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The Cutting Edge / Personal Technology | PC FOCUS

An Arm and a Leg for the Handy New Palm

May 24, 1999|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

I've been carrying around a Palm personal organizer for several months and, I must say, I've gotten pretty addicted to it. The ability to instantly find addresses, phone numbers, appointments and notes wherever I am has been a real productivity boost.

But today 3Com releases a new version, which is even more compelling.

For the last couple of weeks I've been using the Palm VII and, in addition to looking up personal data, I'm now able to send and receive e-mail, look up flight schedules, check my stock portfolio, read headline news and even find out what's playing at my local movie theater. No need for a phone jack: The device has a built-in, two-way data radio for wireless connectivity.

Although the wireless service works in all major metropolitan areas in the United States, the device can be purchased only from retailers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The national roll-out is set for later this year.

The reason for the limited release is to give 3Com an opportunity to fine-tune its data network and services before it gets an onslaught of users from across the country, according to a company spokesperson. Palm doesn't offer wireless service overseas or in rural areas.

Weighing 6.5 ounces and measuring 5.25 by 3.25 by 0.7 inches, the Palm VII is only slightly bigger and heavier than the popular Palm III and Palm IIIx organizers. As with its predecessors, users enter information with a stylus and can transfer information between the Palm and a PC or Macintosh.

The wireless service allows you to send and receive e-mail, but it doesn't let you visit all Web sites. Instead, it offers what 3Com calls "Web clippings" from select sites from companies with a business relationship with 3Com. Even these sites are more limited than their World Wide Web counterparts, largely because the small device and the wireless network impose more limitations than a standard PC with a modem.

At launch, data services will include ABC News, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Official Airline Guide, Travelocity (airline information) service, ESPN (sports news), MovieFone (movie listings) and both E-Trade and Fidelity Investments. E-Trade, which I've had a chance to test, displays stock prices 20 minutes behind the ticker but does not allow you to trade securities. Fidelity, according to a 3Com spokesperson, will allow remote trading when the service becomes available.

The device also comes with a telephone and address directory, MapQuest's driving directions, as well as restaurant, hotel and travel information from both Fodor's and Frommer's. Other services will be added over time. Each service requires that you download a small application program from the new Palm VII Web site.

Although I think it's a good idea to jump-start users with selected sites, it was a mistake to limit users to approved sites. Letting users visit any Web site would be an incentive for Web masters to create "light" versions suitable for portable devices and would ensure a more open flow of communication.

Nevertheless, the device has been very handy. I've used it in various parts of the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas and have hardly ever been out of range, even while in buildings, cars and parked airplanes. I used it to check my e-mail as I walked around a trade show at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and I use it almost every morning from a coffee shop to get the latest technology news.

I once found myself turning to it on the spur of the moment when a sudden change in a meeting time put me in immediate need of a flight schedule. I've also used it to find driving directions and to look up phone numbers.

The device doesn't notify you when an e-mail message arrives, so you can't use it in lieu of a pager.

My only major complaint about the Palm VII is its price. A lot of Palm users reacted rather negatively in December when 3Com announced that the new machine would cost $799. Fortunately, the initial retail price was reduced to $599, which is still considerably more than any other Palm organizer (the Palm III, IIIx and V are priced at $249, $369 and $449, respectively).

What bothers me is that you'll have to pay to use its wireless features. To access online data you must subscribe to the Palm.Net service, which has two pricing plans. The basic plan costs $9.99 a month, with the first 50 kilobytes of incoming or outgoing information thrown in free. The expanded plan costs $24.99 a month and comes with 150 free kilobytes of data transfer. With either plan, additional usage is billed at 30 cents per kilobyte.

A 3Com spokesperson told me that 80% of the 600 users in the beta program didn't go above the allotted KB limit in the $24.99-a-month plan and that those who did typically spent a total of less than $35 a month.

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