Visor: Versatility With A Vengeance

The Handspring Visor (HAND) made its debut a little over a year ago as the Palm with a difference. On the back was a slot, called a Springboard, that would someday let you transform the device into a wireless phone, a wireless data terminal, a music player, or just about anything else you wanted. It has taken a long time, but the payoff is finally here, with a profusion of Springboard modules hitting the market. The Visor is now--by far--the most versatile handheld computer you can buy.

Probably the most interesting of the new modules is the $299 VisorPhone. It's a three-ounce unit that turns the Visor into a wireless phone. I found it clunky to use when holding it to my ear, but with a headset it becomes one very good unit. (I much prefer the $45 over-the-ear Plantronics M-130 (PLT) to the earbud with dangling mike supplied with the VisorPhone.) The VisorPhone also makes effective use of the huge--by phone standards--Visor display. The onscreen dialpad and speed-dial displays both have "buttons" that are easily tapped with a finger. Short messages are much quicker to write in Grafitti shorthand than by tapping them in on a phone keypad, and they are much easier to read than on a phone display. And you can call anyone in your Visor address book just by tapping the "dial" button on the listing.

PLUG & PLAY. The phone uses the GSM standard, the system of choice for most of the world. I have found GSM service generally equal to digital networks such as Sprint's (FON) and AT&T's (T)--good in cities, weak to nonexistent elsewhere. The choice of GSM lets the VisorPhone be used as a slow (9.6 or 14.4 kbps per second) but reliable modem. With an add-on program such as Palm's $40 MultiMail (PALM), you can send and receive e-mail by dialing into an Internet service provider or corporate network.

One of the best features of the Springboard is that it offers true plug and play. Modules install all the software needed when inserted and erase it when the modules are removed. OmniSky (OMNY) service for the Visor is a good example. The Visor service is identical in function to the Palm V's. You get wireless e-mail, Web browsing, and access to dozens of wireless applications--such as stock trading and driving directions--designed for the Palm VII. But on the Palm V, you have to load the OmniSky software by first copying it to a PC, then downloading it to the Palm when you sync with your desktop data. And the clip-on modem must be removed to sync or recharge the Palm. By contrast, the OmniSky for Visor ($299 plus $39.95 for monthly service) module not only installs and removes its software automatically, the design also leaves the connector free for syncing.

SPEEDY MODEM. If you only want to use your Visor for limited e-mail, short messages, and retrieving snippets of Internet data, a two-way pager module could be the way to go. The SkyTel @ctive Link is available for $428, which includes a Visor (service from $24.95 a month). For a conventional wired modem, you have several choices. The newest, the $149 SpringPort from Xircom (XIRC), is more expensive than Handspring's version, but it offers speeds of up to 56 kbps.

Visor's versatility goes way beyond communications. SoundsGood from Good Technology fits completely into the Springboard slot and turns your Visor into a full-featured MP3 player. It's cool, but it also demonstrates the limitation of this approach: At $249 after rebate, it's at least as expensive as a stand-alone player. Furthermore, you can't expand its 64 mb of memory, and I found the onscreen controls awkward to use. Another add-on, the $150 IDEO eyemodule, turns a Visor into a low-resolution but fun camera that is especially effective on the Prism, the new color Visor.

Visor: Versatility with a Vengeance

Other makers of Palm OS devices aren't abandoning the add-on field to Handspring. Palm will add a slot for what are known as SD cards. Sony's Clie (SNE) accepts Memory Stick, and the TRGpro from TRG Products accepts CompactFlash storage. All of these were designed for memory expansion, and none is likely to be as versatile as the Springboard. In addition to the Visor accessories I've mentioned, Global Positioning System and voice-recorder attachments are already available, and more are on the way. With all of its new accessories, the Visor becomes a bit of a Swiss army knife, with the electronic equivalent of saws and can openers that actually work. It has become a supremely handy tool.

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