PalmPaks and Springboard Modules

Now that both Handspring and Palm handheld computers offer expansion slots, it's time to take a look at what you can actually plug into them. When it comes to card-based software, we're clearly in the "shovel-ware" phase - developers are shoving products onto the new media as quickly as they can. We tested the PalmPak Dictionary/Thesaurus and PalmPak Games cards on a high-end Palm m505, along with the Pocket Express Entertainment Pack and Handspring Backup Module on a standard Handspring Visor.

Handspring's Springboard cards have the same look and feel as a Nintendo Gameboy cartridge - matchbook size, with a 68-pin connector that seats firmly in the slot at the rear of the Handspring. Palm's expansion port is much smaller - both Secure Digital (SD) and Multimedia Cards are compatible with the click-in slot on the back of the unit. Both around the size of a postage stamp, the cards are almost indistinguishable physically. SD cards move data more quickly, can be write-protected, and are compatible with other Secure Digital media-enabled devices. MultiMediaCards have slower data throughput, but offer the ideal format for storing games, e-books, and "travel software without affecting the existing storage capacity of your Palm.

There were no problems installing or removing cards in either system. Both feature full hot-swapping, and the card software is recognised instantly by the Palm OS. The Handspring game pack installs directly into the main menu, while Palm's GamePak software runs in a separate slice of memory - files can't be accessed from the "Beam" menu for sharing with other handhelds.

Handspring's Pocket Express Entertainment Pack includes old favourites like Tetris, Blackjack, Lode Runner, Poker Dice, Pocket Chess and Solitaire, while the Palm collection comprises registered versions of the much more classy SimCity, Zap2016, Blackjack, Pinball, and Bubblet. (Addiction warning: when you're playing Bubblet, life stops. While it's great for boring meetings, you'll also miss meal breaks.)Both Handspring and Palm offer Backup cards - under test, the Handspring Backup Module worked quickly and flawlessly, backing up my entire suite of installed software and thousand-entry contact database in just a few seconds. Neat. It's just that I can't figure out why I'd ever need to use it. As a regular Palm user since 1995, I've never lost data. and if I do, I know it's all securely hot-synched on my PC. I guess this is another one of those products aimed at the mission-critical travelling executive market. If you need iron-clad peace of mind, it's a quick and simple solution.

The storage power of Palm's pint-sized cards is demonstrated by the Dictionary/Thesaurus card. Who ever would have thought you could carry Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary Tenth Edition on a card this small? All that, and Franklin's Thesaurus as well. The bad news is, both volumes operate under Franklin's Reader Software, which seemed to perform poorly on our Palm m505. Insert the card, tap the dictionary icon, and there's a 12-second pause before the master word-list appears. Look up "zenith", and there's a four-second delay while the word is located in the index - tap it, and there's a further pause. The definitions, however, are all present and accounted for - so now we know that the zenith is "the point of the celestial sphere directly opposite the nadir and vertically above the observer". Disappointingly, though, there's no cross-linking between entries, nor between the dictionary and the thesaurus. If there was, it would have been a whole lot easier to find out what a "nadir" was as well. But I didn't have another 20 seconds.

So far, it's hard to be overwhelmed by the available range of card-based PDA software and memory products. They're expensive, and - except for the benefit of additional storage space - don't offer convincing bangs for the buck. And if you're working at an untidy desk like mine, your tiny but expensive SD cards may prove very easy to lose.

Expansion cards for PDAs

3 stars

Handspring Springboard Modules
Price: Backup Module $129, Pocket Express Entertainment Pack $TBA
Distributor: Vodafone
Phone: (02) 9425 8073
URL: PalmPak expansion cards
Price: Games Card $99.95, Dictionary Thesaurus $99.95
Distributor: Tech Pacific
Phone: (02) 9381 6444

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