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PDA's were initially sold as 'do anything' devices. Attempts to sell them this way failed. Palm then redefined the market by successfully introducing its handheld devices, offering only limited functionality, but performing their limited tasks excellently.

Since then, PDA's evolved and have increasingly become more sophisticated. Alas, with more sophistication has come increased complexity such that they are no longer as simple or easy for ordinary people to use.

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Palm Tungsten T3 Review

The Palm Tungsten T3 was released on 1 October 2003.

With a new expandable screen area, it embodies the 'state of the art' for Palm OS handhelds.



My trusty but aged Palm III suffered a broken screen during my last journey. Full of excitement, I purchased a state of the art Tungsten T3, expecting something vastly better, more polished, and perhaps even simpler than the absolutely idiot-proof Palm III that had been so useful for so long.

Alas, the new unit has sacrificed some of the brilliant intuitive simplicity of the earlier models, in favor of adding more features and capabilities.


Should you Choose a Palm or Microsoft OS based PDA?

Your most important choice, when choosing a handheld computer, is whether to select one that uses the Palm or the Microsoft OS.

After various early and unsuccessful attempts by various companies at creating a truly useful handheld (PDA), Palm took over and redefined the market for PDAs with its fairly limited but completely 'idiot proof' devices that people found simple and functional.

After some years of virtually unchallenged market dominance (with as much as a 90% share), Palm came under attack by Windows CE powered devices about three years ago and has been losing market share ever since. Palm weakly responded to Microsoft's marketing behemoth by licensing other companies to use its OS. Microsoft repeatedly enhanced its CE product and its latest version has the unwieldy name of 'Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC'; Palm's latest version is simply called Palm OS 5.2.1.

These days Palm still has the larger market share - indeed, it claims to have 72%, and suggests MS has only 15%. Contradicting that is a Gartner Group study that suggests, in 2000, Palm had 66%, Microsoft 12% and Symbian 4%. Gartner go own to report that, in late 2003, Palm's share had dropped to 52% and Microsoft's had risen to 36%.

Whatever the actual shares may be, it seems definite that Palm is steadily losing market share to the MS platformed products, and most commentators expect to two systems to have equal market share within the next twelve months.

Some people prefer the Palm OS and others the Microsoft OS, which is based on the same interface concept as regular Windows. Modern Palm units seem to be essentially as compatible with Office and other Windows applications as are the MS powered units, and it is hard to declare a clear winner in terms of underlying OS features/benefits/superiority.

Although not a consideration in my case, Palm based units are available for as little as $79 for an entry level unit, whereas MS platform products seem to start at about $200.

One of the main benefits of the Palm OS has been its rich wealth of addon programs, developed by thousands of developers around the world. Although the MS operating system is building an increasing range of addon programs, there still seem to be considerably more programs for Palm PDAs available (Palm claim over 13,000 programs have been written for the Palm OS platform compared to only 1600 for Windows).

Some people suggest the Palm OS is more robust and less likely to crash than the Windows OS, and requires less processing power to work quickly. Some people also suggest that the Palm OS is easier to learn and use.

My decision to get another Palm based PDA was primarily based on the desire to transfer my data from the Palm III to the new T3, saving me the need to otherwise rekey it all.

What You Get for Your Money

The unit has a list price of $399, and in the box comes the following items :

  • The Tungsten T3 complete with installed Lithium Ion battery (worryingly, there seems no way to replace the battery when it has worn out).

  • A ridiculously heavy and bulky mains charger which only works on US voltage, not international 220-240 volts.

  • A synch/charge cradle with USB connector.

  • A protective cover for the screen that had no instructions for how to affix to the T3 and took five frustrating minutes to fit (this is essential to protect the fragile screen from damage). The protective cover just rests lightly on top of the screen - nothing holds it in place, and conceivably it could get dislodged or damaging items could come between it and the screen when carrying it in a briefcase.

  • Stickers with instructions on how to use the Graffiti data-entry system (but where can they be stuck - there's nowhere on the unit large enough!).

  • CDrom with software.

  • A Getting Started Guide (very inadequate, and there is no regular printed manual or User Guide).

  • Various advertising literature.

The T3 (with protective cover) is the same thickness as my earlier Palm III, but is a little narrower and shorter. It weighs about the same.

What's New and Special about the Tungsten T3

Of course the answer to this depends partially on what you're comparing it to. The most notable features of the T3 include :

  • Larger color screen with 320x480 resolution and 64k colors, which can be used in either portrait or landscape mode at the touch of a button (earlier Palm units were 160x160 monochrome, other color units are 320x320)

  • Bluetooth wireless connectivity (but not Wi-Fi) (See our report that describes what Bluetooth is and how it works)

  • Fast 400 MHz processor (but processor speed has almost never been a limiting factor with Palm units)

  • Large 64MB of built in memory standard (of which about 51MB is available for data or programs to start with; after loading various applications and data, I'm now down to 40MB free)

  • Audio (voice or music) and video playback, audio recording

  • New 'improved' handwriting recognition (seems to be just different rather than improved) and the ability to write in text anywhere on the screen rather than just in the text entry area

Setting Up the Unit

The last couple of cell phones I've purchased have come with a pre-charged fully powered battery. Not so the Palm T3 - I had to wait two hours while the battery charged up before using it.

I carefully followed through the instructions in the 'Read this First' guide. After charging the T3, I installed the software onto my PC, and came across the first problem. The instructions referred to an option that was not offered to me in the installation process!

Things then started to fall apart. At the apparent completion of the installation, I was told to reboot the computer. So I rebooted the computer and removed the CDrom. Only many hours later, when spending an hour getting help from Palm's support people, did I discover that this was a mistake. You have to leave the CDrom in, because, after the reboot, it then proceeds to load more programs! Yuck.

Although only released a month ago, several of the programs already have essential updates/fixes that need to be downloaded from Palm's support site.

Data Entry

Data entry is an unavoidable weakness on these small units. You have two main ways of entering data. A simple click on a menu chooses between presenting a miniature typewriter keyboard on the screen which you then can tap on using the stylus to enter your data. Alternatively, learning the handwriting recognition program (called 'Graffiti 2') is surprisingly simple because most letters are written exactly as you would in real life allows you then to simply write on the screen the words you want to enter. The text is recognized and stored as you enter it.

I have found that, after getting familiar with the new style Graffiti 2 (the Palm III used the original Graffiti program which is 95% the same, but annoyingly, also 5% different) I could enter data more quickly and easily with Graffiti than with the miniature keyboard.

If you're going to be doing more intensive data entry, then one of the external add-on keyboards is what you need. These are available for $70-100 and connect either by plugging directly into the base of the T3 or via the IR port. These keyboards typically fold into halves or even quarters, making them small and easy to carry when not being used.

Not yet available, but very useful, would be a Bluetooth keyboard connection, giving more flexibility.

Battery Life and Recharging

My old Palm III would last anywhere from one to three months on a pair of alkaline AAA batteries. The new T3 has a built in rechargeable Lithium Polymer battery, and battery life can be as low as 2 hours of continuous use. Palm itself suggests recharging on a daily basis if you've got the Bluetooth switched on, and says it should last for five days of typical usage with default brightness settings and no Bluetooth.

I used up 50% of a full battery charge, according to the battery power meter, during the course of my experimentations the first day I had the unit.

Plainly you're going to have to ensure that you always have access to some way of recharging the unit, for fear of finding yourself with a dead battery and useless unit.

It seems that there are some adjustments to the unit that can be done with third party software to extend battery life by way of, eg, dimming the screen automatically, but even with all such 'hacks' installed, battery life remains very short.

My small multi-voltage Nokia 3650 cellphone charger weighs 2.5 ounces. The bulky Palm charger weighs a ridiculous 13 oz, and only works on US 110V power. This is unacceptably bad design.

Help is at hand. Palm sell a lighter weight multi-voltage charge for $30. Yes - I will ask the obvious question : Why was the multi-voltage and lighter weight charger not included as standard? Penny pinching greed on the part of Palm interferes with the essential operation of the unit.

In addition, a nifty gadget that is a combination synch and power cable that can take power either from a computer's USB port or from a car cigarette lighter is also for sale, for $25. This would be my preferred solution for power when away from the office.

Note also that with the typical life of a Lithium battery being 500 rechargings, it seems that the battery will need replacing within a couple of years of heavy use. There is no way to do this at present.

Apple recently suffered a barrage of negative publicity for requiring purchasers of its iPod MP3 devices to buy a complete new iPod when its battery died, and in response, introduced a battery replacement program.  Perhaps we need to orchestrate a similar internet uprising against Palm to encourage them to offer a similar program!

Compatibility with MS Office and older Palm Files

I looked at my new T3, then at my computer. How to get a word document file from the computer to the T3? Or how to create an Excel spreadsheet on the T3 and send it to the computer? This was actually amazingly easy. I did both of these with no problems at all (using Office 2002 on my main computer).

Now for the main reason I chose another Palm unit - using all the information I had already loaded on my older Palm III. There were two ways I could transfer this to the new T3 - either by beaming it across, or by simply importing the data files and hot synching it. Both methods worked quickly and easily.

Bluetooth and Internet Connectivity

The T3 can connect via Bluetooth short range wireless networking to other Bluetooth equipped devices. I also have a Nokia 3650 Bluetooth equipped phone, and so connected to that, quickly and without many problems.

Having confirmed that the two devices could talk to each other, I then tried to find out what this connectivity could be used for. The T3 could be used as an auto-dialer for the phone, but doing this was more hassle than simply using the phone book in the phone itself.

The 3650 could send photos to the T3, but having done that, there was not much further use for them.

Something that seemed more interesting was connecting to the internet from the T3, via Bluetooth and the 3650, using the GPRS connectivity built in to the phone. I carefully followed through all the steps to make this work, and, with everything apparently successfully completed, tried to do some web browsing.

I got a puzzling 'time out' message and strange error code. It wouldn't work. See my attempts at resolving it below in the section on user support.

Another application is to send SMS messages from the T3 through the 3650, making use of its more convenient and faster data entry than that allowed through the phone pad of the phone. I sent a test SMS message which seemed to go through perfectly, although surprisingly no record of it was stored on the 3650, just on the T3.

Bluetooth can also be used to connect to other devices such as laptops, headsets, printers, and who knows what else. It is a technology with a lot of potential, but little actual implementation at this time.

In theory, it is possible to use Bluetooth so that your phone is lying in your pocket or briefcase or desk drawer, you have a Bluetooth headset on one ear, and then you control everything from your T3 (or other Bluetooth PDA). This concept is not yet fully supported, although for simple phone calling (ie no three way calling, calls on hold, etc) it can work.

For more information on what Bluetooth is and how it works, visit our special report here.

The T3 has both a miniature web browser program and also an email client that can be used once it has established a web connection through a cellphone.


Several times I came across things that I couldn't understand and which didn't seem to be documented. So, first of all, I looked for any type of Help file on the T3.

I couldn't find one! Sure, there is some documentation that is loaded onto the main computer that synchronizes with the T3, but apparently - as best I can see - nothing on the T3 itself. This is unacceptable in the extreme. With the complexity of programs, many of which a typical user will only occasionally use, interactive help is essential, especially because much of the time the T3 will be used away from its supporting main computer.

I next looked for a phone number that I could call. Nowhere could I find one in the T3. The unit came preloaded with a phone book entry for technical support; with my old Palm III, this showed a phone number. With the new T3, it showed only a website - an annoyingly useless piece of information much of the time.

None of the other printed material supplied with the unit disclosed a phone number, either. Eventually from their website I found a long distance (rather than toll-free) number for technical support. Palm provides 90 days of free support and then charges $25 per call. After 13 minutes wait on hold I was connected to a helpful support person.

I asked for help on how to browse the internet through my Nokia 3650. 59 minutes later, he determined that - even though they showed the ability to use T-Mobile GPRS to connect to the internet, the T3 in fact don't actually support this and so I could not connect to the internet, other than using my phone as a regular (9600 baud) dial up modem. This is very disappointing and 9600 baud is almost completely disfunctionally slow.

The next time I called support I was on hold for 21 minutes before being transferred to a support agent. Alas, I was then cut off during the transfer, and had to call in again and wait another 20 minutes! However, my perseverance paid off. This second person contradicted the first person, and quickly showed me how to get my T3 talking via Bluetooth and the Nokia 3650 and out to the internet. Brilliant!

Other Uses

One of the other gadgets I always travel with is a small pocket dictaphone. The T3 has a built in digital voice recorder, with a capacity of about 200 minutes of voice recording, which can be increased by the addition of an extra memory card (I'm guessing that each MB of memory holds about 4 minutes of voice recording, so a 64MB memory card would add just over 4 hours of extra recording time).

Unfortunately the sound quality is unacceptably poor and there is no way to edit recorded files - you can't add to an already recorded note, and there are no buttons to fast forward or reverse through a note either. I guess I will need to continue carrying the pocket recorder with me.

Additional memory cards (either Secure Digital or MMC) can be plugged in with capacities, currently, up to 2GB.

The unit can also be used as an MP3 player, although with its short battery life, this is not a very practical application if you're far away from a power supply.

There is a fancy 'World Time' clock included, but this was disappointing. You are required to specify your local time zone and city, but only a very limited number of cities are available to choose from. And so, here I am in the Seattle area, with a T3 that insists I am in San Francisco.

The unit accepts a growing range of expansion and accessory cards - for example, a moderately high resolution camera looks like a fun toy to add. Some external devices can also be connected via Bluetooth - for example, a GPS receiver.

In addition to these hardware goodies, one of the great benefits of choosing a Palm OS based PDA is its huge library of extra software. All manner of different programs exist, and usually at very low price. Here are three sites - Handango, Palm Pilot Archives and that have a wide range of programs. Many others also exist.


Palm brilliantly proved that 'less is more' with their early model PDAs. Easy to use units providing a simple set of easily understood programs were quickly accepted by potential users, who had no difficulty in getting full value from their units.

Since those early days, PDAs have inexorably become more and more feature laden, while cost savings seem to have reduced the amount of support material provided with each unit.

The net result is that a modern fully featured PDA such as the Palm Tungsten T3 has become complicated to configure and to use, while being more poorly documented. The net result - it is no longer as intuitive, even when used only for its basic core functions.

However, the same can be said for Windows Pocket PC based handheld computers as well.

New color screens and faster processors have also severely reduced battery life, increasing the need to regularly recharge the unit and making it more difficult to take it, alone and without a recharger, away from the office.

In terms of specific added business functionality - compared to my five year old Palm III - there is nothing clearly apparent to justify an upgrade. In terms of 'gee whiz' things that are not essential (such as color screen and Bluetooth) there are a number of tempting new features, but unless you're one of those people that simply must have every new gadget as soon as it comes out, you're probably best advised to stay with your present PDA and hope that the next generation will have even more functionality and an improved user interface.

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Originally published 7 Nov 2003, last update 20 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.


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