Palm OS 6, code-named Cobalt, has been dead in the water since 2003 with not a single manufacturer, including Palm releasing a device with the updated operating system. All of Palm's latest models run a variant of Palm OS 5 (version 5.4 in most cases), which is now more than three years old. Fortunately, however, what was good then is good now. Save for a few multimedia shortcomings, the Palm operating system is still solid.
Ease of use
Simplicity has always been a hallmark of the Palm operating system. Although version 5.4 packs in more features than ever, it's arguably just as easy to operate as the first version. To run a program, tap its icon. To enter data, write onscreen using the character recognition software or tap-type on the virtual keyboard. Everything about the operating system seems logical, intuitive, and uncomplicated.
We particularly admire the way the Palm operating system manages applications. You never have to exit a program the way you do on a PC, you just switch to a different one. And unlike some operating systems (yes, we're looking at you, Windows Mobile), Palm's never gets bogged down by multiple memory-hogging applications running simultaneously.
Already solid when they debuted back in 1996, the Palm operating system's core applications have only improved over the years. For instance, you can now attach a photo to a contact, which is a particularly wonderful feature for camera-equipped models like the Palm Treo 650. The Tasks applet has added new buttons for quick sorting by date and category, and it lets you assign alarms to your tasks. In short, Palm's core applications continue to combine power and simplicity, and we still rank them tops among PDAs.
The Palm Centro highlights some of the hallmarks o the Palm operating system, including ease of use and solid PIM applications.
Palm PDAs offer two desktop-synchronization options, Outlook and Palm Desktop. The latter is a fairly robust information manager that has the advantage of being much more novice-friendly than Outlook. It also supplies the tools you need to copy photos and videos to your device; install new programs; and set up your e-mail.
Though not an inherent part of the Palm operating system, DataViz Documents To Go comes standard on nearly every Palm handheld (the sole exception being the $99 Palm Z22), so we'd be remiss if we didn't consider it. The program automatically syncs Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents between your Palm and PC while keeping them in their native formats (meaning you can also instantly view documents received as e-mail attachments with no conversion required). You can edit Word documents and Excel spreadsheets and compose new ones, though PowerPoint files are read-only. The software also supports PDFs.
Palm's VersaMail program has the enviable ability to fetch e-mail over a variety of connections: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or even desktop synchronization, which relies on your PC's Internet connection for mail commerce. The applet itself is solid, supporting multiple POP3 and IMAP accounts, embedded images, and virtual private network (VPN) connections.
Although most Palm handhelds offer high-resolution screens and digital-audio capabilities, the Palm operating system isn't the multimedia juggernaut it could be. For instance, you need third-party software (NormSoft's Pocket Tunes Deluxe) to play DRM-protected songs, the kind you get from online music and subscription services. Palm bundles Pocket Tunes with most of its handhelds and smartphones, but with the exception of the latest Palm Centro devices, you'll have to upgrade to the Deluxe version for DRM support.
As for movies, Palm's Media applet can play them, but only MPEG-1 clips converted by Palm Desktop. For anything else, you'll need third-party software. In fact, to watch a DVD, you'll need two programs, a desktop converter and a handheld viewer. And if you want to play TV shows you can do so with the Palm client of SlingPlayer Mobile, provided you have a Slingbox at home.
In terms of sheer volume, the Palm operating system continues to have an edge when it comes to third-party software. Users can draw from more than 20,000 applications to extend the functionality of their handhelds, a number--though steadily changing--still unmatched by the Windows Mobile platform. This isn't to say that software available for the Palm platform is better, only that there's more of it. And more software means more potential functionality.