Palm IIIx and GoType keyboard

Review date: 31 July 1999.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


I am typing this on a rather small keyboard, which is attached to an even smaller computer. At a glance, you might think the computer was just one of those little organiser thingies that marshals phone numbers and addresses and beeps at you to remind you about appointments, but if you were a bit more geek-savvy you'd recognise it as a Palm IIIx, arguably the best, if not the most elegant, of 3Com's wildly successful Palm super-micro-organisers-with-more.

Because it's really a weeny little computer, not just a focused-purpose device like a basic organiser, the Palm can be used by different people as not just a calendar and phone directory but also as a sort of miniature laptop, as a toy, and as a poseur accessory.

Palm IIIx
The IIIx doing its best Star Trek communicator impersonation.

The Palm V (3Com don't use even model numbers) is more beautiful than the IIIx but has less memory and expandability. It has only 2Mb of RAM, and it lacks the IIIx's internal expansion connector, which can presently be used only for yet more RAM but can accept all sorts of other extras. The Palm VII is a III with added not-terribly-useful radio communication, but the IIIx is where it's at for price-performance at the moment. The IIIx is a darned useful hyper-portable data manager, and when you add a GoType keyboard - of which more later - it becomes a handy data creator, too.

The usefulness of Palms is not a secret. Since the debut of the first Pilot, which became the Palm Pilot and then the Palm, three million of the things have been sold.

Palm + GoType
The Palm plugged into the GoType keyboard.

Part of the popularity is down to the variety of software you can get for the Palm, practically all of it so small as to download in seconds over a modem (Windows 98 Second Edition's base files are 121 megabytes; the most recent Palm OS update is two kilobytes!). When you put a Palm in its docking cradle and hit the synchronise button, it backs up all of its data files, and downloads any new programs you've selected for installation. You don't need to do anything more to install the new software; take the Palm out of the cradle when it's finished syncing, and your new programs are there and ready to go. System hacks might require you to reset the Palm, and provide a handy button to click with the stylus for the purpose; a few seconds later, the Palm has rebooted. Efficiently written code in solid state storage is cool.

Closed GoType
The GoType, folded shut.

3Com have actively encouraged Palm software developers, and so there are games, improved Personal Information Management applications of all flavours, graphics viewers and editors, text editors, Web browsers (the current Palms have TCP/IP built in!), offline content viewers (download content from a Net-connected PC and read it offline on the Palm - check out for a really nifty implementation of this idea), e-mail clients, and, for serious geeks, an actual working port of the Linux operating system - see Less hard-core Linux lovers will be pleased to learn that there's a proper Linux-based suite of sync software for the Palm, too. You can even get sync software for the Amiga.

IIIx ready for work
PocketChess plays a better game than I do. This is not much of an achievement.

But what indubitably marks the Palm as a Real Computing Platform is the fact that you can get pornography for it. This gives rise to certain obvious jokes, but is charmingly nostalgic for those who remember squinting at alleged smut on the screen of an 8 bit PC and wondering exactly who was doing what to whom.

HOW much?!

You'd want the Palm to be flexible, for the money. It may only be three by five inches (by three quarters of an inch thick), but the IIIx model costs more than $700 Australian, or $US300 or so. You can get the 2Mb plain Palm III for a couple of hundred dollars (Australian) less. But it's still a lot.

The obvious question, when the subject of price comes up, is why you'd want to pay that much money if all you need is an organiser. You can get a brand-name paper organiser for a tenth as much money, and it doesn't need batteries, and nobody's going to want to steal it, and you can drop it and jump on it and it'll still work.

Indeed, paper organisers have a lot going for them. If all you need is a decent calendar and a place to jot notes and, maybe, you could also use one or more of the various weird and wonderful extra inserts you can snap into a paper organiser, then a Filofax or another of its ilk will fit the bill. But if you want the extra features the Palm offers - remote access to computer files, e-mail, umpteen little utilities - the Palm starts to look a lot more attractive. And the Palm lets you search its contents for words starting with a given string (it won't find a string inside a word, for the sake of search speed), which becomes a more and more useful feature the more stuff you pile into the Palm.

The Palm has security, too. If you lose your paper organiser, someone else can read everything in it - which may or may not bother you - and you've permanently lost the entire contents, which is likely to be a bigger problem.

The entire user-file contents of the Palm can be backed up on every sync. And, with extra backup software like the deservedly popular BackupBuddy, so can all of your installed applications, too. So if you lose or destroy the Palm, all you've really lost is a chunk of cash, and whatever data you entered since your last sync. Buy a new Palm, sync it, and it turns into your old Palm. Buy extra docking cradles (they sell for under $70 Australian) and you can sync at home and at the office.

The sync connection is only a 56,000 bit per second serial link, but this is thoroughly tolerable for the small amounts of changed data that you're likely to be moving, and can shift a megabyte in something like three minutes. There are no immediate plans for faster Palm-to-PC connections; you can connect via your USB (Universal Serial Bus) port by using one or another USB-to-serial adapter, but there's no speed advantage. A USB adapter should be on sale from 3Com by the time you read this, but there's nothing special about it.

The ordinary sync, and BackupBuddy too, also flawlessly restore all of the data to a Palm that's had all of its data removed by a hard reset (where you poke something, like for example the handy little prong that sticks out of the unscrewable cap of the stylus, into the reset hole on the back while holding down the power button) or which has had its batteries run flat and not replaced fast enough, and lost its memory. It's a no-brainer. Sure, a Filofax won't have these problems in the first place, but they're so easy to fix with the Palm that it's no concern at all.

You can also mark records on the Palm as private and hide them; they can't be unhidden without entering a password. And you can lock the whole Palm in the same way; a hard reset will unlock it, but will also delete the entire memory contents.

The Palm "security" is actually pretty trivial - records aren't encrypted, so anybody who actually holds the Palm, or a PC it's been synced to, can read the contents without much trouble. So a top flight secret-keeper the Palm's security system is not. But it'll stymie a casual thief, which is more than can be said for a Filofax.

It's possible, incidentally, for a Palm or similar device to do on-the-fly encryption, but it'd be really inelegant. All of the encrypted files would need to be re-encrypted when you changed the password, and decrypted for searching, which would be slow and murder on batteries. There are several encryption utilities available for the Palm so you can scramble anything you REALLY want to keep secret. For instance, Cipher is a free, simple but quite secure clipboard-based text encrypter, which actually WILL stop even serious attackers from being able to read your documents - at least, for a while. Unless you've got Rain Man's mental arithmetic skills, this sort of encryption is not available to you from the paper alternative.

Nostalgia time

Palm+Gotype versus Amstrad NC100
The IIIx-plus-GoType, next to my old Amstrad Notepad (which has full-sized keys).

I'm not a newcomer to teeny-PCs. I also own an Amstrad Notepad NC100, a 64 kilobyte baby-puter (less than 50Kb is free for files, but there's a PCMCIA 2.0 slot for memory cards) with an exceedingly venerable Z-80 processor (the same as the TRS-80!), a 480 by 32 pixel (80 text columns by 8 rows) non-backlit LCD screen (giving it 3/5ths as many pixels as the Palm's square 160 by 160 display (about 30 columns by 11 rows, on most screens), which does have a lovely green backlight that you can turn on by holding down the power button), a keyboard with a respectable complement of full-size keys, and serial and parallel ports. The NC100 runs from four AA cells, which will power it for, approximately, a very long time, and it has calendar, word processor, address book and calculator applications built in, not to mention a BASIC interpreter and a terminal program. It was released in 1992, and can apparently still be bought new here and there.

I hammered a few articles into the NC100 over the years, but it was a pain to move them to a real computer with the antiquated terminal program, which could do only plain ASCII or XModem transfers. Automatic one-button synchronisation was a fantasy.

The IIIx, in contrast, runs on a mere two AAA cells, which is what's powered Palms ever since they were called Pilots (the Pilot Pen Company of America raised a stink and got the name changed, and U.S. Robotics merged with 3Com, so the USR Pilot eventually begat the 3Com Palm). From these cells you can expect a few weeks of normal use, depending on what you do; I deal with the details of Palm power consumption below. You get the abovementioned 160 by 160 pixels, with a touch-sensitive screen on which you can click things and drag things and draw things by using any smooth-tipped pointing device, like for example the metal and plastic stylus that comes with the Palm (I got nine spare styli free with mine!) and slides into a parking hole in the top. There's no parallel port, and the sync connector on the bottom is a serial port, but not one you can plug straight into anything but special Palm peripherals. On the other hand, there's an IrDA (Infrared Data Association) send-receive window on the top of the Palm, which lets it "beam" documents and applications to other Palms, and also interface with IrDA-compatible printers and modems and other devices, with no cables.

graffiti160.GIF (10193 bytes)
Graffiti is very easy to learn.

On the bottom part of the touch-sensitive screen there's a non-display but still touch-sensitive part with two printed buttons on either side, in the middle of which you can enter text, using the Graffiti handwriting recognition system.

I first encountered Graffiti when I checked out a Hewlett-Packard Omnigo a few years ago. It's probably the best way to get text into a keyboardless computer that's been invented so far.

Graffiti is easy to learn - you draw most letters and numbers, on the area immediately below the screen, using the same movements you use to draw them on paper. Some letters have to be drawn in quite counter-intuitive ways - Q, for example, which is an O with a tail on the top - but most of the modified letter-forms are very straightforward. Graffiti does slightly reprogram your brain, at times; while I was re-learning it with my brand new Palm, I found myself suffering deep confusion when I had to write something on paper and remember to write ordinary letters again.

The other kind of modified-script text recognition - as opposed to real handwriting recognition, which is presently unpopular because of the minor difficulty that it just doesn't work - is Jot, which is used by various Windows CE palmtops and available as a third-party software package for the Palm, for $US39. Jot permits multiple letterforms to match a given letter, including some more natural shapes, but it's more processor-intensive and the current version for the Palm is, reportedly, a tad buggy. For me, the standard Graffiti is perfectly acceptable.

You get Graffiti crib cards and stickers with the Palm, but learning Graffiti is made even easier by the fact that, by default, dragging the stylus from the text entry area up onto the screen displays help screens, for plain letters, punctuation and special characters. The stickers can easily be affixed to the inside of the slightly clumsy IIIx flip cover - which, like the Motorola StarTac mobile phone, is not as well engineered as it could be, but looks like an original series Star Trek communicator, so all is forgiven.

But Graffiti's still no way to write your thesis. Tapping the bottom corners of the Graffiti entry area brings up an on-screen keyboard so Graffiti newbies can hunt-and-peck the old fashioned way, but that's no better. You're never going to be able to Graffiti any faster than you can scribble on paper, and the only other input buttons the Palm provides are four programmable application keys at the bottom, and a strangely stiff page up/page down rocker switch. For serious text entry - like, for example, typing this review - you still need a keyboard.

And keyboards on teeny-puters are a big problem. The Amstrad NC100 gets around the problem by being as big as the metal-cased ultra-slim laptop machines that can be bought now for alarming sums of money. Its keys are therefore full-sized, and it's thoroughly typeable. But nobody smaller than the Jolly Green Giant is going to be able to fit an NC100 into their shirt pocket.

Other palmtop machines make do with reduced-size keyboards. The best of these is Psion's Series 5, a AA-battery-powered 640-by-240-screened large-pocket-sized beauty that has a lot of fans, not least because the keyboard moves outwards when you open it in a deeply sexy way. But the keys are only 14.3mm apart, versus the 19mm of a full-sized keyboard. This is just too darn squeezy for all but the exceedingly petite to be able to type on a Series 5 at a decent speed. And the Series 5 sells for $US400 or so at the time of writing, so it's got no price advantage over the Palm.

The Series 5 keyboard is a heck of a lot better than the awful Chiclet keyboards that have adorned a variety of other weeny computers (including the earlier Psions...), but it's simply the finest execution of a not-very-good idea.

A better idea is to have a palmtop computer with a detachable, or even completely optional, keyboard. Plug it in when you need it, leave it behind when you don't.

Doing it properly

Enter the GoType. The makers, Landware, want you to call it a "GoType!", but capitals in the middle of words is as much avant-garde typography as I can stomach. The Palm III version of the GoType sells for a mere $US79.95, so a IIIx with a GoType will cost you less than a Psion Series 5.

The keyboard has a pull-out support at the back (beating the Psions, which are not terribly stable), and a folding lid. The lid supports the Palm when the keyboard's open and the Palm's plugged in via its sync connector, and it makes the keyboard look pretty much like 3Com original equipment when it's closed. For extra protection, Landware have a few different cases, including one in the usual anonymous pseudo-leather with a zip-pouch for the keyboard and two Velcro-fastened pouches for the Palm and random accessories (you can't fit a docking cradle into it, but 3.5 inch disks fit) for another $US19.95.

There's also an upcoming GoType Pro for $US89.95, which works with the Palm V (or IBM WorkPad C3, the Big Blue rebadged version of the V) and includes its own serial port and power connector, so you can sync and recharge the shiny slimline Palm V without removing it, as is necessary with the plain GoType. Not that removing the Palm is difficult; if anything, it's too easy. The only things that hold the Palm onto the GoType are gravity and the limited strength of the sync connector. Nothing terrible happens if the Palm's disconnected while turned on, but the loose connection makes it unsuitable for use on a bus. You'd probably be able to get away with it on a train.

Landware say their Australian distributor is Trio Technology in Queensland, but Trio don't seem to have the vaguest clue about the GoType, so you'll have to find a computer store that does if you want to buy one here. Or just order from the Landware Web site.

Setting up the GoType is simplicity itself; just install the driver file on the Palm, using the standard Install button in the Palm Desktop application, then reset the Palm, turn it off, unfold the keyboard and zip out the support foot at the back, plug the Palm into the connector an turn it on. Presto, any program that accepts text input will also accept input from the keyboard.

There are two versions of the driver included, a standalone one and one that works with the practically compulsory shareware HackMaster system.

The GoType keys are rectangular, and have 17mm spacing horizontally, but only 13.5mm vertically. This works rather well; key width is more important than height for touch-typing. It's noticeably harder to type on than a full sized 'board, but it's surprisingly easy to become accustomed to.

The only seriously annoying thing about the GoType's layout is the inevitable squishing of the cursor keys in next to the alphabetic keyboard, with the result that the up-cursor key lives right next door to the right Shift key. I'm still training myself to forget about the right Shift and use the left one only, rather than miss Shift, get the cursor key, unintentionally pop up a line and start spoiling my sentence. The GoType driver lets you swap the function of the up-cursor and right Shift keys, but this doesn't help much. As teeny-keyboard sins go, this is a minor one.

The GoType Pro features a more conventional lined-up set of cursor keys and a proper-sized right Shift. But it shrinks the Backspace key to compensate. Swings and roundabouts.

A regular PC keyboard has about 4mm of key travel - the distance the keys depress - versus about 2mm for the GoType, and pretty much all other reduced-size and laptop keyboards. The limited travel gives them all lousy key-feel - it's hard to tell exactly when you've depressed a key far enough to make contact. But despite this, the GoType is perfectly tolerable, and you really could write a book with it without going mad.

An elephant's memory

Which brings us to the subject of storage space. How big a book could you fit in the Palm's RAM?

4Mb doesn't sound like much, in these strange days when nobody blinks at operating systems that don't work properly with less than 64Mb. But 4Mb is exactly 64 times the memory in the Amstrad Notepad. And, for the kind of data that you're likely to actually put in a Palm, 4Mb is a lot.

Given that the average word length in normal English documents is 5.5 characters, and including spaces, you can fit in excess of 160,000 words per megabyte of memory. And, further, given that the standard DOC format compression (which is not the same as Microsoft's Word Doc format, and which uses the same .PDB filename suffix as various other "Palm database" files) squishes text to about 60% of its uncompressed size, you should be able to fit well over a quarter of a million words per megabyte.

A quarter of a million words, for reference, is about 500 pages of tight-packed pulp paperback text, or a whopping 1000 pages or so of artily printed lots-of-white-space modern hardcover.

So unless you're writing an encyclopedia, or clogging up your Pilot with tons of images (with only four shades of grey, it's not exactly a graphics workstation), you'll be able to keep all the text you could want, and more, in the spare RAM of any current Palm, and certainly in the capacious 4Mb of the IIIx.

Personally, I'm having a hard time getting the free memory on my IIIx down to 2Mb. You can do it, by installing bulky things like copyright-free books (Project Gutenberg ahoy!) and tons of goofy little applications, but for most users, even 2Mb seems likely to be plenty.

Text transfer

Shunting text back and forth between Palm and PC isn't perfectly seamless, but it's close. A text file on your PC can easily be converted to the DOC format by a utility like the freeware DocInOut (which gives you the option to include the freshly made file in the to-be-installed list for your next sync), or something fancier like QEX. The same utility can translate DOC-format PDB files, which are dumped into the backup directory automatically, back into text for editing on the PC.

Either QED or SmartDoc is the best of the Palm large document editors. They share some shortcomings, which are forced upon them by the Palm operating system. Working with lots of text on the Palm's little screen is, of necessity, somewhat clumsy, but PalmOS makes it worse with a do-you-really-want-to-do-this confirmation message when you delete a large block of text. The operation can't be undone, which is why the warning happens, but making the undo feature cover larger operations or, at least, making it possible to disable the warning would seem to me to be a better solution. SmartDoc's author

Another hindrance to large-text operations is the fact that both of them, by default, work on big documents in sections. You can page through a document very rapidly and easily find what you want, but if you're editing it there's a significant "Compressing..." pause when you move from one of the arbitrarily designated document sections to the next. It takes so long because the DOC format's compression is highly asymmetrical - it's lightning-fast to decompress, but it takes a long time to compress.

In QED, the "Compressing" dialogue not only pauses your Palm for a few seconds, but also clears your selected block - so if you're stylus-dragging out a big chunk of text to copy or cut, and you cross one of the invisible section boundaries, your efforts are in vain. And you can only stylus-drag down; doing it in the upward direction won't make the screen scroll.

SmartDoc, whose interface is much nicer than QED and which has rather more features, doesn't have either of these problems. It also give you the option to avoid the "Compressing..." pause by working on uncompressed text - which takes up more space, but needs no processing while you work. Unfortunately, in my experience, SmartDoc has a tendency to foul up and corrupt the document when working in uncompressed mode, and once it's crashed you can't run it, or QED, again until you get rid of the offending document. The problem document may actually be intact, when synced to a PC and looked at there.

You can do this deletion by syncing the Palm, hard-resetting it, removing the corrupt document file from the backup directory and re-syncing, but it's much more elegant to use FPSUtil, a multi-function utility that includes a PDB-deletion function, or PalmDOS, which gives you a DOS-esque command line interface without FPSUtil's many (useful) frills.

Both QED and SmartDoc appear to get "stuck" when the cursor's at the beginning of a line and you hit the left-arrow key to go to the end of the line above. This is another "feature" of PalmOS.

PalmOS remembers what column the cursor was in before it was moved to the empty line, and doesn't understand that it's now meant to be in column 0. So, for instance, if you're in column 12 of a line of text and move the cursor down one line with the GoType's down-arrow key, to an empty line, then hit left-arrow six times, the cursor won't move. Hit up-arrow once, and the cursor will end up in the sixth column of the previous line. This never happens if you position the cursor by using the stylus, only if you do it with the keyboard. And it is quite annoying.

If you stick with compressed documents, I think both QED and SmartDoc are quite stable enough, but neither is a system you'd want to use for polishing text, mainly because of the lousy screen size. Even with a GoType, there's no way a Palm can cut it as a standalone computer for even quite rudimentary purposes. From the ground up, the Palm is designed to work in concert with a regular computer. By itself it can be surprisingly competent, but is, inescapably, inelegant.

Mobile mail

E-mail on a teeny-puter is a nice idea, but it depends on how much mail you get. Certainly, if you're using a keyboardless standard Palm, you don't want to have to write any lengthy epistles. So if you've just got the one e-mail address, and it gets a decent amount of traffic, the Palm is certainly not the way to deal with all of your mail.


Since the Palm works seamlessly with MAPI-compliant mail programs, you can synchronise your e-mail when you synchronise your other files. Messages you've read or deleted on either the Palm or the PC will be changed accordingly, replies will be squirted into the PC's outbox and sent, and it'll all just work.

Well, that's the theory, anyway.

The Palm's standard mail application is OK for basic purposes, but lacks such niceties as the ability to delete lots of messages in one go. This is something of a pain, if you turn on mail synchronisation with the default settings activated, as I did, and then watch in dismay as the entire contents of your hopelessly cluttered inbox (in my case some 250 messages), whether read or not, is pumped to the Palm. Deleting all of these one at a time is not an option. Fortunately, a simple app to zap all of the messages on the Palm exists (MailCleaner),  as do several more competent e-mail clients, like for example MultiMail.

Powering the Palm

The Palm IIIx, V and VII have, at their core, a Motorola MC68EZ328 Dragonball EZ, the updated version of the original MC68328 Dragonball that powered all of the earlier Palms and Pilots. The Dragonball CPU core is, essentially, an MC68EC000, closely related to the 68000 processor that powered the early Amigas and Macintoshes, not to mention the Atari ST, but running at 16.67MHz. This gives it, according to Motorola, 2.7 Million Instruction Per Second (MIPS) performance, which might well be what a generous benchmark reports. My old 7.14MHz Amiga scored something like 0.7 MIPS according to Nic Wilson's widely used SysInfo, but then, SysInfo was referred to as the Amiga's finest random number generator.

Unlike the older 68000s, the Dragonball consumes really small amounts of power, mainly because it can halt its processor core completely when there's nothing for it to do. It also includes several other functions - the LCD screen and IrDA port controller, a clock, a timer, and a RAM controller. Essentially, the MC68EZ328 is the whole heart of a palmtop PC in one weeny component, and it can selectively shut down those parts of itself that aren't doing anything at the moment, which keeps the power consumption low.

How low? Glad you asked.

A few moments of fiddling with alligator clip leads and my multimeter gave me a real time Palm current consumption measurement rig.

Just sitting there, turned off, the IIIx draws about half a milliamp. This is to keep its memory alive; it contains a backup capacitor which charges from the AAA cells, giving you a one minute grace period to change batteries without losing the memory. If it's left without power for much longer than that, everything goes and you need to restore the memory contents with a sync.

Since fresh AAA alkaline cells are good for about 1100 milliamp-hours (mAh), you can expect to get about three months of memory retention, if you never turn the Palm on, from a pair of cells. You might get a fair bit more, actually, as the memory can be sustained even when the cells are too flat for the Palm to turn on.

Turn on the Palm and the current rises to about 15mA, with occasional brief peaks of 20mA. This is from a 2.5 volt supply; winding the supply voltage up to 3.5 volts dropped the current consumption to only 11mA. This is because of the onboard DC to DC converter that takes whatever's coming from the AAA cells (or from my big fat bench power supply, which was probably wondering when I'd use a bit more of its 25 amp capacity) and steps it up or down to the 3.3 volts that's acceptable to the Palm's electronics. To run from a lower voltage, the Palm has to consume more current, and the step-up process eats a little power as well.

2.5 volts is what you'll get from a pair of fully charged NiCd (nickel-cadmium) or NiMH (nickel metal hydride) rechargeable cells, or a pair of roughly two-thirds-full alkalines.

Turning on the backlight while doing nothing else pushes the 15mA consumption up to a bit more than 50mA; the backlight costs 35 to 40mA on top of whatever else is going on. Since this means the backlight, removed from the Palm and running by itself, would flatten a fresh set of alkalines in less than 30 hours, it's reasonable to listen when people tell you not to use it unless you have to. Yes, it's pretty. But it costs.

Incidentally, the backlight unit itself must run on only about 1mA of current - because, like all of the electroluminescent panels in battery powered devices, it runs from a quite high AC voltage (160V, in the Palm's case, I think), provided by a tiny inverter!

Time to get that Dragonball moving. PocketChess, the cool little chess program for the Palm, sucks down about 80mA while it's thinking, at 2.5 volts. It thinks a LOT at its higher skill levels, but not at the lousy levels that are good enough for me and most other no-threat-to-Kasparov players. Upping the voltage to 3.1V dropped the current to 60mA.

Bringing up a downloaded Web page in AvantGo and scrolling it up and down with the stylus sucked about 70mA. Running the simple Benchmark program that gives you some idea of how fast your Palm is consumed 63mA, spiking to 105 at the end; using the Tornado V overclocking program to double the clock speed pushed the current to 80 and 135mA, respectively.

Some people modify their Palm docking cradle, because it causes a power drain when the Palm's plugged in, for no good reason. The drain, though, is only an extra 1mA at 2.5V, on top of the normal 15mA just-sitting-there current, or the 0.5mA powered-down current. If you're interested in the (harmless) fix for this small problem, you can find it here. Syncing takes 65 to 75mA while data is being transferred, which it is through practically the whole sync process.

Standard text recognition using Graffiti spikes to 65mA, but only when you're actually entering a character. If you're entering lots of text, the GoType keyboard should actually save your battery power; it consumes 10mA just by being plugged in when the Palm's on (there's no difference in the power-off current), but while typing only about 40mA, and of course you won't be using the Palm for as long to enter a given quantity of text, when you use the keyboard. I managed to make the Palm/GoType combination consume 70mA, but only by hammering away randomly at the keyboard.

You can save about 1mA when the IIIx is on by turning off the "Beam Receive" option, which is what lets the Palm respond to external infrared signals, like for example another Palm user "beaming" you a file. This is a good idea most of the time, since it doesn't stop the Palm from sending files; it's easy enough to turn off via the relevant Prefs menu, or with a dot shortcut.

If Beam Receive is turned on, the Palm will also respond to any infra-red signals it picks up, and suck another 15mA or so to do it. You can thus have your Palm's power unexpectedly drained by things like TV remote controls, and maybe also by stray IR noise from light fittings - some compact fluorescent lights apparently "jam" TV remotes, which suggests they'd draw the attention of a Palm, too.

The current Palms with less memory (like the V and plain III) consume less power than the IIIx, because they have less memory to keep alive. But the saving is, apparently, only 3 or 4mA less when on, and maybe 0.2mA when off.

It's possible to swap the V's 2Mb RAM chip for an 8Mb one, which ought to raise its power consumption somewhat, but apparently doesn't, with the right RAM. Since the V uses minuscule Ball Grid Array (BGA) components, doing the hack by hand is emphatically not a job for the amateur. 3Com emphasise this by gluing the V shut; the other Palms have ordinary screw-and-plastic-tab sealed cases. will do the 8Mb conversion for $US150.

Choose your cells

There's a lot more about cells and batteries and capacity and so on in my how-to-make-big-battery-packs article here; but here's the quick crib list:

Alkaline AAA cells (don't call them batteries; a battery contains several cells, and AAA, AA, C and D cells are not batteries) have a capacity of about 1100 milliamp-hours. Maybe more, for the latest sexy ones, but not a lot more. This means, in theory, that they can deliver a current of 11 milliamps for 100 hours, or 1 milliamp for 1100 hours, or 110 milliamps for 10 hours. In practice, you may not see the full duration you'd expect, because the cells get less efficient when they have to deliver higher currents, and also because they slowly self-discharge when you leave them alone (in other words, they have a limited shelf life). Since alkaline self-discharge is quite a slow process, and the Palm usually doesn't draw much current, you're likely to see pretty much the duration you'd expect for the current being drawn.

The Palm V has a built-in rechargeable 4 volt lithium battery good for more than 10 hours of continuous use - and maybe 20 or more - before it'll need to be popped back into its cradle to recharge. It's apparently only got a capacity of 300 to 400mAh, but because it's a 4 volt battery, the abovementioned more-volts-means-fewer-amps effect makes it last longer than the capacity might suggest. Certainly, the V's battery has enough duration for pretty much any user.

Nude back of IIIx
The back of the Palm, with the case removed. The white connector is for expansion cards.

But given that the IIIx gives weeks of regular use from a pair of AAA alkalines, I can't honestly say that the rechargeable battery is a major selling point for me. If you're off to East Umbopoland with your Palm, sling a dozen AAAs into the suitcase and you're set for several months of serious Palming.

If rechargeables totally turn your crank, though, both NiCd and NiMH AAA rechargeable cells are available. The NiMH ones can be hard to find (Thomas Distributing has Nexcell brand ones), but they're worth finding. NiCd AAAs are hardly worth the trouble, as they typically have pathetic capacity (less than 250mAh); NiMH ones score a much more respectable 550mAh or so, half the capacity of their alkaline brethren. Given that you have to remove the cells to charge them, though, you'll need two sets and a charger, and personally, I don't mind buying another pair of alkaline AAAs every few weeks.

The IIIx, like the other replaceable battery powered Palms, has a backup capacitor which keeps the memory contents for a minute or more with the batteries removed, to give you time to slot the new AAAs in place. The Palm V has no capacitor, because of its non-removable rechargeable pack, which means that any interruption of its power will wipe its memory. This is not the problem it might seem to be, though, because it would basically take physical disconnection or a really long on-the-shelf time for this to happen.


As a super-portable and very efficient organiser, information display tool and note-taking aid - a function it performs even better with the GoType, which lets you use a Palm as a serious bulk text entry device, if not an editing tool - the Palm is well worth the money. If all you want is a techno-toy, the Palm IIIx or its sexier, higher-numbered siblings will fit the bill quite well, but you might have a hard time justifying the expense.

People who write a lot tend to assume that everyone else in the world writes a lot too, and blather on about text entry devices as if there couldn't possibly be any other priority for a techno-gadget purchaser. If you don't need to hammer out thousands of words, a GoType may well be a pointless encumbrance to you. But the Palm itself will probably still be really useful.

Handy Palm links

Ron Nicholson's Palm FAQ

Ron Nicholson's Palm Information Page

Calvin O. Parker's PalmPilot FAQ

One, among many, mirrors of Jason Kottke's "Simply Porn" parodies of 3Com's questionable nude-chicks-with-Palms "Simply Palm" ad campaign.

Esteemed hackers L0pht Heavy Industries have a few Pilot-based cracking utilities, but nothing to actually break the Pilot's own security, for the same reason that they've got no Windows 95 password crackers; the security is so laughable that there's no point automating the cracking process.


Dot shortcuts

The Palm shortcut character looks either like a rather loopy lower case L or a fish standing on its tail, depending on how whimsical you feel. The shortcut character, followed by something else, lets you quickly enter a more comlex string - it's a keyboard macro for Graffiti.

The Palm has several special "dot shortcuts" set up by default; when you enter the shortcut character, then a full stop (which is entered by tapping the Graffiti area to enter punctuation mode, then tapping once more) and then a number or letter, something unusual will happen. The stock dot shortcuts are listed at Calvin O. Parker's site, here.

Whenever you reset a current Palm, it erroneously duplicates some of these stock shortcuts, which slowly eats up memory. DbScan finds and kills the duplicates.

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)