Palm V

A glimpse into our connected future.

Filed under Computers

At a time when mobile 'phonesjust had tiny black and greeny-grey screens, connecting this to the Internet was like a portal into the future.

This was my Palm V, a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). Palm scored over other PDAs in that they realised that these devices have little in the way of memory, processor power or display capabilities and wrote all of the software accordingly. This made Palm software sensible and really easy to use, as opposed to the Windows CE route taken by Microsoft which took existing desktop apps and tried to shoehorn them in to handheld devices. WinCE (unfortunate abbreviation, later PocketPC) ran on much better machines, but just having faster processors to get the OS running is a huge drain on the meagre battery power which is a crucial point for portable devices.

Even though things have moved on, the Palm V was a classic. Running the AvantGo web browser meant that I could connect directly to the Internet using an infrared link to my mobile phone and browse full websites sitting in a cafe (although last time I tried this it took 6 minutes to try and find the football scores), or more sensibly sync the Palm either directly or using an internet connected PC and store useful pages.

For example, part of my custom designed websites gave me the TV listings on my 8 favourite channels for the day. Or if something went wrong with the web server I could connect to it and sort the problem out using the SSH capable telnet client. And I've made copious notes using the text editor, although pages are restricted to 1.6KB (just use multiple pages); it's very handy for writing down what everyone wants in the local Chinese restaurant.


This is a Seiko Intruments Inc. SmartPad. It was donated by Chris Edwards, who kindly sent this strange contraption to me after winning it as second prize in a competition, and as she doesn't have a Palm computer thought I might enjoy it more!

Basically you draw on the writing pad on the right with a normal-looking pen, and what you write instantly appears on the Palm. It's very odd to watch the Palm echoing your movement in real time. It does it because underneath the pad is a kind of graphics tablet, and the special pen has additional electronics in it to send signals to the tablet.

As Chris points out, carrying your Palm around in a big case like this is kind of missing the point - your little hand-held device is now as big as a laptop computer - so it might be fine for the occasional meeting but a little OTT for every day use. It's well made though, for instance you take the pen cap off, put it on the back end of the pen, and a little nib comes out of the lid to become a stylus to use on the Palm or the keyboard; put the lid back on and the stylus vanishes. Also, the far left vertical strip is made of velcro, so you can move around a couple of velco pen holders to suit yourself, and the bottom pouch is for business cards but also has a little pocket inside for a holder for your extra ink cartridges etc. etc.

You can remove the writing pad and use the graphics tablet as a keyboard. The Palm has an on-screen keyboard, but it's a little small; using the tablet gives you a 250% bigger area to aim at (apparently).

You can get proper keyboards for Palm machines - they fold up to about the same size as the Palm itself, but pull out to almost the size of a proper full-size keyboard. I always thought about getting one, but never got round to it as they cost more than I paid for my second-hand Palm V! Also I've heard that they're not very stable, because they're so thin they flop around a bit when you're trying to balance them on your knee on the train which makes it hard to strike the right keys.

Cool uses

I've been thinking about the coolest use I made of this technology, and apart from wandering about video stores looking at the bargain DVDs and checking on my Palm (or WAP phone) to see if I've already got them, then using the Palm to update my database, I think the one best instance was this:

The first time I went to Bletchley Park (where some of the first computers were designed to help with World War II codebreaking) we arrived to find that the gates were shut. As Bletchley only opened every other weekend at the time we weren't sure what to do - had we picked the wrong weekend, or got the opening times wrong or something? There didn't seem to be any notices to give us a clue either way, and it was a long drive back if we'd got it wrong. By connecting the Palm to my 'phone I was able to check the opening times and dates on Bletchley's website without even getting out of the car. We were just a little early so we kept our cool, waited for the gates to open and had a bloody good time!

See also