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Diving into Visor Springboard Modules

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Diving into Visor Springboard Modules

by Jeff Carlson, author of Handspring Visor: Visual QuickStart Guide and Palm Organizers, 2nd Edition: Visual QuickStart Guide

Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in slightly different form on TidBITS.

When you compare handhelds from Palm and Handspring, the two product families look quite similar. They all run the Palm OS, which includes a built-in calendar, address book, to-do list, and notepad; most of the models share the same type of screen and hardware buttons; and you can synchronize the data on a handheld with your Mac at the push of a button.

However, the Handspring Visor features one notable difference: the Springboard expansion port, a slot on the back that accepts a wide variety of hardware modules (see "A Handheld Surprise: the Handspring Visor" in TidBITS-521). I've been using a Visor Platinum device with a host of Springboard modules over the past few months while writing the Handspring Visor: Visual QuickStart Guide. Here's a roundup of a few noteworthy modules.

Handspring VisorPhone I'm convinced that the idea for Handspring's VisorPhone came not so much from a desire to capitalize on digital technology as from the dream of carrying one less gadget around. The VisorPhone is a module that effectively turns your Visor into a cellular phone. But it's also better than a cellular phone for one simple reason: It gives your phone a usable interface! If you've ever tried to add a person's phone number to your phone's memory, you know what a pain it is to keep hitting number keys to scroll through letters. With the VisorPhone, the contents of your Address Book are immediately available to the phone. If you don't have a number in your Address Book, the VisorPhone software provides a regular phone key layout with nice large buttons to tap. You can set up to 50 speed-dial buttons, meaning you might not even need to access the Address Book. (For more on VisorPhone and how to us it, read this excerpt from Handspring Visor: Visual QuickStart Guide).

Best of all, you don't need to remain locked into the VisorPhone software while you're calling. To conserve battery life, your Visor turns off after its standard waiting period (usually one or two minutes) without breaking the connection (the VisorPhone gets power from its own rechargeable battery, which Handspring says offers three days of standby time and three hours of talk time, so it doesn't burn through your Visor's juice). You can also switch to other applications in case you need to confirm an appointment or look up another phone number while talking. The VisorPhone includes a headset, which is recommended, though you can hold the whole unit to your head at the risk of looking silly.

The VisorPhone uses the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) cellular network, so be sure the service is available in your area -- GSM is the dominant network in Europe and is making inroads in the protocol-cluttered United States. Because it is based on GSM, the VisorPhone supports SMS (Short Message Service) text messaging, so you can send short text messages to folks with many types of GSM phones, other VisorPhone owners, or email addresses. Using the included Blazer Web browser, you can also access the Web (again, with a better screen and interface than even the most advanced cellular phones).

The only drawbacks to the VisorPhone are its price and size. At $249, you're paying more than the cost of most cellular phones (though Handspring is currently offering the VisorPhone for $99 with the purchase of a Visor Prism or Visor Edge handheld). And, of course, you need to sign up for a compatible service plan (you can optionally buy the VisorPhone by itself if you already have a GSM service plan, but the price then rockets to $449). The module's size isn't much larger than the Springboard slot, but it does add weight and bulk to the back of the Visor.

As with most modern gadgets, however, you're paying for mobility as well as for whatever the gadget does, so consider what the reduction of one gadget is worth to you. Getting a VisorPhone may end up costing less in the long run, especially if you want Internet access that would normally require another Springboard module.

Parafone A similarly intriguing Springboard module is the Parafone, by Arkon Networks. It uses the same software as the VisorPhone to turn the Visor into a standard cordless phone, not a cellular one. Like the VisorPhone, the big draw with a device like this is having a useful interface to a phone. You can dial all of the phone numbers in your Address Book at the touch of a button, and the software keeps an extensive calling log.

The $120 Parafone includes a charging station which plugs into your standard phone line and can also be used to HotSync your Visor.

OmniSky Wireless Modem If you're looking just for wireless Internet access, it's hard to beat the OmniSky modem. I was an early tester of OmniSky's model for the Palm V, which looks like a sled that attaches to the back of the handheld; though functional, it infringes on the Palm V's main advantage, its thin profile. The OmniSky modem for the Visor is a compact improvement. A variety of monthly pricing plans are available, ranging from roughly $30 to $40 per month, plus $270 for the modem itself.

Like most Springboard modules, all the software you need is installed when you plug the modem in. It includes its own email and Web clients, plus directory software for looking up names and addresses. It also comes with several Web Clipping applications for specific companies, such as Barnes & Noble's online bookstore. (Web Clipping is the technology introduced with the Palm VII, which includes an internal wireless modem. Unlike typical Web browsing, Web Clipping programs -- called Palm Query Applications, or PQAs -- act as small forms that transmit your search criteria and receive only small, bandwidth-saving responses. You don't have to download a full Web page of information and graphics when using a Web Clipping application.)

You're not limited to using the OmniSky software. Any Internet software for the Palm will work, such as the Blazer browser or the Eudora Internet Suite for the Palm. One interesting feature of the built-in email client is its ability to check your email account when you're not online. An OmniSky server can periodically check your mail server (you can set the frequency) and flash a light on the modem to indicate you have new mail waiting.

Xircom SpringPort Wireless Ethernet Module So far, I've concentrated on getting Internet access via a cellular phone or wireless modem, but a recent entry in the Springboard arena gives you access to a wireless Ethernet network. The Xircom SpringPort Wireless Ethernet Module is basically AirPort for your Visor. Using the 802.11b-compatible device, you can connect to the Internet over your AirPort network. Since the SpringPort operates at 11 Mbps, getting online is speedy.

In my opinion, though, the $300 SpringPort is too expensive, especially since 802.11b PC Cards that offer the same functionality sell for half that price. I can see how corporate IS folks might use the SpringPort for a high concentration of Windows machines spread out over a large area, but the lack of network synchronization makes it a tough sell for Mac users. I hope that the price reflects the initial cost of squeezing wireless Ethernet functionality into a handheld package, and it will soon come down.

MiniJam and SoundsGood I commented earlier that one appeal of the VisorPhone is that it merges portable gadgets (a handheld and a cellular phone). The same applies to digital music players. Despite the popularity of the MP3 format, I wasn't interested until I could get a portable MP3 player. I still love the Rio500 that I bought, but these days I'd be more tempted by either the $260 InnoGear MiniJam or the $150 SoundsGood Audio Player. Both offer 64 MB of storage -- about an hour's worth of music. (You can also purchase the MiniJam in a 32 MB configuration for $200 or a 96 MB version for $300.) Both also include external buttons for controlling playback, plus a headphone port (and headphones, of course).

The songs are stored on the devices themselves, but the Visor provides a more extensive interface than just the physical controls. You can program the order of songs, play them randomly, or play them straight through. You also get all of the information that accompanies each song file (like the artist, album, genre, etc.).

The main advantage of the MiniJam is its expandability, which also accounts for its higher price. It can accommodate two MultiMedia Cards (memory cards about the size of a postage stamp), and therefore more memory. In addition to MP3 music, you can store electronic books or photos (reader software is available on the module).

The SoundsGood player looks like the better deal for the money and has a couple other advantages: It's smaller than the MiniJam, and it can be fitted into a separate $40 Energy Clip battery pack that can be used to play music without being connected to the Visor (especially good for when you're exercising, since it's less fragile than the Visor). Unfortunately, Good Technology has recently stopped handling the SoundsGood audio player, turning it over to PalmGear; further, it's not expandable like the MiniJam, and it doesn't include software to manage MP3 files on the Macintosh. But if you're not looking for anything flashy and have a Windows machine that can act as a music server (or perhaps Virtual PC, but I didn't test this), the SoundsGood might be an economical choice.

HandyGPS At Macworld Expo 2001 in San Francisco, I saw several options for using the Global Positioning System (GPS is a collection of satellites above the Earth whose signals can be triangulated to pinpoint one's location; see "Feeling Lost? An Overview of Global Positioning Systems" in TidBITS-388 for more) with Palm and Visor handhelds (see "Palms Up at Macworld Expo" in TidBITS-565). Feeling the need to find myself, I used Nexian's HandyGPS device with my Visor. The module is short and stocky and makes the Visor look a little like the raised forehead of Frankenstein's monster. It initially takes about six to ten minutes to lock onto the GPS satellites overhead, even on a clear day with no trees or other obstructions. But once a lock was established, I was able to continuously pinpoint my location using maps downloaded from Nexian's Web site. Sometimes the module could re-establish locks quickly, but it seemed that the longer you hadn't used the module, the longer it took to reacquire its location.

The HandyGPS software could use improvement. Icons at the top of the screen don't clearly indicate if they just display information or if they're buttons (there's a mix of both), and to view a rough schematic of how many satellites are overhead, you must select Satellites from the Preferences menu, even though that information isn't a preference. Tapping the application's title bar, which should bring up the menu bar on Visors running Palm OS 3.5, instead pops up a dialog box asking if you want to cold start the module.

What the HandyGPS does have going for it is price: At $150, it's notably cheaper than its competitors. The other leading GPS module is GeoDiscovery's $290 Geode, which includes two MultiMedia Card slots for storing maps and other data. Since I never received a promised evaluation unit from GeoDiscovery, I can't speak to the Geode's quality.

Franklin Electronic Reference Titles Not all the Springboard modules I received were gadgets that transmogrified the Visor into something completely different. Franklin Electronic Publishers sent me a handful of modules containing electronic texts of reference books. At first, I thought it a bit odd to distribute electronic books as Springboard modules instead of as downloadable files, but then I got a better look at a few of the titles: the King James Version of the Bible, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the 2001 PDR (Physician's Desk Reference). Not only does it take more memory than you may have in your Visor or wish to devote to one book to store all that information, these reference works are searchable databases. Doctors can quickly look up drug interaction guides, or you could search the Bible for specific quotations. You can bookmark items and add your own notes. The svelte modules themselves sit flush in the Springboard slot, so there's no extra bulk.

InnoGear InnoPak/2V and Handspring Backup Module The $30 InnoGear InnoPak/2V is a small module that adds 2 MB of memory for storing more files or programs. It also has a small motor that gives the Visor a vibrating alert in place of the handheld's standard audio alarms, a welcome feature if you rely on your Visor to alert you to appointments in cacophonous environments like trade shows, or if you simply don't like to broadcast your reminder alerts to others in the room.

One of the most useful Springboard modules is Handspring's appropriately named Backup Module. Tap a very large, obvious button in the provided software, and the contents of the Visor's memory are transferred to the module. If you lose your data (from a bad battery swap, for example), simply insert the Backup Module and restore your data. For $40, it's worth it, especially if you often use your Visor far from the safety of the backup stored on your Mac.

eyemodule2 I should take this opportunity to apologize to my friends who had to put up with me continually showing off new Springboard modules. After a few demonstrations, they tended to glaze over and became inured to the charms of the latest toy -- except for the eyemodule2, a module that turns your Visor into a digital camera.

A fixed lens sits atop the module, which adds a little height to the Visor. To take pictures, you simply point the lens at your subject and use the Visor's screen as viewfinder. You use a button on the module to snap the photo, though I preferred to push the Visor's scroll-up button instead. The placement of the eyemodule2's button made it easier to nudge the Visor as the shot was taken, blurring the photo. You can take pictures at 160 by 120 pixels (the viewable area of the software on Visor's screen), or at a larger size of 640 by 480 pixels. The full-size images are captured in color, even if you own a grayscale Visor. The smaller, Palm-size images are stored in grayscale if you're using a grayscale Visor, but if you're using a color Visor Prism, the Palm-size images are stored in color, taking up more memory. The software also includes some rudimentary exposure controls for dealing with low-light or overly bright situations. In addition to still photos, you can capture Palm-size movies from between 20 and 85 seconds in duration. Again, the difference depends on which Visor you own: Grayscale Visors capture grayscale movies, while the color Visor Prism captures color movies that require more memory.

The images (or movies) are stored in your Visor's built-in memory. The eyemodule2 site claims that a Visor Prism with 6 MB of free memory can store 50 full-size or 150 Palm-size color images; a grayscale device with the same free memory can store 50 full-size or 660 Palm-size images. When you're finished pretending to be Ansel Adams, you can easily transfer the images to your Mac as JPEG files or QuickTime movies during HotSync operations.

I was surprised at the quality of the images. You probably wouldn't want to rely on the eyemodule2 to record your family vacation, but for everyday snapshots or even Web images the quality is acceptable. I was able to test only with a Visor Platinum, so the movies I shot were grayscale and rather grainy -- perfect if you want to make a moody 60-second film noir masterpiece. (You can see samples I've posted on my Web site.)

You can use the eyemodule2 to add images to other applications, too. For example, eyecontact is an Address Book replacement that stores photos of people with their contact information; BugMe Messenger lets you annotate your images and send them to other handhelds by beaming or by mailing them (using a separate module like the VisorPhone or OmniSky modem). The eyemodule2 costs $299, and even comes with a protective metal tin for storing the device.

Margi Presenter-to-Go Every once in a while, I hear about something that makes me scratch my head and wonder why anyone bothered to come up with the idea, much less follow it through to an actual product. Such is the case of Margi's Presenter-to-Go, a Springboard module that enables you to run Microsoft PowerPoint presentations from your Visor.

Although I'm not a big fan of PowerPoint presentations, Presenter-to-Go pleasantly surprised me. After you've created your presentation, you use Margi's desktop software to prepare it for the Visor; it's transferred the next time you HotSync. Then, with the Springboard module in place, you connect a supplied monitor cable and power cable (the Visor doesn't have enough energy to power an external display) to a monitor or projector. Without cracking the lid of your laptop, you have a mobile presentation machine. Everything is reproduced in full color, and thankfully, the software doesn't support many of the garish effects that PowerPoint has foisted upon the business world. In fact, you don't even need PowerPoint: A Margi print driver lets you "print" pages from any application to the Presenter-to-Go format.

Ever Expanding Who would have guessed when the first PalmPilots came out that you could do so much from such a tiny device? There will undoubtedly be more Springboard modules in the future, since Handspring has become a dominant player in the handheld industry. But it's not alone: The newest handhelds from Palm feature a different type of expansion port that accommodates Secure Digital and MultiMedia Card modules, and have the potential for incorporating devices similar to what we're seeing with the Visor. No doubt, I'll be filling my laptop bag with those too in time.

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