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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 more powerful.

Palm will have to change operating systems to have any chance at the networking brass ring. Palm 0, PPC 1.

Display Screen
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.

Display Formatting
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.

File System
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 time.

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 yet.

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 platforms.

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. Aaaarrrrg.

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.

Desktop Synchronization
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 operation.

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.

Application Power
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, PPC 9.

Multi-tasking/Task Switching
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.

Card Slots
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 cards.

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.

Miscellaneous topics
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!

The End?

Last week: Part VI 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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