May 21, 2001

Review: Handspring Visor Platinum

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -

Over the past couple of years, PalmOS-based devices have grown immensely in
popularity. At the same time, so has Linux. So, how do the two interact
together, and how does this PalmOS-based device from Handspring perform?The Visor Platinum from Handspring is one of the latest entries in the Visor
line. Released the same time as the Visor Prism, Handspring's color model, the
Visor Platinum is more of an upgrade to the more traditional Visor Deluxe than a
whole new handheld, such as the Visor Edge or the Visor Prism.

The unit
The unit itself is very similar to the lower-end Visor models, such as the Visor
or the Visor Deluxe. It contains little more than the original Palms did, the
LCD, four quick access buttons, up and down buttons, a holster for your
stylus, the on/screen button, and the infrared link. Where the Visor line
differs greatly, however, is the Springboard slot on the rear, used for
expansion cards that add memory or functionality. The Visor Platinum has a 33
MHz Dragonball V2 CPU, compared to the 16MHz Dragonball EZ in the Visor Deluxe.
It has 8MB of RAM, the same amount of RAM the Visor Deluxe has.

The screen in the Visor is very readable, and is quite a bit clearer than that
of the older Palm III devices. One feature of newer Palm devices and the Visor
Platinum is the backlight, which I have mixed feelings about. The
backlight only lights up the characters and pixels on screen, not the entire
screen. While this saves battery, it makes the light almost useless in anything
but complete darkness. This is quite a change, and not an entirely welcome one,
from the backlight of older PalmOS devices, which were more like flashlights.

The interface
The interface of the Handspring Visor Platinum is the same as that on all PalmOS
based devices. The interface is a very simple icon-based interface for launching
applications. Most Palm applications follow the same rule -- the simpler, the
better. Rarely will you find a Palm application that suffers from feature
bloat.

The Visor has three interfaces for entering data. The first, and most popular
for entering data directly into the device, is to enter it with the stylus via
"Graffiti," the abbreviated alphabet of Palm-based devices. The way Graffiti
works is that the user enters strokes, designated in the Graffiti guide, for letters and numbers on the
Grafitti pad below the screen of the Visor. Graffiti is not very hard to learn, which is
surprising. A few characters are difficult -- for instance, when I first learned it,
I had all the trouble in the world making a "9." However, once you get used to
it, it seems like second nature.

The next method of entering data is the "tap" keyboard that you can launch on
screen when typing in PalmOS. This is an easy way to quickly input data, and for
some users, it will allow them to input data faster. It is a fairly simple process - you
do a Graffiti command stroke, "/k" or go to the edit menu in your application
and select keyboard, and a software keyboard pops up, taking up approximately
half the screen. There are buttons for shift, caps lock, numbers and
international symbols, so anything you can write with Graffiti you can type on
this software keyboard using the stylus.

The third method to enter data is through the
software on your PC, then synchroizing your handheld with your PC. This is
really useful when you want to put large amounts of data onto the Visor, because
you can probably type faster than you can enter data with your stylus.

Setting up the Visor
Setting up the device to work with a Linux machine is fairly simple. Assuming you have a kernel with support for the Visors' USB cradle built in, you simply compile and load the
module. In some cases, such as with Mandrake 8, the module is prebuilt and you
must simply tell it (visor) and its parent module (usbserial) to load on boot.
The data connection to the Visor will then exist on device /dev/ttyUSB1, which
you should link to /dev/pilot for convenience. Once this is done, you are ready
to sync the Visor with whatever software you choose.

Applications
The Visor comes with a variety of productivity applications by default. Among
them are a calculator, a memo pad, a date book, a to-do list, expense and mail
applets. All of these applications have a variety of advanced features, and will
be more than enough for most users. If the default software does not stand up
to your expectations, plenty of Web sites offer Palm software free of charge,
with a few apps requiring registration. However, one site really interested me because it has a rather unique application database -- it has a list of Open Source
programs available for the PalmOS, such as EasyCalc, a scientific
calculator for PalmOS. Currently the site lists nearly 150 Open Source Palm
applications.

Synchronizing in Linux
The most appealing thing about the Visor and all PalmOS devices is how well they
integrate with desktop computers, making them perfect companions for those who
do not want to lug a laptop to meetings just to jot down notes. The Visor
and all Palm devices are designed to synchronize only with Windows and MacOS,
however, there are now plenty of utilities to do this on Linux. The ones I used
were gpilot and jpilot. I had no luck getting kpilot to work, which I thought
was odd.

The first application I tried to use to sync my Visor was Gnome-Pilot.
Gnome-Pilot is configurable through your Gnome control center, provided you use
Gnome. You configure "conduits," which in turn synchronizes between your Visor and
a specific application. For instance, Gnome-cal was used to sync the datebook
from the Visor, and did a decent job. There are, however, several problems with
Gnome-pilot. First of all, though Gnome-cal has a to-do list, the to-do list for
the Visor was not synchronized with it. Also, there appears to be no way to
install programs to the Visor with it, a crucial feature. However, it is, of
course, a work in progress and I suspect these problems will be resolved in a
future version.

The other application I tried, jpilot, reminded me a lot of the Windows
application that shipped with the older Palm IIIs, and which may ship with the
Visor. Jpilot is a simple app with a built in calendar, to-do
list, memo pad, and address book. These subsections of the program have all the
features of their Visor counterparts, and are synchronized with them. For me,
this is the best solution because I really just want to have the data stored on
my PC for backup purposes and to edit it without having to use a stylus. Jpilot
also has a feature to backup the handheld to your computer, and the ability to
install applications to it, a crucial feature noticeably lacking in Gnome-pilot.
I installed several applications through jpilot with no trouble. The one thing
jpliot does not do that I wish it did is monitor for when the user hits the
hotsync button on the cradle, as the Windows software and the Gnome-pilot
software do. In order to sync with jpilot you have to hit the hotsync button on
the cradle and then click the "sync" button in the program. Overall, I
think jpilot is a better solution right now, although Gnome-pilot shows a lot of potential, and will probably surpass jpilot in
the end.

Springboard modules
All the handhelds in Handspring's Visor line have a unique expansion slot for Springboards,
small cartridges similar to those of Game Boy games. These cartridges provide a
variety of functions, from games to calculators to extra memory. While I am not
reviewing the Springboard module I received with my Visor, I will
discuss it briefly to give you an idea of how Springboards work. The Springboard
I got with the unit is called powerOne Graph, a module that adds the abilities
of a graphing calculator and other features to your Visor. When you put the board in,
it loads itself and adds a powerOne icon to your list of applications, and the
first time you use it, it asks you if you want the application to come up when
you hit the calculator button on the unit, instead of the default calculator. The
process could not be any easier, and really helps extend the usefulness of the
unit.

Conclusion
The Handspring Visor Platinum is an excellent handheld. It is sturdily designed,
easy to use, and boasts very good Linux compatibility thanks to the Linux and
PalmOS communities. I personally am addicted to these little things. Without
them, my average day would be a mess. I am looking to upgrade from my Palm III
at some point, and I am definitely considering a Handspring device. I am pleased with the results I got during the
review, and I know many others who are quite happy with their Visors. The Visor
Platinum can be found for $276 on Pricewatch.

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