This Palm Rates A High Five

The Visor offers plug-and-play access to a wide range of applications

After the original PalmPilot made its debut in 1996, even its designers were amazed by the variety of inventive programs that software developers wrote for the simple platform. Now the inventors of the Palm are back with a new product that promises a similar wave of hardware inventiveness.

The Handspring Visor, made under license from 3Com Corp.'s Palm Computing, is obviously a first cousin to the Palm III. Unlike the Palm, it comes in five colors and is about 1/4-inch narrower, making it more comfortable in smaller hands. But the Visor has the same high-contrast screen used in the latest Palms, the same buttons, and the same shape. And it uses the same Graffiti shorthand for data entry.

Visor offers all standard Palm software, plus some enhancements. DateBook+ adds expanded views of your schedule, including a detailed work-week view and a full-year calendar. And the calculator adds scientific, statistical, and financial functions to the basic Palm model. Like the Palm, Visor offers the same easy one-button synchronization of information with PCs or Macintoshes. The basic Visor with a 2-megabyte memory sells for $179 ($149 without the sync cradle used to connect with a PC), while the Visor Deluxe, with four times the memory, is $249. The 2-MB Palm IIIe goes for just under $200.

QUICK SWITCH. To see the Visor's most exciting feature, you remove a plastic cover from the back, revealing a slot about 2-inches square and 1/4-inch deep. The slot, called the Springboard, provides for a wide array of accessories, from memory modules that quickly add new programs, to more complicated hardware that converts the Visor into a cell phone, global-positioning system receiver, or an MP3 music player. Although the Visor has no audio system, a microphone is built into the unit for devices, like the cell phone module, that need it.

The only module available for me to test prior to the Visor's launch was Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf from Electronic Arts Inc. While computer golf leaves me cold, the game demonstrates one of the Visor's neatest features. When you plug in the module, Tiger appears on Visor's applications menu. When you remove it, he disappears. No installing, no downloading, no uninstalling. The effect is to give the Visor effectively unlimited memory with instant installation and removal of programs.

The hardware accessories, which will be coming to market over the next few months, have the potential to be far more interesting. RioPort and InnoGear plan MP3 modules, Navicom and MarcoSoft Inc. are working on GPS receivers, and Innogear and Sycom Technologies plan voice recorders.

Communications options offer some of the most promising long-term possibilities. The wireless Palm VII, which barely has room inside for one radio, is locked into using a single network technology. But the Visor can handle plug-and-play modules that would let you choose any wireless or wired voice or data network. And software developer JP Systems will supply a program that will allow mail programs, Web browsers, or any other applications to use whatever communications module is plugged into the Springboard. Another plus: The Springboard design makes it easy for modules to provide their own batteries, a necessity for power-hungry wireless communications, without greatly expanding the size of the complete package.

This Palm Rates a High-Five

Another product planned for this fall, the Sensor Science Kit from ImagiWorks (800 929-6767 or shows Visor's versatility. The kit allows scientific sensors, such as the temperature probes and light-and-motion sensors currently used with PCs and Texas Instruments Inc. calculators, to connect to the Visor. The first offering combines a temperature probe with a set of software-based experiments in a home science kit expected to retail for between $70 and $80. Additional probes with their own project kits may cost as little as $20. "We're taking advantage of everything Handspring is giving us," says Chairman Wayne Grant of ImagiWorks. "There are lots of opportunities to expand into new markets." Among the products being considered is a wireless heart-rate monitor for use during exercise.

Handspring is making it as easy as possible for hardware designers to fashion their own plug-and-play Springboard devices, including freedom from any licensing requirements or royalty payments. It was just this sort of openness that produced an undreamed-of explosion of software for the Palm. If that experience is any guide, expect some really interesting ideas to emerge on the Visor.

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