PDA Pundit: Zire 31, and Clie PEG TH55 Revisited

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If you're in the market for a new personal digital assistant, there comes a time when you have to decide how much you're willing to spend to get additional features. And the smaller your overall budget for such devices, the more you'll expect for each additional dollar.

PalmOne Zire 31

Take the Zire 31, one of two new models PalmOne introduced a couple of weeks ago. It costs $149, or $50 more than PalmOne's current entry-level product, the Zire 21. Now, an extra $50 doesn't seem like a lot if you're checking out top-of-the-line units such as the Tungsten C or T3, which go for $399. But if money is tight, and your PDA needs are modest, you'd need a lot of convincing to pay a 50 percent premium over the $99 price of the Zire 21.

I'm here to tell you that the Zire 31 is worth scraping together that extra $50.

Don't get me wrong: The Zire 31 is not a fancy PDA, by today's standards. But it's definitely a significant improvement over the Zire 21, starting most visibly with its color screen--something I've never seen before at this low price.

Its passive-matrix LCD is not the world's best color display; such displays generally look more washed out than more expensive active-matrix displays. The screen resolution is only 160 by 160, while more expensive PalmOne color units have 320 by 320 or 320 by 480 screens. And the Zire 31's screen doesn't have the 65,000-plus hues of more expensive handhelds. (PalmOne will only say that the Zire 31 has "thousands" of colors--a PalmOne spokesperson told me that Zire 31 customers won't care about the exact figure.)

But for all these limitations, the Zire 31's screen is a dramatic step up from the Zire 21's monochrome display. This is especially true if you want to use your handheld at night: With no backlight whatsoever, the Zire 21 is useless in the dark.

The Storage Story

The most significant other improvement that the Zire 31 brings to the table is a Secure Digital card slot, also a first at this price point. You can use this slot to add storage beyond the 16MB built into the Zire 31--which is already twice what you get in the Zire 21.

What can you use the storage for? If you're a music fan, you can load it up with MP3s; the Palm desktop software includes a Quick Install applet that makes it easy to transfer them from your PC to the card. You can use the space for photos, or for programs. In fact, you can buy SD cards with software preinstalled.

The slot even supports SD/IO, the hardware interface for peripherals mounted on SD cards, such as cameras. All in all, that little slot offers the potential for a whole lot of functionality.

Multimedia and More

Remember those MP3s you're thinking of loading onto an SD card? That brings us to another feature you don't get for $99: an MP3 player. Now, you can pick a player up fairly easily (the one on the Zire 31 is RealNetworks' ubiquitous RealOne). But you need audio hardware too, and the Zire 31 includes both a little speaker and a headphone jack. I played some tunes through the speaker. I'm not going to pretend they rival the sound from my home stereo, or even my office desktop speakers--but they sounded no worse than the small speakers on far more expensive handhelds I've tested.

First-time Palm users will tell you that they picked up a PDA to keep organized, and even here the Zire 31 offers more than its predecessor. The Contacts application (formerly Address Book) has more fields--including one for photographs--and the Calendar (formerly Date Book) has a spiffy new agenda view that shows your upcoming appointments against a photographic background of your choosing. You might not pay a dime more for these upgrades on their own, but they're nice extras nonetheless.

You also get a smattering of Palm software that strikes me as more useful than whatever has come preinstalled on Palm devices in the past. My favorites: a mobile database that comes with handy templates for tracking birthdays, carbohydrates, car maintenance, and the like; and a basic personal finance manager called SplashMoney.

A Good Deal for Beginners

The Zire 31 may not be the best-constructed Palm around: My initial unit had problems connecting with my desktop and I wound up having to get a new one from PalmOne. But I trust PalmOne to stand behind its products. Bottom line on the Zire 31: I would recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone who wants to get started with a PDA--or get someone else started.

Sure, you can jump in for less--$50 less in the case of the Zire 21, or even $70 less if you can find one of the original Zires for $79. But the extras you'll get if you go for the Zire 31 will so vastly expand the capabilities of your handheld that the additional $50 may well be one of the best high-tech investments around.

Clie Revisited

Sony Clie PEG-TH55

One I got the connection problem worked out, I came away well pleased with the Zire 31. In contrast, the more I played around with the Sony Clie PEG-TH55 (which I reviewed briefly in my last column), the more irritated I became.

Remember the built-in camera I mentioned? I had taken a photo of a coworker that I wanted to view on my PC. But getting it from the Clie's internal memory to my desktop proved incredibly complicated. Basically, the TH55 expected me to save photos to a Memory Stick--and I hadn't. Since nobody at Sony or its PR firm was able to help me transfer the photos without a Memory Stick, I borrowed one from a colleague.

Even then, the task was daunting. I now had to figure out how to transfer the image from the internal memory to the Memory Stick--it wasn't at all intuitive. The Clie Files application was no help; eventually I succeeded via the Clie Viewer.

Moving the photo from the Memory Stick to my desktop was a whole other process. Unlike Palm PDAs, which move data back and forth from the desktop during the Hot Sync process, the Clie has software called Data Import that essentially turns the device into a card reader. You launch the software, tap on Connect, and the Memory Stick appears as a new drive in My Computer (actually, the drive window pops open on your desktop). You can now drag and drop files from that window to any other location on your desktop, which is what I did with my image. The picture looked okay, but not great, on my desktop monitor.

MP3 Miser

But back to the Clie. The other thing I wanted to do was play MP3s using the included Audio Player. So I borrowed a Memory Stick loaded with MP3s from the same colleague. (If you're wondering why this guy has so many Memory Sticks, it's because he is a Clie user--he has the cute but pricey $600 UX50, a little clamshell with a QWERTY keyboard.) Imagine my surprise when I popped the Memory Stick into the TH55, fired up the audio player, and was greeted with the news that there were no tracks available.

Several phone calls later, I learned that the player only sees music in a certain folder that it creates on the Memory Stick the first time the player is launched. So after running the player, I had to launch Data Import and then drag and drop MP3s to the file (Palm/Windows/MSAudio). Once I did this, the player saw the tunes and played them without further ado. The Clie's speaker was on a par, quality-wise, with the Zire 31's.

Why was my colleague able to play his MP3s without putting them into that special folder? It was either because the UX50 doesn't work like the TH55, or because he was using a third-party MP3 player. Either way, something about my setup made the process unnecessarily complicated.

As I regaled colleagues with my Clie adventures, the response was invariably the same: "That's Sony for you." Sony has a reputation for doing things differently, and sometimes that can be good. But often it's a matter of being different just for the sake of being different, and not in order to be better.

Next month, I'll examine PalmOne's other new Zire: the 1.2-megapixel camera-equipped Zire 72.

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