Put e-mail, Internet in your pocket

Access: Palm VII has a wireless data service.

June 21, 1999|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,Boston Globe

The critics are right. The new "Star Wars" movie features wooden acting and bad dialogue. I should know -- I've seen it twice.

The critics are also right about 3Com Corp.'s new Palm VII pocket data device. It's too expensive and offers a limited set of features. But 3Com will sell heaps of them, regardless of the critics.

I won't shell out the necessary $600 -- 37 times the cost of my two trips to the planet Naboo. I've a reputation for stinginess to maintain, and I'd just as soon wait for the inevitable price drop. Besides, the Palm VII is for sale only in the New York area. Still, it's the first palm-sized machine that's tempted me.

I'm not a fan of personal digital assistants. They have some value as electronic address books, letting you store hundreds of phone numbers and a list of appointments. But for this you don't need the pricey, heavy boxes from 3Com or its rivals. The $99 credit card-sized Franklin Rex is good enough. Larger PDAs can double as electronic note-takers, but what's wrong with a pencil and paper?

But the Palm VII transcends the limits of its predecessors by adding a smidgen of interactivity. 3Com has crammed a radio transceiver into a package almost exactly the size of the original Palm devices. With the plastic antenna extended, my test unit worked perfectly, even between the steel-and-concrete walls of my office building. It snatched Internet data out of the air, and let me fire off brief messages to anybody with an e-mail address.

The Palm VII uses a wireless data service that's available in 260 U.S. cities. Users get access to valuable online services -- headlines from USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, for instance. There's a nice applet from the E-Trade online brokerage service that'll let you quickly check your stock portfolio. The MapQuest driving directions service, which can display the best route between point A and point B, will delight newspaper photographers and others who live on the road. And "Star Wars" buffs can use the Moviefone applet to plan next weekend's viiewings of "The Phantom Menace."

The system assigns you an address on Palm.net, 3Com's own e-mail service, so you can send and receive messages. Writing on any of the Palm PDAs is tiresome. You must either use a special stylus to peck at the image of a keyboard, or master Graffiti, which enables the device to recognize human scrawl. I've never understood why anyone would bother with all of this just to jot down a phone number. But add the ability to e-mail your notes, and it makes sense.

Still, there's the unseemly price to consider -- and not just for the device. You'll pay $10 a month for basic Palm.net service, which limits you to 50 kilobytes of data per month. Extra kilobytes cost 30 cents each. One downloaded article from USA Today burns up 1 kilobyte, so heavy users will pay a small fortune in transmission costs. An "extended" service offering 150 kilobytes for $24.99 isn't much better.

There are hundreds of specialized programs that run on Palm devices, but with a mere 2 megabytes of memory, the Palm VII won't let you run many of them. In this era of cheap memory chips, why didn't 3Com squeeze in a few more?

And why won't the Palm.net system let me check my other e-mail accounts? That's a feature to gladden the heart of any traveler, but it's not to be found here. You'll get only mail sent to the Palm.net address. Maybe you can set up your office e-mail system to forward your messages. In short, the Palm VII is too expensive, too limited -- and too cool. Its ability to send and receive data from almost anywhere makes it the first such device that I'd consider a serious business tool. The Palm VII's faults are like that floppy-eared alien in the "Star Wars" movie -- annoying, but not annoying enough to keep customers away.

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