The Zen of. . . Windows Mobile

by PocketGoddess on April 13, 2006

If you’ve been in the mobile space for any length of time, you already know how that sentence is supposed to end. After all, we’ve been talking about the “zen of Palm” for years now. But my recent experiences with Windows Mobile 5 have led me to change the way that sentence ends, at least for me.
Please understand that I haven’t suddenly turned into a Microsoft “fangirl” or groupie. I’ve used and enjoyed their products for many years, most notably Windows XP and Microsoft Office, but have never felt comfortable with their mobile product offerings. In part that is due to the fact that Palm was first in my consciousness–first to market (I had never even heard of the Newton), and the makers of my first handheld, the Palm IIIx. I used and loved that PDA and its many successors over the years–the IIIc, m505, Sony Clie NR70, Tungsten T, Tapwave Zodiac, and finally the palmOne LifeDrive.
When I was invited to Microsoft’s Mobius event in 2001 I got my first opportunity to try out what was then called the Pocket PC operating system. I honestly tried to switch at that point, because I was simply blown away by the hardware and features–gorgeous bright screens, voice recorder, even Block Recognizer, which made it much easier for this Graffiti-lover to enter text without learning a new system. Unfortunately the Pocket PC in 2001 was also plagued by extremely poor battery life, larger/heavier devices than their Palm OS counterparts, and Outlook–both the desktop and Pocket versions of which I simply despised. I decided after a long trial that I preferred the Palm OS platform and went back to my trusty m505.
Fast forward to 2006, when I was basically happy with my Palm OS existence but beginning to be plagued with a few more handheld issues. While I loved the LifeDrive when I got it, I came to realize that it really wasn’t fulfilling my needs. Sure, it has a built-in hard drive, but I really wasn’t using it that much–a 1GB SD card was all I needed to hold all my pictures and ebooks. That same hard drive also made the device bigger and heavier (which I knew going in) and also much slower. I tried to ignore the slowdown, but I kept getting those little thoughts in the back of my mind that asked why I had to wait to get my personal information when my “old” devices from several years ago (with slower processors) were much more responsive and more fun to use.
I thought about the Pocket PC (now Windows Mobile) platform several times over the years, but only in passing. After all, I read all the stories about how Microsoft’s mobile OS was hopelessly bloated, about how it takes more taps to do things, and of course about how there are literally thousands of Palm OS applications to choose from, many free, that far outstripped the more limited selection of software available for Pocket PC.
In effect I had become a Palm OS “fangirl” in the sense that I had dismissed the competition without really giving it a closer look and honestly evaluating whether or not the devices and software met my needs.
In late January I decided to purchase a Dell Axim X51v for a variety of reasons. The foremost was the fact that I was tired of having to turn down review opportunities for the site because I didn’t have the right device to run the software that I was being offered. Since I expanded the focus of the site in April 2005 to include not just PDA-related news and reviews, but mobile technology of all kinds, such as iPod, digital photography, and portable gaming consoles like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, it was just plain stupid of me to limit myself strictly to Palm OS handhelds. I chose the Dell because it seemed to be the best device for my needs based on size and weight, memory capacity, dual wireless (WiFi and Bluetooth), dual card slots, voice recorder, and VGA screen. I figured that I would still use my LifeDrive as my “daily driver” PDA and use the Dell strictly for software and accessory reviews, etc.
What I found though was that the more I used the device and learned about its capabilities, the more I simply loved it! Windows Mobile 5 is not the “dark side” of mobile computing, as Palm OS users have joked about for years. In fact, I found it to be a highly polished experience that simply works, at least for me. Why?

  • ActiveSync. I know that Palm OS folks have laughed about the concept of ActiveSync for years, and I’ll admit that for a long time I was one of them. After all, I’m a big girl, and I can push that HotSync button when I want to synchronize my LifeDrive with my laptop. With a few months of ActiveSync experience, my response is now why should I have to push that button? I simply love knowing that when my Dell is in the cradle, it is synchronized with my laptop, effortlessly and automatically. I’m not late for meetings anymore, because I don’t have to wait for a long HotSync with lots of updates and perhaps a new software install to end–especially since I rarely had a HotSync operation finish on the LifeDrive without some sort of problem. I’m sure I had more problems than the average Palm OS user because I test so much software, but it still got pretty old. I also appreciate the fact that I now have much greater control over individual item syncing; when there’s a conflict I can actually see what the problem is, without having to decrypt an arcane message buried in the HotSync log. Simplified software installation and the ability to manage applications and explore the device from my desktop just round out an already nice package of features.
  • Today Screen. This is my favorite feature, and I’ve found that I can literally manage my entire mobile life from the Today screen, thanks to the clever plug-in system. I’ll admit that the stock Today screen doesn’t do all that much for me, but add Spb Diary and it’s perfect. I can manage all of my appointments, tasks, contacts, and notes from the Today screen and never even open the built-in applications–and that includes creating, editing, rescheduling, searching contacts, and everything else. I know that there are several Palm OS “today” applications, and even Agendus and DateBk have gotten in on the action, but none of them are as functional and useful for me as the Windows Mobile Today screen with Spb Diary.
  • Outlook. I never thought I would say this, but I’ve really grown to like Outlook. Of course I’m using Outlook 2003, not the old 2002 version that actually came with the Dell, and I’m still not using it for email (The Bat! truly is the best mail client I’ve ever used, period). But it is much more configurable than Palm Desktop or Agendus for Windows, with plug-ins galore, advanced filters and customization options, etc. I also don’t waste any time with icons, coloring options and all of the Agendus features that looked pretty and were seductively fun, but really didn’t do anything at all to make me more efficient and productive. Why did I resist for so long?
  • Categories. This is perhaps a corollary of the point for Outlook, but I believe it bears further discussion. I never really had a problem with the 15 category limit on Palm OS devices, partly because I had always had that same limitation (I used a Franklin Planner before I ever got a Palm) so I never understood what those Outlook users were griping about on the Palm OS mailing lists. But now that I’ve entered the brave new world of Outlook/Windows Mobile, I feel like I’ve finally been set free, at least regarding categories. Now I can assign multiple categories to individual items, which is great–it makes me realize that trying to use the 4 custom fields in the Palm OS Address application and the extra grouping options in Agendus as the kludgy workaround that it really is. Even better is the fact that the same categories are used across all PIM applications, meaning that everything is streamlined, simplified, and organized.
  • Native Formats and Tight Integration.You may be wondering about this one, since Documents To Go has enabled Palm OS users to view and edit Microsoft Office files for years, and in some ways does things better than its Pocket Office counterparts, like preserving document formatting. Please understand that my mobile document needs are fairly simple, and that I haven’t yet done a feature by feature comparison, but I’ve found that I really enjoy using Pocket Word and Pocket Excel and that they do everything I need (mainly viewing and very light editing). That certainly isn’t enough to warrant a switch, but when you add that Documents to Go is rather slow (but perfectly acceptable) on any Palm OS device I’ve ever tried it on, especially when using unconverted files in their native formats, and that the desktop application leaves a great deal to be desired, it looks even more appealing. Pocket Office is blazingly fast, and the Synchronized Documents folder on the desktop has made transferring files to my device a snap and also solved that old “which version do I use” problem with Documents To Go. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by Internet Explorer, with the ability to synchronize Favorites between the device and the desktop. Saving entire web pages to view on the device for bus & train schedules, etc. has opened up an entirely new way of managing information that doesn’t require manually entering information in a memo, which takes time and loses all the richness and ease of visually organizing data in charts and graphics.
  • Third Party Software. When I first got my Dell, I expected that I would have some real problems trying to find awesome applications to meet my needs, but that simply hasn’t been the case. I’ll be the first to admit that I really miss ShadowPlan, but I’ve found that Ilium Software’s ListPro is a more than adequate substitute, and it also happens to have fully featured Windows desktop and Palm OS components too. Many of you already know that one of my favorite applications is Pocket TV Browser, and I’ve been using it on Palm OS for years now. The Windows Mobile version is just better though–it has full-screen support (the Palm app doesn’t support the collapsible Graffiti area) and the searches are mind-blowingly fast (thanks to a much faster processor on the Dell). I used to scoff at the Internet pass-through feature in Windows Mobile, but it is incredibly useful. Instead of having to search for weather updates and forecasts on the web, now I use Spb Weather and I know that everything is downloaded automatically. The same is true of NewsBreak when it comes to tracking all of the RSS news feeds I read every day. Of course there are desktop and Palm OS clients that can do many if not all of the same things, but the convenience, speed, and features just work for me–and I don’t have to shell out big bucks for a cellular data plan or constantly hunt for WiFi coverage. There is simply no basis behind the old myths that “all the Pocket PC software costs too much–look at all the Palm OS freeware” and “there isn’t as much depth/variety/creativity for Windows Mobile as there is for Palm OS”–especially considering the fragmented APIs and shrinking markets that are causing some Palm OS developers to start developing applications for multiple handheld operating systems such as Windows Mobile and Symbian.
  • Hardware. One of those nagging negative thoughts I’ve suffered from over the years regarding Palm OS is the hardware. While there have been some truly creative/innovative designs over the years (the Palm V, Sony Clie NR/NX, Alphasmart Dana, and Tapwave Zodiac immediately come to mind) I have often been disappointed in the hardware options available. It wasn’t until I got the Dell that I realized just how heavy and unwieldy the LifeDrive truly is. Of course there are smaller options out there, like the Palm TX, but it doesn’t have the VGA screen, faster processor, voice recorder, and removable battery of the Dell Axim X51v. And just like Palm OS, there are plenty of accessory options, from GPS to mobile presentations, recharging, and keyboards to barcode scanners and more specialized peripherals.

I still use my LifeDrive for reviews and such, and will continue to keep a close eye on the Palm OS side of things as far as accessories and software are concerned. If Palm or another one of the Access licensees comes out with something that blows my socks off, I’ll switch in a heartbeat. After all, it’s just a tool, be it a LifeDrive, a Windows Mobile device, a Blackberry, a smartphone, or something not so “mobile” at all, like an ultraportable laptop or even one of the new Microsoft UMPCs. “Fangirl”or “fanboy” debates like Coke vs. Pepsi vs. Dr. Pepper, Windows vs. Mac, paper vs. plastic, or PlayStation vs. XBox vs. GameCube, just don’t do anyone any good at all. We all have our favorites, and it’s great to support what we believe in, but that’s not the most important thing.

The whole point of this is to be productive and secondarily to be entertained (ebooks, games, music, video). Right now, the best device for me is the Dell Axim X51v. But who know what it will be six months from now? Whatever that tool is for me personally, I’ll still provide the best device, software, and accessory reviews that I can, and hope that in some small way you’ll find them useful as well. That’s what being the PocketGoddess is all about.