Column: the Zire 71

Loose Wire — Zire: It’ll Set You On Fire: Palm’s newest PDA, the Zire 71, is funky, affordable and aimed squarely at the hip young crowd; But with features like a hidden camera and an MP3 player, grown-ups will be tempted to play, too

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 15 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
It’s been less than six months since I reviewed Palm’s Tungsten T — a sleek, metallic personal digital assistant that looked cool, felt cool, and had a pump-action mechanism that appealed to anyone who thought the movie Pulp Fiction was good, but didn’t have enough PDAs in it [Hand-held Power Pal, December 12, 2002]. But now Palm is back with something that makes even the Tungsten look a bit, well, dated. It’s called the Zire 71 and it should scatter any remaining fears you have about the fate of Palm.
 

Zire is Palm’s funky range for, in its words, “youthful professionals.” Its first offering was, well, the Zire, a simple noncolour unit that cost less than $100. Not a bad gadget, but strictly for the budget crowd. If you were a serious PDA person, you’d buy the Tungsten T, or even the phone-enabled W, both of which had important executive things like Bluetooth, recording capabilities, and, most importantly, couldn’t be confused for something your daughter or kid sister might carry around the schoolyard. [Palm seems to be sticking to this distinction by launching another Tungsten model at the same time as the Zire 71, the Tungsten C, which comes with Wi-Fi capability, allowing you to access the Internet and networks wirelessly]. The Zire 71 went on sale in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan late last month. The Tungsten C will be available in Asia by mid-May.

What the Zire 71 and Tungsten C have in common are their screens: 16-bit, 320 x 320 pixel transflective thin film transistor, or TFT, displays supporting 65,000 colours. And if that means nothing to you [it doesn’t mean much to me either] let me put it more simply. These are the best screens I’ve seen on a PDA. The Tungsten T screen was excellent, a quantum leap from its predecessors, but even that looks dated alongside the Zire’s. It’s bright, the colours sing, it can be viewed from all angles [except the back] and in bright sunshine. For those of you with Sony Clies, it’s like their screens. Only, I suspect, a bit better. Palm screens have come a long way, very quickly.

The casing is a robust mix of metal and metallic plastic. The usual four buttons line the bottom of the device, the middle up/down button replaced by a small joystick. The chip running the whole show is fast, and the Zire comes with 16 megabytes of memory — a lot more than Palm’s basic predecessors, and enough to keep most of your data comfortably aboard.

What makes the Zire stand out — and, arguably, justifies its $300 price tag — is the camera that emerges if you slide the front of the hand-held upwards. Suddenly your normal Palm screen is replaced by a display of whatever the back of the Palm is pointing at, courtesy of the digital camera lodged in the back. Select your subject and press the joystick or small shutter button and you have a passable 640 x 480-pixel colour picture. It’s a neat trick by Palm, since if you weren’t told the camera was there, you’d probably never find it. Sure, it’s not must-have in a hand-held, but once you have it you’ll find lots of important uses for it. I just can’t think of any right now.

Predictably, given that it’s aimed at youthful professionals, the Zire 71 comes with a fully functional MP3 player [to play music files downloaded from your computer], as well as the ability to watch video. The screen’s good enough to support the latter, and with headphones the sound is fine. All these functions can be handled easily using the Palm Desktop software, though I must confess to being puzzled about how to get MP3 files aboard.

Downsides? Palm still hasn’t got its cases and power buttons quite right. The power button on the Zire 71 is too close to the stylus slot, meaning you’re likely to turn the unit off while hunting for the stylus. The joystick — which also turns on the unit when pressed — sticks out a bit, too, so the Zire will power on and off every time it touches anything in your bag.

Other grumbles: Don’t expect too much from the camera. The display is very slow to redraw, meaning you get a jerky picture when you try to frame a moving subject. The shutter takes a second to act, too, so don’t expect the picture to look much like what you thought it would, unless you’re snapping a corpse. And while I suppose it’s too much to ask in a gadget that’s only $300, I really miss the Tungsten T’s Bluetooth, a wireless standard that would let me tap out e-mails and text messages on my Palm keyboard and then transmit them wirelessly to my hand-phone.

But these quibbles are minor. The Tungsten T put Palm back into a game it looked to have lost, but the Zire 71 moves it nearer the head of the class. If Palm keeps coming up with hand-helds as good and as often as this, our only concern is going to be whether to buy one now — or wait for the next pleasant surprise.

10. May 2003 by jeremy
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