PDA Pundit: A New Palm for the Unconnected

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The connected PDA may be the next big thing, but for hundreds of thousands of people, the ability to easily access e-mail or browse the Web from a handheld simply doesn't matter.

Did I say hundreds of thousands? Try nearly two million. That's how many Tungsten E handhelds PalmOne has sold since the model, which doesn't offer any wireless capabilities, was introduced in the fall of 2003.

No wonder: At $199, the E was the entry-level model in PalmOne's business-friendly Tungsten line (as opposed to the more multimedia-oriented Zire handhelds). The E delivered a fair amount of bang for the buck, including a decent color screen, a Secure Digital Card slot, and the latest versions of the Palm address and datebook software.

PalmOne Tungsten E2

Today, the E gets a slightly upscale sibling: the Tungsten E2. It's not a major departure from the earlier model--why fix what isn't broken?--but it does boast a few significant improvements, along with a $50 price hike to $249.

First on PalmOne's list of noteworthy features is an improved display. Indeed, in a side-by-side comparison, the E2's 320-by-320-pixel screen looks brighter and more brilliant. But the E's screen, also 320 by 320, isn't chopped liver--and who goes around holding PDA screens side by side? (If you do, you're probably eying a more upmarket handheld anyway.)

A Good Memory

But I can identify a couple of more-useful selling points, chief among them the addition of 32MB of flash memory--the type of memory that doesn't forget your data, even if the device completely loses its charge. This is the type of upgrade you'll appreciate if, like me, you sometimes forget to charge your PDA.

Which brings us to another upgrade: the battery. PalmOne is saying the E2's battery lasts at least twice as long as the E's between charges--in part because it's a better battery and in part because the nonvolatile flash memory doesn't require as much power. According to PalmOne, the E2 should be able to play MP3s for 10 to 12 hours between charges (versus 4 hours with the E). I haven't had the E2 long enough to test this claim.

The E2 isn't quite as disconnected as its predecessor. PalmOne has given it a Bluetooth radio so you can HotSync wirelessly to a Bluetooth-equipped notebook, print to a Bluetooth printer, or connect to the Internet via a Bluetooth mobile phone. If you'd like a better connection, PalmOne will sell you an SD Wi-Fi adapter for $100 in another month or so.

PalmOne has equipped the E2 with a good mix of software for work and for play. The business apps include Palm's VersaMail e-mail client, and DataViz's Documents to Go for working with Microsoft Word and Excel documents and viewing PowerPoint presentations and PDFs. The fun stuff includes RealNetworks' RealPlayer for listening to music, plus the Klondike solitaire game. (Okay, Klondike isn't that much fun--but it's fine for frittering away time in the waiting room.)

No Multitasking Miracle

The E2's specs are impressive, but in my admittedly brief hands-on trial of the product, I noticed a few glitches. When I was listening to MP3s stored on an SD card, the E2 would occasionally crash without warning. I wondered if this was an overheating problem, but the unit didn't seem particularly warm. Stay tuned.

Also, when I set the music to play in the background and then accessed another application--Documents to Go, for example--I noticed some stuttering. I suspect that the E2's 200-MHz Intel XScale processor might not be robust enough to handle this sort of multitasking without a hitch.

One other thing about playing music: The E2's speaker is on the back of the unit, which makes it difficult to place it on a surface and listen to some tunes. You end up smothering the audio.

Overall, I'd say the Tungsten E2 is a solid choice for business users on a budget, but it falls somewhat short as a substitute for a decent portable digital audio player. For that, you'll have to turn elsewhere.

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