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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.

 

Sprite Backup screen shot

 

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

 

Sprite Backup screen shot

 

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 the Tungsten T3, Tungsten T5, Tungsten E2 and LifeDrive). Even most of these newer devices currently will only recognize 2GB of a 4GB card’s capacity.

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 experience.

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. That’s very 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.

Wrap-up

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

Last week: Part III of the Palm to Pocket PC Journey

First installment: Tanker Bob Took a Hard Look at the Palm and Pocket PC Platforms and Evolution



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