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PalmOS Tech Articles > #7, October 2002

Palms, ARMs, and Handhelds
Should you upgrade?

This fall, the air is heavy with anticipation as the industry awaits the unveiling of the next generation of handheld organizers from Palm Solutions Group. While it's not unusual to see new products released in time for unbridled seasonal overspending, the new units represent a significant milestone and challenge for the Milpitas-based company.

While some of the new models will use the same Motorola Dragonball processors found in other PalmOS handhelds, a number of the new units will be built around faster ARM technology, and will run PalmOS 5. Seen as a necessary move to combat the perception of Pocket PC's as higher-end devices, ARM chips also bring more flexibility to handheld manufacturers, offering them higher potential speeds, lower cost, lower power consumption, and multiple chip vendors. Other handheld makes have followed suit, with Handspring and Sony announcing their intention to release ARM-based models as well.

New Speeds
Most Motorola Dragonball processors run at either 16 or 33 Mhz. The fastest Dragonball, the "SuperVZ" found in the Sony NR70, tops out at just 66 Mhz. ARM processors, however, can be much faster, commonly running 200 Mhz or faster. While higher speeds can have some drawbacks, such as decreased battery life, most ARM-based devices will likely run significantly faster than their Dragonball brethren.

A faster processor, however, will not always mean a faster handheld. As covered in a previous issue, PalmOS 5 is a major restructuring of the handheld operating system, rewritten to run natively on the faster ARM processors. Existing application code, however, will run the new OS under emulation, which can actually be slower in some instances. Many time-critical apps like movie players and games will likely be rewritten to take full advantage of the increased speed, but many productivity titles will likely stay unchanged in order to run simultaneously on both old and new devices.

New Features
So, if speed is not a sure thing, why upgrade to ARM? Indeed, this is a good question, particularly if you're already happy with the handheld you have. One reason might be the additional features which are likely to come with the new models. For instance, while the high-end Sony CLIE's already offer high resolution and multimedia capabilities, PalmOS 5 makes these features, and they way software uses them, part of the standard interface, insuring much more consistent software support and compatibility. Up to this point, cutting-edge device manufacturers like Sony and Handera have written their own incompatible--and often clumsy--interfaces to access their capabilities, and this has led to somewhat spotty support from third party software. For instance, on Sony CLIE NR70 handhelds, even the majority of the software which ships on the device itself does not support the unit's innovative full-screen mode. While PalmOS 5 does not yet (unfortunately) address this specific feature, it does finally make high resolution a standard feature, which goes a long way to guaranteeing widespread support from software developers.

Speaking of compatibility, what about software compatibility with PalmOS 5? Ah, perhaps that is the $10,000 question. While other OS releases have created minor headaches for customers and developers having to navigate their way around in a sea of compatibility issues, the latest release brings with it a tidal wave of potential problems. It is estimated that as much as 30% of existing PalmOS applications may have problems running under PalmOS 5 and the new ARM handhelds. While many of these will no doubt be quickly updated to fix any initial compatibility issues, some programs simply cannot be made to run under the new architecture. Others, like some classes of hacks, can be made to function with help from third party programs like TealMaster, using TealMaster 2.0's new PalmOS 5 hack emulation feature. ( Visit http://www.tealpoint.com/softmstr.htm )

It's difficult to say whether the upgrade to an ARM device is immediately worthwhile. As with most things, the choice will be an individual one based on many personal factors. There's no doubt that ARM chips represent the future of PalmOS, but there's still life in the older Dragonball technology, and the number of compatibility issues which remain have yet to be seen. Yet, for those considering their first handheld device, or those still toting technology a few years behind the curve, it's probabably well worth taking the time to look at this Fall's newest gizmos on the block.

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