HandEra 330: Improving Palm’s platform

Manufacturer HandEra
Model 330
Price
(street)
$350
Availability Now

The 330 is yet another player in the increasingly diverse world of PalmOS-based PDAs. Apart from those manufactured by Palm itself and Palm models rebranded by IBM, there are offerings from Handspring and Sony, as well as a few other players rumoured to be entering the fray in the near future. Can the 330 find its niche in this burgeoning handheld market? What does it have to offer that the others don’t? Let’s find out.

A silver Palm III?
The 330 looks like a silver and black Palm III. The resemblence isn’t a coincidence; the 330 actually has, for the most part, the same form factor as the III. HandEra chose to use the III’s form factor primarily for its backward compatibility with a whole slew of accessories currently on the market. Unlike Handspring, who had to wait for the accessory market to catch up with its new handhelds, HandEra owners will have a wide range of compatible devices already available.

Size-wise, the 330 is roughly equivalent to a Palm IIIxe or Handspring Visor Deluxe. It’s not as big as a Palm IIIc, but certainly not as svelte as Handspring’s Edge or Palm’s V or m50x series. The 330 could stand to be smaller, but it’s small enough for now. Shrinking the size further would have likley sacrificed some of the extra features we’ll discuss later.

The 330 only comes in one color scheme, and fortuantely, it doesn’t look too bad. Because this is a corporate device, there is only one color option. There’s nothing really daring about the 330’s appearance. It’s black with a silver faceplate and a black flip cover. The finish isn’t quite as nice as what you’ll find on a Palm Vx of m50x, nor as “cute” as an iMac-lookalike Handspring Visor, but we don’t care about looks, do we?


Side by side with Handspring’s Visor Deluxe—virtually the same size


Nine months later, a little Palm VII was born

Though it might look like a Palm III, the 330’s hardware is anything but. Running a Motorola Dragonball-VZ processor at 33MHz, the 330 equals any other processor in the PalmOS line. Couple that with 2MB of Flash ROM and 8MB of RAM, and you’ve got as good a core hardware spec as any other Palm-based device. The 330 has everything else you’d expect from the Palm stable, including an IR port, face buttons, a stylus, and so on. There are a few new and original inclusions, as well, which are significant enough to address one at a time.

 

Kicking up the resolution
The 330 is the first Palm-based handheld to offer a high-resolution greyscale screen. Measuring in at a QVGA resolution of 240×320, the 330 pumps out 16 shades of grey. The 330’s greyscale display raises an interesting question: do you need color for a PDA? Color has been offered in a few handhelds, most notably high-end PocketPCs, Handspring’s Prism, and Palm’s IIIc and m505. All of these devices, while offering colored goodness on the screen, suffer dearly in the battery life department as a result.

Being focused on business, HandEra has apparently decided that a higher resolution greyscale with its longer battery life is the better option. I would tend to agree with them here. While one can argue the need (or want) for color on a handheld device, a business user is likely to be far more concerned with the device’s battery life. Color is a nice addition, no doubt, but in some instances, the tradeoff of significantly reduced battery life isn’t worth it. The 330 will have an advantage in those instances.

For a greyscale screen, the 330’s display looks pretty good. While the traditional Palm 160×160 screen is readable enough for the vast majority of applications, the 330’s crisp 240×320 is certainly a step up. The 330 also has a neat little trick up its sleeve: the user can choose to orient some programs horizontally, rather than vertically, on the display. This trick is great for working on things like spreadsheets.

One minor problem with a higher resolution display is displaying programs optimized for the traditional 160×160 Palm standard screen. HandEra offers several workarounds for this incompatibility until developers update their software. First, you have the option of simply stretching whatever software you use to fit the higher resolution screen. This works well, for the most part, but can get mixed up on moving graphics and games. Other options include displaying the application in a 160×160 window in the top left corner or in the center of the screen. These methods aren’t that great, because they make the display area quite small. However, it’s an acceptable price to pay since few applications require it.

While the high resolution nature of HandEra’s screen is new, the backlight is a little retro. It’s similar to the one in the old Palm III. Whether you prefer it to backlights found on newer Palm-based models is really a matter of personal preference, though.

Graffiti pad begone
While the resolution of the 330’s screen is certainly something you’ll notice, the screen’s most useful feature is its Graffiti pop-up area. Since the beginning of time, Palm-based devices have had a static Graffiti area that essentially steals 1/4 of the available screen real estate. You can’t get rid of this Graffiti area, which is basically useless unless you’re inputting text. This is the biggest problem I have with Palm-based devices, and it seems that it has irked HandEra too, because they’ve gone and fixed it.

Instead of locking you in with a static Graffiti area, the 330 has a dynamic pop-up. This new Graffiti area is identical in appearance and functionality to ones in other Palm-based devices, but you can make it disappear to free up some screen space. It’s about time! People will always be craving more screen real estate with handheld devices, and static Graffiti pads rob devices of precious pixels.

The dynamic Graffiti pad is about more than saving screen space, though. Because it’s a part of the display, the pad can now trace your stylus strokes right onto the screen to give you a visual representation of your Graffiti entry. This is not only a great learning tool for Graffiti (you can get software that will let you write Graffiti to the screen, but this is the only way to have the Graffiti strokes appear on your Graffiti pad), it’s also a nice addition for seasoned Graffiti users. The tracing gives you visual confirmation of letters even before the handheld writes them to the screen so you know when you’ve drawn one correctly. Furthermore, you can now see where your Graffiti strokes conflict with one another, and make adjustments for faster writing.

The dynamic nature of the Graffiti pad also has a nice benefit for those who use the pop-up keyboard. This keyboard, which is actually quite handy for entering a lot of numbers into spreadsheets quickly, usually appears above static Graffiti pads on the screen, where it eats up even more screen real estate, leaving precious little room for the actual applications. The 330’s dynamic Graffiti pad, however, doesn’t have this problem. Instead of the pop-up keyboard appearing on top of the Graffiti pad, it replaces it. The keyboard doesn’t take up any extra room, and an unused Graffiti pad isn’t sitting there just taking up more space.

I still easily prefer auxiliary keyboards for text entry into handheld devices, but the 330 does the best job I’ve seen when it comes to Graffiti on a Palm-based device. Hopefully, the 330’s innovations will become standard in the next round of Palm-based PDAs. Until then, however, HandEra is the only place to get these slick features.

 

Expansion capacity


The 330’s Palm-compatible
expansion port

Rather than go proprietary as Handspring has done with its Springboard modules, or Sony with its Memory Stick, HandEra has gone with two standards for expansion. The first is SD, or Secure Digital, which also sees action in Palm’s newest 50x series handhelds. SD is tiny—the size of a postage stamp—and promises to be a widely-used medium in the future.

In addition to SD, HandEra has included a Compact Flash (CF) slot. CF has made its way into just about every portable device, and while not as small as SD, it’s certainly a worthy inclusion. Unlike other handhelds that support one or both expansion standards, the 330 allows you to use both a the same time. For most users, this versatility is certainly a plus.

Something that’s worth mentioning here: these expansion slots add to the size of the unit whether or not they’re being used. Handspring’s new Edge handheld includes a clip-on Springboard adapter rather than an integrated expansion bay. This move is a smart one, because it allows the Edge to have a much smaller form factor.

Size matters when it comes to handhelds, and I wish HandEra would have included some sort of removable expansion bay instead of saddling the 330 with the extra volume taken up by the expansion docking bays. The bays don’t add weight if they’re empty, but they’re still there taking up space. Should HandEra ever venture into the slimmer form factor of the Palm m50x or Visor Edge, I hope they’ll provide expansion capacity with some sort of expansion adapter users can easily clip onto the unit. Since few handhelds have incorporated removable expansion slots, however, I really can’t judge HandEra too harshly here.

Extra buttons
HandEra has chosen to deviate from the standard seven-button layout (including power) of the vast majority of Palm-based PDAs. They’ve added two buttons on the left side of the device, a jog dial, and an “auxiliary” button. The buttons are similar to those on Sony’s Clie, but are absent from other Palm-based PDAs.

The jog dial’s operation is pretty straightforward—you can roll it up or down to scroll, and depress it to select. Nifty. The auxiliary button has two functions: you can use it as an escape key of sorts, to back out of applications and get back to the main OS screen, or you can hold it down to activate the voice recorder. We’ll be covering the voice recorder later, so let’s concentrate on the buttons for now.

HandEra claims that these buttons can facilitate one-handed operation of the 330. That might be going a little far, but (provided you hold the 330 in your left hand) it’s often faster to use the auxiliary button or jog dial than it is to use the face-mounted buttons or on-screen controls.

In my view, the inclusion of these buttons, especially the jog dial, is a no-brainer. I can’t really praise HandEra’s genius here because, well, everyone should be incorporating this kind of functionality into a PDA. Because of their limited screen real estate, PDAs require a lot of scrolling. Since the mouse wheel has been incredibly successful on a PC, why not include similar functionality on a PDA? I’m not quite sure why the likes of Palm and Handspring haven’t included something like a jog dial on any of their models, but HandEra gets bonus points here for treading where (so far) only Sony has gone.

As I go back to my Handspring Visor Deluxe, I’m beginning to realize just how useful those extra buttons really are. It’s sort of like going from a four-button wheel mouse back to a simple two-button one without a wheel. It sucks. My fingers are constantly flicking at a wheel that isn’t there on my VDx. The way HandEra has things set up is perfect—if you’re right-handed. As far as I’m concerned, every PDA should be following HandEra on this.

Talk to the handheld
HandEra has slipped a microphone and upgraded speaker into the 330 to facilitate voice recording. The voice recorder is activated by holding down on the auxiliary button, which is quick and easy. However, due to the nature of the 330’s flip cover, the auxiliary button is covered when the cover is closed. This arrangement kills some of the convenience of using the auxiliary button to record, since the flip cover either needs to be open or completely removed.

The recording capabilities of the 330 aren’t incredible, but they’re quite adequate when it comes to recording a voice or conversation. Playback through the upgraded speaker is also more than adequate. The unit isn’t exactly meant to be a boom box, though, so its speaker functionality is really limited to voice playback.

Because sound files can require a lot of memory, the software on the 330 lets you record directly to either the device’s memory or to an SD or CF memory card. All in all, it’s a pretty useful feature for making quick personal notes to come back to later. Sometimes, moments of inspiration or epiphany come when it’s far too awkward to actually jot things down.

 

Software galore
In addition to including PalmOS version 3.5.2 on the 330, HandEra offers an ample software bundle, which turns out to be both a blessing and a curse. Most notable is the inclusion of the excellent QuickOffice software suite that lets you sync documents and spreadsheets with your PDA. Normally, this software would set you back $40, but it’s included on the 330. In terms of my own habits, QuickOffice gets beat out only by AvantGo as my most-used application. Given that the 330 is targeted at the business/enterprise market, where document and spreadsheet functionality is a must, QuickOffice is a smart inclusion.

While QuickOffice is something just about everyone is going to want on a PDA, there’s bunch of other software included on the 330 that most can do without—everything from games to GPS programs. It’s great that HandEra is bundling a wide variety of software with the 330. However, I couldn’t help but feel things were a little bloated, since over half of the unit’s 8MB of memory is taken up by the pre-installed applications.

As many applications as there are, they’re trivial to get rid of, so it’s not that bad. There’s a tradeoff here. HandEra could offer everything installed on the unit so it’s ready right out of the box, or they could offer the software on a CD with a simple installation routine that would let a user select what he or she wants to install at the first hotsync. I think an installation routine is a better route, at least for extra software. While HandEra gets a hearty pat on the back for including QuickOffice, I have to question installing a bunch of extras that most users can do without. The PalmOS is about being sleek and streamlined; even the ever-bloated Windows lets you choose what you install and what you leave on the CD.

Power
Short battery lives trip up too many PDAs. Color screens, extra multimedia features, and other additions can sap precious battery life, leaving some PDAs with capacity for less than a day of use. HandEra didn’t want the 330’s batteries running dry and leaving you in the lurch, so they packed four AAAs into the device, giving it almost double the battery life of other Palm-based devices, which typically feature only two AAAs. The 330’s battery life isn’t quite doubled by the extra AAAs, mostly because of the increased resolution screen and voice capabilities. Still, the 330 has great endurance; it’s the Ironman of PDAs.

There are a couple of other options users have when it comes to powering the 330. There’s a jack for an AC adapter, and a rechargable lithium ion battery pack will be released this summer. The battery pack will give users the convenience of charging the device from its syncing cradle, while the AC adapter is sure to be a hit with travelling businesspeople who use their PDAs a lot and are sick of burning through batteries or constantly having to recharge their devices.

HandEra has covered all the bases when it comes to powering the 330, and I really like the fact that it still supports AAAs. Lithium ion battery packs are great, if you’re able to keep charging them or if you have a few spares. However, someone out in the field might not have the luxury of sticking the 330 into a cradle for the few hours necessary to top off its power supply. Having AAA (and AC adapter) support gives the 330 the potential for truly continuous usage.

All the small things
There are a bunch of other cool little touches that HandEra has applied to the 330 that are worth mentioning, but don’t need much in-depth discussion. I’ll lump them all together here.

All the buttons on the face of the 330 are concave, so you can easily tap them with the stylus. Even the scrolling and power buttons are easy to use with the stylus.

The 330 has what HandEra calls an “easy” reset button. Basically, this means you can reset the unit with the stylus as opposed to hunting aroung for a pin. Still recessed in the confines of the PDA’s case, the larger reset button doesn’t seem prone to accidental activation, and it’s a lot more convenient to be able to flip the unit over and stab the reset button with the stylus when necessary.

HandEra’s inclusion of an extended character Graffiti cheat sheet is also a nice touch. Normally, PDAs (at least the ones I’m familiar with), ship with a cheat sheet that you can stick on the inside cover of your PDA. These cover the Graffiti strokes necessary to produce the standard set of letters, numbers, and punctuation, but you have to open up the software Graffiti guide in the PalmOS if you want to get instructions for extended characters. HandEra provides a sticker with the complete extended character set. Since letters and numbers are used frequently and thus quickly learned, you really don’t need the standard cheat sheet for long. An extended cheat sticker for those rarely used and obscure characters just makes a whole lot of sense.

 

Stuck on serial
As you might have gathered, I’m very impressed with the innovations and fuctionality that HandEra has brought to the Palm platform. However, all is not well with the silver workhorse. Despite everything new that the 330 brings to the table, it’s still tethered to your PC with something old: a serial syncing cradle.

HandEra’s excuse? Since the 330 is aimed squarely at the business segment, where support for USB can be spotty (due to the prevalence of NT 4 and older versions of Windows 95 on corporate desktops), they didn’t want to make the 330 a USB-only device. For backward compatibility, a serial option does make sense. But could USB offer better performance? I’ll refer you to a comparison of syncing interfaces that I did with Handspring’s Visor Deluxe here. Overall, serial is less than half the speed of a USB interface for syncing. In some instances, USB is over five times faster than its serial counterpart.

Not that you can’t use a USB port to sync the 330. You can, because the 330 is still backward compatible with Palm III accessories, and there are USB adapters for Palm’s serial syncing interfaces. However, these devices still work at serial port speeds, so they won’t make syncing any faster.

Handspring, which pioneered USB syncing for Palm-based devices, offers USB cradles standard with all their devices. They do support serial interfaces, but you have to buy a serial syncing cradle as an additional accessory. Handspring’s approach is better for the home user, but I can see how businesses might not want to shell out the extra cash for serial cradles and end up with a bunch of USB cradles gathering dust. It would be far better if the consumer were offered a choice of syncing cradles at the time of purchase, with the option to purchase other interfaces as accessories.

Sadly, no one offers this kind of flexibility. HandEra has sacrificed speedy syncing for backwards compatibility. It makes sense for the 330’s target market, but it left me longing for real USB support.


Trace graffiti in action

Conclusion
HandEra set out to please the business market with the 330, and to that end, they’ve succeeded. By improving the Palm platform, HandEra has produced a device that can also appeal to the casual and enthusiast markets.

The innovations HandEra brings to the Palm platform are a little shocking—not because of any incredible technological advancements, but because you’re left scratching your head and wondering why all the other Palm-based PDAs don’t have the same features. Things like a jog dial and dynamic Graffiti pad seem like logical inclusions for a Palm-based PDA. Yet for some reason, HandEra is the only company to offer both.

Perhaps the best thing about the 330 is that, while it adds features like a higher resolution screen and expansion ports, it doesn’t compromise basic PDA functionality. It’s still the same size as the majority of PDAs. Its screen is excellent if you don’t need color, and it has phenomenal battery and power options. You don’t really see that with other PDAs, which often pack in cool features at the cost of other functionality.

It’s not all perfect, though. HandEra did get a little carried away with the installed software bundle. Additionally, though they have their reasons for only offering serial syncing, I’d still like to see a real USB syncing option.

Price-wise, the HandEra slots in between the low- and high-end PDAs. It’s cheaper than color offerings and those based on ultra-slim form factors like Handspring’s Edge and the Palm m50x series. It’s also more expensive than midrange models like the Handspring Visor Platinum, the slower Palm m105, and Handspring’s Visor Deluxe. When you look at the value of the included software and the 330’s features, you’ve got yourself a pretty good deal.

In short, the HandEra 330 is an incredible device. With innovative features and smaller, subtle touches done right, the 330 sets the standard for all future Palm-based PDAs. HandEra didn’t create the Palm platform, but with the 330, they’ve made it a lot better. 

Comments closed
    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

    *[

    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

    Good review. The auxilliary button is covered because they don’t want to start recording when the thing is in your pocket.

    There used to be problems with the softcases and the Palm III where you would put it in your pocket or bookbag or briefcase and it would be dead when you took it out because the backlight had been on the whole time or some such other nonsense.

    To give another example: I often get calls from my friend’s pocket. He forgets to lock his cellphone and it calls me for fun and leaves 5 minute messages on my machine of inside pocket sounds. 😉 Ahh… the life of a cell phone.

    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

    IMHO the author was a little harsh on the bundled software size as its clearly the users choice to install them via the CD. The way the arcticle was worded gave the appearance the users had little initial choice. In reality this strays from reality. As was mentioned it is rather painless to un-install them if you wish.

    When you consider the Handera has freeware (AutoCf) which allows you to run applications directly out of Compact Flash you truly have none of the legacy issues with bloated applications, you simply move them to CF and run them from there.

    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

    *[

    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

    *[

    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

    *[

    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

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    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

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    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

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    • nexxcat
    • 18 years ago

    hey diss, how would the old backlight sap more power when all the backlight does is just blanket the field with light, with the dark pixels subracting from it? Personally, I find the new backlight to be rather obnoxious, as there is a distinct (and highly annoying) light leak between the “dark” pixels on the new backlights.

    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

    *[

    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

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    • ExcessOrder
    • 18 years ago

    Great review. It looks nice. The higher rez and removal of that graffiti pad area fixes two of the biggest flaws of the palm platform. But it is kinda expensive for a palm. I think you could get more out of $350.

    Unfortunatly, for me the graffiti system is an insoluable problem. I absolutely hate it, and for just one reason: the E. What moron decided to make the e be written as a capital E??? I couldn’t believe it. The most common letter in the whole damn alphabet, and they make you write it in the more difficult way. Ugh. If I ever get a mobile, it will be a pocketPC. I can live with the battery life being low… Having the computer learn my writing is a huge advantage over a platform that forces me to use its stupid non-recognition scheme.

    • Pete
    • 18 years ago

    They have a special going on that adds a 16MB CF card for $10 more. I like the features, especially the screen, but I think the Palm III form-factor is still a little cumbersome for something to be carried around everywhere.

    As for the screen: how does it compare in legibility to a Palm V? When you discuss a “retro” backlight, do you mean it’s not a reverse backlight?

    Another thorough review from one of my favorite tech sites. Thanks.

    • Forge
    • 18 years ago

    Jebus Rice! I don’t know what the world’s coming to! Next we’ll ditch the graphs or somethin!!

    Panic!

    • Anonymous
    • 18 years ago

    wow! a picture on tech-report front page!

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