Tales from the Dark Side, or is that
the Light Side? An In-Depth Look at Making the Switch from Palm to
Pocket PC, Part IV
Posted May 16, 2005 by Tanker Bob
Tanker Bob’s journey into Pocket PC land took a detour this
week. Dell released firmware
update A03 for the X50v which addressed some WiFi, Bluetooth,
and 2700G display chip driver issues. I had done ROM upgrades on
Palms before, so this provided an opportunity to compare the processes.
Preparation: The key to success
In both the Pocket PC and Palm worlds, firmware upgrades require
hard resets to complete. This results in the loss of all data in
RAM, and usually in Flash on Palms and built-in storage (BIS) on
PPCs. Backups provide the critical link across the hard reset divide.
Based on expert recommendations, I chose Sprite
Backup Premium as my backup solution. Dell provides a nice
backup utility, but it lacks Sprite’s rich feature set, which
includes scheduled and selective backups. Sprite also features
the ability to smart restore after a system upgrade or on changing
devices. This capability alone is worth the price of admission.
In order to prepare for the upgrade, I completed
a total backup to an SD card. I also copied the entire BIS to the
desktop anticipating that the update will wipe the BIS clean like
Palm updates clear the flash. I downloaded and installed Sprite’s
Get System Data Utility (see the on-device help file) to the card
to take an A03 system snapshot on the other side.
Reprogramming your brain
Users should almost always follow the manufacture’s update
instructions exactly, and that’s what I did. With the Pocket
PC in the cradle and connected to the PC via ActiveSync, hit the
go button. I chose to backup the existing firmware from the opening
menu, but that proved unnecessary because it was offered again with
the update installation on the next screen. The update utility makes
its own USB connection to the PPC to accomplish the upgrade. The
screen says that the update takes 15 minutes, but it seemed faster
than that. Do everything possible to avoid interrupting the process
or you may end up with an expensive paperweight.
Bringing Frankenstein to life
After the hard reset, you basically have a new, naked Pocket PC--almost.
It turned out that the BIS contents survived intact! You will have
to set the date and time. Before doing anything else, Tanker Bob
ran Sprite’s Get System Data Utility. This little gem takes
a system snapshot, which Sprite then uses to ensure that new system
software and settings are not overwritten with old information. Using
this snapshot and the backup made just before the update, Sprite
restored the X50v to almost full function. Only a handful of application
settings dropped through the cracks. The entire process took less
than an hour. While not as clean as reinstalling everything from
scratch, it appears that this process preserved all update settings
while restoring my applications and data.
ActiveSync or ActiveStink?
Although ActiveSync does many things well, handling hard resets
isn’t numbered amongst them. As before, it insisted on overwriting
the restored data on the Axim with data from the desktop. Unlike
Palm’s HotSync conduits, there’s no option in ActiveSync
for the handheld to overwrite the desktop. Tanker Bob learned his
lesson from the last hard reset and ensured that the PC had the current
data before executing this update. Even so, overwriting all that
data took a lot of time. Microsoft really needs to fix this behavior.
Pocket PC vs. Palm system updates
The actual process for both seems identical. Both proceed smoothly
and provide even the novice user with easy-to-follow directions and
a smooth update experience.
The Windows registry adds an additional consideration
when restoring from a PPC backup. Replacing a new registry setting
with an old one could negate an update feature. Or worse, a new
format replaced by an old one could appear as a corrupt setting
and crash the system. These provide two good reasons to either
reinstall your apps from scratch or use Sprite’s system snapshot approach. In my experience,
Palm’s update challenges have been with restoring old drivers
over new ones, something most backup programs can easily be set to
avoid. It is theoretically possible that new Palm preference settings
could be incompatible with previous ones, but I haven’t experienced
that eventuality in the three Palm OS upgrades I have installed.
Flash card formats
OK, the Axim X50v really has grown on Tanker Bob. He has now swapped
the 1GB Sandisk Extreme III from the Tungsten T3 to the Dell. In
the process, I decided to reformat the card in the Axim rather than
just delete all the files.
Upon further investigation, I found that the difference
is that PPC supports 32-bit File Allocation Table entries, or FAT32,
and Palm OS 5 only supports FAT16. Why should you care? Because
each scheme has an upper limit for the size of card that it will
support. According to PalmOne,
Palm OS 5 will only handle expansion cards up to 2GB in capacity.
The FAT32 limit theoretically extends that to 32GB depending on sector
sizes supported. As 4GB cards come available, many Palm models
will start to be left behind, though there is hope for the future
as palmOne did add FAT32 support for the their
new LifeDrive. 2GB cards
have already reached the market, but only Palm devices newer than
the Tungsten T, T2, and Zire 31 will even recognize them (such as
T3, Tungsten T5, Tungsten
E2 and LifeDrive). Even
most of these newer devices currently will only recognize 2GB of
a 4GB card’s
Resetting me softly…
With apologies to Roberta Flack, soft resets serve a key purpose
in both the Palm and PPC worlds. In both, soft resets reboot the
handheld OS just like rebooting your desktop computer. This recovers
memory lost due to program memory leaks and also clears software
lockups. We tend to think of these resets as only being needed when
trouble arises, but not necessarily so. Sometimes soft resets must
follow an installation so that a low-level device driver can be activated
by the operating system (OS). Also, some applications like Sprite
Backup stop all background processes in order to backup open system
files. Sprite Backup soft resets the PDA after the backup to reload
and restart the system processes.
Aside from the aforementioned circumstances,
too many conflict-driven soft resets using the reset pin also provide
a measure of the level of system stability. Testers like Tanker
Bob expect a certain level of instability, but soft resets should
be rare in a normal user’s
So what’s the point? Pocket PC has often
been labeled as less stable than Palm OS. I can’t speak to
any PPC OS other than Windows Mobile 2003 SE on the Axim X50v. But
so far in my experience, the two platforms seem of equivalent stability.
good news. The multi-tasking in WM2003SE makes stability more difficult
to achieve, but it seems to work pretty well. I’m far from
the average user in terms of stressing the system, and things have
been going pretty well here. The A03 firmware update improved the
Bluetooth and WiFi memory usage and stability, the only two consistent
issues I’d had. I can honestly say that I haven’t soft
reset the Axim any more often than I reset the T3.
The Axim X50v has really grown on me. The
aforementioned swapping of the 1GB SD card speaks clearly to the
level of that growth. We’ll
have to see what that means over the longer term…
CONTINUED: Part V
Part III of the Palm to Pocket PC Journey
Tanker Bob Took a Hard Look at the Palm and Pocket PC Platforms