Handspring Visor: A Retrospective
This is a review of my experiences, over two years, with the
Handspring Visor and how those experiences have shaped my
requirements for a future replacement. The requirements seemingly
apply to any portable personal computing device. It concludes with a
list of possible contenders to replace my "aging" Visor my
friend and companion.
Why did I buy a PDA?
I purchased a Visor because it looked cool it was a StarTrek
datapad come true. The possibility of expanding its functionality via
Springboard modules also enticed me to buy a Handspring specifically.
I didn't really need a datebook, a contact-list, a todo list or a
memopad I was quite happy using cron, xcal, grep, Postit's and
a small writing pad.
I've had my Visor Deluxe Ice now for a little over two years. It is
not the original unit I purchased since I had to exchange it for a
working unit twice. In the two years, I have lost my leather pouch
(within 2 weeks of purchasing it) and my stylus (2 months ago). I now
use a stylus that previously belonged to a colleague with a Graphite
Visor Deluxe (he has since upgraded to a Platinum). I lost my second
stylus on Dec 28, 2002; the silo just does not securly hold the
stylus. My stylus replacement is a red, tapered, snug-fitting,
plastic handle off a cheap paint-brush, cut to size, with a notch
filed-in for extracting. It looks rather garish but there is no chance
of this "stylus" falling out.
I have used transparent nail-polish to repair several cracks that
have developed on the face of the unit next to the power button. The
flip-cover has a crack developing along one side of the top
clamp. Otherwise the unit is in good condition. I also brushed the
faces of the 4 buttons with transparent nail-polish to prevent them
from rubbing off with wear.
A strip of Scotch 811 tape, replaced every 6 months, covers the
Grafitti area preventing scratches and I clean the the screen every
two weeks with a lens-cleaner and a scrap of toilet-paper.
The only additional component I have for my Visor is a 8MB
Springboard I received as a Christmas gift. I would have bought the
Good Technologies MP3 player but by the time I got around to it, they
stopped making it.
I alternate between two pairs of Radio Shack rechargeable NiMH
batteries charged on a RadioShack Fast Charger. Runtime
(battery tracking application) reports an average battery usage of 12
days with 2 hours of runtime.
I use FlipHack and FlipGraffittiHack to rotate the
display of the Visor clock-wise by 90 degrees. I find that holding
the Visor sideways with my right-hand is the most comfortable
position for me. Having the ability to rotate the display is on my
Top-10 Requirements for a PDA.
My Visor is used for keeping a work-related todo list (using floating
appointments rather than the TodoList), a shopping list, a
work-related daily journal and appointment reminders (nearly all of
them work-related). I have also manually programmed-in all the major
holidays (the DateBook+ features (e.g. being able to specify
the last week of the month) really were handy for this purpose).
The other main function is mostly reading Project Gutenberg books using
Plucker. I even wrote a Perl script to convert PG text files to HTML
because I was reading so many of them. I prefer to read at night, in
the dark. I also read during my daily hour-long commute. At the time
of writing, the following books appear in my Plucker
- The Neuromancer trilogy by William Gibson (I am a lover
of Gibson's world where technology just works, for those who have the
means, without any fuss, without a fight (except when it wants its
Democracy by Noam Chomsky
- Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by Edward Gibbon
- Sun Tzu on the Art of War
- To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I have replaced the default MemoPad with
CryptoPad which allows memos to be encrypted and thus
permits me to store my passwords and credit card information on my
Visor. The MemoPad also contains work-related policy documents,
procedures manuals, various HowTos and lists of books I have
purchased or plan to purchase.
The TodoList button launches Time, a clock. This is
useful since I do not wear a wrist-watch. I stopped using the
TodoList because of a particularily irritating feature:
items past their deadline dissappeared off the list despite not being
completed. I also occasionally use the Calculator to calculate
sales-tax or perform units-conversions.
The only game I play is occasionally is Keith Packard's
Patience. I have Vexed installed, but I haven't
played it in the past year. I also have IR-Pong but I have
never met another (female) Palm user I could beam this to and play
I originally sync'd my Visor on a SunPC card (a complete PC-on-a-card
plugged into a Sun Ultra 5 workstation) running Windows 98. After the
pilot-tools began supporting USB, I migrated to GNU/Linux. It wasn't
friendly (I preferred to use the command-line tools to the Jpilot
GUI) but it was satisfactory.
Ever since I got my Sony Vaio laptop a year ago (outfitted with a
32MB ATI Radeon for game-playing and DVD/CDRW combo drive for
watching movies), I now sync under Windows XP with the latest 4.1
The Law of Unintended Consequences
After having used it for two years, I have not regretted buying the
Visor. It is so much more than cron, grep, Postit's and
a small writing pad. I have ended up using it for things I didn't
even dream of at the time of purchase.
Essentially, my Visor allows me to conveniently carry a large store
of information and quickly search that information.
Network connectivity would only increase this store of information by
allowing me access to information stored on the network at work and
at home and of course, on the Internet.
Top-10 Requirements for a PDA
*A Note on Battery Life: There was
a time when I thought the Dragonball microprocessor (used on Palm
devices) was underpowered thus limiting the scope of
compute-intensive operations it could carry out. I thought the ARM
(used in the PocketPC; the Intel Xscale is an ARM core) would be
answer to this problem. Alas, I was disappointed to learn that most
ARM devices have to be re-charged every day or so. The prospect of
re-charging everyday is very unappealing, so, the Dragonball still
remains on the throne.
- Thickness: it has to be thin! The Visor Edge was
perfect in this respect except that it only had 8MB onboard and
required a lumpy sled attachment to support memory-expansion
- Long battery life: at least 7 days between charges
- Durability: the device should be able to survive a
fall from a desktop onto concrete. Fragile electronics are not
useful in daily life; a moulded shock-absorber around the perimiter
is good. I have never dropped my Visor, but I know a person who has
dropped every PDA he has handled (I never let him touch mine).
- Data integrity: of course my data is important, so
back it up! I don't ever want to lose data. I should not have to
request that my data be backed-up.
- Usability: design like people matter (human
factors); e.g. the ability to rotate the display.
- Encryption: any document in memory this should be part of the OS.
- Well engineered: doing a lot with very little, a.k.a "Third
World Engineering", is distressing.
- Good aesthetic: Utilitarian is foo! It should be
beautiful to look at; the iPaq is a seriously ugly piece of
- Expandability: industry standard memory, keyboards, cameras, etc.
- Connectivity: Make it easy to send and or data, and
backup data at resonably high speeds (of course this implies network
I'm certain we can find an engineering solution to this problem
it can mean down-clocking the ARM for mundane tasks and then running
it at full-speed when the CPU needs to sounds very much like
Crusoe. What about having 2 CPU (I know about minimizing part
count), a low-power one for the mundane tasks and the high-power one
that sleeps most of the time, until needed?
I am not (yet) a cell-phone user. I carry my Canon S30 digital camera
and Visor with me everyday. The Canon has to be re-charged (Li-Ion
pack) every 2 or 3 days, and if I forget to do it, I can live with
not being able to take a picture. Having to charge my PDA every other
day is unreasonable and I could not live without it even for a
day. It would upset me greatly if I lost data (the DateBook+, MemoPad
and AddressBook databases are backed-up daily onto the Springboard)
or I couldn't use my PDA because I forgot to charge it one day.
Have You Thought About A Replacement?
My Visor is showing wear and I have the means to buy a replacement.
Using my Top-10 list as a guide, here are the contenders beginning
with the least likely:
PC: the corruption of a good idea.
Tungsten: boring design.
- Sony Clié: very
tempting, beautifully engineered but with small buttons; the NX has
impressive capabilities, but it's too large for my pocket and
battery-life is dissappointing. Feb. 2003 Update: Sony has
announced the SJ33, available March 2003, which I am seriously
considering purchasing due to improved battery life, built-in MP3 (I
would have much-preferred both MP3 and OGG support) player and an
omnipad replacing the miniscule up/down buttons. Mar. 2003
Update: I bought an SJ33 and am, so far, pleased
Zaurus: tempting because of Linux, but it's too chunky, and also
- OQO (Flash req.): the hybrid
computer is a new concept; Crusoe based, release delayed to 2003.
- Handera 330: tempting, a
good aesthetic, great engineering; a distinct possibility.
Tréo 90: tempting, colour, a good aesthetic, a likely
possibility though that keyboard is somewhat unappealing.
My list would likey be different if I also owned a cell-phone. I
would likely opt for a phone-PDA hybrid like the Tréo
Communicator or the Nokia Communicator. If my Visor died tomorrow, I
would replace it with either a Visor Neo/Platinum or a
Or maybe a Handera 330.