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Roger Frost's column in 'TV Technology and Production' from when the Internet just started to get easy


Handspring Visor and plug n play (Oct 2000)

Compare an arcade game on a dedicated console with PC and you are sure to spot the difference between a machine that works and one that doesn’t. Consoles like Sega’s Dreamcast play games and connects to the Internet like nothing you meet on a PC. It's ‘plug and play’ at its best.

There’s a strong flavour of that in the Visor pocket organiser from Handspring, based on the successful 3Com Palm Pilot, that sold five million in five years. Less obvious is that it has a range of accessories to turn it into a pocket radio, MP3 music player or even an Internet WAP phone. To get that versatility, a measure of ‘plug and play’ engineering is needed.

The Handspring Visor handles expansion through a ‘Springboard‘ socket at its back, much like a Nintendo Game Boy console. It appears to have learned from the errors of PCMCIA sockets which despite their simplicity, physically grow in size as needs dictate. The result is that we now have Type 1,2 and 3 cards of different thickness, a less than brilliant idea that’s been borrowed by the new Type 2 Compact Flash disk drives. And just as Compact Flash cards feature on all Windows CE devices, interoperability isn’t guaranteed. Neither, as my collection of damaged PC cards testifies, do these accommodate connectors or batteries easily.

Given the legacy, the Visor’s Springboard‘ socket could only do better. Firstly it is open-faced so that slide in modules can ‘grow’ beyond the slot to accommodate batteries, antennae, function buttons and so on. Secondly each module comes complete its software on ROM – doing away with the floppy or CDROM used for drivers and application software. Plugging in the unit automatically installs and sets the software running, while removal invokes a set-up program to remove any software remnants transparently. In a sterling gesture, the set-up application then deletes itself and in a bid to ease future expansion, the organiser is ready with a currently vestigial charging pin and a built-in microphone.

Developed by Handspring, the same team that sold the Palm to US Robotics (in turn acquired by 3Com), the Visor upstages Palm by being incredibly expandable. Even at its launch it could show the  ‘Minijam’ MP3 player that stores and play music through headphones while an ‘Ideo Eye module’ turns the Visor into a digital colour camera. This captures (640x480 dot) images which can be previewed on the monochrome screen, beamed by infrared to another Visor or sent through its docking cradle to a PC. A stock control barcode reader unit could look up items and prices to make a very small package for a vertical market somewhere. More exciting was a modem to connect Visor to the Internet and a wireless device from Nortel to connect it to a LAN. With the latter you could have pager or e-mail facilities as you roamed around a building, while a cellular telephone module could take you much further a field. GPS modules, which use satellite signals to find your location, included the ‘HandyGPS’ (about £160 they said) offering a scrolling street-level map – great for finding the pub. A final visual treat was its full-size keyboard, the Targus Stowaway that folded down to fit a pocket and which made for an entertaining trick on a train.

Getting back to basics, the Visor keeps track of appointments, phone numbers and things to-do. Exactly like a Palm, its software is fast and wastes no time in asking you to say, confirm a save. It’s seemingly efficient too as looking for a name in its entire database took seconds. Even the basic 2Mb edition had room for thousands of addresses.

The shirt pocket size means no keyboard, so it takes practise to enter text by writing on the screen. However drop the unit into a desktop cradle and it will extract addresses, notes and diary dates from Microsoft Outlook transparently. It’s worth getting up to speed with text entry because you could pick up mail on the desktop machine, synchronise mail folders through with its cradle, and read and reply to on a journey. At the next link up, the replies go into your outbox ready to send.  

The Visor can also drawn on the huge Palm software library on the Internet – it took a few moments to find an application to remote control the video machine using infrared. In the tradition of a good consumer device this works well – my PC hiccupped on a first run through the install program, but that is hardly news.  

Handspring at www.handspring.com

Palm software at www.zdnet.com/swlib/pilotsoftware/

Handspring Visor Deluxe with 8Mb memory, backlit screen, USB docking cradle, case, AA batteries, software for PC/Mac price £169 + VAT. Visor Solo 2Mb plus cradle £127 + VAT.


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