January 19, 2006

Synchronizing your Palm PDA with Linux

Ready to synchronize your Palm OS-based PDA with your Linux desktop? Here's a trio of GUI-based options and a command-line tool for you to try.

If you just want to sync between your PDA and PC, you can't go wrong by using trusty old KDE. The current version is 3.5, but you'll be fine with anything greater than version 2.0. Simply start KDE's KPilot tool, which is usually on the main KDE menu under Utilities.

If this is the first time you've used your Palm PDA with Linux, you may be a bit daunted by the prospect -- but don't be. KPilot makes the process completely automatic. When you start KPilot, it recognizes whether you're linking for the first time, and starts its wizard to identify which USB device to use. This removes the only possible headache in the whole process -- the need to know which devices KPilot should work with. (As a matter of interest, it will probably be /dev/ttyUSB1, but don't worry, the wizard will find the right one.) You don't even need to remember your user name for your handheld device, since KPilot looks it up once a connection is made.

When KPilot has finished the setup process, you will have a handy little PDA that can be used with Linux. KPilot will start every time you reboot the PC and wait in KDE's system tray. Press the sync button on the PDA and any changes that you've made, such as new notes or email message, will be passed back to KDE's KOrganizer and KMail. If you don't like working with these, you have the option of using Evolution, a desktop personal organizer and email application.

The GNOME option

What's that? You don't use KDE? No problem. Using your Palm PDA with GNOME is almost as easy as using it with KDE.

Your first job is to install gnome-pilot and start the interface. Gnome-pilot differs from KPilot in some obvious ways. First, you won't find any wizards that help you by looking up user details or devices, because this is GNOME and you're expected to know what you are doing.

The second thing you'll notice about gnome-pilot is that it doesn't actually sync with anything to start with. (GNOME isn't going to limit your choices by doing everything for you.) You'll be able to transfer files to your Palm OS device and get backups from it, but that's all. If you need more options, you'll have to transfer the data into other applications so you can view it in a nice format. If you're not up to writing your own conduits (code that will transfer PDA data into Linux applications and vice versa), then you'll need software such as Evolution, which provides the conduits for gnome-pilot.

Not exactly what you're looking for? Perhaps you don't need the full KDE, or you feel that Evolution is more than you require, especially if you already have a good email application. If all you want is a simple personal organizer for the PC that can work directly with your Palm device, consider J-Pilot.

J-Pilot is the only one of these three applications whose interface is completely self-contained. If you're using KDE, you'll need to use KPilot in conjunction with KOrganizer and KMail or Evolution. If you use gnome-pilot, you'll also need to use it with Evolution. By contrast, J-Pilot is a standalone application, giving you the same syncing abilities as KPilot and gnome-pilot and the same personal organizational features as KOrganizer and Evolution.

J-Pilot lacks KPilot's ability to look for the device used by your PDA, so you'll need to enter that manually (but since it's probably /dev/ttyUSB1 that's not really an issue). You also won't be able to interface with your handheld's email messages, as J-Pilot deals purely with the organizer side of things. However, if you want to sync with an email application on your PDA, there are a number of plugins available for J-Pilot, and two of them -- jpilot-Mail and pilot-mailsync -- provide syncing with email applications.

All of these applications work even on old hardware. My test equipment for this article included an old Palm Zire M150 running Palm OS 4.0 and an even older 400MHz Patriot PC with 64M of memory and running Debian 3.1. I connected them using a USB cable.

The command-line option

So far, we've looked at syncing with GUI-type applications only. If you only want to transfer data between your Palm device and PC, you can use pilot-link.

Pilot-link gives you a suite of command-line tools that allow you to communicate with your Palm PDA. In fact, some of the applications we discussed above, such as pilot-mailsync, need pilot-link installed in order to work.

You can transfer data to your Palm Pilot very easily. For instance, the following will send a text file called schedule.txt to the handheld and create a new memo:

install-memo -t schedule.txt

Next, you simply tap the sync button on the handheld. You can then go to its Memo Pad and look at the new memo, which will be named schedule.txt. To bring data back to the PC, type:

memos -r schedule.txt > new_schedule.txt

You will see a text file containing the contents of the memo schedule.txt.

With pilot-link, you can run a script during the night (perhaps using crontab to download information from a database), and then sync with that data in the morning. Likewise, in the evening, you can upload data from your Palm device and then use another script to store new information in the database.

Each of the commonly available tools for syncing a PDA with Linux has its advantages and disadvantages. The GUI types are easy to use, albeit limited in what they can do. The command-line applications are more primitive, but allow for a great deal of freedom -- and isn't freedom what Linux is all about?

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