Give These Palms A Big Hand

3Com's newest handheld computers are smaller, lighter and easier to read

In the past three years or so, I have tried every handheld computer to come along. None has succeeded in displacing a series of Palm models from their place as my constant companions. And the latest offerings from 3Com's Palm Computing division should ensure that things stay that way.

Two new models, the memory-rich Palm IIIx and the slim and light Palm V should help Palm keep dominance of the market. Price cuts on older models, which take the Palm Pilot Professional under $200, should stave off competition from below.

NOT BROKEN. The $449 Palm V is by far the more interesting of new models. It weighs just over 4 oz., vs. a bit over 6 oz. for the Palm III, and is about 3/8 in. thick, 1/4 in. less than the Palm III and about 1/4 in. shorter as well. Those changes don't sound like much, but they are enough to make the difference between a device that slides easily into a pocket and one that is more comfortable staying in a briefcase or purse.

Palm hasn't tried to fix what wasn't broken, so the basic functions of the Palm V are identical to the III. It does address the biggest user complaint about earlier models, a display that was often hard to read. The screen still measures just 160 pixels, but contrast in normal room lighting is markedly better. The backlighting has changed in a way that makes the screen readable in really dim light, but somewhat less legible than earlier models under in-between conditions.

The biggest change in the Palm V, other than size, is the switch to rechargeable batteries. This is a mixed blessing. The battery stays topped up with just a few minutes daily in the combination charger and cradle used to connect to a PC for synchronization, a process of updating or swapping information. A full charge should last for a couple weeks on the road (a travel charger, including the three most common international power-plug adapters, is available for $50). But I miss the security of always being able to pop in a pair of AAA batteries if the power runs low. The new model also includes improved software for synchronization with a variety of PC information management programs, including Microsoft Outlook.

Because of its smaller size, the Palm V cannot use older accessories, including sync cradles and modems. A new 56k modem, which snaps on to the back instead of the bottom, is a $169 option.

The $369 Palm IIIx is basically a Palm III (which drops to $299) with its memory doubled to 4 Mb. The IIIx is intended mainly for people who use Oracle, Sybase, or SAP software to carry chunks of corporate databases in their Palms. It includes the enhanced display and software of the Palm V and also has a slot for a pager card or other accessory.

In coming months, Palm will face new challenges as it tries to maintain market dominance. Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and other companies are about to bring out new color Palm-size PCs based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. A quick look at these models suggests that a color display is a huge improvement for what had been a hard-to-use screen design. At the other end of the market, Olivetti has introduced the sub-$100 Royal DaVinci, a Palm look-alike and sort of work-alike, though it falls far short of the Palm in data entry, synchronization, and flexibility.

Palm is considering its own color version. But I think the current monochrome models work just fine, and I doubt whether color would bring enough benefits to be worth the cost in dollars, battery life, and weight.

The bigger move for 3Com will be the Palm VII, which is just entering field trials and is expected to hit the market later this year. The VII, which is about the size of the current III, features wireless communications for traffic reports, airline flight information, and other time-sensitive information, such as critical E-mail and corporate-price or inventory data.

NEW USES. It's not just new models that distinguish the Palm lineup. They also get a boost from the creativity of third-party developers who continue to come up with uses undreamed of by Palm. For example, a startup called Imagiworks ( is about to offer a product that allows students to collect, annotate, and graph data using sensors that measure temperature, light, acceleration, and other physical phenomena.

In the breakneck world of high tech, sitting on your laurels can be risky. But so can messing with a formula that works. For the time being, at least, I think these evolutionary products from Palm have struck a balance between innovation and stability that serves customers well.

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