Sunday, May 28, 2006

Palm TX

(Or is that Palm T|X? I'm not getting into it. TX will do.)

About six months ago, I set out to buy a new PDA. The strangest thing happened: despite money being essentially no object for this particular project, I came home without one. I simply couldn't buy a new PDA. Not a single product fit my criteria, and I didn't think they were particularly restrictive:
  • It was reasonably important that the PDA be PalmOS-based. All my PDAs have been Palms: a IIIx, and most recently a Zire 71. PalmOS Just Works. It is lightweight and it is fast. It doesn't try to do everything, it just tries to do a few things the Right Way. Still, this wasn't going to a be a show-stopper: I was willing to change camps if and only if it could be shown that another candidate would behave correctly with OS X. And by "correctly", I mean natively, and if not natively, then with some low-cost, third party tool.
  • I almost definitely didn't want a GSM phone in my PDA. My Motorola V3 is still under contract, and I wasn't signing up for a separate phone account just for the novelty of a phone in my PDA.
  • I didn't really want a camera, but this was a soft requirement. (I've only ever taken novelty shots with my Zire 71. I like having devices that do one thing well, and my Canon EOS 20D takes pretty good photographs.)
  • I wanted Bluetooth and wireless networking. Bluetooth was a hard requirement, as conventional Palm cradles are just too bulky to carry around, and I frequently want to sync with the PowerBook while away from home. Wireless would be great, but not a necessity.
Now, I would have thought this was not a particularly ambitious wish-list. Apparently I was wrong. The obvious first stop was the Palm range. The flagship product at the time was the Palm TX (or it may have been the Life Drive—I don't know which one was supposed to be the top of their range, but the Life Drive was (and still is) just way too bulky to be in the running). I checked the features of the TX, and it nailed most, if not all, of the criteria above. But I didn't buy it, and here's why. Check the comparison chart of Palm models, which is the same today as it was then. In particular, compare the TX to the much older Tungsten T5, which it was supposedly replacing, or at least stealing the top-of-range designation from. Yes, the TX is $A 100 cheaper, but it has less memory (128M vs 256M), and a slower CPU (312MHz vs 416MHz). Sure, it had wireless, but this just wasn't making sense. Someone else was paying for my PDA, and I wanted the best model in Palm's range, but it wasn't even clear what they thought the top of their range was, let alone what the specifications implied. In a last ditch effort to buy something, I tried to purchase a Tungsten T5 with a wireless network adapter card, which Palm was marketing as a bundle at the time. The store was out. I gave up.

Six months passed, and by the weekend just past, it was becoming critical that I spend the money on a new PDA. I re-checked Palm's range: no movement there. I settled on the TX from the unchanged comparison chart, deciding that wireless really was worth a cut in speed and memory. (Remember, PalmOS is lightweight. It's not like my old IIIx was even slow.) Between my previous expedition and last weekend, an article went up at O'Reilly's Mac Dev Center: New Palm TX Forced Me to Address Mac Sync Options by Giles Turnbull. This article basically sealed the deal for me, though it was obvious I would be forking out a further $US 39.95 for The Missing Sync from Mark/Space. The take-home message from Turnbull's article was that iSync could handle the basics (and I knew that—I've been syncing my Zire 71 since I bought the PowerBook), but that The Missing Sync fills in all the gaps.

The TX is working well so far. It's hard to be super-enthusiastic about getting a new Palm, for several reasons:
  • New models are usually just evolutionary upgrades on old models, as opposed to revolutionary. PalmOS hasn't changed in any jaw-dropping ways since my old IIIx. It's in colour now, and the calendar application can finally handle events that span midnight, but other than that level of change, it's all pretty familiar. Which is good.
  • Upgrading old third party applications can be tough. For example, I have used CryptInfo for a few years to store passwords. That's great, except you'll see that CryptInfo is no longer being developed, and it's a crusty, old PalmOS 2.0 application. I'm going to check out Keyring for Palm OS, mostly because it's free software, and there's not enough free software for the Palm. Now the bad bit: I'm going to have to transfer the data between these applications by hand.
  • If you're an old Palm user, your new Palm Just Works like your old Palm Just Worked. You wouldn't expect any less, and it's nothing to get excited about.
Having said that, here are some initial observations, mostly positive:
  • There's no cradle. I might be in a minority here, but I think that's good. Palm cradles are chunky, and a pain to travel with. There's a connector for a wall charger, and a connector for a USB cable. Even better, the TX charges from USB, so if you're travelling with a laptop, you only need to take a single cable, no wall adapter, and no cradle. I do, however, completely agree with Turnbull's observation on the USB connector:
    On the downside, the USB connector cable that came with the Palm TX is difficult to plug into the Palm--it almost feels like you've got the wrong cable. It's more a case of jamming it into place, rather than it plugging in neatly with a satisfying click.
  • The supplied flip cover is junk. The slide-on connector is flimsy, it barely covers the screen, and there's nothing to stop it from flipping back open. You couldn't throw it into a bag or briefcase, for example, with just this cover protecting it.
  • Wireless worked without a hitch. (That's not the complete truth. More on my ongoing WLAN saga later.)
  • The supplied email client (VersaMail) is quite satisfactory. I entered a few details relating to my IMAP server, and it downloaded unread messages from my Inbox over wireless.
  • Bluetooth worked without a hitch. I paired it with my PowerBook and my Motorola V3, the latter just to see if I could.
  • There's no longer a dedicated text-entry pad taking up potential screen real estate. Instead, I can now enter text as Graffiti 2 anywhere on the screen. (For old-timers for whom that sounds scary, a "classic" text-entry area can be displayed at the bottom of the screen where it used to sit on older models.)
  • Portrait-landscape switiching is now a feature native to the OS. (Older models could do this if the application implemented it.) Any application can be run in landscape mode. This makes the built-in web browser (Blazer) just about feasible for, well, web browsing.
Based on Turnbull's article, I didn't even bother trying to sync with iSync. I purchased The Missing Sync and installed it straight away. It's pretty much the Palm syncing solution that iSync wants to be (and that Palm should be providing for free). I could praise it at length, but you may as well just check out the feature list. It does all that. If I'd ever heard of it prior to last weekend, I would have bought it for my Zire 71. I've synced my TX over USB, Bluetooth and wireless. The single problem I encountered was a conduit conflict—it seems two of the original Palm conduits were left in place after The Missing Sync installed (related to the Memo Pad application), and I had to manually move them into a Disabled Conduits folder. This was disappointing, because other than that it all proceeded flawlessly.

I think it's a shame that the Palm range has kind of stagnated. Unless there's some particular reason you need the memory and processor speed, though, the TX is a good buy for OS X users. I wouldn't even consider not budgeting the extra $US 39.95 for The Missing Sync, though.

Friday, May 26, 2006

One-to-one binding of iPod to iTunes is restrictive

While I am far from an iPod or iTunes expert, my understanding is that there is basically a one-to-one binding of an iPod to an iTunes instance. My music collection is stored on my Windows XP PC's disk, and this is synced to my iPod. When I first bought the PowerBook, I downloaded some podcasts to iTunes, and assumed that I could add this to my iPod. I was wrong—iTunes informed me that the only way to do so was to erase the content on my iPod. That is, one iPod, one iTunes. (Actually, I'm not sure it's strictly one-to-one—when I had my iPod replaced, iTunes made no complaints about syncing my collection to the new iPod. But the relationship in the iPod→iTunes direction is certainly one-to-one.)

I don't think this is ideal. I spend a lot more time on my PowerBook, and, for one thing, I like downloading podcasts to its iTunes instance. Basically I would like to be able to push content from my PowerBook's iTunes to the iPod as well as from the PC's. It's painful enough to transfer material over to the PC's iTunes as it is, and with DRM-protected tracks, (I assume) it's essentially impossible. That is, if I use iTunes on the PowerBook to purchase music from iTunes Music Store, it's stuck on the PowerBook unless I erase my iPod. Please, correct me if I'm wrong here.

Are my observations correct? Are there any workarounds?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Post-it notes on the OS X desktop

Here's a quick question: is there an OS X equivalent of something like XPostIt for X Windows? Note that:
  • Yes, I had thought of trying to build XPostIt from sources and then running it under X11. Firstly, it simply may not build, and I can't be bothered finding out. Secondly, I want something a little lighter weight than firing up X11 to place post-it notes on the screen.
  • Yes, I know there is a post-it note widget for the Dashboard, and I do use it. Occasionally. To be perfectly honest, I don't use the Dashboard very often. About once a week if I'm curious, I'll look at the local weather forecast. I've got a couple of post-its with things people have borrowed from me. But I just don't hit F12 very often, and I would like to have post-its on the standard desktop.
Update: No more than 10 seconds of Googling lead me straight to /Applications/Stickies.app. Twelve months on, and I'm still a novice.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bluetooth broke

And then it fixed itself.

I was just using iSync to synchronise to my Palm Zire 71 and Motorola V3, as previously detailed elsewhere. The Palm synced as expected. For no apparent reason, the V3 sync over Bluetooth failed. The PowerBook had Bluetooth turned on, and so did the phone. They simply failed to talk. And, in typical Apple fashion, the error reporting in the iSync log failed to shed any light on the problem whatsoever.

Turning Bluetooth off and back on failed to help at both ends of the link. Unfortunately, rebooting the PowerBook did help. How very Windows.

Friday, May 12, 2006

iCal may suck less than first thought: John Gruber

John Gruber responded to Tim Bray's criticisms of iCal at Daring Fireball. (Whereas my commentary was pretty much a prolonged "Right on!", Gruber actually, well, knows stuff about iCal for a start, and then tested out some other stuff he wasn't sure about.) I still think iCal could be a better application.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

iCal sucks hugely: Tim Bray

Over at his blog ongoing, Tim Bray describes an encounter with iCal which nearly ended in disaster.
Today for some reason my PowerBook locked up (no big gripe, this hardly ever happens) and when it came back up, iCal showed a little red splodge next to my calendar which when clicked said “iCal was unable to load the calendar. The file might be corrupted or temporarly (sic) unreadable. you can try again later or reset this calendar. Resetting the calendar will remove all calendar content.” There are not words to express how much this sucks.
He's certainly right on that last point—I can't think of any words either.

iCal was one of the first applications I put to the test after taking the Mac plunge. Indeed, I recall being pretty excited about the potential for desktop-PDA-phone syncing. I still use iCal to much the same extent as described in that post from last year, and I've recently started testing out Google Calendar as a potential method for archiving and sharing calendar data. With 12 months of iCal use under my belt, then, I find that I agree with all of Tim's criticisms.
Of course, in a sane world iCal would store a calendar named “Tim” in Library/Calendars/Tim, but they’re off in Library/Application Support/iCal/Sources/. And mine contained eight hundred thousand null bytes.
iCal's data storage is obfuscated. I, too, would prefer that my data was stored somewhere sensible.
I don’t want to be rude. But a personal-productivity application that updates crucial high-value information files in place is Broken As Designed, and evidence of an extreme lack of professionalism.
Roger that.
While [iCal's] UI is good, it’s still kind of sluggish.
It takes nigh on 3.5 seconds on my PowerBook G4 to duplicate an appointment in place.

iCal does look nice, but when you get down and use it, it seems like a beta release of some kind. Come to think of it, so does Address Book—is it just me, or is the whole cursor-just-randomly-jumps-between-fields phenomenon widespread in that application?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

NetNewsWire 2.1

I started using NetNewsWire 2.0 a few months ago. I've tried a few news aggregators on both Windows and OS X, so I know what I like. NetNewsWire is, by far, the best on either platform. Version 2.1 has just been released, and here are some comments:
  • 2.1 is a free upgrade to owners of previous versions. I was not expecting this—in fact, I had put off even inspecting the web site for the past few days on the basis that I didn't feel like paying for a point upgrade.
  • Ranchero Software has apparently been bought out by NewsGator. I have no idea who or what NewsGator is, and no interest in finding out right now. The upgrade, although free, cost me some personal information—I had to register with NewsGator, whoever they are, despite having already registered with Ranchero. I guess that's what disposable email accounts are made for.
  • The upgrade was smooth, just as I've been coming to expect with OS X software distributions. Download and open disk image, click a couple of buttons, confirm that I'm overwriting an existing application, done. My feed list is preserved, as were the browser tabs I had open when I closed the old version. That is attention to detail.
  • I'm testing a new feature: sorting feeds based on "attention". I had previously sorted based on unread article count, but this new feature grabbed my eye. From the documentation:
    How does NetNewsWire figure out attention? It watches what you do with the items in each feed. If you flag items in a feed, send items via email, post to del.icio.us, or post to your weblog, it figures this feed is pretty important to you. The more you do those things, the more important is the feed.
    I'll let you know how this works out.