Dec. 2002

Handspring Visor: A Retrospective

This is a review of my experiences, over two years, with the Handspring Visor and how those experiences have shaped my requirements for a future replacement. The requirements seemingly apply to any portable personal computing device. It concludes with a list of possible contenders to replace my "aging" Visor— my friend and companion.

Why did I buy a PDA?

I purchased a Visor because it looked cool— it was a StarTrek datapad come true. The possibility of expanding its functionality via Springboard modules also enticed me to buy a Handspring specifically. I didn't really need a datebook, a contact-list, a todo list or a memopad— I was quite happy using cron, xcal, grep, Postit's and a small writing pad.

The Hardware

I've had my Visor Deluxe Ice now for a little over two years. It is not the original unit I purchased since I had to exchange it for a working unit twice. In the two years, I have lost my leather pouch (within 2 weeks of purchasing it) and my stylus (2 months ago). I now use a stylus that previously belonged to a colleague with a Graphite Visor Deluxe (he has since upgraded to a Platinum). I lost my second stylus on Dec 28, 2002; the silo just does not securly hold the stylus. My stylus replacement is a red, tapered, snug-fitting, plastic handle off a cheap paint-brush, cut to size, with a notch filed-in for extracting. It looks rather garish but there is no chance of this "stylus" falling out.

I have used transparent nail-polish to repair several cracks that have developed on the face of the unit next to the power button. The flip-cover has a crack developing along one side of the top clamp. Otherwise the unit is in good condition. I also brushed the faces of the 4 buttons with transparent nail-polish to prevent them from rubbing off with wear.

A strip of Scotch 811 tape, replaced every 6 months, covers the Grafitti area preventing scratches and I clean the the screen every two weeks with a lens-cleaner and a scrap of toilet-paper.

The only additional component I have for my Visor is a 8MB Springboard I received as a Christmas gift. I would have bought the Good Technologies MP3 player but by the time I got around to it, they stopped making it.

I alternate between two pairs of Radio Shack rechargeable NiMH batteries charged on a RadioShack Fast Charger. Runtime (battery tracking application) reports an average battery usage of 12 days with 2 hours of runtime.

The Software

I use FlipHack and FlipGraffittiHack to rotate the display of the Visor clock-wise by 90 degrees. I find that holding the Visor sideways with my right-hand is the most comfortable position for me. Having the ability to rotate the display is on my Top-10 Requirements for a PDA.

My Visor is used for keeping a work-related todo list (using floating appointments rather than the TodoList), a shopping list, a work-related daily journal and appointment reminders (nearly all of them work-related). I have also manually programmed-in all the major holidays (the DateBook+ features (e.g. being able to specify the last week of the month) really were handy for this purpose).

The other main function is mostly reading Project Gutenberg books using Plucker. I even wrote a Perl script to convert PG text files to HTML because I was reading so many of them. I prefer to read at night, in the dark. I also read during my daily hour-long commute. At the time of writing, the following books appear in my Plucker library:

I have replaced the default MemoPad with CryptoPad which allows memos to be encrypted and thus permits me to store my passwords and credit card information on my Visor. The MemoPad also contains work-related policy documents, procedures manuals, various HowTos and lists of books I have purchased or plan to purchase.

The TodoList button launches Time, a clock. This is useful since I do not wear a wrist-watch. I stopped using the TodoList because of a particularily irritating feature: items past their deadline dissappeared off the list despite not being completed. I also occasionally use the Calculator to calculate sales-tax or perform units-conversions.

The only game I play is occasionally is Keith Packard's Patience. I have Vexed installed, but I haven't played it in the past year. I also have IR-Pong but I have never met another (female) Palm user I could beam this to and play against.

The Desktop

I originally sync'd my Visor on a SunPC card (a complete PC-on-a-card plugged into a Sun Ultra 5 workstation) running Windows 98. After the pilot-tools began supporting USB, I migrated to GNU/Linux. It wasn't friendly (I preferred to use the command-line tools to the Jpilot GUI) but it was satisfactory.

Ever since I got my Sony Vaio laptop a year ago (outfitted with a 32MB ATI Radeon for game-playing and DVD/CDRW combo drive for watching movies), I now sync under Windows XP with the latest 4.1 Palm Desktop.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

After having used it for two years, I have not regretted buying the Visor. It is so much more than cron, grep, Postit's and a small writing pad. I have ended up using it for things I didn't even dream of at the time of purchase.

Essentially, my Visor allows me to conveniently carry a large store of information and quickly search that information.

Network connectivity would only increase this store of information by allowing me access to information stored on the network at work and at home and of course, on the Internet.

Top-10 Requirements for a PDA

  1. Thickness: it has to be thin! The Visor Edge was perfect in this respect except that it only had 8MB onboard and required a lumpy sled attachment to support memory-expansion Springboard modules.)
  2. Long battery life: at least 7 days between charges *.
  3. Durability: the device should be able to survive a fall from a desktop onto concrete. Fragile electronics are not useful in daily life; a moulded shock-absorber around the perimiter is good. I have never dropped my Visor, but I know a person who has dropped every PDA he has handled (I never let him touch mine).
  4. Data integrity: of course my data is important, so back it up! I don't ever want to lose data. I should not have to request that my data be backed-up.
  5. Usability: design like people matter (human factors); e.g. the ability to rotate the display.
  6. Encryption: any document in memory— this should be part of the OS.
  7. Well engineered: doing a lot with very little, a.k.a "Third World Engineering", is distressing.
  8. Good aesthetic: Utilitarian is foo! It should be beautiful to look at; the iPaq is a seriously ugly piece of electronics.
  9. Expandability: industry standard memory, keyboards, cameras, etc.
  10. Connectivity: Make it easy to send and or data, and backup data at resonably high speeds (of course this implies network connectivity).
*A Note on Battery Life: There was a time when I thought the Dragonball microprocessor (used on Palm devices) was underpowered thus limiting the scope of compute-intensive operations it could carry out. I thought the ARM (used in the PocketPC; the Intel Xscale is an ARM core) would be answer to this problem. Alas, I was disappointed to learn that most ARM devices have to be re-charged every day or so. The prospect of re-charging everyday is very unappealing, so, the Dragonball still remains on the throne.

I'm certain we can find an engineering solution to this problem— it can mean down-clocking the ARM for mundane tasks and then running it at full-speed when the CPU needs to— sounds very much like the Transmeta Crusoe. What about having 2 CPU (I know about minimizing part count), a low-power one for the mundane tasks and the high-power one that sleeps most of the time, until needed?

I am not (yet) a cell-phone user. I carry my Canon S30 digital camera and Visor with me everyday. The Canon has to be re-charged (Li-Ion pack) every 2 or 3 days, and if I forget to do it, I can live with not being able to take a picture. Having to charge my PDA every other day is unreasonable and I could not live without it even for a day. It would upset me greatly if I lost data (the DateBook+, MemoPad and AddressBook databases are backed-up daily onto the Springboard) or I couldn't use my PDA because I forgot to charge it one day.

Have You Thought About A Replacement?

My Visor is showing wear and I have the means to buy a replacement. Using my Top-10 list as a guide, here are the contenders beginning with the least likely:

My list would likey be different if I also owned a cell-phone. I would likely opt for a phone-PDA hybrid like the Tréo Communicator or the Nokia Communicator. If my Visor died tomorrow, I would replace it with either a Visor Neo/Platinum or a Tréo.

Or maybe a Handera 330.

Luis Fernandes,

Last modified: Fri Mar 07 10:18:21 2003