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Syncing your handheld: USB vs. serial

On cramming stuff into your handheld as quickly as possible

Of course, handhelds are much more than just personal organizers. With additional software, you can use a handheld computer to read web pages, play games, or edit documents and spreadsheets, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. A PC connection is necessary to install the software, and the Internet-ready software typically uses the PC as a conduit to the 'net. Clearly, increasing the functionality of your handheld relies on a PC connection, as well. So what options are there for connecting to a PC?

Connection choices
There are several ways to connect a handheld with a computer for syncing purposes. Among these technologies, serial and USB interfaces are the most prevalent with modem and IR syncing being used much less frequently. Some handhelds support only USB connectivity, some only serial connections; the Handspring series supports both. Not only does this make the Handspring series versatile, it also makes it a perfect platform on which to test USB vs. serial connectivity.

The first and only Palm-based handhelds to offer true USB support, the Handspring line comes with a USB syncing cradle; an optional serial cradle is available for those without USB support. Palm actually offers an optional USB syncing solution, but it doesn't offer 'true' USB functionality and is instead a USB adapter for its serial synccing interface. Despite using a USB port on the PC to connect, Palm's USB cradle still only syncs at serial speeds. Handspring, on the other hand, takes advantage of USB's higher bandwidth, claiming speeds of up to 4 times that of a serial interface.

Is Handspring's USB cradle really four times faster than their serial offering? Do applications see better results from a fatter syncing pipe? If USB really is faster than serial, are the gains really big enough to make much of a difference in real world use? Let's find out.

Test machines

The PC:

  • AMD Athlon (T-bird) at 800MHz
  • Abit KT7-RAID motherboard
  • 256MB PC133 SDRAM
    2 x Maxtor 20GB hard drives (RAID 1)
    Windows 2000 SP1
The handheld:
  • Handspring Visor Deluxe
  • PalmOS 3.1H
  • Handspring serial and USB cradles
The tests
So how do you test the sync speed of a handheld's cradle? Well, there aren't any benchmarking programs out there, so I had to go old school on this one. Testing was as simple as using a stopwatch to time the syncing process from the moment a sync connection was established to the moment the syncing process ended. Trials were run several times to ensure that results were consistent and that there was no interference from other processes. Tests were also designed to isolate specific types of sync loads.

We used the latest version of the Palm Desktop syncing software available from Handspring's web site. To sync with Outlook 2000, we used Intellisync version 3.7. Intellisync offers more options than the standard Palm Desktop Outlook conduit, making it more useful in the real world. Additionally, InstallBuddy and BackupBuddy software were used for both standard syncing and for all installation benchmarks. InstallBuddy's impact on the tests is minimal, but BackupBuddy's presence is definitely felt.

BackupBuddy is a software package that gives you an extra layer of backup protection for your handheld by backing up settings and programs that aren't normally backed up with standard synchronization software. Unlike a standard sync, BackupBuddy gives you a backup which can completely restore the Visor's configuration and software, even after a hard reset. Because BackupBuddy adds an additional layer of data transfer, any speed increases seen by a USB cradle should be more apparent.

People use their handhelds for a wide range of tasks, and the amount of data synchronized differs from user to user. It would be impossible to come up with a series of tests to satisfy everyone's curiosity on every front, but I've tried to design tests that reflect the different types of syncing loads in the most commonly used areas.