Palm Makes a Pocket PC

A new handheld for people with bad handwriting.

Tungsten C

I’ve always hated the PalmPilot. Its hotshot handwriting-recognition software seems programmed to reject mine. Scribbling into Palm’s stylus-driven Graffiti interface evokes painful memories of grade-school penmanship class, where teachers quipped that I was sure to become a doctor with handwriting like that.

But the company’s new Tungsten C, which goes on sale worldwide today, is at last a Palm for Webheads who can’t write. More important than the 400 MHz Intel CPU inside (my last PC wasn’t that fast), the lower end of its faceplace sports a tiny thumb keyboard akin to the Blackberry PDAs toted by Unix systems administrators, Silicon Valley capitalists, and Capitol Hill staffers. You can still use a stylus if you want, but why bother? After years of frustration with Graffiti, learning to thumb a one-eighth scale keyboard—punctuated with an occasional stab of the stylus—took about 30 seconds. It felt like mastering the Matrix.

Tungsten C is a buzz item among gadget hounds, but for a different reason: It’s the first Palm with Wi-Fi. Geeks go gaga for 802.11, and Palm employees are no exception. The current issue of Wired tells the story of the pirate network set up at Palm under management’s nose three years ago. It’s hard to explain Wi-Fi’s druglike allure to those who haven’t been hooked, but try to keep people from grabbing the Tungsten C thing out of your hand at Starbucks. It’s the Palm the programmers, not the marketers, must have dreamed up. Friday-night hacker friends in faraway cities replied to my thumb-typed e-mails to tell me how jealous they were.

Part of the C’s sex appeal is sheer speed. Wi-Fi delivers screaming downloads, 10 times faster than Palm’s previous wireless service. It’s harder to find places to get online, but once you do, clocking a steady 600 kilobits per second is no problem. Manipulating all that data can be a struggle, though. Palm’s e-mail client is fine, but the browser is just OK. Web sites often appear onscreen in a confusing jumble of overlapping text and graphics—even on pages that pass the World Wide Web Consortium’s standards tests. Many pages are presented wider than the screen, requiring awkward back-and-forth scrolling to read them. You wouldn’t give up your laptop, but for catching up on BoingBoing while out of the office, the Tungsten C works fine. You can use it to download AOL Instant Messenger and a zillion Palm apps through VersionTracker. WiFinder has tools for finding Wi-Fi hotspots as you travel.

The one drawback is the price. At $499, it’s close to Pocket PC money. That prompteda fellow Starbucks table-squatter to whip out his iPAQ h5455, which costs about $200 more, for a feature-by-feature showdown. A full rundown would fill a phone book, but the capabilities we cared most about were almost comically similar:

 HP iPAQ h5455Palm Tungsten C
CPU400 MHz400 MHz
Battery life (tested)4 hours4 hours
Memory64 MB64 MB
Screen240x320 pixels320x320 pixels (on a smaller screen)
Microsoft OutlookYesNo
Microsoft Office toolsWord, ExcelWord, Excel, PowerPoint

On the final comparison—reading and editing MS Office files—it was tough to declare a winner. Some reviewers prefer Palm’s software, but the Tungsten choked on annotated Word docs from my editor, spewing characters all over the screen. One guy’s résumé came up full of wacky characters on the Palm, but mine did the same on the Pocket PC. Neither handheld always got it right—test each one with your own files before buying.

Bystanders to our PDA drag race kept asking questions like, “It’s nice, but who is it for?” Palm spokespeople say they expect to sell the Tungsten C primarily to employees at Wi-Fi equipped corporate campuses—like their own. After watching my geek buddies gush over it, I can simplify that. There is now a Pocket PC for people who don’t do Microsoft.