Palm Tungsten T5 Review

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

PalmOne's new Tungsten T5 has had a somewhat rough start. Greeted with disbelief by Palm loyalists, and run aground on a rocky release, the newest member of PalmOne's high-end handheld family struggles to find its place.

Design and Construction


The T5 is based off the design of the Tungsten|E. The abhorrent plastic casing of the TE is gone, replaced by a case which--while still plastic--is of infinitely higher quality than its predecessor. The new casing is a darker, harder plastic, steely gray in color, with a lot more strength and appeal thant the T|E ever had. I'm very glad that PalmOne used a good casing--if they had used the same one as on the TE, I would have had to invent a new word for flabbergasting insanity. By and large, the design is almost exactly the same, safe for a few crucial points. The T5 is a bit thicker than the TE was, and in place of the TE's mini-USB docking plug is PalmOne's new connector--more on that later. The case has a kind of para-mettalic quality to it, enough that you could think it's really metal if you weren't paying attention. I would prefer a real metal case, if that's the look you're going for, but this is a good substitute. A railing that runs along the left side of the T5 allows you to attach a side-flip plastic cover that protects the screen and buttons when closed. The design is identical to the T5, though the cover is a darker grey, more matched to the case. Over on the right side is the stylus silo, left open in true Palm V/500 style. The T5's stylus is really lovely. It's got a silvery metal barrel of excellent size and weight, with a solidly attached black plastic writing tip and black plastic quill. The quill unscrews to reveal a reset pin. It slides perfectly into the silo, clicks just right, and is never loose while also never being too hard to remove. Topside are all the usual suspects: power button, in the same place it was on the TE; headphone jack, IR port (invisible, but there), and SD card slot, all likewise.

The T5's power button is an abomination. Besides being a bad button in its own right, wobbly with little tactile response, the case rises up all around it making it more difficult to press. It was bad enough to have such a poorly placed, mushy, and unreliable power button on the $200 Tungsten E. It is a whole different matter to feature the same power button on the $400 T5. It's inexcusable.

The headphone jack and IR port are the standard fare, found on every PalmOne handheld available. Same story with the SD expansion card slot--it is remarkable only for how unremarkable it is.

Something that you won't find on top of the T5, or anywhere else on it for that matter, is a power LED. This is another area of the design where PalmOne backslid from previous models. All that's needed is a little two-color LED light that glows amber to indicate that the battery is charging, and green to indicate a full charge. Without it, there's no way to tell if the T5 is fully charged without turning it on. And if your battery is already dead, then there's no way of determining if the T5 is getting external power at all, until it charges up enough that you can turn it on to check--IF it's charging. Catch 22. Come on PalmOne, would it really kill you to put in a power LED?

Processor


While the T5's 416 MHz processor runs at a clock speed very close to its predecessor, the 400 MHz T3, the T5's processor is a newer generation PXA270. Compared to the T3's PXA255, the 270 offers improved power-saving features, and increased efficiency of CPU cycles. This means that it gets more done, and is consequently faster, than a comparably clocked older processor. The 270s also feature Wireless MultiMedia Extensions, or WMMX, an instruction set designed to improve performance for multimedia applications. Intel claims that the 416 MHz PXA270 is equivalent to a 624 MHz processor without WMMX. I suspect that this is a little bit of generous fine print marketing on Intel's part, but the new processors are faster than the old ones.

Operating System

The T5 is one of the first Palm OS based handhelds to officially use the version of the Palm OS referred to as 'Garnet,' version 5.4. This offers a few tweaks over the existing Palm OS 5.2 used on most units, but not so much that it makes a significant difference to the end user.

Just let me get this off my chest: 'Palm OS Garnet 5.4.0.3.23?' In its own way, this is every bit as bad as 'Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition for the Pocket PC.'

Even speaking generously, the T5 has some bug problems. Bugs in the Bluetooth implementation prevented some people, including myself, from establishing Bluetooth links between the T5 and a desktop or laptop computer. There was a very serious Calender bug that resulted in the Calender application becoming permanently unusable without a hard-reset if you enabled the Month View. Deleting a file or contact from within a third-party application can result in a lockup. There are more, but I'd rather not go on all day. Fortunately, PalmOne acted quickly to stomp on some of the worst of these, including the Calender bug, releasing a major patch just two weeks after the T5's debut. Still, the T5 is far from bug-free, and I'd like to know why PalmOne didn't fix these problems before the launch. If the T5 was so rushed that P1 couldn't even finish the beta testing, it may point toward future problems. Also, many first-run T5's are going to be sold without the ROM update, which will raise some hell.

And speaking of bugs, this isn't quite one of those, but it's certainly noteworthy. Despite a very specific mention of it in the T5's help dialog, and a 'silent mode' for alarms, the T5 has no capability for vibrating alarms. File this as well under insufficient testing before launch.

There's been a great deal of complaint among seasoned users over the fact that the T5 doesn't use the new and improved version of the Palm OS, called Palm OS 6, or Palm OS 'Cobalt.' And, amongst some newer users, there's bound to be some confusion as to what the hubbub is. Allow me to offer the condensed version.

Way back in 2002, the Palm OS had serious image problems, since Palm OS based machines with 33 MHz processors were competing against PocketPCs with 200 MHz processors. Since Palm OS was limited by the kind of processors it was tied to, the people responsible for creating and maintaining it built a new version, Palm OS 5, that ran on faster processors. Originally, this was meant as a sort of temporary solution, allowing the Palm OS to do many of the things that PocketPCs did. Third-party developers found ways to make things work, while the Palm OS developers started on what they said would be a huge leap in Palm evolution, a complete rebuild known as Palm OS 6.

Well, as it turns out, completely rewriting an operating system to try and appease a variety of complaintants while still maintaining complete backwards-compatibility isn't as easy as it sounds. Tides rose and fell, Palm split into two companies, and the the newly independant PalmSource eventually comitted to a release date--before the end of the year, 2003. Well, PalmSource had now committed not one but two of the classic mistakes: first it had touted a new product long before it would be ready, and now to compensate for the first mistake the company comitted to a release date based on marketing rather than engineering. PalmSource had to deliver before the end of the year, and they did, but what resulted was, in the eyes of licensees, not ready for prime-time. All the manufacturers quietly ignored OS 6, while PalmSource spent the year continuing to touch it up for a real release some time around the first quarter of 2005. Meanwhile, the Palm OS fans who had been hearing the sung praises of OS 6 for nearly two years got more and more irate at the delays, and weren't afraid to let anybody know about it.

What's the upshot of all this for the average user? Really, not much. Cobalt based handhelds are still several months away at least, and at first the new OS is unlikely to offer any substantial improvements, since applications that take advantage of its new features will be scarce. For anyone except high-end power-users, Cobalt doesn't enter into a buying decision.

Display

The T5 uses a 320 x 480 pixel transmissive/reflective hybrid LCD display. In simpler terms, the screen both transmits light from an internal backlight, for use in low to moderate lighting, as well as reflecting ambient light of sufficient intensity--direct sunlight, for example. This technology makes the screen more or less viewable in all lighting conditions.

Like most other recent PalmOne devices, there's almost no control over the backlight. You can't turn it off, and there's not really a vast difference in the actual brightness of the screen whether you set the adjustment slider to the maximum or the minimum. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it makes no sense to hobble the backlight controls. To insist that no one could possibly want to turn off the backlight is like putting training wheels on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, because PalmOne knows more about how their customers will need to use their device than the customers themselves do.

The screen's overall quality is good, roughly on par with other recent Palm OS models sporting 320 x 480 screens such as the Tapwave Zodiac and the PalmOne Tungsten T3. Color definition and accuracy are excellent, and brightness is good.

Memory

There's been a lot of confusion over how the T5 handles its memory. Part of this is created by the unique memory configuration, part of it by PalmOne's moderately befuddled marketing. In the same breath, PalmOne refers to the T5 as having 256 MB of memory, then as having 215 MB of memory. Which is right? Well, both and neither.

The T5 has a grand total of 256 MB of internal memory. About 31 MB of this is taken by the operating system, for the OS itself. None of this area is accessible to the user. Of the remaining 225 MB of memory, 63.8 MB is considered 'internal' memory, like RAM would be on a more conventional device. This can be used for storing programs, databases, and anything else that a PalmOS handheld would normally allow to be stored in RAM. Out of the box, about 9 MB of this space is occupied by PalmOne's preinstalled applications, but these can be deleted, making all of this area available to the user. The final 161 MB is treated exactly like an internal memory card--it can hold not just applications, but also normal files such as MP3 music, JPEG photos, and anything else. All this is also available to the user, though like the application memory some of it is occupied by PalmOne's demonstration files.

All 256 MB is pure flash memory. For the sake of completeness, there is 12 MB of static RAM used for heap memory and running applications, but it is totally hidden from the user. The meaning of the flash memory usage is three-fold: one, that even if the T5's battery were run down to zero and left that way indefinitely, no data on the device would be lost. Two, that because of the slightly slower speed of flash memory the T5 will be a little less snappy than it would be if it had pure RAM. And third is the issue of flash memory durability, which we'll get to in a minute.

It's this last chunk of 161 MB that does a very interesting trick. The T5 comes equipped for what PalmOne calls Drive Mode. Start up a particular application on the T5, plug the sync cable into the T5 and a host computer, and the T5 appears as a removable drive on the desktop. This works with any OS that natively supports USB Mass Storage, meaning any recent version of Windows, Mac, or Linux. The new 'drive' is treated just as any USB flash memory drive would be, allowing you to copy files to and from it. If you have an SD memory card inserted in the T5, it also gets loaded as a seperate drive, making the T5 a portable card reader to boot.

There are a few noteworthy shortcomings of this feature. One is that while the T5 is in drive mode, you cannot run any other application or do anything else with it without exiting drive mode. Another is that because of the T5's non-standard sync connector, you have to carry a sync cable with you if you want to use drive mode on the go. This of course wouldn't be a problem if you knew ahead of time that you'd be using the USB drive feature, or if you already have cables/cradles wherever you intend to use it. But for more unplanned use, it does force a decision to either sacrifice some convenience by carrying the cable with you, or to sacrifice the use of drive mode. I forsee a booming market in retractable sync/charge cables for the T5.

Frankly, I personally am not too impressed by the drive mode. I already have memory card readers, and while the drive function would come in quite handy for filling the T5's internal memory I don't see it being worth more than a T3 and a 256 MB SD card. It just isn't the sort of thing that I'd use, and if it were, I'd probably buy a cheap dedicated USB flash drive that I didn't have to carry a cable for and could toss about or even loan to someone without worry about it getting lost/broken/stolen. Others may feel differently, but that's my view.

Something that must be addressed here is flash memory degradation. Unlike RAM, flash cannot be infinitely rewritten without ill effect. After a certain number of rewrites, flash memory will begin to degrade, and as sectors are marked 'bad' the overall available space will decrease, possibly destroying some files along with it. This isn't a serious concern for flash memory cards, as they are rarely rewritten, but for use as system memory it could become an issue. It is, however, impossible to predict when this would happen. We don't know how rough the OS is on its memory. Like most flash memory, the chips in the T5 are rated for up to 100,000 rewrites per sector. Depending on how well the T5 manages its memory, this could mean two years or twenty. The only thing that is certain is that sooner or later, the flash memory in the T5 will die, and will take the machine with it. Chances are, however, that this won't be until the machine is already being used as a doorstop due to the inexorable march of technology.

One other side-effect of the use of flash memory is that it prevents battery creep. Other devices, even when 'off,' draw a little power from the battery to keep their RAM refreshed. Leave them off for awhile and you'll notice that the battery measurably decreases. This phenomenon has become less and less noticible with newer models, as better battery technology, less power-hungry RAM, and improved efficiency have minimized the issue, but the T5 is the first one to eliminate it entirely.

Size & Weight

While not ultra-tiny, the T5 is in a very reasonable place for size and weight. If anything interferes with pocketability, I think it's more the slightly flaring bottom corners rather than the actual size. Still, it's a very compact and portable machine.

Expansion

The T5 includes PalmOne's standard expansion capabilities, a single SD card slot with support for SDIO.

It's been a topic of much discussion whether or not the T5 can use the PalmOne SDIO WiFi card. The answer is, not yet. PalmOne claims to be working on new drivers to let the card function on the T5, and says that they'll be available by the end of the year. Given past history, I shudder whenever I hear the words Palm, WiFi, and drivers in close proximity. If you don't know already, either Google sandisk palm wifi or else take my advice that you really don't want to know. Hopefully PalmOne will prove themselves a bit more reliable. Still, this strikes me as the sort of thing that should have been done before the T5 was released, not on the fly afterwards while competing for holiday sales against less expensive PocketPCs that have WiFi built in.

Docking

As has already been mentioned, PalmOne's new styled connector eliminates all previous Universal Connector peripherals. PalmOne's stated reason for the change in connector is to provide extra pins for multimedia output peripherals in the future. Assuming that's the case, I have something to suggest that you start doing, PalmOne. It's called future-proofing. Ask your engineers about it, because given the number of peripherals you abandoned, and the complete lack of warning when you did it, your new connector had better be set for a couple of years at least.

There have been reports that, despite claiming it as a feature, the T5 does not trickle-charge its battery when only connected to USB, not to the AC adapter. I can verifiably state that the T5 we were given for review and a second one that was bought online, definitely do trickle-charge over USB.

Communication

The T5's Bluetooth radio is precisely the standard fare for PalmOne devices. It uses the Bluetooth 1.1 standard, and has Class 2 range, approximately 32 feet through clear air.

I ran into a few problems with my T5's Bluetooth. When trying to transmit a file from my desktop, equipped with a Belkin USB Bluetooth adapter, the desktop would try to send for several seconds before telling me that the T5 was not responding, at which point the T5 would briefly flash a message that someone was trying to send it a file before letting it disappear. Hopefully, PalmOne will iron out problems like this with ROM updates.

Additional wireless comments from Brian:

The connection wizard to connect to a mobile phone, presumably to use it as a wireless modem, works extremely well. PalmOne's ability to make this configuration a few step wizard puts Windows Mobile to shame. In just a few clicks I was able to connect to my Sony Ericsson phone and T-Mobile GPRS service. The only knock is the list of supported phones is a little limited, missing all of the grey market devices (those imported into the US, but not officially supported by a carrier).

PalmOne includes the latest version of Blazer (4.0) for the web browser. The browser is average, but so far all PDA browsers are average. It does support landscape and fullscreen, so browsing is actually not too bad, it's just a bit slow over Bluetooth and GPRS.

They've also included a dialer program that serves almost no purpose at all. I suppose if you couldn't push the buttons on your phone, but could somehow manage to use a stylus, the dialer application would be great. However, there's no connection to the address book, which would have made this application at least a little bit useful. They do offer the ability to set up a 10 name speed dial list, but who really wants to do that?

The last application of wireless note is the email program VersaMail v2.7.1. I contend that VM is the best email program that ships for free with any PDA. I've used prior versions and continue to find the options and management of mail to be great. I love reading email, deleting it, and having the option of removing it from the server so I don't have to see the same SPAM twice. Users of POP accounts should be able to accomplish everything they want out of the box with VM. VM even supports popular email accounts like Yahoo with pre-defined profiles making setup much easier. While there is support for both POP and IMAP, there is not support for Exchange...yet. PalmOne recently licensed the hooks for Exchange server and is incorporating them into the Treo 650 offering. They may make this available to other devices in the future.

Audio

The T5 comes with most of the standard audio hardware, namely a monaural internal speaker and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Reliable, if unremarkable. Due to its rear-placement, the T5's speaker is a little muffled when placed against a solid surface, but it's still quite audible.

Notably absent from the T5, despite being featured on the T3 and the Zire 72, is a microphone for voice recording. I really can't see why they dropped this--it's not like a microphone costs that much, and it's a downgrade from the T3. Call me crazy, but I always thought that an upgrade was supposed to have more features than its predecessor, not less.

Battery

The T3, the last T-series model by PalmOne, was plagued by complaints of short battery life, and other recent PalmOne models haven't broken the bank for battery capacity. In an attempt combat this, PalmOne has increased the battery capacity of the T5, which along with the improved power-saving of the PXA270 family of processors goes a long way toward restoring acceptable battery life.

For all tests, the processor was kept moderately active either by SuperUtility's battery tracking and system status displays, or by looping MP3s at low volume.

Backlight on Maximum, Bluetooth off: 4 hours, 22 minutes

Backlight on Maximum, Bluetooth on: 4 hours, 4 minutes

Backlight on Minimum, Bluetooth on: 5 hours, 4 minutes

The T5's battery life is certainly better than most accounts of the T3's, and surpasses the Zire 72 as well. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a battery purist--I think more battery life is always better, and maxing out at five and a half hours with the screen at minimum and Bluetooth off leaves no question that PalmOne still hasn't matched the battery life of the classic Zire 71. But still, it's a significant improvement from the mediocre life of previous units.

Conclusion

In a vaccum, the T5 is not bad. It's got a great design--power button excluded--decent battery life, and a lot of internal memory. It also has some sci-fi sized bugs, but those can be dealt with.

It's in comparison to other machines at a similar price point that the T5 suffers. All PocketPCs at the T5's price, and in fact many below it, feature WiFi wireless networking, as well as other desirable features like removable batteries. Directly comparing the $400 T5 to the $400 Dell Axim X50, the T5 lacks WiFi, dual expansion, a cradle, and a removable battery. If you add the price of a WiFi card and cradle for the T5, it ends up pitted against the Axim X50v, which has several edges on the T5 in expansion, display, speed, and wireless.

Frankly, I think that the T5 is a nice machine, but it's overpriced for what it delivers, and it shows signs of being rushed to market. With a little maturation, some ROM updates to exterminate the bug infestation, and some time for the price to drop, I think it can yet become a solid performer. But either way, PalmOne needs to get on the ball. Whether they are aware of it or not, they are competing with HP and Dell. Or, perhaps more accurately, HP and Dell are competing with each other, and PalmOne is taking the crossfire. At this rate, PalmOne is either going to be forced out of the high-end market alltogether and end up making Zires and cell phones, or they have to fire back with something big. And I don't think the T5 is it.

Pros:

* Ample flash memory
* Appealing design
* USB drive function

Cons:

* No WiFi
* Horrible power button
* Some software bugs
* Expensive for the hardware

Bottom Line:

Stylish, but not as much bang for the buck.