Palm Pilot Computing in 2019

Warning


This post was written in early 2019 but I forgot to finish and to publish it. So I’m publishing it just now and without any edits.

Introduction

The classical Palm (Palm Pilot) platform is dead since 2006. The Palm handheld computers with the Motorola DragonBall CPU are dead even longer. So why use them now? They are probably uninteresting for most of contemporary computer/smartphone users but they still have some advantages. The firs one is that they are designed to be actually used for some tasks – the software is simple, straightforward, fast and in most cases also consistent. The hardware is limited but it is in most cases well designed – the devices are easy to hold, most of them have easily reachable hardware buttons and so on.

Of course there are limitation. When the original PILOT 1000/5000 were introduced then there was no commonly used wireless data approach. So theyir only way to synchronize data was via the serial cable to a desktop computer. Later a snam-on modem was introduced (so device was able to be connected to wired telephone network) and before the end of 1990 a InfraRed connection was added (starting from the Palm III). Much later deviced added Bluetooth and even WiFi (there were things like Palm VII which used some now dead wireless network which was availabla in the USA only). So the only real way to synchronization is often a cable to computer

Old Palms have back and white screen (some newer ones can use shades of gray). This doesn’t sound promising but it is very good on direct sunlight (readability in low light conditions, like in morning, is not so great, though). And storage capacity (0.5-8 MB depending on the model) and CPU power (a Motorola m68k CPU called DragonBall, 16-24 MHz) were limited even when they were new.

But one does not need too much memory and CPU power to manage a calendar, todo lists, personal databases or to write or sketch short notes. In fact the Palm feels like much faster devices than more advanced PDA (usually with the mobile Windows and with ARM CPUs over 200 Mhz) and even today it allows users to manage and find informations more easily and faster than how it can be done on a modern smartphone. Also the developers of applications for Palm were able to benefit from the fact that the device is controlled by a stylus. So they were able to use smaller GUI items and thus to show more useful information on a screen.

Of course, moderate power usually means moderate battery usage. So Palm III or PalmPilot can run 2+ weeks on two AAA batteries (it depends on intensity of use and on how often it is synchronised as the cable connection draw a lot of power). With modern batteries one can usually got 2+ month of battery life if the device is used just for PIM tasks.

Well, portability. It’s twickier than usual smarphones but other dimensions are smaller. So it fits better in most pockets.

Computer Connection

No problems on Linux as both pilot-link and jPilot are still included in most of major Linux distributions. More importantly, drivers for serial port and for common USB-serial adapters are still included in the Linux kernel.

Apple – I can only speak about PowerPC Mac OS X (10.5 or older). One can use the Palm Desktop. I had only problems with the USB drivers. The original Palm-branded USB-serial adapter works out-of-the-box, the other require some third-party driver which is not so easy to find (I have original Palm adapter). The Palm Desktop itself is ugly and does not support some things which are standard in Linux word (like text encoding conversion between Mac and Palm – I unfortunately speak language which requies this functionality).

For modern Windows it is similar – I didn’t find a working USB-serial driver fo the Windows 10. The Palm desktop is equally ugly today.

Applications

There are several build-in programs: a calendar (DateBook), a To Do list, a text editor (Memos), a simple calculator, an Expenses application (to track one’s expenses) and few more. Actually, they cover most of my needs. A more edvanced scientific calculators are available like the EasyCalc. To store passwordd one can use the Keyring.

Palms were among the first devices which were used to read electronic books. There was no common format for such books and Palms by design have not use normal text files (they use binary formats to save precious memory). So several different ebok formats were developed like the Aportis DOC/ PalmDOC (that one which is produced by the txt2pdbdoc tool) or the MOBI format. Another format (more complex with better text formating thus resulting inlarger files) is the one used by the Plucker reader. This format was once used as one of Project Gutenber formats but is wal a long time ago. The Plucker was designed to be used for off-line www reading. So it includes a Palm program (the Plucker Reader) and so-called Plucker Distiller which is s desktop program (seberal have been available for different operating systems). There is even a Gtk+-based reader for Linux and Unix systems (a very basic one, the reader for Palm has much more features). By the way, if you need to convert contemporary EPUB files to Palm DOC then you can use the open source Kalibre tool.

Geocaching and camera

There is no build-in GPS nor camera. For geocaching a commercial tool CacheMate is still available, it still can accept GPX files (conversion on desktop is required, an open-source tool is available) and if you are lucky enough (I’m not) and have a compatible serial GPS then you use some navigation software at least to show you direction to the cache (don’t expect that there if working map-based software for m68k Palms!). I use the CacheMate in situations when I don’t have my Garmin with me or when the cache description is so clear so I cand search for it without the GPS (I already have fund several geocaches this way).

The camera: I’m only aware about the Kodak Palmpix add-on module. It can be connected to te bottom of the Palm and uses its connector for communication. The camera is 640×480 at max, the colors are far from great and it is unusable in bad light conditions (it’s 2001 product so don’t expect miracles). Any modern phone can produce better photos. But it is great fun for me to take picture with the camera because the only aid to aim the camera is the black and white screen of the Palm itself. The Palmpix uses two AAAs and can take 400+ mages before batteries became flat. The pictures are stored in Palm main memory (about 50 full-size pictures for 8 MB but if no other application are installed).
The images have to be converted on a desktop to BMP files ( pilot-xfer -f ArchImage && palmpix -l -i ArchImage.pdb ). The “pilot-read-palmpix” tool from the “pilot-link” package does not work, one have to download and compile the older stand-alone “palmpix” program (note that it does not work on big-endian platform, but it’s a minor issue these days).

Resume

So why one may use the Palm PDA (preferably the AAA-powered, back and white one) these days:

  • Easy to use PIM applications
  • Stylus, no need to tap on screen with fingers
  • Battery life (and AAAs are still available elsewhere if necessary)
  • No distraction by the internet services
  • Linux compatibility (Unix, too, the tool are available for the IRIX, Solaris,…)
  • All data are available off-line

Well, and there are some nice games available. From clones of the Invaders, the Mines, the Solitaire to the SpaceTrader and the DopeWars.

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Palm Pilot Computing in 2019

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