Sun, Mar 10, 2002 - Page 11 News List

Consumers pay a price for color

HANDHELDS So you want a color Palm? Now you can have it, but the image will be less clear, the battery will die sooner and it will cost you double

NY NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The Sony Clie PEG-T615C, left, Palm m515, middle, and Palm m130 cater to the increasing demand for handhelds with color screens. The new units run on Palm software and can operate some 15,000 programs.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

There must be something in human DNA that makes us want things that aren't good for us. As children, we want junk food. As teenagers, we worship the boy or girl who treats us like dirt. As adults, we buy sport-utility vehicles.

Maybe that's why people want color screens on their palmtops. Color screens aren't as crisp or as easy to read as grayscale screens (which display shades of gray, white and black). Color screens also cut battery life in half and cost twice as much. Yet here we are, clamoring for color screens; according to NPD Intelect, a sales-tracking service, 27 percent of the new palmtops sold last year had color screens, up from 16 percent in 2000.

That percentage will only increase with the arrival of three new color palmtops -- two from Palm, one from Sony -- that run the Palm operating system and any of 15,000 compatible software programs.

Remember the grayscale Palm V? It was a sleek shirt-pocketable little number clad in brushed aluminum, and one of Palm's greatest hits. But as Palm cultists drifted off to sleep each night clutching their Palm V's to their chests, they dreamed of what they imagined to be the ultimate evolution of the palmtop: a Palm V with a color screen.

Last year, Palm delivered. Unfortunately, what it delivered was the Palm m505, which closely resembled the Palm V but had what the company claimed was a color screen. Maybe it was, but the screen was so dim, you couldn't tell. Engineers measure brightness in a unit called nits (the brightness of one candle over one square meter). Apparently whoever chose the m505's screen wasn't so good at nit-picking.

A sheepish Palm scurried back to the drawing board. This week the company unveiled what the m505 should have been all along: the Palm m515. It's exactly the same idea -- a color Palm V -- but this time, the color screen is nice and bright. It also includes a control that lets you turn off the screen's illumination (or set it to half) to save battery power, a feature that the earlier model lacked. (The m505, incidentally, is no longer available. Palm no doubt wasted no time in taking it out behind the barn to put it out of its misery.)

As in show business, politics and romance, good lighting makes all the difference. In the new model, Palm doubled the number of tiny light bulbs (four instead of two) and moved them closer to the perimeter of the screen. As a result, the m515's screen is five times as bright as the m505's -- nits aplenty.

Palm's obvious rival in this category (Expensive Gadgets That Make You Look Cool in Public) is Sony's new, clumsily named Clie PEG-T615C. At 11.81cm by 7.19cm inches, it's taller but narrower than the m515 (11.43cm by 7.87cm); both devices are a half-inch thick. Both are made of brushed metal, come with 16MB of memory, run for about a week per battery charge, employ a protective flip cover and look terrific. Both go for US$400.

But as good as Palm's new screen is, Sony's is better, at least indoors. It has roughly the same brightness as the Palm (which is to say it's fine, but not what you'd call a floodlight). But it has twice the number of dots packed into the same area (twice the resolution), yielding much smoother gradations of color and finer, smoother text. The Palm m515's screen, on the other hand, appears to be composed of much coarser square dots. You would prefer the Palm screen only in sunlight, where it retains slightly higher contrast than the Sony screen.

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