ISSUE 599: Zisman- Apr 17 2001

The high-tech office


Shortcomings of Visor Deluxe jilt a potential suitor

As the owner of a monochromatic Handspring Visor Deluxe PDA, I was looking forward to trying out the company's new Prism model. The updated unit sports a screen capable of 16,000 colours. (By comparison, the Palm IIIc is only capable of 256 colours.) The Prism uses the Palm operating system, offering full Palm software compatibility. It includes a Springboard expansion socket, allowing easy plug-in of any of 50 or so gizmos and gadgets. And it runs its processor at 33 MHz, slow by PC standards but about twice the speed of most Palm models.

My biggest beef with monochrome PDAs has been the relatively low-contrast screen. Dark-grey text on a lighter grey background is hard on my eyes. Colour models promise something closer to real black on real white, making for much easier viewing.

The Prism's screen was certainly easier to read, though the white background still appeared a bit greyish to me. For most uses, the additional colours compared to the Palm IIIc's 256 weren't apparent. But photos were much more realistic-looking with 16,000 shades available.

Still, any Palm-style model suffers by comparison to the Pocket Windows competition. All Palm and Visor screens are 160 pixels square and photos are noticeably grainy as a result. Pocket Windows devices from HP, Compaq and other manufacturers squeeze 240 x 320 pixels onto their screen, resulting in tinier pixels and smoother-appearing images.

There are other drawbacks as well.

Working in colour takes more processor power. By putting a faster processor in the Prism, it ends up seeming about as fast as my 20-Mhz Visor Deluxe. It you want a noticeably faster Palm-style PDA, check out the 33-Mhz monochrome Visor Platinum, which isn't slowed down by the demands of a colour display.

And colour drains batteries faster as well. My monochrome Visor, like similar Palm models, gets a month or more of use on a couple of AAA alkaline batteries. Handspring suggests battery life of a couple of days for the Prism. Luckily (and like competitive Palm and Pocket Windows models), it uses built-in rechargeables that are topped up whenever the unit sits in its cradle.

And the Prism is thicker than monochrome models, making it harder to stuff in a pocket. Like earlier models, it has a detachable plastic faceplate, perhaps Handspring's worst design feature. But on my monochrome model, I can remove the faceplate and snap it onto the back of the case. With the Prism's extra girth, this isn't possible. Expect to lose the faceplate.

Finally, there's the price.

Local retailers are selling the Prism for about $675, compared to less than $400 for the older Visor Deluxe and about $475 for the speedy Visor Platinum.

And frankly, I can't justify the price difference for improved readability and nice-looking photos. Only a little more money will get a pocket PC PDA model such as HP's Jornada, Casio's Cassiopeia or Compaq's Ipaq.

While their Windows CE operating system is somewhat clumsier than Palm's, and there are fewer third-party applications, their colour screens are much nicer than either Palm's or the Prism's. Moreover, they include Internet access (with additional modems), Microsoft Office file compatibility and much stronger support for multimedia than any Palm-styled model.

Palm and Visor models continue to sell better than the Pocket Windows PDAs. To a large extent, that's because of their simplicity and the resulting lower price. The Visor Platinum combines its colour screen with the added heft, lowered battery life and high-end price of the Pocket Windows models, but doesn't follow through with those models' added capabilities.

I really wanted to fall in love with the Visor Prism. I feel like I was jilted.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan