Palm Zire 21

The perfect beginner's PDA?

Reg Review Not so very long ago, you'd be laughed at for suggesting that what the handheld business needs is a budget-priced device to tempt consumers to buy into the PDA concept. You'd have been told that the customer base was dominated by affluent business executives and early adopters - both groups willing to spend big money on the latest personal information gadget. Why chase consumers with the low-priced, low-margin product they want when you can milk the old cash cow?

How such attitudes have changed. Executives and techies still buy PDAs, but they're not doing so as eagerly as before, and handheld makers now have to target and attract a broader audience. To this end, PalmOne - Palm as it was then - launched the Zire, the first sub-$100 PDA marketed expressly at consumers. Its m100 series of machines was nominally aimed at such customers, but in reality it had been selected by more budget-conscious techies. The blister-packed Zire was intended to appeal directly to the cost-conscious consumer.

And boy, has it flown off the shelves. Since the Zire's launch, Palm has shipped some two million Zire-branded PDAs, and brought a whole new bunch of users to the platform. A year on from the first model's release, Palm has upgraded this machine, branding it the Zire 21.

Keeping up appearances

Externally, the 21 is identical to the unnumbered Zire. It has the same, nicely-designed two-tone shiny plastic shell, and the same 160 x 160 greyscale screen (no backlight, alas) above a physical Graffiti text-entry area. Below that sits a similarly positioned on/off key, two fast access buttons - pre-set to run the diary and address book apps - and up and down scroll buttons.

Like its predecessor, the 21 connects to a host PC via a mini-USB connector and cable rather than a cradle. Its rechargeable Lithium Ion battery is charged using a standalone power adaptor - the connector is mounted on top of the device, next to the USB port, stylus bay and infrared comms lens. When it's connected to a PC for synchronisation, the battery will charge using bus power.

The 21's enhancements are internal. Gone is the old, slow 16MHz Motorola Dragonball processor, replaced with an ARM-based Texas Instruments OMAP 311 CPU rated at 126MHz. That's accompanied by the latest version of the Palm OS, 5.2.1, as per all of PalmOne's recent releases. And the company has upped the device's memory too, from 2MB to 8MB, of which 7.2MB are available to the user - though if you install the bundled software, it drops to under 5MB. The Zire 21 contains 16MB of ROM.

Actually, that's another improvement over the original Zire: the inclusion of extra software. The 21 ships with Palm Reader, PowerOne personal calculator, and Handmark's Magic Dogs card game, PDA Money personal finance package and MobileDB database.

We should point out that though the Zire 21 ships with Palm OS 5.2.1, it doesn't offer the updated PIM apps that ship with the Tungsten E or the T3. It does, however, include Graffiti 2.

Performance

To test the 21's performance, we beamed over Laurent Duveau's Speedy 3.0 benchmarking app. It's not an entirely scientific measure of PDA speed, but it gives a good general idea of relative levels of performance, calculating a device's performance relative to a Palm Vx. Each machine is given a percentage score- the Vx scores 100 per cent. We ran the benchmark three times after a hot reset and averaged the score.

Our Tungsten T, rated at 144MHz, scored 462. By contrast, the 126MHz Tungsten E scored 527 and the similarly clocked Zire 21 reached an amazing 560. Not only is that better than enterprise-class devices, but it's nearly seven times the 81 the original Zire is rated at.

But what can you do with all that extra horsepower? Not a lot, alas. With a monochrome screen, action games are largely out. Ditto multimedia applications. And with only 8MB of RAM and no memory card slot, where are you going to store all those movies and MP3s?

Screen

The Zire 21's monochrome screen is perhaps the PDA's only weakness. The device is a budget machine, so there's no way it could have been given a color display, but a backlight would have been nice, and arguably worth more in a device like this than the faster processor. We found it reasonably clear in daylight, though a little too difficult to read in subdued lighting conditions - we frequently found ourselves angling the display to catch the light.

Verdict

The Zire 21, like its predecessor, is a superb 'beginners' PDA. Its nicely designed, good to use and feels robust enough for carrying around in backpacks and handbags. It can be recharged using the USB sync cable.

Had PalmOne replaced the original Zire with the 21, we would recommend the new model without reservation. But with the original now down to $79 or less, given the target audience and the device's focus on its PIM functionality, the original remains the better buy. Yes, the 21 is significantly faster, but PIM apps aren't particularly speed-sensitive, the 21's limited greyscale screen is inappropriate for power-hungry games, and it reduces the battery life. Yes, the 21 has a more up-to-date OS than the Zire, but do consumers care about that? We suspect not.

The higher memory is a plus, but one worth paying the extra $20 for? The first Zire's 2MB is plenty for even the fullest diary and address book. Had the 21 featured a backlight of some form, then the 21 would certainly be worth the asking price, but as it stands, the unnumbered Zire arguably remains the better bet for the target audience. If you already own a Zire, there's certainly little value in upgrading; if you don't, save yourself the extra cash. ®

PalmOne Zire 21
Rating 65%
Pros — Ideal consumer PDA
— Good price
— Stylish looks
— Recharges via USB port
Cons — No screen backlight
— No memory card slot
— No Bluetooth (but, hey, it is a consumer device)
Price $99
More info The Zire 21 web site


Related Reviews

PalmOne Treo 600 smartphone
Palm Zire 71 PDA
Palm Tungsten E
Palm Tungsten T3

Asus A620BT Pocket PC
Viewsonic V35 Pocket PC

Visit The Reg Mobile Store for the best value PDAs, smartphones and accessories