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 VII: Final Installment
Posted July 7, 2005 by Tanker Bob
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dark Side
Well, all good things come to an end in this world, including this
series. Tanker Bob has enjoyed this series and learned a lot while
writing it. However, the time for summation has arrived. Although
I've briefly stated my reasons for switching platforms, this last
article will go through a point-by-point comparison from Tanker Bob's
perspective. As always, YMMV.
BTW, extra points if you can name the movie whose subtitle that
the title above paraphrases.
The best laid plans…
With apologies to Steinbeck, Tanker Bob set out to write a quick
summary of his findings about the Palm and Pocket PC platforms
relative to each other. However, as the words flowed, they refused
to stop at the length of one article. In fact, the piece came in
long enough for three articles. So what we have here is the first
of three parts of the last installment of Tanker Bob's Journey
to the Dark Side. Oh, well, it keeps me off the streets at night…
This area provided the original temptation of the dark side. Palm
OS contains no native networking capability and never will in its
current form. While third-party apps like FilePoint and WiFile
Pro provide some add-on capabilities to transfer files to/from
a Windows network, they aren't cheap and the Lite version on the
LifeDrive has significant shortcomings.
Windows Mobile 2003SE handles networking natively and effortlessly.
I can't put it any more simply or add much to the statement. Your
shared directories on your desktop appear the same as those on your
handheld. It requires no additional software. Although, I highly
recommend the freeware Total Commander for Pocket PC by Christian
Ghisler for a total file manager, file compression, ftp client, and
registry editor solution. The new version 2.0 is absolutely awesome,
and you can't beat the price. The shareware desktop version is even
Palm will have to change operating systems to have any chance at
the networking brass ring. Palm 0, PPC 1.
Palm OS led the Pocket PC world for some years with beautiful high-resolution
displays. Sony first made the jump to 320x320 and then to 320x480
pixel units. PPC stayed with 320x240 pixel QVGA up until last year.
Now full 640x480 VGA has hit the street, and nothing else on the
market comes close to the beauty of these displays. In their native
SE VGA mode, the pixel density provides extremely smooth font lines
as well as very tiny fonts that remain readable.
"True VGA" mode (640x480 without pixel doubling) doesn't
constitute a panacea, however. I spent several hours one morning
setting up my Axim to run full-time in "true VGA". The
results proved mixed. Even apps that supported full VGA had problems
with interface icons being cropped at the bottom, as well as system
menu fonts that were not centered properly. These effects seemed
consistent across all programs, so must result from problems in the
VGA API itself. Still, I found the net results very usable. That
is, until I found that my primary pharmacological application didn't
work at all in full VGA. If not for that road block, I'd still be
operating in full VGA. Most apps can be hacked into a "true
VGA" mode on an individual basis, which preserves the value
of that capability. Palm 0, PPC 2.
I haven't touched on this topic in previous articles, but the difference
has become more obvious the longer I use my Axim. Palm OS natively
only supports plain text fields and four font faces. This was more
than adequate for keeping your schedule and contacts, but quite
anachronistic in an age of sophisticated word processors, spreadsheets,
and web browsers. A number of very talented developers like Alexander
Pruss and Lubak have produced font programs that laugh in the face
of Palm's limitations. The combination of FontSmoother and Fonts4OS5
provides gorgeous anti-aliased fonts in almost any Palm application.
Contrast that with Pocket PC. Windows on the handheld supports essentially
the same feature set as TrueType on the desktop. That includes full
font scaling and formatting across the board. No third-party apps
needed to produce richly formatted text in all applications and in
the operating system itself. In fact, you can copy TrueType fonts
from your Windows desktop to the Pocket PC's Windows/fonts folder
and use them there. Pocket PC devices also support ClearType font
smoothing which helps on QVGA devices.
While the flexible font support on PPC devices
enhances every user's experience, it really shines when using "true VGA" mode.
Fonts shrink to vanishing at 640x480, but programs that support VGA
allow the user to change the font sizes to suit the VGA display.
The result can be stunning if done well. Palm 0, PPC 3.
This one takes no thought at all. Palm OS doesn't have a file system
for its RAM. Palm uses VFS for its cards, as does Windows, but
only properly formatted databases and application files may reside
in RAM. All other files like music, pictures, PDF files, etc.,
must go on an expansion card, microdrive, or internal flash drive.
This limitation remains a legacy from the original Palm Pilot.
Pocket PC's have a full and uniform FAT file system for the entire
device. You can put any file anywhere on a Pocket PC and use it without
regard to its location. Windows on the handheld uses the same file
concepts as the desktop version, including the My Documents folder
as a default for your work. This provides a huge benefit when networking,
as every location on the network as well as on the handheld may be
treated exactly the same. Simple and elegant.
For those without built-in WiFi, a real file system in RAM has yet
another advantage. Even if a device has only one card slot, the user
may have a WiFi card in that slot and still download any file from
the Internet or LAN into RAM as long as it fits. Only two currently
manufactured Palm devices can do that: the Tungsten T5 by virtue
of its internal drive, and the LifeDrive by virtue of its hard disk
and built-in WiFi. The Sony TH-55 and Tungsten C also had built-in
WiFi, but the TH-55 has been discontinued. Palm 0, PPC 4.
This one requires a foot solidly in both camps to properly appreciate.
Both Palm and PPC devices can be customized extensively. The nature
of that customization, however, differs somewhat between them due
to their different operating motifs.
Palm OS centers around the application launcher. Ironically, it
follows a Window's desktop-type metaphor by offering application
icons in an organized manner for the user to access their applications.
The Palm community has been blessed with a good selection of launchers
to provide a wide variety of user experiences. Some center mostly
on appearance, while many offer attractive interfaces and enhance
usability as well. MobileTechReview has reviewed the Palm launcher
field several times, with ZLauncher winning king of the hill each
Besides its launchers, Palm OS may also be customized through the
use of hacks and desk accessories (DAs). While some shy away from
these due to stability concerns, these tools directly modify the
way the operating system interfaces with the user. The font modification
programs mentioned above provide a good example of the power of these
small applications. I'm convinced that there's a hack out there somewhere
that will pour my morning orange juice, but I've just not found it
The Windows world of Pocket PCs followed a different path than Windows
on the desktop. The PPC experience centers on the Today screen. The
market supports countless apps that add everything but your buttered
toast to the Today screen. Examples include detailed and tailorable
PIM information, the weather, contacts, battery and memory status,
application launchers, note pads, and the list goes on almost forever.
These not only offer information for display, but may also system
functions that the user wishes to keep handy.
In addition to strictly Today plug-ins, PPC also supports adding
quick-launch icons to the system tray and the title bar. These provide
yet another way to access information or functions from within any
program. Windows may also be skinned, offering a multitude of appearances
to suit any taste.
So although the motif varies between the platforms, both support
extensive customization for the intrepid user. Both receive credit
in this category. Palm 1, PPC 5.
Almost all newer Palm and PPC handhelds support Bluetooth. The real
differentiation comes in what Bluetooth drivers are used and what
functions they support. On a theoretical basis, the PPC devices
have a more robust BT driver and should support greater capability.
In my experience, though, BT is a hit-or-miss situation on both
Let me provide an example. Windows XP SP2 added significant BT support.
With it, I could finally transfer files to/from my Tungsten T3. Widcomm's
BT drivers provide much more capability and compatibility, including
Personal Area Networking (PAN). So I installed that on my XP desktop,
only to find that I lost the ability to transfer files to/from my
T3 but didn't add any other capability that the T3 supports. I uninstalled
the Widcomm stacks and reverted to the XP SP2 stacks.
When I start playing with the X50v, I find that it can also transfer
files to/from the desktop. However, I can't configure XP to talk
to the T3 and the X50v interchangeably without affecting the trust
relationships. Further, the T3 and the X50v won't talk to each other.
Both Palm and PPC will communicate with BT phones with the proper
drivers installed. Theory aside, practice shows an abysmal draw on
this area. Palm 2, PPC 6.
This was a slam dunk for the Pocket PC until the Palm LifeDrive hit
the market. Now both camps have current devices with built-in WiFi
connectivity. Both also support WiFi cards that add wireless functionality
to devices that don't have it built in. Testers have written a
great deal about WiFi speeds for each platform, but the net result
depends more on the hardware implementation than the operating
system. Our own Editor in Chief thought enough of the LifeDrive's
WiFi capability (and the microdrive) to buy herself a unit. That's
a strong statement.
Both Blazer on the Palms and NetFront on
the Pocket PCs and Sony Palms provide a quality Internet experience.
Let's face it, browsing on a 3.5-4" diagonal screen won't
blow anybody's socks off, regardless of the platform. Screens of
800x600 hold the current minimum design point for websites, and
nobody's eyes are that good. Another draw, but Palm barely made
the finish line on this one. Had I finished this a month ago, they'd
have been toast. Good on Palm! Palm 3, PPC 7.
Here lies another tough area. Although HotSync for the Palms and
ActiveSync for Pocket PCs ship as the standards for each respective
system, other players hold sway as well. IntelliSync for both platforms
and Chapura's PocketMirror for Palm serve as the two most prominent
examples for the Windows desktop world. Missing Sync covers the
Mac territory for both platforms.
HotSync operates through application-dedicated conduits. Any Palm
application that wishes to sync its data with the desktop must provide
its own conduit software. The quality of these conduits varies greatly,
which can cause no end of grief. Palm's built-in flexibility in actions
to perform on a particular synchronization, however, shines brightly.
If the user pays attention, there's almost no excuse for losing data
through HotSync. The USB connection can be a problem for large transfers,
but may be resolved simply by closing and re-executing HotSync on
the desktop. Synchronizing files during user-initiated HotSyncs,
however, provides the limits of Palm's capability out of the box.
ActiveSync often goes by the moniker "ActiveStink" in
the PPC community. Its design follows the Microsoft philosophy that
it knows far better what you want than you do. Consequently, ActiveSync
will not allow the handheld to overwrite the desktop data after a
hard reset. Apparently Microsoft has never heard that a number of
good backup programs exist to restore a PPC from data on its cards.
In theory, this tension puts changed data at risk. In practice, it
puts a great deal more in the line of fire. I've had ActiveSync literally
wipe out the My Documents directory on the Axim. It routinely loses
random new Word documents on initial connection and sync. I've learned
to copy new documents to a card or to the desktop over WiFi before
putting the Dell in the cradle. And when ActiveSync crashes its USB
connection, only a restart of the desktop computer will recover its
On the good side, the ActiveSync link also provides Internet access
to the connected handheld through the desktop. It also allows the
user to exchange data with the desktop using Windows Explorer or
Total Commander (via a free plug-in) and applies user-specified conversions
to the data automatically. This includes data in the handheld's RAM
and provides great capability that Palm users must buy costly third-party
programs to duplicate, and then only with data on the handheld's
card. ActiveSync below version 4.0 can also sync over WiFi and be
set to maintain synchronization automatically while connected. So,
if the user copies a document to the synchronized directory on the
desktop, ActiveSync will automatically copy it to the handheld. The
same goes for changes to PIM data on either side.
If it weren't for ActiveSync's glaring shortcomings, PPC would win
this category hands-down. However, data loss extracts a large penalty.
Since I've seen data lost on both platforms, this becomes a wash.
Palm 4, PPC 8.
Tanker Bob struggled with how to rate this area. There exist several
Pocket PC programs that provide almost total equivalency to their
desktop counterparts. On the other hand, the Palm Empire has seen
new applications come to fruition in the last year that come very
close to this as well.
On the surface, the greater flexibility and power of the handheld
Windows API would seem to give Pocket PCs a huge edge here. Things
like robust font support, complex windowing, and a common interface
across hardware devices would appear to give Windows-based applications
dominance. Indeed, programs like Pocket Informant, Agenda Fusion,
PocketBreeze, TextMaker, PlanMaker, and others hardly differ in power
from similar programs on the desktop.
Duplicating that kind of power under Palm OS requires considerably
more effort. The developer has to overcome the standard text fields,
font limitations, lack of a file system in RAM, display peculiarities
between different hardware approached even on devices with the same
operating system version. Sony high resolution and Palm's high resolution
actually used completely different programming interfaces! Then there
are different button and display configurations, and the new proprietary
PalmOne PIM databases and Dynamic Input Areas. The list of permutations
under Palm OS boggles the mind, and PalmOne hasn't even documented
some of these.
Yet, high quality developers can and do overcome the worst of these
debacles. CESD probably spends most of his time patching the Palm
OS shortcomings in continuing to develop Datebk5. Dataviz with Documents
to Go, MobiSystems with their MobiSystems' Office Suite, and Solutions
in Hand with MiniCalc have excelled with handheld offerings. I could
name many others, like Code Jedi's ShadowPlan. Now that Tanker Bob
has tasted the dark side, he considers it almost a miracle when he
beholds the obstacles these developers have surmounted to achieve
this level of performance.
So when I evaluate what developers on both platforms accomplish
at the bottom line-capability for the user, I can't honestly say
that one platform dominates the other. The ultimate question becomes
what can I do now on the X50v that I couldn't do on the T3, considering
only productivity software. The answer is nothing. If anyone doubts
this, just look at the market that StyleTap has opened with their
Palm Emulator for PPC. If there weren't significant capability on
the Palm OS side, they'd have virtually no market at all. Tanker
Bob surprised himself after sitting down to type this section, as
he had a different outcome in mind when he started. Upon careful
reflection, he judges this area to be too close to call. Palm 5,
Multi-tasking has many detractors on the net. The most common disparagement
holds that you can't use multiple open windows on such a small
screen. True enough, but that perspective erroneously tries to
map desktop thinking to the handheld universe. Multi-tasking is
far more than multiple windows.
At its core, multi-tasking involves multiple simultaneous executions.
It doesn't require simultaneous visibility of all those processes
to the user. For instance, one can be downloading files, updating
the weather, ActiveSyncing, and writing all at the same time, but
only the last task requires active user interaction. If a PDA doesn't
have WiFi capability or continuous syncing, then multi-tasking loses
most of its luster.
Palm OS has no multi-tasking capability. Some units mimic multi-tasking
by using a separate Digital Signal Processor to offload workload
from the CPU. Palm OS 6 promises true multi-tasking, but has yet
to be seen on any actual device.
Microsoft designed Windows to multi-task from the beginning. Its
benefits were limited until faster processors and adequate RAM came
available. Now, with 624 MHz CPUs and 64 to 128 MB RAM in newer devices,
multi-tasking truly flourishes.
When Tanker Bob lived exclusively in the Palm world, he believed
that Palm OS' task-swapped pretty well. When he tasted the dark side,
he learned that Windows task-swapped even better. Here's why: When
a Windows program swaps to the background, if it isn't actively executing
code, it remains ready to go exactly where you left it. On the Palm
OS, apps actually close and must be reloaded to execute again. Some
apps do a great job of returning to their last state. Others don't.
There's no standard or consistency, so the user is left at the mercy
of each developer's individual practice.
Pocket PCs have this area all to themselves. Palm 5, PPC 10.
Tanker Bob wanted to steer clear of hardware peripheral issues, but
with WiFi, Bluetooth, and card slots, this one wouldn't be ignored.
The issue couldn't be simpler--no current Palm device has more
than one card slot. So?
This matters for several reasons. First, if your only card slot
is busy with a WiFi, GPS, or some other card, only what you left
in your precious RAM will be available. Since large databases like
dictionaries, Bibles, maps, reference documents and other large databases
usually only fit on cards, none of that will be accessible. Files
that aren't supported in RAM like pictures, music, and PDF documents
won't be available either. While that single-function card sits in
the slot, it limits whatever else your device can do.
Then the issue of where to put your file downloads rears its ugly
head. One manufacturer has caught on to this. Sandisk sells WiFi
SDIO cards that also have some storage capability. Sadly, they only
provide drivers for a few devices. PalmOne seems oblivious with their
WiFi card offering.
Third, many desirable peripherals only fit the CF II card format.
Microdrives come to mind immediately. Sony accommodated this at one
time with a CF slot on a few of its high end devices, though they
saw fit to cripple the slot by making it incompatible with memory
Meanwhile, many if not most Pocket PCs have both a Type II CF and
an SDIO card slot. So, you can have your microdrive in your CF slot
and a WiFi SDIO card at the same time, so all your data remains available.
The small Dell Axims prove that two slots don't take up much room.
PalmOne's LifeDrive doesn't really improve the situation much, because
the microdrive is fixed inside the device. Palm 5, PPC 11.
A host of areas that used to belong to one or the other platform
have come down to draws. These include battery life, responsiveness
to user input, stability, size, weight, and price. All these used
to be dominated by Palm devices and their operating systems, but
hardware and operating system improvements in the last two years
in the Windows Pocket PC world made up the difference and then
some. Rather than run up the mutual scores on these draws, I'll
just call them even and leave it at that.
Final score: PPC 11, Palm 5.
What does this mean to you?
Here's the classic engineering answer: It depends. Tanker Bob still
recommends Palm devices for those who simply need a device to manage
their schedule, contacts, and tasks, maybe even listen to an MP3
occasionally. Both platforms handle audio and video well. The pendulum
swings to Pocket PC for WiFi/Bluetooth networking, expansion capability,
VGA screens, font-handling flexibility, and multi-tasking. Individual
requirements should trump nice-to-have features unless you have
money to burn, or happen to be an incurable geek like Tanker Bob
and the rest of the MobileTechReview staff. For his part, Tanker
Bob will be carrying his Dell Axim X50v as his extra brain.
One last note: We intended this series to lay out Tanker Bob's observations
from both sides of the platform divide, not to provide a definitive
answer for what might be right for any individual user. As usual,
YMMV. How's that for a disclaimer?
Off the stage…
What a blast this experience has been! While there exists a broad
Pocket PC world out there yet to be explored, the learning curve
has flatten out now. Rest assured, though, that Tanker Bob will
continue to push the envelope on both platforms. Stay tuned!
Part VI of the Palm to Pocket PC Journey
Tanker Bob Took a Hard Look at the Palm and Pocket PC Platforms