Palm's new PDAs may be the last



The two personal digital assistants from Palm Inc. that debuted earlier this month - the Z22 and the TX - could be among the last of their kind.

PDAs started out as a nerd craze in the mid-1990s and then gained mainstream acceptance for their ability to hold thousands of addresses and appointments in a pocket-sized gadget. But they have been on the decline recently, with sales down 20 percent last year to 2.7 million units, according to research firm NPD Group.

In vogue now are smart phones that integrate PDA functions into a multimedia cell phone, including Palm's own Treo. Meanwhile, several companies that made PDAs, including Sony Corp., have quit the business altogether, and Palm admits its PDA sales have been disappointing.

But if Palm's offerings are indeed the beginning of the end of the line for stand-alone PDAs, they are going out in style. These gadgets - the lightweight, basic Z22 ($99) and the elegant TX ($299) with Wi-Fi and other advanced features - are fast, a pleasure to use and provide more bang for the buck than previous PDAs.

And they don't try to do much, unlike the bloated LifeDrive that Palm brought out earlier this year. It's as if Palm has suddenly rediscovered the reason so many of us fell in love with PDAs in the first place.

These new models are, at heart, electronic address books and appointment calendars - with a bit of Internet tossed in on the TX. And, unlike many smart phones, they can still comfortably slip into a shirt pocket.

The TX looks, feels and acts like a luxury model. It sports a bright, color touch screen that's about 3 3/4 inches by 2 1/8 inches - far larger than on most other PDAs and smart phones and with a higher resolution.

The understated black case is slightly tapered to a maximum thickness of about half an inch at the bottom. At just over 5 ounces, it feels solid in the hand. It would have been comfortable in the age of nondisposable pens, Swiss watches and business clubs.

But the TX's performance is anything but stuffy. It springs to life with a touch of the on button recessed into the top of the unit and then quickly switches among functions with light touches of the stylus or the back of a fingernail.

The address book and appointment calendar have the standard appearance of the Palm operating system, which is just fine. No use messing with something that works well.

The writing screen for handwriting recognition takes a bit of getting used to if you're accustomed to older Palm models. The TX screen surface has a bit more friction to it. But after a while I appreciated it because it forced me to make my lettering more exact, and therefore easier for the TX to translate into type.

And as usual, this Palm also has a virtual, standard qwerty keyboard that can be displayed on the screen for tapping out characters with the stylus.

The most pleasant surprise in using the TX was how easy it was to set up the Wi-Fi Internet function, especially when compared with my experiences with more expensive Palm models.

The TX is equipped with the settings used by many of the major Internet service providers. I chose mine - Charter Communications - on the list provided and in less than a minute I had Net access. (Of course, this can only be done when in a Wi-Fi hotspot.)

The Web function works fast - from a cold start to the device's home page it took 11 seconds, excellent for a mobile device. The speed is a result, at least partially, of not overreaching. The TX does not even try to process complex graphics on Web pages. It's meant mostly for text - checking out the latest news, stock quotes, sports scores or weather forecasts. It also can access driving directions.

Reading e-mail sent to my Charter address was a snap with the TX's Versamail program, but a major glitch came when I tried to send replies or new e-mails. I got mysterious error messages - initial calls to Palm didn't resolve the issue. I was, however, able to send Web-based e-mails from my Yahoo address.

The multimedia functions on the TX are limited. You can load pictures onto the device, which show off nicely on the screen. Music can be loaded for listening via the mono speaker or through headphones (not included), but when it comes to organizing your selections, the Pocket Tunes music software on the TX is far inferior to that of the iPod.

One final glitch on the TX: The handsome, faux-leather cover that comes in the box is so difficult to fit onto the device that I gave up after numerous attempts.

I would have fewer worries about keeping the Z22 case pristine. The styling says "college student" rather than "business club."

The Z22 is the first sub-$100 Palm PDA to have a color screen. Palm might have gone for too much economy with the Z22, however. For only $30 more, the Zire 31 model provides a bigger screen with higher resolution.

But the Z22 is readable if you stick to text, and the unit's small size - 4 inches by 2 1/2 inches - and 3-ounce weight makes it pocket-friendly.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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