Using a Palm PDA in 2022posted February 28th, 2022
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Last year I picked up a Palm m500 PDA. While they’ve been long displaced by modern smartphones, Palm PDA’s played a large part in popularizing portable computing, and they were widely successful at the time. I like messing with older devices, and I want to explore offline-first computing, so tinkering with an early 2000s PDA has been a lot of fun.
I decided to write down my thoughts about how I chose the device, how I use it for everyday tasks, and what I’d like to replace it with in the future.
Choosing a device
There were dozens of Palm devices released from 1996-2005, along with devices made by other manufacturers who licensed Palm OS to put on their own devices. This can make picking a device intimidating, but I eventually landed on the m500 for a few reasons:
- It runs Palm OS 4.1, which makes it compatible with most apps.
- It has a monochrome display. I don’t need a colour display for my usage, so I’d rather have the increased battery life that a monochrome display provides.
- The screen has a backlight that you can toggle on/off. It’s not great, but it gets the job done.
- There’s an SD/MMC slot, which can be used to add additional storage, or to connect accessories.
I bought my m500, and some accessories, from PalmDR.com. From what I know, this is one of the few places where you can buy refurbished Palm devices or send them in to get repaired, and I had a great experience with them. If you browse eBay you can find a device for a little bit cheaper, but I’d say the price was worth it for the condition of the device I got.
The device had no signs of scratches, cracks, or any other damage, and the battery has already been replaced with a new one (which is pretty much a requirement for a 20-year-old device). It also came with an original USB sync cradle and AC adapter, also in great condition.
Build quality and form factor
I’m very satisfied with the form factor. The device (with a flip cover) is slightly thicker than my phone, about the same width, and way shorter. It’s a lot more pocketable than most smartphones, which makes it easy to carry around most of the time.
The build quality is fantastic. The front is made out of metal, and the back is made of plastic (with a metallic finish). It has a nice heft to it, but it’s not so heavy that it’s uncomfortable or tiring to hold.
One part of the design that I really appreciate is the stylus. The ends of the stylus are plastic, but the main body is made of metal, which gives you a pleasant sense of weight when holding it. Both plastic ends can be unscrewed from the metal body. The end that you tap on the screen can be replaced if it ever gets worn out, and the other end can be unscrewed to reveal a tiny pin, in case you need to push the reset button located on the back of the device.
While it shows the overall thought they put into the design of the entire device, it also shows that the stylus was an important part of the experience of using this device, thanks to Palm’s innovative Graffiti writing system (more on this later).
Speed and battery life
I think my favourite part of this device is how snappy everything is. Doing some of the same tasks on today’s hardware has more lag, loading bars, and choppiness than the same thing on a 20-year-old device with a 33 Mhz CPU.
It gets even better when you combine this with Palm OS’s sleep/standby (I’m not sure what the official name is). You can press the power button to put the device into sleep mode. When you press the power button again, it’ll instantly wake up and resume whatever you were doing. You can even press one of the shortcut buttons (the 4 buttons below the screen), and it’ll wake up and have that app open.
These features make Palm OS devices really convenient to keep on you. You can quickly pull it out of your pocket, jot down some notes, and put it back in less than 30 seconds.
The Graffiti writing system is a set of single-stroke gestures that you can perform in the Graffiti area (the rectangle on the lower half of the screen) to write letters, numbers, symbols, and run application shortcuts.
It seems overwhelming at first, but I was surprised how quickly I learned all the gestures. Most of them are close enough to the actual letter that they’re pretty intuitive, it took me under a week to get familiar with all the common gestures.
Once you get used to it, the Graffiti system is very consistent, and you can write fairly quickly. It’s probably not as fast as smartphone keyboards with features like autocorrect and swipe typing, but the consistency comes with other advantages. For example, once you learn the gestures, typing without having to look at the screen is pretty easy,
You can also press the small buttons in the corners of the Graffiti area to open an onscreen keyboard, in case you forget how to write a particular character.
There are two tweaks that I’ve found that make the writing experience even better:
Quick Graffiti reference
PalmOS has a built-in Graffiti reference that you can open at any time. To enable it, open the “Prefs” app, go to the “Buttons” page, click “Pen…” at the bottom, and choose “Graffiti Help” in the dropdown. You can now swipe up from the Graffiti area onto the screen at any time, and you’ll get a reference that shows you how to write. This was super helpful when I was learning all the basic gestures, as well as when you need to write one of the more obscure symbols.
By default, to write an uppercase letter, you need two separate gestures: a swipe up, followed by the gesture for the letter you want to write. MiddleCaps is a hack that you can install using HackMaster, that lets you write uppercase letters more quickly.
Instead of two different gestures, you can perform a standard gesture in the middle of the Graffiti area, in between the letter and number sections, and the character will be uppercase. This is a small time-save, but it adds up when you’re writing longer memos.
Most of my usage is done with a small handful of apps. I’ve gone through quite a few apps, and I’ve found these to have the most useful balance of features to ease of use.
Download links are available on PalmDB, a website where the Palm community has preserved Palm OS software that’s no longer supported or available for download.
HandyShopper lets you keep track of your shopping list. As you use it, you build up a database of products you buy. Then, in the future, you can just mark which items you need to pick up again on your next shopping trip.
While you’re shopping, you can see what you need and check it off as you grab it. You can also take notes about the item, like price and aisle at different stores. This will also let you see what your total will be at checkout.
I’ve been using HandyShopper every time I go grocery shopping. It’s difficult to explain, but the UI is super intuitive, and feels really well thought out. Once you know where the different options are, some shortcuts, and after you’ve built a database of things you buy frequently, managing your shopping list becomes effortless.
WordSmith is both a replacement for the built-in Memo Pad app, as well as a rich text editor that supports formatting like bold, italics, underline, bullet lists, indentation, headings, fonts, and more. I’ve been using it for everything from quick notes and ides to creating a recipe book.
Aside from quick formatting, another nice feature is that you can toggle between a viewing and editing mode, as well as assigning categories, which makes it easy to review all your documents.
WordSmith also lets convert documents to/from the built-in Memo Pad app. My main use for this has been to have a way to sync WordSmith documents with my computer. It’s not ideal, as it doesn’t retain formatting, but I don’t need to access these notes on my computer that often, so it’s not a big deal.
ShadowPlan is a wonderful (and powerful) todo list app. It lets you create multiple lists and organize them into categories (something that the built-in app lacks), create nested todos and easily reorder everything. You can even track stuff like start/end/due dates, set alarms, assign icons, attach notes and documents to tasks, and more.
I’m constantly making todo lists, so this is probably my most used app. It’s a very powerful application, and I feel like I don’t even use that many features of it. The task nesting and reordering features make it really nice for managing your lists.
There are a few other apps I use occasionally (and a bunch that I rarely use), but these 3 apps account for probably 90% or more of my usage.
What I don’t like
While I really enjoy using the device for the tasks above, there are some things that could be better.
One of these is writing/drawing with the stylus (freehand, not with Graffiti). I think it’s a mix of relatively low screen resolution, latency, and poor stylus detection, but drawing on this device just feels frustrating. For anything aside from very rough sketches, I find it’s usually not worth fighting with the freehand notes app.
It’s been a while, but at one point I tried one or two third-party apps and had similar issues. If anyone uses the drawing feature regularly and has recommendations to improve the experience, please let me know!
Lack of connectivity
While I probably wouldn’t use this in the same way as on a smartphone, it would be nice to have Wifi on this device. Both for syncing wirelessly to my computer, as well as syncing from sources like RSS feeds and Gemini blogs. While it can’t beat a dedicated e-reader, the Palm’s screen isn’t terrible for reading on the go.
What could replace it?
I like the device a lot, but I’m also thinking of how it could be improved. I think for me the ideal device would be something with an e-ink display, a few more modern features like wifi and a headphone jack, but maintaining the snappy, stable interface and Graffiti writing.
It seems like a fun potential DIY project in the future, whether it’s hooking up a display and SoC, or using something premade like the M5Paper. I also haven’t looked around too much for existing projects, but I’m sure someone has had a similar idea before.