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Palm m500 Review

by Tim Drenk
Posted 4/21/01
Updated 4/24/01

I was able to get a Palm m500 Handheld yesterday and try it out. Here are my thoughts after one day.

The Hardware

The body of the m500 is almost identical to the Palm Vx body. The differences are the corners are rounded, the sides aren't straight but rounded a little so it feels more comfortable in my hand, the button are recessed more (the buttons being so high on my Vx is my biggest complaint on it's design), the power button is a LED which is on when it's in the cradle or when the alarm goes off, and of course, it has a SD (Secure Digital) Card slot.

Two other differences are the stylus is shorter than the Vx stylus and there are no longer two stylus silos or channels, but one stylus silo on the right and a smaller silo on the left for the cover. Since the stylus is shorter, third party styli won't fit properly into it. Having only a stylus silo on the right will cause problems for left-handed users. My wife, who is left-handed, keeps her Palm Dual Action Pen on the left side of her Vx which won't work on the m500 series. I don't know why Palm made this change, but I hope they had a really good reason. There are a few more subtle differences, but I'll let others go into detail about those.

The cradle design is different, but weights about the same as the Vx cradle. The connector, which has native USB support, is different so it's not compatible with older accessories. Quite a number of people have complained about this, that they have to buy all new accessories, but as someone told me, it's going to get worse, before it gets better. Palm named this the "Universal Connector" which will be in all Palms after the m500 series. So if they come out with a m700 series, the connector will be the same and accessories will be interchangable. Because of this new connector, HotSyncing is faster. The downside is the cradle comes only with a USB cable. If you don't have USB, you will need a serial adapter.

When the Palm is in the cradle, there is a small gap between the bottom of the body and cradle so the Palm is completely resting on the connector. The only reason I can think of why Palm would do this is to make the cradle fit any Palm that is developed after the m500 series, but I am only guessing. The cradle has two small hooks that snap on to the Palm when it's put in the cradle. The advantage is the Palm can't be knocked off the cradle (in fact, you can hold the cradle upside down and the Palm won't fall off). The disadvantage is I have to apply a fair amount of force to get the Palm out of the cradle. It almost feels like I'm going to break something.UPDATE: I figured out what I was doing wrong. In order to get the Palm out of the cradle, you need to tilt the Palm towards you then pull up and the Palm slides out nicely. So it is not a design flaw, I was not following directions.

The processor is faster than the Vx's, but not nearly as fast as the Visor Platinum. The Vx processor runs at 20Mhz and the Visor Platinum runs at 33Mhz. Someone said the m500 series was thought to run at 33Mhz, but I don't think it's that fast. But even with that small speed bump, I notice the difference. My databases are sorted faster and games move faster.



The screen of the m500 is very similar to the Vx screen. The backlighting is not green like the Vx, instead it's almost a pale yellow which is easier to read and see in partial light. This backlight is certainly much more usable. According to SuperUtility, the battery when fully charged is at 4.22v instead of 4.05v, which is the Vx maximum charge. Since the battery low warning comes on at 3.76v, m500 has over 50% more battery charge than the Vx. I don't know how using SD cards impacts battery life; I'm sure it uses more energy, I'm just not sure how much. So the actual usage time of each battery charge may not be much different.

The Software

The main built-in applications are pretty much the same as those on the m100 series. It has the 4 familiar applications, plus the Clock and the Note Pad. Instead of a Memo Pad hardware button, it has a Note Pad hardware button. The CD that comes in the box contains additional software: Documents to Go (a program to view and edit Word and Excel documents), PowerOne (a more powerful calculator), PhotoSuite (a picture viewing program), PalmReader, (an ebook reader), AvantGo (an offline web reader), and AOL mail client. I think it was very smart of them to include this additional software.

Using SD Cards

Having a SD slot is probably the thing I looked forward to the most. There have been many different opinions post on the web about how it works, how fast it will be, etc. Here is my experience:

The Palm comes with a dummy card that is in the slot when I pulled out of the box. The only downside of the design of the slot is there is no cover. A card must be in the slot to protect the inside connectors or dust and other particles will get in there. If you are looking at the back of the Palm, the card label must face you to insert it. There is a small card icon on the back of the Palm to illustrate how to insert the card. I can hear the card lock into place and the Palm makes a sound to indicate it recognizes the card (the dummy card, of course, isn't recognized).

I got a Palm branded 16MB expansion card that came formatted and ready to use. There are two ways of loading programs and databases onto the card. First, you can use the Palm's new copy function. This function is limited to programs that are unlocked. The copy functions uses the same "flag" that the beam function uses to determine if a program can be copied. If a program can't be beam, it can't be copied to an expansion card. The second way to get an item to the expansion card is HotSyncing. In the Install Tool, you can choose the destination of the each item you are installing. If you install 4 programs, you install 2 of them on to the card and the other 2 on to the Palm itself. Using the Install Tool, you can install programs and databases on to the card. If you install a program on the card that is locked, you won't be able to copy it from the card. I wish that there was a move function as well instead of having to copy the program and then delete it from the handheld, but I'm sure there will soon be a third party program to do that.



Applications on the Expansion Card

In the Application Launcher, the Expansion Card is listed separately and not in the All view. To see any programs on the card, you must select that category, "Expansion Card" or whatever you have renamed the card. One downside to this is there doesn't seem to be a way to have the programs be in different categories on the card. All programs are in that one category. Some third party launcher replacement programs may fix this.

When you launch a program that is on the expansion card, it is copied into the RAM of the Palm and run from there. I installed a game called Biplane Ace by Astraware to test how this works. With the m500 sitting next to the Vx, I launched Ace at the same time on both devices. The m500 took about 4 seconds longer to launch the program than the Vx. The m500 took about 2-3 seconds longer to get back to the Applications Launcher than the Vx. Ace is 83K so a smaller program doesn't take as long and a larger program requires slightly more time. Once the program is launched, because it has been copied into the RAM, there is no speed hinderance.

One objection to how this operates is you can't completely fill the memory of the Palm, you must have RAM that is free. Most programs are 200K or less and even the biggest programs like DataBk4 are 450K or less. I would recommend keeping at least 400K free on a Palm regardless of this requirement. Fortunately, most people will never hit this limit so for most people, it's a non-issue. The only thing most will notice is the lag time of the program being copied into RAM which is only a few seconds. There is one distinction I need to make: the only thing that is copied into RAM is the program itself, not it's supporting databases. For example, the program size of MyBible is 38K so to run MyBible from an expansion card, you only need 38K of free RAM even though each translation of the Bible is 1.5MB. I'm sure with MyBible and other programs that access multiple databases transparently there will be a noticable slow down when the program accesses different databases. I did completely fill the RAM of the m500, with only 23.2K left and tried to run Ace off of the card. I simply got a message indicating there wasn't enough free memory on the Palm.



Databases and Documents on the Expansion Card

For programs to take advantage of the expansion card, the program must be written to do so. Most existing programs don't see the card so can't use information on it. To get databases or documents onto the card using the Palm, the program that uses the database must have the copy function built in to it. There is no way to get databases on or off the expansion card in the operating system itself. This could be a potential problem if someone installs a database on the card using the Install Tool, but the program that uses the database isn't written to take advantage of the card. If this happens, the only way to remove that database is to format the card, which erases everything else. Having the database on the card certainly doesn't hurt anything, it just wastes space. Here again, we will have to rely on third party developers to provide another solution.

One program that can use expansion cards is PalmReader. In PalmReader, I can open documents that are on the expansion card and can copy documents to and from the card. Opening up documents from the card doesn't seem to take any longer than when the documents are in the Palm's memory. Opening a document that is 132K takes less than a second from both the Palm memory and the card. Plus, despite the free RAM requirement to launch applications, there is no such requirement for databases, at least in PalmReader. With only 23.2K free on the m500, I opened Hylas and Philonous, a 132K document, without a problem.

Again, I wish there was a move function as well as the copy function, so could I put a document on the card without having to delete it from the Palm. After a document has been copied to the card, a small card icon appears on the right.




Final Thoughts

The m500 is certainly an improvement over the Vx in many ways. The biggest improvement, the advantage of SD cards, won't really be felt until more programs can access the cards. If MyBible could see the card, then I could have all 6 Bible translations on the 16MB expansion card (why I would want 6, I don't know, but it would be possible). I'm sure more applications that can access the SD card will be come available as the m500 and the m505 become more available. The m500 isn't perfect because of some of the problems I listed above, but with the SD slot, improved backlighting, and a faster processor, it is a great improvement and a move in the right direction.

Since the m500 is $400 and the m505 is $450, I would have to say the m505 will be the better buy because of the color screen. Of course, I say this without having seen the color screen of the m505 myself, so that conclusion could change.

Price: $400

Pros:
-Thin
-SD Card Slot
-Better backlighting
-Faster processor

Cons:
-Only 1 stylus silo on the right side
-No move function to/from the card
-No way to move databases to/from the card in the OS
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