The stunning-looking Palm V represents a pure hardware makeover – it’s slightly shorter and narrower than previous models, and much thinner and lighter (0.4 inches thick, 3.8 ounces). This shrinkage makes it even likelier that you’ll carry the Palm V with you. The palmtop’s superthin profile hints at the next big change: this is the first model not powered by AAA batteries. Instead, a LiIon battery drives it; the battery gets recharged whenever the Palm V sits in its new, AC-powered HotSync cradle. One charge lasts approximately a month, a complete drained-to-full charge takes 90 minutes, and just one HotSync (two-way update) a day is enough to keep the Palm V fully charged, according to the company. This new battery scheme is arguably better for both the environment and your battery budget. It also means that you can leave the Palm V turned on all day as it sits in its cradle, displaying your schedule, a clock, or even a family photo. On the other hand, since the device now draws power through its sole connector – its HotSync jack – no existing add-ons fit the Palm V. All Palm peripherals must be redesigned, including the Delorme Tripmate (a GPS satellite receiver) and LandWare’s GoType portable PalmPilot keyboard (the company has already announced a Palm V-compatible version). Nor will Palm’s own snap-on Palm modem fit the Palm V; you’ll have to buy the sleek new £129.99 Palm V clip-on modem. (A £34.99 travel kit, featuring a recharging cord that doesn’t require the cradle, is also available.) The Palm V’s other dramatic new feature is its razor-sharp screen. Based on a new film technology from 3M, it provides a light yellow-green background for text and graphics, which seem to float on the glass’s surface. (PalmPilot fans who clamour for a colour screen should note the cautionary tale of the new colour Windows CE palmtops, whose batteries die after only eight hours of use. Compare that with two months for the Palm IIIx and one month for the Palm V.) Unfortunately, both the Palm V and the Palm IIIx do something bizarre when you turn on the backlighting: rather than simply lighting up, Indigo-like, as on previous models, the entire screen also inverts black and white. The effect is disconcerting and not necessarily more readable than the original scheme. 3Com has solved the contrast-knob problem at last. On the original PalmPilot models, it was all too easy to bump off this knob in your pocket; the Palm III recessed the knob so deeply it was almost inaccessible. On the Palm V, you press a physical button to summon an on-screen contrast slider – a great improvement. The rest of the Palm V story involves low-key touches: there’s now a stylus slot on both sides of the device, a nod to left-handed users. (The Palm V includes a leatherette screen cover; one edge slides into the unused stylus slot as a hinge.) And 3Com/Palm Computing sells a line of Palm V accessories, including a combination stylus-ink pen and a head-turning, brushed-aluminum hard case (this prevents accidental button-pressing in your pocket, which the leather flap often fails to prevent). Although the Palm V is remarkably beautiful, it also costs £150 more than its predecessor, the Palm III, and doesn’t add features or memory. (On the other hand, the Palm V’s 2MB go a long way; a typical Palm program is under 20K.) The less flashy but more practical buy is the Palm IIIx (HHHH/8.8; £279.99). This model is nearly identical to the Palm III but sports twice the memory, a screen almost as good as the Palm V’s, an expansion slot, and a more rugged circuit-board design. The budget-conscious should also note that the Palm IIIx pushes the previous model, the Palm III, down to £199.99 and the two-year-old PalmPilot models to £155. Neither new model introduces any software changes. Sceptics may grumble, but there’s much to admire about a company that refuses to pile new features, Microsoft-like, on a machine popular for its speed, simplicity, and elegance. Furthermore, remember that the Palm III, IIIx, and V are flash-ROM upgradable – in other words, when 3Com does decide to update the software, you’ll be able to do so by downloading a software updater to your Macintosh.
The Palm V is the StarTac phone or Mont Blanc pen of pocket electronics; the Palm IIIx is the rugged workhorse. Both new models represent careful, welcome improvements to one of the most beautifully conceived pieces of electronics since the Macintosh itself.