A Tungsten T review, by someone who has never owned a Palm before

Background

I’ve had this Tungsten for a little over a month now. It’s my first Palm, though I’ve had cheap crappy pocket organisers before. From those I moved up to mobile phones, with contact lists with text fields. I found myself using those extensively, rather than paper address books, which I’d never been good with.

Shortly afterwards I started work and experienced the usefulness of an integrated calendar/address/mail tool, in this case Lotus Notes. Admittedly not a terribly good one – Notes is a shitty mail client and the other functions are only so-so. (We mostly continue using it, I think, for its database capabilities.) A combination of an increased need for organisation and the sudden availability of a tool to do it with changed my behaviour. Anything that I was doing went into Notes, even getting drunk.

The trouble is, work Notes was static. I couldn’t use it at home or when out. I tried using Yahoo calendar, which is good for a web tool and available at any computer with net access, but in the end slower and harder to use than Notes and still not available while out. And full of ads.

I am appallingly disorganised by nature and don’t work to a schedule. Thoughts strike me like neutrinos, at random and disappearing shortly afterwards. If I don’t record my brilliant idea or new friend’s number it will be gone the next time I see a shiny thing. (The irony is that my long-term memory is quite good.)

Tungsten open with applications menu (23K) I am a cluster of scraps of paper, post-its, notebooks and a million other pieces of memory plumage. These things get lost or ignored and are unconnected with each other. The sensible part of me, the alter that takes control in interviews, realises the need for consolidation. Even the scatterbrained magpie realises it would be nice to keep all the doodles in one place, if only so they don’t get lost.

So, something that is portable, can hook up to other devices for backup and synchronisation, keeps useful as well as trivial information and is geeky enough that I will actually use it. A Palm it is. (As my main machine is a Mac, a Pocket PC was undesirable for compatibility reasons, plus… it’s Windows.) It’s only been recently that I could reasonably afford one, and I got a Tungsten T on something of a whim.

Physical

Tungsten in case, unextended, with Realplayer (34K) It’s undeniably a nice-looking machine, though it seems to attract dust, probably because I keep putting it in pockets also containing Werthers Originals and tissues. It fits nicely into the… palm, the right size to be comfortably held when extended. As you can see, it folds in and out so can be compact as well. Despite this mechanism the metal case gives it a sturdy feel and a good solid weight. It’s definitely not a toy.

I got a Palm hard case for it that also holds two memory cards (see later). This has become scratched already. The only other physical accessory I bought was a pack of screen protectors for some stupid amount. These are just bits of sticky-backed plastic that go on the screen to stop it getting scratched. No fun there, move along.

Use

Turn the Palm on and you get the basic menu, an icon for each program installed. The Tungsten has 16 Mb onboard memory, and can use SD cards as well, though these are mostly good for storing data I find. It’s not like Palm apps take up much space. There are also customisable buttons which can be pressed or tapped to get to programs.

You can tap bits of the actual screen with the stylus to select options, but actual data entry is done by “writing” on the bit below the screen proper (known as the “softscreen”). Okay, you can bring up an on-screen keyboard and tap letters on that but that would be cheating.

Tungsten in case, extended, with Realplayer (39K) The stylized pen-strokes required to enter characters are called Graffiti and are… fairly easy to learn, though slow at first. Mostly they’re similar to the actual letters, sometimes, especially for symbols, they’re mystifying and just have to be learnt. It’s amazing how the Tungsten becomes less responsive the more tired or stressed you are. Writing makes irritating clicking sounds of pen on screen, and may screw up your pen-on-paper writing too. I now officially write more on my Palm than by hand. There is something satisfying about the physical movement, though.

Syncing with my iBook can be done by putting the Tungsten in a cradle with a USB connection, which also recharges the battery. (I have yet to run out of battery life, though I’m quite careful about charging it regularly.) This process synchronises it with my desktop organisational apps, iCal and Address Book, as well as backing up the notes, doodles and save games that I’ve generated. It also transfers any new programs that I’ve downloaded and want to install to the Tungsten. The syncing software won’t work with my work PC though – a problem with the OS & setup I think.

Things I have done with my Palm

Organise myself

Traditional Palm tasks. It’s fantastically easy to add appointments and to-do items, and more importantly they can be added as I think of them. I can add items to a central shopping list as I think of them and get that list out when it’s time to buy stuff. I can set reminders to pay bills. For someone who has been known to stick post-its round his monitor reminding him what he’s meant to be doing right that instant, this is good.

There’s something of a paradox in the fact that the more I organise things with the Palm, the easier I find it to remember them anyway. But whatever works.

Take notes

From conversations, meetings or ideas that I’ve come up with on the bus.

Writing longer things

I’m writing this on the Palm. I have a word-processing app called Wordsmith that lets me create long RTF documents which sync to my iBook; were I so inclined I could write a novel at home and while out, syncing it each time I return.

Playing games

If you want to play games in transit, get a Gameboy. I do have two I play fairly often, though: Dragonbane II, a Bard’s Tale-clone RPG, and BeBop, which is sort of like a simple cartoon Sims.

Playing music

You can get Realplayer for the Tungsten, load MP3s onto an SD card and use it as a perfectly good MP3 player. I have 196 Mb of SD storage I use for this, which is quite enough to get me to work and back. I use a USB2 card reader to transfer the music since doing it when you sync is painfully slow.

Conclusion

It’s pricey, but it’s a one-off payment, and it’s helping to solve my terminal disorganisation. It’s also good for more than that; web browsing with a suitable connection, creative stuff, reading ebooks, taking pictures. It is a computer after all. So yeah, even if I bought it on impulse and it won’t work with my phone (yet) and they released the Tungsten C just afterwards which is basically just better… I’m still happy with it.

As an addendum, my new phone has various PDA functions but the Palm is far superior. It’s way too much effort to be entering things on a phone keypad. And I can beam appointments and contacts back and forwards between Tungsten and phone on Bluetooth and keep synced that way, if I can really only have one gadget with me.

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