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Closer To Fine

Palm Zire 71
PALM COMPUTING
Palm isn't known for its audio-visual prowess.

Their handheld computers have featured good business apps and the most solid handheld operating system in terms of getting stuff done from nine to five. But if you like all the multimedia gee-whiz stuff in competitor Microsoft's Pocket PCs, you had to put up with their power-draining processors. For the most part, Pocket PCs have been frustrating overall.

But the newer Pocket PC units had the nicest screens and came with intuitive software that allowed you to view images, listen to audio files, and view Windows Media files.

That is, until now.

Palm Zire 71
Palm has two new entries that target two completely different and underserved communities. The new Zire 71 is a vast improvement over the $99, such-little-memory-I'm-amazed-they-had-the-chutzpah-to-release-it original white Zire.

This new Zire 71 is at least 71,000 times better… truly, a low-priced, colorful, big-featured handheld entertainment center. It comes with the same great PDA functions (calculator, address book, calendar, etc.) that have been installed on all Palm handhelds. But you view these programs on a fabulous 16-bit, 320x320 TFT screen, which also acts as a viewfinder and monitor for an ingenious color camera hidden in the back. The camera shoots 640x480 pixel images… that's a higher resolution than can truly be shown on its own screen. While the camera may take a few moments to capture an image, the images are better than one would expect and perfect for emailing. (People who bought the Sony Clie with built-in camera for nearly $800 must be pretty steamed as this new Zire unit is at least as good with a smaller footprint and price tag!)

With 16 megs of onboard memory, you won't be snapping entire photo albums of pictures. And don't even think about playing lengthy MPEG videos: but what do you want for $299?!?! Did I mention, this unit has a very nice little MP3 player built-in? It doesn't touch Apple's iPod music players, but what does?

These little compromises are concessions we're delighted to live with… plus we'll spring for more memory (on a spare SD card) later.

Palm Tungsten C
Now, for the Cadillac of Palms.

Finally, almost everything I'm looking for can be found in the Tungsten C. It's got the brightest and most colorful screen on any Palm handheld yet. But even better, the built-in 802.11 b Wi-Fi connection puts other handhelds to shame… not so much for the technology itself, but for the simplicity of connection. Setting up the wireless connection is vastly easier than the interface on any Pocket PC device (especially the laughably quirky Toshiba e750, which always ran out of juice whenever I needed it… and that happened a dozen times.) In contrast, the Tungsten C is heavenly: good battery power and a very clear screen with the no-nonsense Palm OS. With a speedy 400 mhz processor and a very handy thumb-board keypad and 5-way navigation button, the Tungsten C invites you to leave the stylus in its holder. But if you are a stylus-kind-of-geek, you'll love the choice of using on-screen writing or Graffiti2 (a far more intuitive handwriting recognizer than in previous Palm products).

The Tungsten C comes preloaded with Dataviz's Documents to Go, making it easy to work with Microsoft Office documents - especially Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. It also has a mike and a headset jack (if you are stubborn enough to use it) for recording voice memos and playing some multimedia formats. You can, in theory, also use this for producing audio and videos by buying additional software. The Tungsten C costs $499.

Danger Color Sidekick
Though it hasn't hit the shelves yet (and we're not sure which communities will be lucky enough to see this first) we've had a ball playing with the new color version of the TMOBILE SIDEKICK made by "Danger."

This "hiptop" unit is so sleek and cool, it's my family's favorite device. My son steals it to play in the "arcade," where there are several exciting video games. My daughter loves to use it to take pictures with the color camera attachment. My wife likes the integrated cell phone and phone book. And when I finally wrest the unit away from them, I love being able to quickly "Google" someone or something. The built-in web browser is fast, efficient, and now, colorful.

I loved the previous black and white Sidekick and now love the color version more. The battery seems to fade faster than one might hope for but that isn't a serious drawback. My true problem with the Sidekick has nothing to do with hardware: it's the erratic TMobile service that annoys me. In some metropolitan areas, like New York, I have no troubles with TMobile. But take it out in the hinterlands and you can forget about making phone calls or surfing the internet. You still can play videogames and take pictures, so at least my children stay happy. The price hasn't been set yet but will probably be available (when and where available) at the very reasonable $300-$400 range.

Casio Exilim EX-S3
There isn't a person to whom I've showed this camera that hasn't immediately wanted it, or at least wanted to play with it long enough for me to get possessive and wrest it back out of their hands.

This latest credit card-sized Exilim camera has gone from 1.2 to 2.0 and now to 3.2 megapixels per image. (That means you can take great 8 x 10s with this camera without any fear.) And yet the camera has hardly grown thicker than a half a deck of playing cards. Slide in an SD memory card and you can record dozens, even hundreds of images, on a single battery charge. (We're breathlessly waiting for the release of a 1 gigabyte SD card, expected later this month!) The latest Exilim doesn't fool around with the fairly useless MP3 player attachment found on an earlier model. But wisely, the built-in microphone allows you to record short "movielets" with audio. Even though I have several great digital cameras, this is all the camera I need and now, in such a small package, there's no reason not to carry one always. $349.

By Daniel Dubno and Bob Bicknell