10 tools that will pump up your Palm
November 30, 1999
by Mathew Schwartz
(IDG) -- Personal information management: Maybe you've heard the phrase before. It's one of the hallmarks of Palm Computing Inc. devices, which give you a place to aggregate everything from your address book to your checkbook, from travel expenses to random ideas you have in a meeting or on the subway.
Because people have embraced handheld computers in a very grassroots fashion, they create usability issues. For one, most information technology departments are still debating how they should support Palms -- if at all. Hence, if a Palm breaks down, a user doesn't necessarily have his IT department to turn to.
Then there are software enhancements. Just as most home users install more than the "free" applications that show up on their Dells or Gateways, business users expect the IT department to load up their machines with the latest business software. But again, because Palms are generally unsupported, it's now up to the person who wants to use one to find, install, learn how to use and maintain any additional Palm applications.
Which isn't to say that the Palm isn't ready to work. As shipped, it serves four functions very well with its built-in software: that of a date book, address book, to-do list and memo pad. But most people want more.
So while the jury's still out on who should support what, here's a sampling of 10 applications that can help you get the most out of your Palm, whether you're an IT manager, business user or someone who just has to have one.
Web without wires
While Palm wireless modems aren't ubiquitous or inexpensive, who says you can't access Web pages on your Palm?
AvantGo is an application that lets you download Web pages to your Palm for off-line browsing. Any Web page. And best of all, this killer application is free. Not convinced?
Enter partners. A whole bunch of sites -- from Wired magazine to TV Guide -- have optimized pages for AvantGo users, so the content you read is free of any formatting problems or large graphics. I'm not downloading the whole of The New York Times, just what its editors deem the day's top stories. But for a daily news blast, it's great.
Another plus: Every time I synchronize my Palm with my PC -- at least once per day -- the Web content is refreshed.
Even if you have a wireless modem, AvantGo saves usage charges for pages that don't have to be accessed in real time. For commuters, it's great for reading online content, especially given the clarity and resolution of today's Palm screens. The only problem is, you'll find yourself downloading so much content that you'll need to get more memory for your Palm.
The essential scheduler
Type-A personality characteristics be damned: Some people think organization is the key to happiness. If that's you, then the first thing to do is to chuck your Palm's current Datebook program in favor of Datebk3 (Pimlico Software Inc., $20).
Take it from a hard-core user: Datebk3 is a must. It adds more than 40 new features: floating events that stick around until done; more views of your time, including an excellent list format; and icons and templates for events. It even brings your to-do list into the date book, where it does a lot more good. Most of its features are so intuitive that you don't even need to refer to Datebk's 50-page manual. Yes, at 260K bytes, it's a rather large Palm application, but it's so good that Handspring Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., licensed a version to ship on its new Palm-compatible Visors as the "advanced" Datebook program.
Security is a major concern for anyone who uses a personal digital assistant, and Palms, as shipped, aren't secure computing devices. Two types of programs help ameliorate this shortcoming: access-control programs and encryption programs.
From the access-control perspective, a program called OnlyMe (Tranzoa Co., $9.95) pops up a password-protected screen every time you turn on your Palm or try to Hotsync with it. Without a password, only your contact information is available to anyone who powers up the Palm. Passwords can be any combination of OnlyMe's on-screen boxes, the Palm's buttons or writing with the stylus. If you're powering your Palm up and down quite frequently and don't want a screen every time, you can set a lock delay, so OnlyMe won't lock your Palm until it's been off for a specific period of time, which is quite useful.
Some people might not want to lock their Palms; hey, who's going to try and crack your recipe database? But almost everyone could benefit from selective encryption, such as an account- and password-management program called Secure Tool for Recalling Important Passwords (STRIP). STRIP uses heavy-duty, 128-bit triple-Data Encryption Standard to store information, and that means any information -- credit-card numbers, Web site accounts and voice-mail access codes. STRIP (Zetetic Enterprises, free) is also a great tool for IT managers who administer distributed environments. It can random-generate complex passwords and allows account information to be beamed between Palms, so the IT staff can stay up-to-date.
Do you know where your data is?
Though my Palm occasionally crashes, I've never lost any data. Still, if I did, you can imagine how long it would take to reinstall the applications I lost, never mind the data. I'm a backup fiend, and BackupBuddy (BackupBuddy Inc., $29.95) fits the bill: It lets me back up some or all the information and applications on my Palm every time I synchronize. In the event that my Palm loses data, I simply synchronize it with my PC, and the information will be restored from my last backup.
In case you're with the IT department or upgrading to a new Palm, read on: BackupBuddy is also a great installation and migration tool. If you have to install similar software on lots of Palms, you can configure one, then synchronize all the others. If you're upgrading to a new Palm, BackupBuddy will automatically load all of your old information onto the new one.
Personal information management is one of the mantras of small, portable computing devices. Unfortunately, most computer programs make you think the way they do. By contrast, Brainforest (Aportis Technologies Corp., $30) takes the free-form approach. It lets you record ideas and action items, or plan projects through an intuitive and simple outlining interface, and then customize how that information is viewed.
Brainforest's metaphor is that of trees, branches and leaves, but anyone who has endured eighth-grade social studies will recognize that these are good old outlines. Various permutations are possible: checklists, outlines, project tracking. That last feature is worth noting: Brainforest lets you indicate hierarchical relationships. Brainforest files also export easily to other built-in Palm applications, such as the to-do list, or to stand-alone Brainforest software on a Macintosh or PC. (Currently, only the Macintosh stand-alone program is available.)
When 8M bytes isn't enough
Call it scope creep. You've got pictures of the kids, a small library of documents, a few hundred kilobytes of downloaded Web pages, and all of a sudden, your Palm is full. Sure, you can upgrade the physical memory or buy a new Palm, but how about using a software program that frees up an available 800K bytes of memory? Nope, it's not compression. It turns out that the Palm doesn't store its core applications, or its operating system and upgrades, in regular RAM. Instead, they're in some of the 2M bytes of its nonvolatile flash memory.
Though that remaining free space is normally inaccessible, a program called FlashPro (TRG Products Inc., $29.95) opens up the space on Palm models V, Vx, III and IIIx, letting you use it to store such things as Palm application files.
In case you're really into backing things up, a related program, FlashPack (TRG Products Inc., $19.95; FlashPro/FlashPack bundle costs $39.95), lets you schedule automatic backups of important Palm files and databases from the Palm's regular memory into flash memory. This is useful, especially if you're not near a computer to sync and back up your Palm. (Programs such as BackupBuddy require regularly synching the Palm with a PC in order to be effective.) By storing files in flash memory, they'll be available even if you have to hard reset the Palm. Note that this does obviate some security schemes (see OnlyMe).
Palm relies on a software program known as Graffiti to read which letters and numbers you scribble on the Palm's writing area. Rather than going all out and recognizing any old thing you write, Palm meets you half-way: You have to learn its alphabet, which consists of simplified letter patterns.
But not all of us can draw straight lines. That's where TealScript (TealPoint Software, $16.95) comes in. It lets you completely reconfigure Graffiti with an arsenal of character-recognition tools which cater to both basic and advanced users.
For instance, you can train Graffiti to better recognize your style of writing by running through a few dummy sentences. There's also a diagnostic which tracks which of your characters Graffiti has the hardest time recognizing. Finally, you can also redefine or add new character patterns yourself and set recognition thresholds to fine-tune performance.
Whereas AvantGo is excellent for public or personal HTML content, if you want to read text or Word files, it's a lot easier to use a document reader such as AportisDoc (Aportis Technologies Corp., $30). Use free third-party software to translate text or HTML files into AportisDoc files. Even better, the files are compressed and thus smaller than the equivalent text file would be, saving space on your Palm. Excellent if you need to carry reference manuals or want to read a good book -- lots of free content is available on the Web in AportisDoc format.
10 more goodies
Laundry lists always miss something or other. Nevertheless, here are a few other interesting applications, out of many, that merit special attention:
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