Palm updates PDAs with larger screens, Palm OS 5

Palm introduced three new personal digital assistants (PDAs) Wednesday, adding two new Tungsten devices and a new Zire device to the company lineup as it gets ready for the end-of-year shopping season and the reorganization of its operating structure.

The company introduced the Tungsten brand for business customers and Zire brand for consumers last year, and has since introduced several models in each category. Wednesday, Palm expanded its Tungsten T line of Bluetooth PDAs with the T3, and will offer professionals with budget concerns the Tungsten E, said Anthony Armenta, product line manager for Palm.

Palm also made some much-needed improvements to its Zire handheld, bringing the latest version of its Palm OS operating system and more storage to the US$99 Zire 21.

Much of the PDA and cell phone industry is looking forward to a time when all mobile devices will combine voice and data capabilities, said Alex Slawsby, an analyst with IDC. But until that day arrives, PDA companies need to spruce up their unconnected devices to keep the revenue coming in, and Palm accomplished that with Wednesday's releases, he said.

The Tungsten T3 is available Wednesday for US$399. It comes with a 400MHz PXA255 XScale processor from Intel and 64M bytes of RAM, 52M bytes of which are accessible by the user.

Palm based the T3 on the slider design of the older Tungsten T models. When open, the sliding case exposes more of the 320-pixel-by- 480-pixel transflective screen than is visible with the case closed. On the older models, this exposed area was dedicated for text input using Palm's Graffiti language, but the T3 allows the user to choose between either entering data or displaying images in that space, Armenta said.

The T3 screen design shows that Palm has regained some of the innovative design flair that has been missing from the company over the last few years, said Sam Bhavnani, mobile computing analyst with ARS.

Bluetooth, the short-range wireless networking standard, is built into the T3, Armenta said. Users can employ Bluetooth to connect to the Internet through Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, or to synchronize data with their desktop or notebook PCs, he said.

Palm probably should have included an 802.11 Wi-Fi chip in the device, Bhavnani said. This would allow users more mobility than Bluetooth does. Palm only has one PDA with built-in Wi-Fi, the US$499 Tungsten C, and most users won't want the hassle of dealing with expansion cards with the T3, he said.

For those who do, a SD (Secure Digital) slot is included to add 802.11 or GSM/GPRS (Global System for Mobile Communications/General Packet Radio System) capabilities to the T3. The SDIO and MMC (multimedia card) expansion formats are also supported.

The US$199 Tungsten E is designed for cost-conscious professionals, Armenta said. It uses a 126MHz OMAP processor from Texas Instruments that is less expensive than the XScale processor but still delivers enough performance for basic PDA applications, he said.

Palm built 32M bytes of RAM into the Tungsten E, and 28.3M bytes of that can be accessed by the user. The 320-pixel-by-320-pixel display comes with a dedicated area for entering Graffiti text, unlike the T3, but the Tungsten E supports the same expansion card slots as the T3.

The Tungsten E fills a gap in Palm's product line created by the lack of a new PDA below US$200 with features designed for professionals, Bhavnani said. The company is feeling pressure from Hewlett-Packard and Dell's Pocket PC devices at that price, and the Tungsten E should help Palm remain competitive at that price range, which had previously been filled by the older m130 PDA, he said.

Both Tungsten PDAs run Palm OS 5.2.1, the latest version of PalmSource's operating system. They are available worldwide as of Wednesday.

The Zire 21 builds on the success of the first Zire handheld introduced last year. It will keep the $99 price that attracted a number of first-time PDA buyers to the Zire, and is also available worldwide Wednesday, Armenta said.

Palm upgraded the operating system to Palm OS 5.2.1, but the Zire 21 maintains a black and white screen. It uses the same 126MHz OMAP processor as found in the Tungsten E, Armenta said.

Palm also increased the system memory to 8M bytes of RAM from the paltry 2M bytes found in the original Zire. These changes might not be appreciated by the novice PDAs users it attracts, but the improvements should help to maintain the stronger-than-expected sales of this device, Bhavnani said.

Shareholders of the company will vote on Oct. 28 on the plan to merge Palm with smartphone vendor Handspring Inc., and spin off PalmSource as an independent company, Palm announced Monday.

Palm is preparing for a future of connected PDAs by adding the Treo smartphone product and development team to its assets, Slawsby said. The deal is expected to be approved, and the new company will be known as PalmOne Inc.

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