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May 10, 2003
[ Column: the Zire 71 ]

Loose Wire -- Zire: It'll Set You On Fire: Palm's newest PDA, the Zire 71, is funky, affordable and aimed squarely at the hip young crowd; But with features like a hidden camera and an MP3 player, grown-ups will be tempted to play, too

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 15 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

It's been less than six months since I reviewed Palm's Tungsten T -- a sleek, metallic personal digital assistant that looked cool, felt cool, and had a pump-action mechanism that appealed to anyone who thought the movie Pulp Fiction was good, but didn't have enough PDAs in it [Hand-held Power Pal, December 12, 2002]. But now Palm is back with something that makes even the Tungsten look a bit, well, dated. It's called the Zire 71 and it should scatter any remaining fears you have about the fate of Palm.
 

Zire is Palm's funky range for, in its words, "youthful professionals." Its first offering was, well, the Zire, a simple noncolour unit that cost less than $100. Not a bad gadget, but strictly for the budget crowd. If you were a serious PDA person, you'd buy the Tungsten T, or even the phone-enabled W, both of which had important executive things like Bluetooth, recording capabilities, and, most importantly, couldn't be confused for something your daughter or kid sister might carry around the schoolyard. [Palm seems to be sticking to this distinction by launching another Tungsten model at the same time as the Zire 71, the Tungsten C, which comes with Wi-Fi capability, allowing you to access the Internet and networks wirelessly]. The Zire 71 went on sale in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan late last month. The Tungsten C will be available in Asia by mid-May.

What the Zire 71 and Tungsten C have in common are their screens: 16-bit, 320 x 320 pixel transflective thin film transistor, or TFT, displays supporting 65,000 colours. And if that means nothing to you [it doesn't mean much to me either] let me put it more simply. These are the best screens I've seen on a PDA. The Tungsten T screen was excellent, a quantum leap from its predecessors, but even that looks dated alongside the Zire's. It's bright, the colours sing, it can be viewed from all angles [except the back] and in bright sunshine. For those of you with Sony Clies, it's like their screens. Only, I suspect, a bit better. Palm screens have come a long way, very quickly.

The casing is a robust mix of metal and metallic plastic. The usual four buttons line the bottom of the device, the middle up/down button replaced by a small joystick. The chip running the whole show is fast, and the Zire comes with 16 megabytes of memory -- a lot more than Palm's basic predecessors, and enough to keep most of your data comfortably aboard.

What makes the Zire stand out -- and, arguably, justifies its $300 price tag -- is the camera that emerges if you slide the front of the hand-held upwards. Suddenly your normal Palm screen is replaced by a display of whatever the back of the Palm is pointing at, courtesy of the digital camera lodged in the back. Select your subject and press the joystick or small shutter button and you have a passable 640 x 480-pixel colour picture. It's a neat trick by Palm, since if you weren't told the camera was there, you'd probably never find it. Sure, it's not must-have in a hand-held, but once you have it you'll find lots of important uses for it. I just can't think of any right now.

Predictably, given that it's aimed at youthful professionals, the Zire 71 comes with a fully functional MP3 player [to play music files downloaded from your computer], as well as the ability to watch video. The screen's good enough to support the latter, and with headphones the sound is fine. All these functions can be handled easily using the Palm Desktop software, though I must confess to being puzzled about how to get MP3 files aboard.

Downsides? Palm still hasn't got its cases and power buttons quite right. The power button on the Zire 71 is too close to the stylus slot, meaning you're likely to turn the unit off while hunting for the stylus. The joystick -- which also turns on the unit when pressed -- sticks out a bit, too, so the Zire will power on and off every time it touches anything in your bag.

Other grumbles: Don't expect too much from the camera. The display is very slow to redraw, meaning you get a jerky picture when you try to frame a moving subject. The shutter takes a second to act, too, so don't expect the picture to look much like what you thought it would, unless you're snapping a corpse. And while I suppose it's too much to ask in a gadget that's only $300, I really miss the Tungsten T's Bluetooth, a wireless standard that would let me tap out e-mails and text messages on my Palm keyboard and then transmit them wirelessly to my hand-phone.

But these quibbles are minor. The Tungsten T put Palm back into a game it looked to have lost, but the Zire 71 moves it nearer the head of the class. If Palm keeps coming up with hand-helds as good and as often as this, our only concern is going to be whether to buy one now -- or wait for the next pleasant surprise.


May 5, 2003
[ Column: WordPerfect Office ]

 
Loose Wire -- Office Challenge: Corel Software's latest version of WordPerfect Office has some great features, including a dictionary to die for and fumble-free format switching; Is it time to ditch Microsoft?
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff, from the 8 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
It requires a brave soul to take on Microsoft on its home turf. Even more so when one of the main selling points is a blue screen that nostalgically reminds users of their youth.

Enter WordPerfect Office 11, the latest version of Corel Software's suite of applications that is supposed to be an alternative to Microsoft Office, the lumbering behemoth that accounts for more than 90% of the "desktop office-productivity applications" market (in other words: word processing, spreadsheeting, making slide shows to impress the boss). At $300, it's quite a bit a cheaper than Microsoft's offering, and with its flexible upgrade policy, it means you can more or less trade in any competing Microsoft program for about $150. Not to be sniffed at if you're tired of shelling out for a whole department's worth of word processing. Oh, and for legal eagles and apparatchiks who love the old DOS, blue-screen look of WordPerfect, there's that too, along with most of the original keystrokes.

But does it really make sense to ditch Microsoft Office? There are plenty of reasons you might not want to: While the main elements of WordPerfect Office are similar to those of Microsoft's, don't expect to find all the commands and keystrokes in the same place. That means you and your cohorts will have to unlearn quite a lot. And there are bits missing: There's no e-mail program in this version, for example. While I found some elements of the word-processing part of the suite useful, I encountered what can only be called weird formatting issues, which nearly cost me this column.

But there are some positives. It will run on operating systems from as far back (gasp) as Windows 98, whereas Microsoft Office 2003 will only run on Windows 2000 and XP (go figure: it takes a non-Microsoft product to run on a Microsoft platform). There's a great thesaurus and dictionary, courtesy of Oxford, which together give you extended meanings, choices of usage, related words, antonyms and what-have-you. Quattro Pro is a sturdy Excel spreadsheet replacement, while Presentations is half graphics package, half PowerPoint presentation creator.

And Corel goes the extra mile in ensuring that you can switch between formats easily: Say you composed a document in Microsoft Word; you can easily open it in WordPerfect, edit it, and then save it in either format -- or countless others. You can even save a file in the Adobe Acrobat format, a great way to ensure your documents look as good on other people's computers as they do on yours.

This commitment to easy jockeying between formats is a major strength. But it's only part of what may be the future of software, and, perhaps, the salvation of Corel: easy switching of data between computers, between programs and between platforms, using something called Extensible Markup Language. XML -- an open-source language developed by a consortium of manufacturers and developers -- is an improved version of HTML, the programming language used to make Web pages. Simply put, HTML uses hidden tags so that different browsers know how to present information in similar ways: The tag <Title>, for example, tells the browser to use whatever font and layout it is programmed to use for that style to display the title of the Web page you're viewing. HTML tags, however, are preset -- Title, Bold, whatever -- whereas XML tags can be modified by the user. Under XML a tag can be very specific, classifying the data it refers to: <Explanation of technical term>, for example, or <Inventory of pigs' trotters from the Russian Steppes>, or <Information given by tech columnist that is needlessly confusing reader>. Any document that uses those tags can, in theory, hook up with another document that's agreed on the same tags, meaning data can be shared, compared and combined easily, without a lot of converting and other jiggery-pokery.

What's this got to do with Office suites? WordPerfect seamlessly weaves XML into its component programs, so users can, with relative ease, save documents in XML format. And, while Microsoft in theory offers the same thing, there are signs that it's not quite playing ball: Only the whizzbang top-level version of the upcoming Microsoft Office will support full XML capability, according to press reports -- a step back from its present version.

The reason? No one's saying, but it's quite possible that the Redmond giant sees a threat to its de facto dominance of the Office market. Not because folk like Corel may be stealing a few customers, but because XML may end up replacing the formats that you save your document in. Right now, most documents are saved as Microsoft Word files, spreadsheets as Excel files, etc. This makes sense because most people use those programs. But what happens if people start using XML -- open, flexible, free -- as a format instead? Microsoft may be left out in the cold.

This may never happen. For all their faults -- and there are many -- Microsoft Office's programs rule the roost, and part of the reason for this is that they are good. Well, quite good, anyway. And while folk may grumble, no one's really challenging them. Corel is to be congratulated for pushing the envelope with version 11 of WordPerfect Office, but as of this month it's struggling to find a buyer.

My advice? Unless you're mightily sick of Microsoft Office, or desperate to save cash, don't ditch it quite yet. If you are, you might want to try another option first: OpenOffice, a free suite of applications which, given that most folk use only a fraction of their Office suite's features, may well be enough.


about loose wire
musings, snippets, grievances and links on personal technology by dow jones columnist jeremy wagstaff. I want to hear from users -- technology-related stories, complaints, thoughts, ideas, brickbats -- so please email me

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The Far Eastern Economic Review and
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both are owned by Dow Jones.

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