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Acer recently entered the handheld arena with two products -- the Palm OS device reviewed here and the Pocket PC-based <A href="http://reviews.zdnet.co.uk/review/2/1/2503.html">n20</A>. Acer is the first company to try its hand at both markets, and its products are interesting for that fact alone. But the Palm OS market is dominated by Sony's CLIE range, and is being driven along by version 5 of Palm's operating system -- which the s60 eschews in favour of version 4.1. So, is there a niche for Acer's £229 (inc. VAT) s60?
Based on relatively slow 33MHz CPU and Palm OS 4.1
expansion is limited to Memory Stick
screen only supports 4,096 colours.
Acer recently entered the handheld arena with two products -- the Palm OS device reviewed here and the Pocket PC-based n20. Acer is the first company to try its hand at both markets, and its products are interesting for that fact alone. But the Palm OS market is dominated by Sony's CLIE range, and is being driven along by version 5 of Palm's operating system -- which the s60 eschews in favour of version 4.1. So, is there a niche for Acer's £229 (inc. VAT) s60?
Instead of choosing a fast ARM-based processor to power the s60, Acer has chosen to use Motorola's venerable 33MHz DragonBall VZ. Although this undoubtedly keeps the cost down, it also rules out the latest version 5.0 of Palm OS -- version 4.1 is used instead. The s60's 16MB complement of RAM is pretty standard for a Palm-based device, but what isn't standard is that Acer has chosen to offer Sony's Memory Stick slot as its expansion option. This allows you to augment the s60's storage capacity by up to 128MB at present. Acer is currently the only company apart from Sony itself to use Memory Stick for handheld expansion.
Palm OS 4.1 supports a native screen resolution of 160 by 160 pixels. Acer has increased this to 320 by 320 pixels, but has not taken advantage of this feature by incorporating support for small application icons. This means that the Application Launcher screen does not display the smaller icons familiar to Sony CLIE users, although there should be no problems running high-resolution applications. The viewing angle on our review sample's screen wasn't ideal either. When the device was tilted forwards there was noticeable blurring of text and images on-screen. Left to right tilting did not have this effect, but reading the screen with the device flat on the table in front of us was sometimes difficult. It's also worth noting that the s60's 12-bit TFT display only supports 4,096 colours.
The s60 is supplied with a rather clever cover that clips reasonably securely onto the back of the case and flips over to protect the screen. It adds little to the overall size of the device, seems more secure than many self-locking covers, and provides the required screen protection. The s60 also comes with a pair of earphones, so you'll be able to listen to MP3 playback, which the device supports.
You get a USB docking cradle and a mains adapter as standard. The s60 can be charged directly from the mains using the adapter, but the connector is proprietary, so if you need to charge in two locations (for example at home and at work), you'll need to buy a second charger or carry the supplied one around.
Acer has done a good design job on the s60 in terms of size and weight. The device measures 12.2cm by 7.8cm by 1.3cm and weighs 145g, which is on a par with many other Palm OS handhelds. In terms of its looks, the s60 is recognisably Palm V-like -- although with one or two twists. The general build of the hardware is robust, and we like the fact that Acer hasn't scrimped on the stylus, which is a decent length and nicely weighted.
A two-tone front panel on the casing separates the usual four application shortcut buttons and rocker from the area containing the screen. Beneath the buttons, to one side, is a small grille housing the system's speaker.
The Graffiti area is in its usual location, with its own four shortcut icons large and clear. All of the icons can be reassigned to launch applications other than those configured by default, as is the norm with the Palm OS; in addition, the one at the top right has an @-like symbol, and is specifically designed to be user-assigned. You can also select a feature to be activated when you drag the stylus from the Graffiti area to the top of the screen. By default this is set to the Graffiti Help, but other options include beaming, backlight settings and invoking the keyboard.
There are some other innovations to be found too. On the bottom of the casing is Hold switch which when in the 'lock' position prevents any buttons being accidentally pressed while the s60 is in transit. And on the upper edge of the left-hand side is what Acer calls the Multi Function Button. By default, this is a back button, but it can be configured to launch Recorder, an Acer-supplied application for making voice notes. The microphone is ergonomically positioned on the upper left edge of the case.
Acer is clearly aware that to make inroads into the Palm OS market it has to compete with Sony in terms of features and bundled software. The inclusion of MP3 software in the shape of AudioBox, and of Recorder for managing voice notes, is a sign that the company is taking this need seriously as far as multimedia users are concerned. The rest of the software bundle reflects a desire to cast a wider net: PhotoWiz for image management, Filer (a rather good file manager), WalkReader (an ebook reader) and a backup tool.
Acer has done a reasonable job with the s60, packing in some neat features, keeping the hardware relatively small and light, and offering a decent software bundle -- all at a reasonable price. It's not an all-singing, all-dancing handheld, but nor is it an entry-level device, and anyone looking for a mid-priced but well featured handheld shouldn't be disappointed. The Memory Stick slot is Acer's only real gamble with the s60. The format is not as widely supported as either CompactFlash or SD, and so may slightly reduce the s60's appeal.