My New Handspring


How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Palm

I was one of those kids who never quite did his homework. It wasn't too hard; I just forgot. More times than I can remember (no pun intended), I found myself wondering when this assignment had been announced. Indeed, I once got a paper back that I didn't remember writing, let alone being assigned.

A couple of years ago, I found the solution: A Psion PDA. I spent quite a long time using the Psion Series 5. It was a pretty decent PDA, but it had a key weakness: Most of the advertised features were not actually features of the PDA, they were features of the Windows software it was tied to. For a chunk of extra money, I could have gotten Mac software... with limited functionality. Psion has refused to document its data formats (using the fairly transparent dodge that, since these are "object streams", it's meaningless to describe the series of bytes which composes a file). There are now usable Unix converters for some of their data... but it's unsupported and clumsy at best.

Well, about a week ago (within an hour or so of this writing, it was exactly a week ago), I discovered that my Psion's screen had cracked. Repairs for this fairly common problem are fairly expensive. The Series 5 is no longer in production, and it took me about an hour of web searching to find a store that carried the successor (the Series 5mx), and actually kept them in stock.

The Series 5mx is still pretty much crippled if you don't run windows. The "WYSIWYG" printing extends only to a single font (Courier) with my portable bubblejet printer; I am supposed to connect my portable PDA and my battery powered printer together through the Windows desktop machine which, even if I had it, I would have left a thousand miles behind when I'm out of the house. The word processor can't save in RTF, or indeed in any formats other than an undocumented proprietary one, and plain text. It's faster, but nothing has really changed; it's the same machine.

In that same time, Palm computers have gone from little toys with 2MB of memory to fairly powerful and flexible machines, with 8MB of memory. The Handspring units have a standardized expansion port. I realized that I could get a color PDA for about $20 less than I would have spent on a 5mx.

And so, with a fair amount of trepidation, I got myself a Handspring Visor Prism, and a keyboard.

Physical Graffiti

The keyboard is getting a lot less use than I expected. Is graffiti (the writing system the Palm-compatible systems use) as easy as typing? No. However, unless I'm doing an awful lot of typing all at once, it turns out to be easier than setting up a keyboard and typing. It's about as easy as typing on the Psion was; the Psion's keyboard was a little small, and used a very creative and non-standard layout for crucial punctuation. (e.g., hyphen was "function-o".)

The writing system is pretty usable; it took me about ten minutes to get to the point where I only needed to look up punctuation. (I'm still at that point, and will be for some time.) The keyboard, when I do use it, is a full-size laptop keyboard (made by Targus), and it's quite a lot nicer than the keyboard the Psion had. Advantage: Handspring.

Expensive Real Estate

Screen size has been a real pain. The Psion's 640x200 screen was a little hard to read in anything but a really bright light, but it had a lot of space; you could comfortably get up to a 70x18 text display in a fairly readable font. On the other hand, it was not a very clear display; for some reason, the Psion displays have always been a bit less clear than the Palm displays. By contrast, the handspring's color display is amazingly readable - except, of course, in precisely the very bright light (sunlight) that made the Psion most usable. However, I use my PDA indoors a lot more than I use it outdoors. Advantage: Handspring.

Expansionist Tendencies

One of the key features of my Psion was the support for Compact Flash media. I have a selection of CF cards which I used for regular backups (since it was about as expensive as getting the Mac software, and was more useful). Before I bought a Handspring, I verified that there was a CF reader for it.

The Psion's support for CF is substantially better. I haven't had much trouble with compatability (although I've heard other people report problems with the 5mx). The Psion treated a CF card as simply a second drive; you could copy files to it, run applications from it, and use it interchangably with the internal media.

The Handspring can only copy files to and from CF. Files can't be accessed directly while they're on the media. The unit I got comes with a backup program, but I haven't gotten my registration key yet, so I can't comment on how well it works. Plain old file copies are just fine.

However, this is where the Psion's advantage ends. The Handspring can use expansion devices other than a CF card. A wide variety are available; I'm personally perhaps most tempted by the digital camera module, although I don't think I'm tempted enough to spend money on it right now. I can put all sorts of devices in my Handspring, and most of them won't need separate power sources. The Psion's connections were limited to IR or serial; you couldn't even use CF form-factor devices (such as the modem adapter for my cell phone) with it. (I can't say whether the adapter works with my Handspring, I've misplaced it. If it doesn't, I can get a different connector for it.) The Handspring is expected to have 802.11b wireless at some point in the near future; the Psion can't, and won't.

The Psion is designed with the assumption that what it does is all it will ever need; the Handspring is more expandable. Advantage: Handspring.

Sound Reasoning

The Psion's alarms are loud; the Handspring's alarms aren't. "high" volume on my handspring is almost completely inaudible if I put the device inside a pouch; I could never hear it from another room. The Psion, I could hear from inside a bag, on another floor of my house. I am very disappointed in the sound quality of the Handspring. (Lucky for me I don't rely much on the alarms to alert me to anything.) Advantage: Psion.

Software Selection

I think the Psion's built-in software was somewhat more powerful than the Handspring's; unfortunately, as a result, it wasn't as interesting a development platform, so my selections for third party applications were a little more limited. The Psion's "Agenda" application remains one of my favorite time-management programs ever; however, the application I am now using (DateBk4) is probably better. This is a very tough one to call. On built-in software, I think the Psion wins. On add-on software, the Handspring's advantage is vast and awe-inspiring.

Development Environment

I admit it, I'm a sucker for a thing I can program. Psion shipped with a weird and unique programming language called OPL built into the machine; neat, but it's idiosyncratic, and I never got around to learning it. They have a development environment (I think it's "free") which is based on gcc, and yet which is only sort of available in anything like source form, and requires the use of Microsoft Visual C++ as a development environment. Having used that environment for a month or so in the past, I am unwilling to go anywhere near it.

For the handspring/palm environment, there's a gcc-based free development environment that runs on Unix-like systems. Palm claims to "support" this; I'm not sure exactly what level of support they mean, but it's nice to know that I'm not roped into a proprietary environment I can't stand if I want to develop it. Furthermore, I have other options; Metrowerks sells a version of CodeWarrior that targets PalmOS.

Overall, Psion has exactly one real development option, and it's loathesome. Palm has a number of options, and I find both of the ones I've researched fairly tolerable. I expect to write programs for my new PDA. Advantage: Handspring.


In summary, for my purposes, the Handspring Visor Prism is so much better than the Psion as to actually be fairly embarassing for Psion. Earlier Psion units, such as the Series 3a I once used, had on-board ability to save word processor files in useful formats (such as RTF). As time has gone on, they have moved towards less open environments, and more proprietary ones. The Palm units have thrived on openness. Psion's idea of openness is a large alliance (called "Symbian") that continues to enforce the "Windows or nothing" connectivity rule; Palm's is a broad variety of developer support web pages.

I miss alarms loud enough to hear. I miss large screen real-estate; my Infocom text adventures will be a lot less playable on this machine. On the other hand, I don't miss a proprietary development environment, and I'm really enjoying a machine that appears to have a long and interesting future ahead of it.