Dell, Palm offer strong choices for handhelds

Life is all about choices: chocolate or vanilla, digital or analog, Microsoft Corp. Pocket PC or Palm Inc. handheld.

The choice between the two major handheld platforms used to be fairly simple. If you wanted a lower-cost personal digital assistant with basic personal information manager (PIM) functionality, a Palm OS-based device would do the job just fine. Those wanting PC-like functionality and more processing power could purchase a Pocket PC, but for a much higher price.

The price differences were dramatic. In Federal Computer Week's handheld comparison last October, all the Palm OS-based machines in the roundup cost less than $400 while the Pocket PCs cost $600 or more (see "Not all handhelds are created equal," FCW, Oct. 7, 2002).

Now, however, the playing field is leveling out with dramatic price drops for Pocket PCs and increases in Palm processing power with accompanying PC-mimicking applications.

In this review, we look at one Palm device and one Pocket PC, each of which represents the cutting edge in its class. Palm's Tungsten T is the first in a new family of Palm devices, and Dell Computer Corp.'s Axim X5 is the company's first handheld.

Both are versatile machines with a lot of power, and we would personally have a hard time choosing between the two. Some major factors to consider are battery life, expansion slots and whether you prefer built-in wireless functionality or an add-on card.

Dell Axim X5

Dell's first foray into the handheld market, the Axim X5 Pocket PC, comes with the latest and greatest speeds and feeds, plus a few extras that help it stand out in a crowd.

The Axim X5 is available in two configurations, both of which run the Microsoft Pocket PC 2002 Premium operating system. The $349 high-end version features a 400 MHz Intel Corp. XScale processor, 64M of synchronous dynamic RAM (SDRAM), 48M of Intel StrataFlash ROM and an eye-catching chrome synchronization cradle.

The low-end configuration costs $249 and comes with a 300 MHz Intel XScale processor, 48M of SDRAM, 32M of Flash ROM and a synchronization cable instead of the cradle.

Customers can order the low-end configuration with a cradle instead of a cable for $20 extra, and $30 extra buys both the cradle and cable. Buying the high-end configuration with a cable instead of the cradle saves $20.

Unlike most handhelds, the Axim X5 features both a Secure Digital slot and a CompactFlash slot, adding flexibility. SD cards can be used for memory expansion and file storage, and the CF slot can accept 802.11b and Bluetooth wireless adapters as well as memory expansion and more.

Dell also put a lot of thought into battery life, which translates into real-world practicality. First, the cradle features a slot for charging an optional extra battery ($59). A high-capacity battery is available for $129.

The regular battery provides about eight to 10 hours of normal use, depending on screen brightness and other factors. The high-capacity battery provides about 23 to 25 hours of normal use.

Because wireless use severely decreases battery life (dropping the above to two to three hours and seven to nine hours, respectively), the high-capacity battery is ideal for users who need a full workday's worth of battery capacity when connecting wirelessly.

The Axim X5 comes in an attractive silver case with shiny chrome buttons. A press of one of the four user-programmable application buttons on the front takes users to the calendar, contacts list, inbox or home.

The large, round, four-way navigation button has a loose feel (we prefer the Tungsten T's tighter navigation button), and it does not have a built-in "enter" function, but Dell offers a downloadable patch that adds this functionality.

The rocker scroll button on the Axim X5's side, however, does serve as the "enter" function when it is pressed.

The 3.5-inch, 240 x 320, 16-bit thin-film transistor, full-color transflective display is bright and easy to read but slightly grainy when compared to the Tungsten T's 320 x 320 display.

A few design features we liked were the rubber grips on each side and the flat stylus that doesn't roll off desks. Dell also incorporates an easily changed backup coin cell battery.

The Axim X5 includes standard handheld features such as a combination microphone/speaker, headphone jack and infrared port.

Pocket PC 2002 Premium includes handwriting and inking capabilities like the ones in the new Microsoft Journal application used with tablet PCs. Several handwriting input methods are available, including transcriber, which allows you to write in cursive or a combination of cursive and print; letter recognizer, for inputting natural character strokes and strokes used for Communication Intelligence Corp.'s Jot program; and block recognizer, which reads Palm Graffiti strokes.

An on-screen keyboard is also available for data input.

Dell includes several extra software applications. A file store utility for Flash ROM, backup utility and several other capabilities are preloaded on the device, and the companion CD-ROM comes with Adobe Systems Inc. Acrobat Reader, Sunnysoft sro's IA Presenter and Resco Ltd. Picture Viewer. Also on the disc is a host of trial versions for software including a stock manager and a tennis game.

Agencies looking for Pocket PC functionality should consider the Axim X5. With its processing power, memory, dual slots and extra battery-charging slot, it offers everything you'd want in a Pocket PC — including a reasonable price.

Palm Tungsten T

The Tungsten T is Palm's first offering from its new Tungsten family of business-class devices. Like Sharp Electronics Corp.'s Zaurus handheld, the Tungsten T features a slider design that, in this case, shrinks the unit's length to just four inches — small enough to easily fit inside a shirt pocket.

Conveniently, you can configure the device to automatically turn on when the slider is opened and turn off when it's closed.

When opened to its full length of 4.8 inches, the Graffiti area and four "soft" buttons are revealed. (The second device in the Tungsten family, the Tungsten W, was announced in October 2002 and features a thumb-sized keyboard instead of the Graffiti area and GSM/GPRS wireless instead of Bluetooth.)

Although the Tungsten T's screen is smaller than that of most handhelds at about 2.25 inches square, it displays 12 icons on the home screen without shrinking them noticeably or looking cramped (the Axim X5 displays nine). This is due in part to the Tungsten T's impressive 320 x 320 resolution, Palm's highest to date. The difference is noticeable when compared to the Axim X5's 240 x 320 display.

Another first for Palm is the Texas Instruments Inc. OMAP1510 enhanced ARM Ltd.-based processor. This processor is ideal for the new Palm OS 5 operating system and can run higher-resolution, faster business files compatible with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint using DataViz Inc.'s Documents To Go application. It also results in faster data rates for the Tungsten T's integrated Bluetooth wireless capability, another new feature.

Palm OS 5 comes with a set of application program interfaces that developers (either customers or software providers) can use to integrate security services into individual applications. The operating system is also backward compatible with security applications such as virtual private networking clients, encryption applications, cryptography and public-key infrastructure toolkits. Future versions of Palm OS 5 will feature enhanced security.

The Tungsten T comes with 16M of SDRAM and 4M of Flash ROM, and the expected battery life is seven days for basic PIM usage at default brightness. It features an SD expansion slot and four user-programmable buttons on the front. Its navigator button is a five-way, with four directions and an "enter function, and an infrared port is included.

If you want CF slot functionality, you can purchase an add-on module that connects to the Palm Universal Connector. Many other options and accessories are also available; visit www. for a complete listing.

This is Palm's first handheld to feature voice memo recording, easily accessed by pressing and holding a button on the unit's side. It's also the first Palm to come with a headphone jack.

The Tungsten T comes bundled with 19 business, communication and entertainment applications. Examples include Adobe Acrobat Reader for Palm OS software, Chapura Inc.'s PocketMirror synchronization software for Microsoft Outlook, Documents To Go 5.0, Palm Short Message Service and Palm BlueChat for private messaging and chat among Bluetooth-enabled devices.

The first member of Palm's Tungsten family is an innovative device with all the high-end specifications a buyer could want. It introduces some major updates to the Palm lineup, such as the ARM-based processor, the new OS 5, the slider design and the high display resolution.


Axim X5

Grade: A

Dell Computer Corp.

(800) 694-3355

The Axim X5 is available from Dell for $249 (low-end configuration) and $349 (high-end configuration).

This versatile Microsoft Corp. Pocket PC comes with standout features such as two expansion slots (both CompactFlash and Secure Digital) and an extra battery-charging slot in the cradle, with a high-capacity battery available as an option.


Tungsten T

Grade: A

Palm Inc.

(800) 881-7256

The Tungsten T is available from Palm for $399.

This device introduces a lot of firsts for Palm, including an ARM Ltd. processor, slider design, the company's highest resolution screen to date and voice memo recording.


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