new, but its praise bears repeating. The 320 x 320 wonder works well indoors or out and makes your pictures look fantastic.

The Zire 72 takes up the middle position between the less capable Tungsten E and the Tungsten T3. And well it should, being the flagship of the Zire line. It has a 312MHz Intel PXA270 processor, one of the new Xscale powerhouses. Next to the slightly older 400Mhz processor in the T3, the Zire 72 performs well, turning in a score of 1724 compared to the T3's 1875 on the Speedy 3.4 benchmark program (higher is better). It has 25MB of available RAM. That's not a ton, but it's fine for most users. Everyone using a modern handheld should buy an expansion card when they buy the handheld, both for backup and for multimedia storage. If storage is exceeded on the handheld, many applications can be run from the SD card.

Finally, the Zire 72 has something you'd think I'd be drooling over: Bluetooth. If I weren't already completely sold on my T3, you're darn right I'd be excited. That it's on the Zire 72 is excellent, because now I can also recommend this handheld to those wanting to get their email and browse the Web with their handheld. Bluetooth works very well, just as I've come to expect. That it's available on a capable handheld for US$100 less than the T3 is fantastic.

The Tungsten T3 and E came with some enhanced "palmOne-only" applications. These are further enhanced on the new Zires. Like the aforementioned, HotSync with Outlook has been greatly improved, but the most interesting enhancement for the Zire 72 is the ability to attach photos to Contact entries. While the CLIE was doing this back in 2000, this new method is actually embedding the photo into the Contracts database; with CLIE you had to refer to an existing photograph elsewhere on the handheld.

Also new is the ability to use a photo as the backdrop for the Agenda and Applications views. You can attach and fade the photo a little to keep it from interfering with the text and icons on the screen. Silly as this may sound, it really does add a personal touch.

The Photos application has been renamed to reflect some enhanced capability in the Zire 72. It's now called Media because the Zire 72's camera can record video as well as snapshots. Are the videos great? No. Neither are the pictures, really, unless the light is just right. But you know, if you get a shot that you'd have never gotten because you don't normally carry a camera--who really cares whether you can enlarge it to 11 x 14? How many of us do that anyway?

Also included, but not pre-installed on the Zire 72, is Documents to Go, a great application for loading, viewing, and modifying Word Documents and Excel files onto your handheld.

Much like the T3, the Zire 72 comes with communication applications as well: a dialer, SMS/MMS application, VersaMail for email, and WebPro for browsing the Web.

Also bundled is the RealOne Mobile Player, Audible Player (software for listening to audiobooks), Acrobat Reader, PalmReader (for actually reading books in text format) and perhaps most importantly Handmark's Solitaire game, sure to be the most used application on many Zire 72s.

The Zire 72 is an excellent device with a lot to offer. Not only is it capable of almost everything a Tungsten T3 can do, it can take pictures--and it costs US$100 less. Users considering both the two new Zires and the T3 and E might get a little confused. I have some advice. Those with an original Zire or Zire 21 just wanting some music and a color screen should look at the Zire 31. Anyone who likes the idea of a camera should look at the Zire 72 (remembering that it is twice the cost of the 31). Those in business will probably like the T3 for its bigger screen. Those in business who need a camera, though, should look nowhere else but the Zire 72. Probably no one at this point should look at the E except those without the wisdom to spend US$50 more for a handheld that comes with a better body, faster processor, better software, and both a still and video camera. All others: punt and get the Zire 72. This should be palmOne's hottest seller for the rest of the year. It is their most well rounded offering ever. --Shawn Barnett