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How I learned to stop worrying and love Palm again

using your old palmThe point of this post is to provide a handy list of software for Palm OS devices because many free apps are now hard-to-find. Commercial apps aren't, but I'm a cheap, cheap man. Follow along as I save you a bundle on hardware and software that'll put a powerful gadget in your pocket.

I wound up with a Palm T|X from my little brother who bought himself an iPhone (and the subsequent snobbery that comes with). It's been years since I used a Palm regularly, and the last one I tried was a WristPDA but was so hopelessly out-of-date that I abandoned it for a real watch (you know, that won't short out in the rain). My first PDA was, in fact, a PalmPilot Pro and was branded from 3Com. Those were the days, when Palm and Apple's Newton stood and chuckled at the nascent Windows CE platform. My how times have changed. The Newton is long buried (but not exactly dead), and Palm is largely in freefall. Why they spun out their OS years ago is beyond me, and it certainly hasn't helped their software situation any. Where Palm apps of every stripe once flowed freely there is now but a trickle, and every day that trickle gets slighter while developers move on to more robust platforms.

Still, what amazes me is how great Palm hardware is, and how you can really do quite a bit with it-- if you know where to look. So I've distilled my own adventures in Palm down to one handy little guide, full of useful apps and tips to get you started. You can find a decent deal on ebay for nearly any modern color Palm too. Don't be afraid to buy a unit with dead battery and buy a replacement battery. Do be afraid to buy something monochrome and without Bluetooth. I find the T|X is a sweet spot-- no laggy hard drive like the LifeDrive, an SD slot, Bluetooth and WiFi, and the ability to go fullscreen and landscape. If you crave tiny, check out the smaller Tungstens that slide open. Currently you can get an opened T|X on ebay for less than $150.

When acquiring this little guy I had three primary needs:
1) PDF Reader
2) Image browser
3) Quick note capture with alarms

See what works and doesn't, plus all the cool extra things I found after the jump.

Palm stuff



PDF Readers

My primary goal was PDF reader. Of course, Adobe makes a PDF reader and it is free. It is, however, also a piece of garbage. Why? Oh, where to begin... Well, zooming is obfuscated, you can't dismiss the silkscreen area on devices like the T|X, forcing all docs to view in the tiny version of a screen and moving around is slow as hell. Forget about a nice, click-and-drag movement. Adobe's reader is OK if what you're reading is only text as it will paginate with some regularity. But that's not what I needed. I needed to view a wide variety of items... Click here to see a pic of Adobe's PDF viewer on the Palm, and what it does to the doc I'm trying to read.

As is all too often the case, another developer has created something better. In fact, PalmPDF is superior to Adobe's rudimentary offering in several ways: click-and-drag movement around zoomed docs, easy zooming, easy bookmarking, easy file management, and full support for larger screens. PalmPDF is donationware, and I'll happily be sending the dev some cash for this fantastic product. Here's a pic of the PalmPDF reader in action. The only advantage I see with Adobe is the support for DRM'ed eBooks and Photoshop Album slideshows (but who uses those?).

Media apps

In truth, the built-in media apps on the T|X are adequate. A bundled (and limited) copy of Pocket Tunes does well with MP3's, and the Media viewer, while basic, provides the core functionality you need. Unless you need to do slideshows or editing, which I don't, there's little need for something like SplashPhoto. The real issue with images isn't so much the viewer, but the method of transport. I sync over Bluetooth, and I would not recommend trying to send several large pics that way. Instead, put them on a memory card. BT sync will basically freak out and drop almost all pics but one. I did have great fun using Skitch (Mac only image app), easily grabbing Google map info and sending to the Palm via BT.

The worst issue is video. There's an included movie clip, but I've no idea what format it is. I seem to recall some tool from Kinoma being bundled with Palm devices long ago, but if you want Kinoma player now you're gonna pay nearly $25 for it. Likewise, if you want to create videos to play on your Palm, you're looking at another near-$30 price point for that tool. Don't get me wrong, if you're really serious about video Kinoma offers a huge range of features. But all I needed was a simple video player, and I found a decent free one.

After much digging and experimentation I stumbled upon TCPMP or The CorePlayer Media Player. The current version of TCPMP is no longer free, but you can find the older, freeware edition here. I'm still not clear on whether this is still open source or not, but the upshot is that you do have a somewhat versatile media player. What you sacrifice is ease-of-use. TCPMP's free edition is pretty scant on encoding details, merely claiming to play MPEG4 files (divx and xvid codecs supported). My experiments were mixed, and I found the key is choosing the right codecs. So, for example, it doesn't support AAC as an audio encoder. Odd, since that's a popular option in MP4. It does offer MP3 audio support, but you'll need to install the .prc to enable it. I had great results exporting from Handbrake (on OS X) using AVI format and MPEG-4 video with MP3 audio. Other settings didn't work. Hit or miss appears to be the motto here, but if you can export with those 3 parameters, it'll work. The commercial edition of TCPMP appears to have much more robust video/codec support.

Aside from spotty format/codec issue, the biggest drawback is battery life. That is, TCPMP drains the battery by the second. So unless you have access to power, I would refrain from watching a movie. I doubt the battery would last an hour while playing a video. I haven't tested Kinoma, but I'm betting their format is much friendlier to the battery, and there is certainly some excellent encoding options in the Producer app. Kinoma has another advantage in that they provide a way to play Flash videos, web radio stations, Windows Media 9 and TivoToGo video. In short, you pay for convenience.

Notes and Alarms

The bundled apps do an adequate job of capturing things, but quick capture of simple reminders, or something needed to beep you a bit later is missing. Sure, you can go to your calendar, but you have way too many clicks to set up an alarm. I much prefer how Backpack works on the web, with preset defaults for simple timers: in a few hours, later tonight, tomorrow morning, etc. I needed something I could quickly capture a note on, and quickly set a beep for later, at which point I'd either put it in a more permanent place, or act upon it.

My solution? DiddleBug. It's awesome. No Graffiti needed-- you scribble what you want (like the Palm Notes app), and quickly set a timer, which happens to have those preset numbers in there. One minute up to two weeks, with several stops in-between. There are lots of other nice touches, like categories, etc. but once you get the basic functionality down, you'll wonder why this isn't bundled with every Palm.

One thing I should mention is that, at least on a Mac, there's still not a great way to use Notes. The ideal solution would be integration with Stickies, the default note-taking app on the Mac. But even Mark/Space's excellent MissingSync won't do that. I recently purchased MissingSync, however, and found the substitute Notes app to be pretty good. The problem is that I want all my data on all my devices, and since I can sync my Stickies on my iPod, but I can't sync those notes on an iPod, there's a sort of disconnect there. As usual, these are the compromises we find when dealing with a hundred vendors and a dozen platforms.

If you're wanting to jot down colorful notes, give CDraw a spin. It isn't perfect, but it is very compatible and useful for capturing anything needing color to convey the message. It costs $10.

A final mention, for you To-Do list fans (which I am not), is Mañana. It's basically a copy of the Palm To-Do app, but the idea is to jot down things you don't need to do anytime soon. Very handy if you're into GTD-- this is where you put the Someday/Maybe stuff. It is an old app, but still works.

Games and older apps

In the case of older apps, it really is hit or miss. You just have to install an app, try it out, and see what sticks. Hacks and such are best left alone, unless you find stuff that is known to work. While Palm gave a half-hearted effort at backwards compatibility, you're gonna find a lot of older apps that just die or reboot the device.

It broke my heart to find the old PalmVNC client didn't work, nor did the Apple ][ emulator.

In the same vein, I tried a bunch of my old games with mixed results. If they do work you may find they are far too fast to play. And if that isn't a problem, I find their older piezo-tuned soundsets are blisteringly loud to the point of worrying me about the speaker's integrity. Amusement Park 2, as an example, works, but will wake up your neighbors with tinny bleeps and bloops.

Games, frankly, are best left to the commercial outfits like Astraware. I've listed a couple of useful freeware games below, but there are few truly excellent freeware games for Palm. Again, the ability for developers to quickly and efficiently deploy games on the PocketPC pretty much scuttled the boat on this one. Another axe that fell? Trademarks. Donkey Kong, Frogger, Star Trek and other licenses (read: lawyers) have wiped out a few clones.

Freeware games I'm using (remember, I'm on a T|X, your mileage may vary):
Crazy Office - like the old Game and Watch Nintendo games, keep your guy running the office
LEDHead - more nostalgia, in the form of those old LED games from the 70's and 80's
Sudoku - do you need anything else? The ultimate time waster!

Now I haven't tried these, because there is quite a bit of "work" to get them going, but the same folks behind PalmPDF have a bunch of old first-person shooters available. Duke Nuke'em, Hexen, Doom (of course) and more. There is also SCUMM VM for Palm, but I have yet to get it to load properly on my Palm.

Final Analysis

While I will admit the Palm has fallen way behind, I'd still say there is a niche here, particularly if you already have a cell phone. The Treo is great, but I didn't need all that on my phone, nor did I have the budget for a "smartphone." Since Palm's marketshare has dropped precipitously, you can now have a pretty handy little pocke device for about what you'd pay for a Nintendo DS, but with a lot more productivity abilities. There's a little life yet in these devices, despite the mismangagement by the Palm company (and whoever owns the OS these days). If you're looking for something that'll be a decent jack-of-most trades, hit up the used Palm market for a bargain.

Tags: bargain, commercial, freeware, howtos, mobileminute, palm, palm os, PalmOs, pda, pdf, shareware, software

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