Light Applause For The New Palm

This handheld offers color, but the real value may be clearer black and white

Over the past few years, I don't know how many people have told me they thought the Palm was the perfect handheld computer except for one thing: The screen was too hard to read, especially in low light. The new Palm IIIc, the first color Palm, offers dramatic relief. But it comes at a price, both in dollars and in battery life.

The much more complicated handhelds built around Microsoft's Windows CE software desperately needed color to clarify a jumble of icons and menus on its display. The Palm works perfectly well in monochrome. So the main thing you get with color is better black and white.

That's nothing to sneeze at, however. The Palm IIIc display shows black print against a very light gray background. The best a monochrome screen can do, even the higher-contrast displays that Palm switched to last year, is almost black on medium gray. Especially for aging boomers on up, reading a monochrome display in less-than-ideal lighting conditions can be a challenge. Like a laptop, the IIIc can also be read in total darkness, though it can be near-impossible to see the display in bright sunlight. Under difficult conditions, you can make the background nearly white by turning up the screen brightness, but you will decrease battery life dramatically.

The standard Palm applications remain basically monochrome. The datebook, for example, highlights the date and the current day of the week in blue, while the contact list, memo pad, and to-do list remain strictly black and white. The IIIc features a new calculator that uses color to divide the keys into groups--green keys for operations, blue for memory, gray for numbers. Though it adds a few business and math functions, it's nowhere near as versatile as the calculator on the Palm-based Handspring Visor. A backgammon game also uses color effectively.

The Palm IIIc includes one application that shows both the advantages and weaknesses of its display. Album-To-Go from Club Photo lets you download pictures in the widely used JPEG format and display them on the Palm. Of course, pictures look a lot better in color than in the 16 shades of gray available on other Palms. But the IIIc still has a display that's just 160 pixels square and can show only 256 colors, compared with at least 65,000 on most PC displays. No one will confuse the grainy Palm images with photos.

The big question about color is whether it's worth the tradeoff. The IIIc costs $200 more than its virtual equivalent, the new Palm IIIxe. And the power-hungry color display forced a switch from the two AA batteries that give at least six weeks of use on other Palm III models. This model uses a lithium ion rechargeable battery good for maybe two weeks of moderate use. By contrast, the rechargeable battery in the slim Palm V gives about three weeks of use. As with the V, the IIIc's sync cradle doubles as a recharger.

I think the argument for color will become stronger with the development of more applications and accessories designed for it. For example, Kodak has announced the $149 PalmPix camera, which snaps on at the bottom of the Palm and turns it into a digital camera. The camera will work with older Palms, but the monochrome screen makes a murky gray viewfinder. You only see the color when you put the pictures on a PC.

AvantGo, a service that downloads reformatted Web pages to handhelds, will supplement its current monochrome Palm offerings with such colorful additions as maps from MapQuest, news from Fox Network and USA Today, and a Jeopardy game from Sony Pictures Entertainment. There will also be more color products soon. Handspring is expected to offer a color Visor later this year, complete with a spiffy snap-in camera from the Palo Alto design firm, IDEO.

Color on the Palm is cool, but right now there's no terribly compelling reason for most people to rush out and spend the extra money for it. If you have trouble reading the monochrome Palm displays, the IIIc may be just what you need. And over time, with better applications and cheaper displays, color will become the standard for handhelds.

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