The great palmtops

Over the years I have owned a number of palmtops. It is almost unheard of that a week goes by that I don't wind up shopping for 'the next great palmtop.' I'd like to write about two great palmtops I used to own and lament the fact that the market hasn't filled the void they've left in my heart. But first some background.

My palmtop collection started in 2001 when I finally got a real money job (as opposed to the play money they give you to pay bills with when you're in school). Well, really it started it 1999 with the purchase of a used HP 95 LX. I went through some IBM handheld PC, a Psion Revo/Diamond Mako, a Palm Vx, an iPAQ h3765, an iPAQ h1940, and a Samsung SPH-i300 (think of a Palm Vx plus a cellphone packaged in a small brick). I've looked at just about everything in between those, and spent many hours at Office Depot drooling. I've used the iPAQ h3765 running Linux for the last three years (the other palmtops tended to last 6 months!). I'd like to switch to something else, but I've just been so unimpressed by recent offerings.

The Palm Vx is, I believe, the best general PDA ever made. It is tiny, the battery lasts forever, it is durable, it is sexy, and PalmOS 3.5 was just about the pinnacle of PDA software. Let's go down the list and examine the drool spots:

As I recall this palmtop was about 0.4 inches thick with no real protrusions. There are modern palmtops in *almost* this form factor (i.e., iPAQ h1940), but we've had five years, I don't think we should be so far behind the 2000 state of the art.
battery lasts forever
When I went on vacation, I used my palmtop to read. I read for hours. I never once had my palmtop go dead on a six hour plane ride. I never once plugged in my palmtop at the airport so I could read through the next leg. I hardly ever used the backlight because the crisp black and white display was readable in any light. Imagine using a modern color TFT without the backlight! But with this palmtop, I could take it one step further: I left my charger at home for any trip shorter than a week! Imagine, a week without even worrying about it possibly dying. You want to read three whole novels in that week? The Palm Vx was on top of it.
It came out of the box with a little leather flap that protected the screen. My Palm Vx never sustained any physical damage in its lifetime. I had a friend who kept on destroying Palms of that era -- it turns out he kept it in his back pocket with the screen facing out and destroyed two different palmtops the exact same way, using his butt to open a door. That's what it takes to break a Palm Vx. And the thing is, even with this stock leather flap, the thing was still tiny (0.6 inches thick). Add a modern case to an 0.6 inch modern palmtop and you get into 0.8-1.0 inch territory real quick!
The Palm Vx with leather flap was the sleekest palmtop ever manufactured. I've never since met a device that looked so futuristic. The irony being that we're five years in the future and still haven't caught up. Maybe it was inspired by alien technology from the future!
PalmOS 3.5
There appear to be two mentalities in PDA software. One acknowledges that a PDA is generally useful for only two tasks: reading books and keeping personal data (phone numbers, appointments, notes, checkbook registers). For this group there is old PalmOS. If you pick the right apps (I found it to be trivial), it is always perfectly fast, it is always perfectly stable, and it is always perfectly convenient for these features. The other mentality insists that a palmtop, since it is Turing Complete, is capable of executing any software that a PC is. This group has come out with only three killer features: media playback (meaningless since it is still very expensive to add large storage to a palmtop), interoperability (meaningless because "Palm Desktop" or whatever can provide great interoperability), and internet connectivity (still barely feasible, and, surprisingly, hardly useful). They've introduced the cost, however, of crashes, slowness, and crappiness throughout. WinCE is the perfect example of this, but newer PalmOSes are right there with it. Modern Linux palmtop environments (i.e., Opie) are the same story.

Why not just use a Palm Vx today? It's totally feasible. One downside is the batery is almost non-replacable (cracking one of them open without damaging it is a real pain in the ass) and finite lifetime, so very few of these units are honestly in "like new" condition. The other downside is that Palm is a pretty shitty company. There are numerous known defects (the touch screen almost always eventually refuses to calibrate, the LCDs tend to fade over time) that Palm won't even admit to. I've heard that they will provide warranty service for these, even used, but it is a grey area, and I hate Palm because of it.

Why do future products from this vendor suck? None are half as sexy (exception: Palm m505 and other Vx look alikes..maybe these are great too). New PalmOS flirts with being a big computer operating system. I understand being scared of WinCE, but that means emphasize your advantages, don't join them in suckitude! New Palms use a faster processor that I must believe is hungrier -- no way they could get a Palm Vx like battery life. But maybe I'm wrong. The OS alone has turned me off of new palms, but that old form factor is just hard to beat!

Now for the other great palmtop innovation that I haven't seen repeated much today. The Psion Revo/Diamond Mako. This one is a much more qualified success. I happened to get one cheap when they were discontinued and loved it for about 6 months before giving it to a friend once I got my Palm Vx. Particular sore spots for this palmtop are the OS (which is nice to use but extraordinarily shitty to program for), the battery (which is not bad in the modern scale, but is still not great), and durability (it has a hinge and the hinge causes a tight flex on a ribbon cable that just doesn't last long with that treatment). But there was one thing it had that I simply haven't seen at all since, period: form factor. This palmtop, in your pocket, was about 1.5 inches longer than a Palm Vx with leather protector, but it wasn't really any bigger in the other dimensions. And the screen was not exposed, so it didn't get scratched up by your house keys. When you opened it up, it had a totally respectable keyboard inside! Obviously not a touch typist's dream, but a far cry from anything on a non-clamshell palmtop.

That's the other thing the market is missing: a diminuitive clamshell palmtop.

So now I have the specifications for two modern palmtops which are both better, in many ways, than anything on the market today. Ready?

The Palminator

widthbetween 2.8in and 3.3in
heightbetween 4.3in and 4.7in
depth0.40in (palm Vx = 0.46in -- we must beat that)
turn on timeless than 100ms
pda app launch timeless than 100ms
keypresses from turn on to app launch regardless of stateless than two
memory for personal datamore than 1MB
memory for reference material/booksmore than 6MB
standby battery lifemore than 30 days
power-on idle battery lifemore than 24 hours
power-on full tilt battery lifemore than an hour
integrated screen protector thicknessless than 0.2in

Those specs are non-negotiable. Those specs are what it takes to make a good palmtop, something better than anything currently on the market hands down. None of those specs can be compromised on. Those specs may not be altered to give more features. You do not need more features. Do not ignore those specs.

I am personally a little bit addicted to running Linux on my palmtop (yeah, it sucks, but...), so if you can do this with an ARM or similar modern chip with an MMU, and a color display, and a zillion gigabyte memory, that is awesome, and will force me to buy it. But if you have to abandon any of the key specs, especially size or battery life or power on time, don't're no longer making a quality PDA and any amount of features won't change the fact that it's not a quality PDA.

Note that I don't specify anything about the processor. Maybe if I buy a PDA I care what processor it is, what it's like to program, etc., but for most people, a PDA is a consumer device. So I specify 100ms to power on. That may seem fast to you. It seems slow to me. I know that with a reasonable software architecture it is possible to reach that timing requirement with a 1 MIPS processor. 1 MIPS. Reasonable compromises, mostly when it comes to software complexity of controlling a display device, might justify a 10 MIPS processor. A 100 MIPS processor is not needed. If it can be included, hooray.

The Foldinator

This is a clamshell palmtop.

widthbetween 2.8in and 3.3in
heightbetween 5.0in and 6.5in
depthbetween 0.45in and 0.65in closed (psion revo = 0.66in)
turn on timeless than 100ms
pda app launch timeless than 100ms
keypresses from turn on to app launch regardless of stateless than two
memory for personal datamore than 1MB
memory for reference material/booksmore than 6MB
standby battery lifemore than 30 days
power-on idle battery lifemore than 24 hours
power-on full tilt battery lifemore than an hour
MTBF for hingeat least 100,000 opens

For this palmtop, an OS like WinCE might finally make a little bit of sense (if you could meet the timing requirements and the battery requirements, hah hah), because with the keyboard you will find apps like Pocket Word to be a meaningful convenience. Without the keyboard you will not find those apps to be useful. Without the quality size and battery life and responsiveness you will not find these apps to be useful. So remember: make it good, then worry about features!


When the iPod Shuffle came out, I was quite impressed with it, though I would probably never buy one (if for no other reason than because Apple installed malware on my computer to advertise it). But immediately pundits everywhere pointed out that there are 'similar' devices on the market already, and they have more features! Dumbasses.

What is the iPod Shuffle? It is one thing: it is a 1 cubic inch MP3 player: 3.3in x 0.98in x 0.33in. Nothing else about it is particularly clever or new or grand. So along comes the newest competitor, and, I believe, the smallest I've seen yet: the Dell DJ Ditty. What is it? It is a 2 cubic inch MP3 player: 3.6in x 1.1in x 0.5in. It has features but who cares, it's not a 1 cubic inch MP3 player. To even compare it to the iPod Shuffle is to encourage insipient dementia. Do you get my point?


March 23, 2012

I wrote this in 2006. Since then, the phenomenon that I identified in the ipod turned into the iPhone -- immediate response to keypresses, small size, and decent battery life are now universally recognized as absolutely essential to a smart phone. I am impressed that reality caught up to my vision.

Though I'll note that I hinted that the device should be durable, and ultimately even Steve Jobs didn't understand that (see broken iPhone 4 glass).

February 9, 2017

I can't believe I was so optimistic in 2012. Really, everyone recognizes these things are valuable, but the progress towards those goals is so laughable. Looking at my phone right now, apps which I've just opened launch impressively fast, near that 100ms I specified above, but I know from daily use that sometimes I will wait multiple whole seconds for something basic like the dialer or text messaging app to launch. The phone has 2GB of RAM but can only hold about 3 active apps in memory before it starts unloading them, causing their next load to be slow.

In many ways, still, the Palm Vx is concretely ahead of modern devices.

And good god, y'all: batteries.