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If you scan the Palm OS software review section and help forums here, you’ll find that Tanker Bob’s byline appears frequently. My website chronicles a seven-year journey in Palm OS land and provides a good amount of information about the platform. Tanker Bob practically bled Palm when cut.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Then one day in mid-March of 2005, a funny thing happened on my way to the forums. MobileTechReview asked me to expand from writing Palm OS reviews to doing Pocket PC/Windows Mobile software reviews. I gratefully accepted the new challenge with anticipation. This was truly untested territory for me, and I eagerly awaited the arrival of a Dell Axim X50v with some software preloaded for the first set of reviews. As a “career” Palm OS man, I knew that I could face the dark side (as we call it in the Palm world) without flinching. I had no idea…

Out of the box, into the fire

My first impression: Wow, this thing is small! I could build a sturdy house with the old, brick-like Windows-based PDA’s I’d seen before. The Axim X50v is shorter than my palmOne Tungsten T3 with its slider open, while being about the same width and depth. In that tiny package, Dell packed a 624 MH z XScale CPU, VGA screen, a CF slot, SD slot, IR, audio, microphone, WiFi, Bluetooth, 64MB RAM, 128MB Flash ROM, and a replaceable 1100 mA Li-Ion battery. The PalmOne Tungsten T5 had arrived towards the end of last year with significantly less packed into its slightly-larger package, to the considerable consternation of the community.

Then I turned it on. Wow! My Palm T3 is no slouch with a 320 x 480 display, running Lubak’s Fonts4OS5 and Alex Pruss’ FontSmoother together to get anti-aliased system fonts. The T3 looks great. The 640 x 480 VGA X50v blows it away in sharpness with twice the number of pixels on-screen. Pictures looked great on a T3. They sparkle on the X50v. I wasn’t fully prepared for this either.

Dell Axim X50v

Dell Axim X50v

Palm T3

palmOne T3

Capability

The rubber meets the road in performance. I’d been struggling for months to get a wireless networking capability between my T3 and my Windows XP Pro SP 2 desktop PC. After more than a few bucks in software combined with an Enfora Wireless Portfolio, I had a slow but workable solution. The speed, however, hampered one of my primary goals of transferring files around. The T3 needed extra software (Hands High’s WiFile in this case) because Palm OS 5 doesn’t understand Windows networking at all. Even at that, all Palm third-party solutions come with varying limitations. You pretty much have to know the ins and outs of Windows networking to get these to work properly.

So, what do you think I did first? You got it—get this puppy networked to my Linksys WiFi router. That proved to be a no-brainer. Dell includes their own WiFi utility that searches for available networks, analy zes them, even figures out the security, and makes the desired connection. The longest part of the process was typing in the 128-bit WEP encryption key. Sweet.

The Dell’s internal WiFi setup appears to open all the valves all the way. Internet speed in NetFront 3.1 appears to be at desktop broadband level. Based on recent experience, I have little faith in websites that check broadband speed for PDAs. So, I will measure the Internet download speeds manually and report back.

What about networking to my XP box? I simply used Resco File Explorer 2003 to map my shares and input the passwords. That was it. Now whenever I have the WiFi connected and I bring up Resco File Explorer, I have instant access to the shared directories on my PC. And transfer rates are awesome—around 320KBytes/sec (2.56 Mbits/sec) measured on a 53 MB file transfer). That’s VERY sweet. BTW, Windows Explorer will do the same thing, but Resco has a better interface and lots of other enhancements.

Built-in Window Mobile 2003 Capabilities vs. Palm OS 5.2.1 (aka Garnet)

OK, so I sorta expected Windows on a handheld to network with a Windows PC. I of course expected the VGA screen to be better than great. But in just a week, I’ve found quite a number of capabilities built into WM2003 that I had to buy third-party software or hardware to get on the T3. Here’s a quick table with what I’ve found so far, keeping in mind that there are usually multiple Palm solutions available:

Axim/WM 2003 Capability

Palm T3 Solution

Price

802.11b WiFi

PalmOne WiFi SDIO Card

$129

 

Enfora Wireless Portfolio

$149

Windows Networking

WiFile (from the handheld side only)

$29.95

 

FilePoint Desktop Edition (from both sides)

$49.99

VPN Support (Odyssey client)

Mergic VPN

$29.99

Transfer files to/from PC directly through USB connection (RAM and cards)

CardExport 2 (card data only)

$14.95

Accesses free FlashROM as if it were another storage card

JackFlash (only for read-only files, not like another card)

$19.95

Today Screen

TodayPlus

$14.99

System Information Utility

SysInfo

$15.00

Multi-tasking

In your dreams

Valuable

User-swappable/ upgradeable to higher capacity battery

Don’t get me started…

Priceless

 

Add to the list the following Pocket PC capabilities in daily operations:

  • Reads native Adobe PDF files with Pocket PC Adobe Reader (no conversion required, though it will convert untagged PDFs if you use ActiveSync to transfer the files to internal memory or a card rather than placing them on a storage card using a card reader). Renders these files accurately.
  • Reads/writes/modifies native Microsoft Office documents using ActiveSync conversion for files stored in RAM. Can open/read/write in native format files on an SD or CF card, albeit not supporting/preserving all desktop formatting, just the basics (Palm apps like Docs to Go will read and write them on a card, but must convert them on the handheld to modify them in RAM—not a fast process)
  • Large Clipboard (Palm limited to 1K)
  • Help is available for almost every app through the central Help program (overall, Palm apps have a weak history for on-device help)

Palm Advantages so far:

  • Better overall compatibility with the desktop MS Office Suite. Palm has a number of good Office solutions, but TextMaker is the only full-featured word processor for Pocket PCs and there are no suites like Docs to Go Premium or MobiSystems Office Suite. The built-in WM2003 Office apps will eat formatting and features they don’t convert, and those are many. Frankly, Microsoft should be embarrassed at this state of affairs.
  • Apps are smaller and generally less expensive, except for networking
  • More freeware available and generally more shareware, though the latter gap seems to be closing

Speed

I leave the Axim’s CPU speed set to Auto. That allows the device to regulate the CPU speed based on workload in order to save battery life. Thus, it isn’t running at 624MH z all the time. That said, most common apps load very quickly—just as quickly as most Palm apps. Large apps like TextMaker, Pocket Informant, and NetFront take a few seconds to load initially but except for TextMaker are snappy once in the app. An old criticism of Pocket PC’s was that they were sluggish compared to Palms, and I believe that was true in the past. Overall, I haven’t noticed a difference in user-experienced speed between the T3 and the X50v.

Data Transition

What about all that data I have on my T3? It turns out that most of my major apps on the T3 have Pocket PC counterparts. First and most important was MessagEase for input. Those that read the same data files or import them include the Olive Tree Bible Reader, iSilo, Beiks dictionary reader, and everything that reads desktop-format files. Others have PPC versions with their own data file formats, like Tarascon Pharmacopoeia, Skyscape references, and MSDict dictionaries. Some companies will actually transfer your registrations to the new platform if you are truly switching. Replacing software can quickly grow expensive, and should be carefully planned before making any rash decisions.

Of course, there are always favorites on both sides that don’t have versions for the other. My beloved Datebk5, Shadow Plan, Star Pilot, and HandyShopper fall into this heart-breaking category.

PIM Data Transfer

This proved to be a great news story--a real non-issue. MS Outlook provides the common bond. I simply synchroni zed my T3 with Outlook (I used Chapura’s Pocket Mirror Pro XT but you can use Palm Desktop’s included Outlook sync conduits) before installing the Pocket PC’s ActiveSync software. ActiveSync picked up all the T3 data in Outlook and put it on the Axim on initial install. Now I sync both the T3 and Axim with Outlook every day to keep them both current. I can make changes and additions on either device and the other will catch up on the next sync. Very nice.

Overall Observation

It seems that Palm apps and Pocket PC apps are designed under fundamentally different concepts. Palm apps seem to be task-oriented. In other words, each app has its own unique design that centers on its underlying function—the interface follows the function. This makes the apps very efficient and easy to operate even though they tend to look somewhat different. However, complex applications can be difficult to learn because there is no common base from which to work.

Pocket PC apps, on the other hand, seem to be interface-oriented. In other words, they try to conform to a pre-determined interface design for uniformity across applications (think Borg). The theory is that you only have to learn one common set of menus and structures to use a large number of programs well. Every graphical interface on the desktop operates the same way. In practice, though, it doesn’t always work that well. It forces an overhead structure that may not be efficient for the task, or may even make unique tasks more difficult for the user to accomplish because its unique functions don’t fit neatly into the approved menu bar items. In the last week, I’ve noticed that the departures from the Windows interface guidance stands about as common on the Pocket PCs than on the desktop.

First Week Bottom Line

I’ve learned an incredible amount in just one week. At this point, I’ve come to the conclusion that Pocket PC isn’t the dark side—it’s just another side. Hardware advances and hard work by Microsoft and their partners have brought the Pocket PC to a point of roughly equal stability and overall performance with Palm OS devices. Out of the box, their networking capability and built-in WiFi and VGA displays give them a large advantage amongst the growing number of home WiFi networkers and travelers requiring mobile access to the internet and/or home/office networks. On the other hand, if a user only needs to track schedules and contacts, or even work with MS Office-compatible files, a Palm might be a more efficient solution in both cost and complexity.

I didn’t start down this road with an eye to change platforms. However, that seems like a real possibility at this point. Nothing is certain, so stick around for Part II of the journey next week.

CONTINUED in Part 2 …

Last week Tanker Bob Took a Hard Look at the Palm and Pocket PC Platforms and Evolution



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