Palm debuts slim, expandable handhelds

Palm is announcing today the M500 and the colour M505, both due to ship in April. A key feature: Both include an expansion slot for Secure Digital (SD) or Multimedia (MMC) cards, which means you can add memory, media content, and communications functions -- eventually -- without giving up Palm's pocket size and simple operating system.

But Palm's initial expansion is incomplete. The snap-on accessories and SD content are purchased separately, and customers will have to wait months for SD cards that add functions like Bluetooth or GPS.

The new Palms are intended to compete squarely with Pocket PCs and Handspring's Visor Edge and colour Visor Prism. Pocket PCs have gained popularity for their glitzy multimedia functions and productivity software, while the Handspring models' easy expandability has made them an increasingly attractive alternative to Palm.

The Palm M500 will cost $US399, and the M505 $US449. Local pricing will be released shortly.

Palm's M500 announcement comes just one week after Palm OS-licensee Handspring unveiled the Palm V-like Visor Edge. Since its release last year, Visor has been praised for expanding the Palm OS through the Springboard slot. The new Visors, however, lose their sleek shape when you add the Springboard modules; in order to support the large Springboard connector and modules, Handspring made the slot an add-on to the Visor Edge.

Expandability options emerge gradually

The biggest innovation in the new Palms is the small slot on top, which accepts postage-stamp-size MMC or SD cards. While MMC is the likely format for memory, SD cards at launch will add secure content, said David Christopher, director of product marketing in Palm's consumer markets group.

Initially you'll see cards like Lonely Planet travel guides and a games card with a handheld version of Sim City, Christopher said. But you probably won't see input/output SD hardware peripherals (similar to Springboard modules) for things such as Bluetooth until at least fall, he added.

The reason for the delay: The input/output standard for SD cards isn't yet ratified. "The SD I/O specification is due in March," said Kimberly Cook, assistant general manager at Panasonic's E-Net group, a major developer of SD devices.

As for MMC memory, it costs as much as, if not more than, CompactFlash or SmartMedia, but less than a Springboard Flash module. Few SD cards are available yet, but Palm's 16MB SD memory card will cost about $US50, Christopher said.

Besides SD, the M500 Palms have 8MB RAM, a 33MHz processor, and Palm OS 4.0, updated for SD expansion. The Palms also sport a new universal connector at the base that supports USB synchronisation as well as serial, and will become the standard interface for all future Palms, Christopher said.

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