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Are you thinking about getting a palmtop? Dallas Releford took a close look at 3Com's Palm series. Read his review to find out if a Palm is right for you.

For months, I watched other people walk around with different kinds of small computers in their hands, and I began to get curious. Even the UPS man was shoving one into my face, but I wasn't too interested in owning one. After all, I’m a child of the mainframe generation, a user of desktop and laptop machines, and a believer in the promise of a new, universal operating system called Linux. I have owned several laptops, but I was intrigued by the thought of being able to fit a computer in my pocket and by all of the possibilities that such a computer could bring. Being the type of person who never lets new technology pass by, I hurried down to my local computer store.

After shooing the salespeople away, I located several models that I wanted to get a good look at on my own. The products that caught my attention came from the 3Com series. These machines were the right size for me to carry around when I was away from home.

Searching for information
Somewhat overwhelmed by all of this new information, I hurried back home to my desktop to see what I could find out about this particular line of products. After an initial inquiry on my favorite search engine (which listed hundreds of results), I decided to go straight to the source; I wanted to find out what 3Com had to say about its own products. The 3Com line of palmtop computers was very impressive, and each magazine review of these products was positive. Before I shelled out my hard-earned cash for one of these units, however, I wanted to do a little comparison-shopping and see what all of the fuss was about.

It seemed as though 3Com had as many versions of its popular Palm series as there are upgrades and fixes to Microsoft Windows. Incidentally, palmtops are technically referred to as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), though you may hear other names that have come into existence. They all mean the same thing: small devices with functions, screens, and other components that are similar to laptops. There are versions for left-handed and right-handed users. (If you’re right-handed, don't make the same mistake I did and pick up a left-handed machine. It’s very confusing and inconvenient.) Some of the current and previous versions of the 3Com Palm series are listed below in Table A.
Table A
Name RAM Distinguishing feature Approximate cost
Palm VII 2 MB Wireless Internet access $350
Palm Vx 8 MB Very slim design $350
Palm V 2 MB Slim design $300
Palm IIIxe 8 MB Dark slate case $200
Palm IIIx 4 MB Flip cover $200
Palm IIIe 2 MB Infrared transceiver $150
Palm IIIc 8 MB Color display $400
Palm III 2 MB Flip cover $150
PalmPilot Professional 1 MB Flip cover $150
Certain versions may no longer be available, and prices may have changed. To check current prices and availability, try Computer Shopper, Micro Center, or 3Com. You also should check your local computer stores. I do not support any particular computer store over another; I mention the above stores only as sources if you want to purchase any of the devices that I have mentioned.
Why do you need a palmtop?
You can use palmtops for many of the tasks that you now perform with a PC or laptop, such as scheduling, e-mailing, and minor editing. Since palmtops don’t have a keyboard, your amount of input is limited; instead, most of these information managers use a stylus and rely on handwriting recognition as the primary means of data input. Most PDAs don’t have an internal modem, but all of them have an infrared port that you can use to synchronize data with your PC. The two major types of PDA are the popular 3Com Palm series and the Windows CE Palm size models. Up until a few months ago, all 3Com Palms had monochrome screens. That changed with the introduction of the popular Palm IIIc model. All versions include a typical ROM and RAM bank for programs and data storage.

The primary reason people purchase a palmtop is to have the ability to access their To Do lists, schedules, contacts, and e-mail. After you synchronize your palmtop with a regular PC and update your data, you can carry important information with you to any part of the world. Due to the StarPortal initiative that’s being pushed by Sun Microsystems, you soon will be able to log into their database and download programs, software, or other information that you need. If the PDA manufacturers continue their current trend of improving their products, this ability won't be long in coming for palmtop devices.

There are three ways in which you can use PDAs to communicate: standard telephone line modems, wireless modems, and networks. (If your PDA doesn’t have an internal modem, most versions give you the option of purchasing an external modem as an accessory.) Generally, you must run some type of program with dial-up or terminal emulation software. Desktop applications that were designed for your PC won’t work with these devices. So, if you want to use your PDA to send and receive e-mail, you must make sure that you have the necessary software before you leave the store.

As a personal preference, I wanted a color screen that would be easy to read because I work in many different environments. That leads me to another important consideration: Some PDAs are very hard to read in direct light, especially sunlight. Of course, you wouldn't normally use one at the beach, but you should consider this issue. To access the Internet and to read your e-mail, you need a modem, access to an ISP (such as AT&T), correctly configured software, and a good screen that allows you to see different fonts and colors.

3Com's Palms
One of the features that I like about the 3Com Palms is the longevity of their batteries. With my laptop, I’m lucky to get four hours of use from a single charge. Of course, laptops power far more equipment, including a hard drive. PDAs require far less power. A standard PDA battery can last anywhere from one day to a month. Most devices come with rechargeable batteries, and they also run on AC power. You should check to see if your device has these features.

Of the various 3Com PDAs, I prefer the Palm IIIc or Palm IIIe. The Palm IIIc was the first 3Com Palm to use a color screen. A few months ago, the Palm IIIc was priced at $449, but I’m certain that the price will come down—if it hasn’t already. The Palm IIIc comes with a 20-Mhz Motorola Dragonball EZ processor, 8 MB of RAM, a 20-MB hard drive, and a rechargeable lithium ion battery, which is good for about two weeks. The machine weighs about 7.6 ounces. The operating system is new to this model: OS version 3.5.

Of course, the most attractive feature of the Palm IIIc is its color screen. The 256-color active-matrix thin film transistor (TFT) measures 2.5 inches square. When you hold down the power button, a brightness control screen pops up, along with a slider control. Even when the slider control is set at the low end, the screen is still amazingly bright. I think that 3Com has set the standard for the display systems of modern PDAs. Third-party developers aren’t wasting any time in developing and offering numerous hardware items that take advantage of the Palm IIIc’s screen. One interesting item is Kodak's PalmPix, a $150 digital camera. It allows you to take digital pictures and view them on the Palm IIIc.

The Palm IIIc comes with a docking station, which is a nice feature if you travel much. It also has a battery charger, an AC adapter, an Auto/Air recharger kit that you can use in cars and airplanes, a USB connection kit, and a portable folding keyboard. I especially like the keyboard. When I bought my first laptop, the first thing I did was purchase an external keyboard, a mouse, and a docking station. Now, I can get the same features in a palmtop. Of course, the accessories that you purchase will depend upon your individual needs.

To give you an idea of the cost of these accessories, I have listed standard prices below. (Again, please note that these prices may change.)
  • ·        AC adapter recharger kit: $40.00
  • ·        Auto/Air recharger kit: $40.00
  • ·        USB connection kit: $40.00
  • ·        External keyboard: $99.00
  • ·        Operating system upgrade: free (at the time of this writing)

There were a few negative aspects of the Palm IIIc, including its lack of headphone and microphone jacks. Why wouldn’t 3Com include these important features? Other users may dislike the fact that the Palm IIIc has a closed hardware system—except for the serial and infrared ports. (For more information about the products surveyed in this article, please contact 3Com.)

In general, I was impressed by 3Com's Palm series, and I would recommend them to anyone who’s considering buying a palmtop. In particular, I liked the Palm III versions and their color screens and accessories. I also applaud their ease of use, their extended battery life, and the ease with which I could connect them to the Internet. Like other wary buyers, however, I’m going to delay my purchase of a palmtop for a little while and wait for more options.

Dallas G. Releford has worked in the computer field as a programmer, an MIS manager, a PC specialist, and in other related positions. He also has written a novel, which was published on the Internet and led him to an interest in the electronic publishing field. He writes articles, electronic books, and just about anything else that involves the written word. To learn more about Dallas’ business, visit his Web site, which is called The Editor’s Eye .

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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