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Sink or swim?

As Tanker Bob moves into his second week with a Dell Axim X50v running Windows Mobile 2003 SE, he decided to go full tilt. I hear that the best way to learn how to swim is to just jump in and start paddling. So…I set aside my Tungsten T3 for a couple of weeks and am totally immersing myself in the PPC world.

The biggest advantage of immersion comes in when learning complex tasks. Immersion forces you to work through issues rather than safely retreating to familiar ground. After a week of pure PPC, I believe that this route provides the best approach to mastering a new platform.

Dell Axim X50v

Dell Axim X50v

Mindsets for progress

Believe it or not, the hardest mindset to appropriate concerns the use of Windows itself on the little Dell. I beat my head against the wall trying to change shortcut targets, etc., by tapping and holding on icons as commonly done in the Palm world. After a period of frustration, I finally realized the WM2003 works pretty much like desktop Windows. The directories for menu items and shortcuts remain the same, and shortcuts can be built in the same way as on the desktop. The registry controls all and its maintenance cannot be overlooked. Once I cleared that mental hurdle, life simplified quite a bit.

Memory, the second thing to go…

Memory on the PPC platform works somewhat differently than on the Palm. RAM on the Palm is just RAM. What the PPC world calls storage and program memory live as a dynamic combination in the Palm OS. You cram Palm programs into RAM until you have just enough RAM left to run the largest of them. For larger, newer OS 5 apps, that number comes in somewhere around 1 MB, but varies widely by app. That's about all the thought that goes into Palm memory management, except for a fixed segment called the dynamic heap which is beyond the scope of this discussion.

In PPC, the RAM partitions into Storage and Program segments. The Windows installer puts new apps in the storage partition by default, although this can be redirected to the Built-in Storage (BIS) (or Flash as it's known in the Palm world) or any installed card. The program partition provides the area where system and user-executed apps run. The user decides and sets the allocation between the two. I'm still not sure what the ideal split would be, but I'm surviving with 27.9MB allocated to storage and 33.85MB in program RAM. Overall, I'm using about 41MB total out of the 61.75MB usable installed RAM. That's far less used than in my T3 because…

The Dell comes with 128MB of fast Flash, with 91.43MB free. In the Palm world, I could use that memory through Brayder's JackFlash to store application executables and read-only databases. I was thrilled to free up about 9MB of Flash in my T3 using JackSprat. The Dell offers ten times that with no user effort. In a PPC, the OS automatically uses the remaining Flash, called Built-in Storage or BIS, as another storage card, like an SD or CF card. That allows the user to put anything there that absolutely doesn't need to be in RAM to run, which is darned near everything. Of course, the BIS is non-volatile and survives hard resets and power failures. I have 61.91MB of apps and data crammed into BIS, saving a huge amount of RAM. This provides a very useful, even necessary, advantage of PPC over Palm, because Windows programs tend to be quite large.

And what can I put in my PPC RAM? Why, anything that my little heart desires. While the Palm OS will only accept files into RAM that are constructed in a specific database format, Windows will take any file into RAM. This greatly simplifies memory management. I kinda knew that in the back of my mind, but it really came home to roost when I found a native PDF-format document in RAM. My Palm brain momentarily recoiled, but I calmed down. It's easy to become accustomed to a real files system vs. the outdated Palm OS approach.

One gotcha that frustrates many new PPC users is the 'X' in the upper right of all applications. On the desktop, that 'X' means close the program and release its resources to the operating system. However, on Windows handhelds it means minimize the program in RAM and run it in the background. I can't imagine why Microsoft broke this fundamental paradigm in the Windows API (Application Program Interface). The unsuspecting user could wind up with so much running in the background that new programs will not load and the device will slow to a crawl. Many third-party developers provide solutions to this absurdity, some even as freeware.

Given the minimizing behavior and general multi-tasking capability of PPC, you also need a good task manager to enable you to see what's running and to shut down those apps you don't need in the background. The Dell comes with Switcher Bar, which works well but the icon sits in the middle of the top bar, usually obscuring the running program's name. Again, there are a number of good alternatives, some free.

So overall, the Pocket PC memory scheme seems a little odd in its partitioning, but functionally works quite well. The minimizing vs. closing thing really bugs me, though.

Where are my apps?

Launchers-these provide the Palm OS platform's business center. Developers have created all manner of launchers for Palm devices, some of which almost constitute an OS in themselves. The first thing I did after loading MessagEase on the Dell was to seek out a good launcher. I found out that I had taken on a fool's errand. Mindset strikes again…

The center of the PPC world isn't the launcher but the Today screen. In two weeks, I've found literally dozens of programs to modify the Today screen in countless useful ways. The more advanced programs include some sort of launcher functionality, allowing the user to put program shortcut icons on the Today screen for quick access to applications. As expected, a number of schemes are available to users. I'm evaluating spbPocketPlus 2 which sports a number of useful features (including changing the 'X' to close apps), not least of which includes a tabbed scheme for app icons. I find this to be the least cluttered approach to providing access to the largest number of apps. Of course, you have to memorize all their icons.

For completeness, I should note that PPC has a Programs item on the Start menu which also displays all programs loaded on the device. Part of my problem with that approach is that it takes too many taps to execute an app. Another problem lies in the time it takes to load, which can sometimes include a significant delay. Like desktop Windows, recently executed programs also appear on the start menu. The recent list seems to clear on a soft reset. Some control applications can only be accessed through the Start menu.

Nothing but the facts, ma'am…

I'm a news junkie and must have the news with me to read during waiting times. I used Namo's Handstory for the news on my T3 and iSilo for complex HTML documents that I downloaded. I had given up on AvantGo back when their reliability hit an all-time low. iSilo for Pocket PC looks and works just like its Palm counterpart, so that provided a no-brainer move. However, I didn't want to pay for another news reader (too much software to buy in too short a time), so I gave AvantGo another try. Big mistake…

AvantGo loads only slightly faster than loading than an asphalt truck in Siberia in the dead of winter. It updates over the web at about the same glacial speed, even on fast broadband. Plus, it opens to an obnoxiously large ad that eats even more of your time. About a week of that was all that I could take. I revisited iSilo's scheduling capability and found it greatly enhanced over the last several years, and it even interacts smoothly with ActiveSync. So…I set up iSilo's schedule to download the news early in the morning. ActiveSync then copies it rapidly to my Dell on initial sync in the morning. Very smooth operation, and very quick. Unfortunately, iSilo won't update the news on the road, doing so only from the desktop. Given that, I kept AvantGo on the Axim, but only use it on the road.

I've grown font of your character…

OK, pardon the pun. Font management for Palm OS users involves system hacks and a number of third-party shareware programs. Some, like Lubak's Fonts4OS5 and Alexander Pruss' FontSmoother hold a permanent and dear place on my T3. Together, they provide a host of beautiful anti-aliased fonts for my visual delight. However, like all system apps and hacks, they occasionally conflict with other other system apps like JackSprat.

Windows has no such problems. I can transfer any TrueType font from my desktop to my Axim and use it for almost everything. Newer PPCs also support Clear Type, which smoothes screen fonts very nicely. PalmSource could learn some serious lessons here.

I feel the need for speed…

Last week, I mentioned that PPC apps seemed to load about as fast as comparable Palm apps. I will now retreat a bit from that position. It seems to me that PPC apps don't inherently load slower, but some tend to be quite large and/or complex, which requires them to use more time to load. The largest and most complex app on the Axim is the TextMaker word processor at 5,445KB. I stored it in BIS to save RAM. Loading time for TextMaker runs neck-and-neck with AvantGo. I can almost go get a cup of coffee in the time it takes to load. However, once inside the program, it performs well. Pocket Informant isn't quite as bad, but I usually want it up instantly when I need it and it doesn't quite meet that criterion. So, I've taken to leaving Pocket Informant running in the background. That's not a bad thing at all with about 16MB of free RAM. TextMaker, however, could probably benefit from a more modularized approach to its structure with on-demand segment loading.

Singing Kumbaya

ActiveSync for PPC and HotSync for Palm serve similar functions but do so very differently. HotSync works through conduits with specific limitations in where data must reside (RAM or the /Palm/Launcher/ directory on the card) and the format it must use. It uses pull technology, i.e., it only syncs when I manually tell it to do so. It is generally reliable and can usually be easily repaired with a provided repair facility or by simply reinstalling it over itself. When not in use, its icon sits quietly in your system tray and doesn't bother anyone. It provides no other function than synchronizing the active conduit information on demand. While generally stable, HotSync will usually recover from a failure to connect to the Palm by closing the app on the desktop and then reopening it. A hard USB error, though, requires a Windows restart as with any other USB failure.

ActiveSync, in contrast, is the loud uncle at your graduation party. By default, it syncs continuously. If you change or add a calendar entry or task, or even copy a file into a directory set to sync with the handheld, ActiveSync copies that information immediately to the PDA. In addition to syncing information, ActiveSync also provides a continuous connection between a partnered PPC and the Windows desktop. You can use Window Explorer to access every single file on the PPC-in RAM, BIS, or on the cards-and copy or move files around to your heart's delight. This can all be done wirelessly if set up correctly, but the user must have set up the trust relationship via USB first.

Like any loud uncle, ActiveSync can be a bit unstable. I've found that soft resetting the PDA in the cradle several times will confuse ActiveSync and require you to restart your computer to get it back. That's very annoying, especially since some backup programs and occasional program installations require soft resets. I've found that if I turn the Dell off before pulling it off the cradle, ActiveSync remains happy. I've tried setting ActiveSync to manually update, but that only makes the uncle sulk in the corner, and he'll still make you pay for too many soft resets.

One quick complaint. If ActiveSync executes a sync run while I'm editing a Word document in a directory set to sync to the Axim, I have to minimize then restore the Word window on the desktop to get control of Word back. That quickly becomes annoying. There's some fundamental interaction between ActiveSync and Pocket Word that Microsoft needs to resolve.

Back to the good news: The idea of full access to the entire handheld file system from the desktop out of the box boggles the Palm mind. Palm OS doesn't necessarily use file names to handle files in RAM. It actually uses an internal name lodged in the database structure. For that reason, one can easily overwrite a file in RAM unintentionally by transferring a file of a different name directly to RAM if the internal database name is the same. For this reason, some apps that can access the Palm's RAM from the desktop refuse to copy files to Palm RAM or delete RAM files from there.

On the other hand, PPC/Window Mobile uses a real file system that not coincidentally matches the one used on the Windows desktop. Through ActiveSync and Windows Explorer, the PPC becomes an extension of the desktop. I can't begin to express how powerful a tool this constitutes. The USB connection is very fast, and I copied my entire iSilo reference library to the Dell this way along with all my other reference material. Palm can do this with CardExport 2, a shareware third-party add-on, but only to the storage card. Microsoft definitely got this right.

Wrap up

This adventure has provided unexpected amusements. Folks at work have started to visit my office simply to see what I think of the PPC vs. Palm issue at this stage of the game. Some aren't even techno-geeks. So far, I like the Axim X50v a lot, but I'm also starting to re-appreciate some of the advantages that the Palm OS holds. No device or system is perfect. I assure you, though, that only one device will end up in my pocket at the end of it all. I'm not willing to put money on which it will be at this point.

Coming attractions

Next week, I'll take on application complexities, battery charging rates, alarms, VGA hacking, and other topics, Lord willing and the creek don't rise. In the meantime, I'm totally immersed in the PPC world and learning to swim with some style. Or at least I'm not drowning yet.

CONTINUED in Part 3 …

Last week: Part I 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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