Handspring Visor Prism, PDA

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, send e-mail
Published by: Handspring, go to the web site
Requires: Windows 95, 98, 98SE, Me, NT4.x, 2000, XP; PC with USB or serial port
MSRP: US$299.00

What do you get when you cross a Personal Information Manager (PIM) with a 33MHz Motorola Dragonball VZ processor, 16-bit color, thousands of programs, fast and slick handwriting recognition, and portability? The current crop of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) of course! The Handspring Visor Prism is in the vanguard of the color PDA models, the latest answer to changing work loads and environments. It has led the way with good usability, a handy set of bundled and pre-installed software, USB connection for fast data transfer and program installation, and good integration with Windows and Mac desktops.

3Com/Palm built a company around the PDA. Handspring, Sony and HandEra have licensed the Palm operating system (PalmOS) and developed highly competitive models of their own. HP, Casio and Compaq went another route, using more computing power in their PDA models but embedding the Windows CE operating system instead of PalmOS. They're all nice and useful. The Handspring PDAs were unique in that the design incorporates a slot for add-on modules. The Springboard slot can be filled with modules from dozens of third-party vendors: MP3 players, telephones, additional memory, voice recorders, TV remote controls, backup devices, digital cameras and much, much more.

We tested the Handspring in the field and at home to determine whether or not the effectiveness and usability was really a replacement for traditional day timers and schedulers, notepads, appointment books, to-do lists on paper forms and even PC-based managers such as Outlook. This review is heavily biased in favor of the Prism, mainly because I've been using a PalmOS-based PDA for more than two years and the Prism for the past 5 months. Purchase one of these things, take it home and you can be up and running in about 15 minutes (including installation of the PC or Mac desktop synchronization software). PDAs don't have floppy disk or CD-ROM drives. Programs and other data are loaded onto a PC, then automatically transferred to the PDA when you do something called HotSynching. Start a HotSynch session (which lasts an average of about 30 seconds) and all the data on your PDA is backed up to corresponding utilities in the desktop software, and any new programs you've set up for the PDA are also transferred and installed. Easy.

While some old paper habits can be hard to break, the latest PDAs function well as day timer /scheduler replacements. Between to-do lists with alarms, appointments with alarms (which can be set to go off days, hours or minutes in advance), fully controllable prioritization settings, much more memory (8MB in the Prism - additional 8MB and 16MB Springboard modules are available), and a well-integrated set of pre-installed utilities for device configuration and time management which synch properly with Outlook, the Prism seems to cover most bases. If you have to take notes at meetings, issue memos to staff, make appointments outside your office, need an address book for reference in order to make phone calls while travelling, are only in your office 2 or 3 days out of the week and everything (Outlook mainly) has to be synchronized so that people in the office who book some appointments for you don't create conflicts, a Handspring Visor Prism is worth considering. A paper day timer /scheduler doesn't do all of this easily.

Cons: Some programs will not run if their data files or databases are stored in a Springboard memory module. The problem is partly due to PalmOS limitations and partly to sloppy programming of some software. Fix this please! We're long past the stage when extra memory should baffle anyone! You're stuck with PalmOS v3.5 (which is a very good version actually). A ROM or software OS upgrade path is needed for future versions of the Prism. Handspring has to give the Prism a higher screen resolution or it will quickly become a poor relation to the Sony Clie and HandEra color, PalmOS-based PDAs. Paper day timer/ schedulers provide a larger visual context - lots of details about many days all at once - which a PDA just can't provide. If my DayTimer accidentally falls 10' or 15' off a precarious perch I just dust it off. A PDA which drops some distance to a concrete floor is likely to be a total write-off.

Pros: The Handspring Visor Prism is faster than some of the competition. Color depth is excellent. The screen is bright and comparatively easy to read in all lighting conditions. The color-to (built-in rechargeable battery) weight trade-off is worthwhile. Enormous amount of software available. Excellent construction, excellent usability, good quality stylus. The Graffiti printing recognition language is extremely easy to learn - no more than an hour of practice to learn all the basics - and there's also a built-in keyboard so you can tap what you need with the stylus. Recharges in the HotSynch cradle. I'm getting several days of extensive use out of a full charge. Handspring just dropped the MSRP by $100. Highly recommended.

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