The Haus

Review: Palm Tungsten E

October 16, 2003 -- Review by A.T. Hun

My old Handspring Visor Deluxe served me well for three and a half years. I've been looking for a replacement, especially one with a decent color screen. The problem has been price. I can't justify paying around $400 bucks (or more) for a PDA. When I read about the Tungsten E from Palm, it seemed a little too good to be true. Is it? Well, read on and find out!

The Hardware

The Tungsten E is powered by a 126MHz Texas Instruments OMAP 311 ARM Processor. For those of you keeping score at home, yes, that's a whole lot faster than my Visor's 16MHz Motorola Dragonball EZ. The extra speed is noticeable in everything you do, whether it's flipping from one category to the next or calling up the "Beam" or "Delete" menus. Of course, that extra horsepower allows for some pretty amazing games, watching videos, playing MP3s, etc.

It comes with a whopping 32M of memory. Of that 32, a surprising 28.3M is available for storing applications. Given the size of most Palm apps, that's a massive amount of memory. I've got a lot of stuff loaded into mine, and I still have over 11M free. If that turns out to be insufficient, it's got a slot for Secure Digital/MMC memory cards. The slot will also make use of SDIO add-on cards for things like Bluetooth, WiFi, etc. Oh yeah, and games too :)

The 320x320 transflective screen is very bright and almost stunningly beautiful. It is the best looking screen I've ever seen on a PDA. It can display 65K colors (16 bit). The amazing thing is that it is very readable, even outdoors in the sunlight. If the speed and memory don't get you, the screen definitely will. My only gripe is that the brightness control isn't that great. There is very little visible difference between having it at full brightness or 50%. Both settings are quite bright. Even at the lowest settings, it's almost blinding to read in the dark. I downloaded Energy Dimmer, which gives me far greater control, and saves battery life to boot.

Speaking of battery life, I had heard that the 840mAh Rechargeable Lithium Ion battery would power the Tungsten E for about four and a half hours under a reasonable load. I've found that to be true. Since I've been using Energy Dimmer, my battery life has increased quite a bit. I haven't been using it long enough to get a good idea of how much longer, but it will likely be an hour or so more.

The PDA lacks the Palm Universal Connector, so the bottom of the PDA has just a USB port and a connector for the charger. If you need to use a PUC peripheral, look elsewhere. For me, that was no big loss. There is no cradle, either. Once again, that was just one less thing to clutter my already cluttered computer desk.

Besides the usual four hardware buttons, there is also a five-way navigator in the middle. That really makes using the PDA one-handed much easier. For some reason, pushing the navigator down is more difficult than it needs to be. The navigator on the Tungsten T2 and T3 is much nicer in this regard. Still, that's not a show-stopper. It just takes a little getting used to. It also seems to get a bit easier to use as it gets broken in.

The case is made of metal and is nice and thin, noticeably thinner than my Visor (probably because it doesn't have to have room for the Springboard slot). It's even about an ounce lighter. If you are a neat freak, the case's ability to attract fingerprints might get to you. The little flip-back screen cover is cheesy, but it does the job. The speaker is on the back of the unit so it gets covered up when you flip the cover around to the other side. This is only really a problem with games. The speaker is loud enough to wake the dead otherwise. I somehow accidentally set the alarm clock on it this morning and it even woke me up. Usually it takes a quarter stick of dynamite to do that.

Hardware Summary:
Pros: Fast processor, lots of RAM, gorgeous screen, loud speaker.
Cons: No Palm Universal Connector or cradle.

The Software

The Tungsten E is powered by PalmOS 5.2.1. I can only compare it to the Visor's PalmOS 3.1H. There are many improvements, while keeping the same simple, easy to use paradigms. Color is put to good use. You can now color-code appointments in the Calendar so you can see at a glance on the weekly or monthly screens what is coming up, when, and with whom. It's one of those things I never would have thought of, but now I wonder how I ever did without it. The Calendar's default view is the "Agenda" view, which gives you an overview of the next several appointments and tasks. Very nice.

It really seems that Palm did their homework and added all the little features that people wanted or had to add hacks to use. The 4K restriction on Memos has been raised to 32K. There are several new views for tasks. Double-tapping highlights a word while triple-tapping highlights the line. You can write capital letters in the area between the letter and number areas. When the PDA is off, a quick push of the navigator button pops up the clock for a moment and then shuts back down. You really won't feel much of a need for hacks anymore.

Then there's Graffiti 2. Somebody won a suit against Palm over the original Graffiti system (hooray for lawyers!), so they licensed CIC's Jot technology as the basis for the new system. Whether or not this is an improvement is a matter of debate. My mind is so used to writing the old way, that I'm having some difficulty getting used to the new way. The theory is the same. Now you write in lower case instead of upper case. Some characters require two strokes. If you want, you can set it up so you can write on any part of the screen, not just the input area. On the Tungsten E, I don't find that feature to be that valuable. It could be handy on a PDA with a virtual input area like the Tungsten T3, though. As an aside, I've found CIC's WordComplete to be an indispensable tool for helping with text input.

Even though this is a bargain PDA, Palm did not skimp on the add-on software. As a matter of fact, they have quite a generous package that comes along with it. They include:

There may be better apps for any of those purposes out there, but Palm provides you with everything you need for both personal or business use right out of the box. Unfortunately, when you install Palm Desktop on your computer, it wants to dump just about every last program to your PDA, regardless of whether you want them all installed or not. That's probably easier and better for most people, but it was annoying to me. I don't like software that does a bunch of stuff without asking my permission first. After my first sync, my second order of business was to do a hard reset and just so that I would only have the things I wanted on there.

Software Summary:
Pros: The latest and greatest PalmOS with many enhancements, a very generous software bundle.
Cons: Much of that software bundle is "forced" on to your PDA, have to learn a new Graffiti.

Syncing with Linux

My main concern with this PDA was whether or not it would be compatible with Linux, specifically, Slackware 9.0. I already had everything set up for my Visor, so I was ahead of the game in that regard. I installed the Windows Palm Desktop and stuff on my kids' Win98 box just so I could get up and running and then futz with Linux later.

Much to my surprise, it worked right off the bat in Linux. Unfortunately, JPilot really isn't set up to restore information from an old handheld to a new one. Thus, I moved my .jpilot directory containing my Visor settings/backup to a different directory and set everything up anew for my Tungsten E. I used some of the Pilot-Link tools to do everything that I needed to get going. I used install-user to set my user name and ID. I used pilot-xfer to transfer my old Datebook entries to the new Calendar app (that worked very nicely). I found it easier to beam my contacts, memos, etc. from my Visor than to bother syncing them.

The only weird problem I've experienced is that if I try to use the super-duper fast USB transferring (by specifying -p usb://dev/ttyUSB1 as the port in the pilot-link tools and JPilot), it will fail to work the first time I try it after boot-up. I have to specify -p /dev/pilot for the first transfer and put up with slower transfer rates. After that, the faster method works fine. I've heard of strange timing issues between the 2.4 kernel's USB driver, pilot-link, and hotplug before, so maybe this is just an example of it. Hopefully the 2.6 kernel will fix this. For now it's just a minor annoyance. I usually do a pilot-xfer -p /dev/pilot -l right away in the morning just to get that first transfer out of the way. All that does is list the databases on the PDA.

To upload files to Documents-to-Go or Palm Photos, you have to use their desktop programs, which of course are Windows-only. Once I get a SD memory card, I'll be able to copy files directly to it without having to covert them to databases in the format the programs want. That hopefully will eliminate the need for any of those desktops programs. We'll see. The next major release of the pilot-link tools is supposed to add support for VFS. That will enable me to write directly to the memory card via hotsync instead of needing to copy everything manually via a card reader.

Linux Summary
Pros: It works! It's fast!
Cons: Need Windoze desktop apps for some programs, "first sync" problem.


There are only two other points I wanted to make here. The first is one of the best parts about the Tungsten E: the price. It costs just $199. I've seen it online for as low as $175. That's a screaming deal for all you get. That makes it a very sexy PDA for us "real world" folks who don't want to have to choose between the new PDA or feeding the kids. Don't expect to see these things go on sale. I'm already hearing stories of these things just flying off shelves.

Now comes, in my mind, the worst part about the Tungsten E: the warranty. Most of the reviews I've read and the published information I've seen indicate that it has a one year warranty. It does not. It only has a 90 day warranty. For about fifty bucks you can get Palm to extend it for another 12 months or get someone like Best Buy to extend it for two years after the purchase date. I know this is a bargain PDA, but there's no excuse for this. I've decided to take my chances and stick with the OEM warranty. I can't justify forking over a 25% surcharge for an extra 12 months.


Palm really hit a home run with the Tungsten E. Yes, there are faster PDAs out there with more connectivity options, but from a price/performance standpoint, it cannot be beaten. If you have been looking for an excuse to upgrade from your old monochrome PDA, here it is. If you are looking for a first PDA with nice features and the best color screen out there, get this PDA. You won't regret it. For more information, check out Palm's Tungsten E page.