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Abacus WristPDA: a watch goes where no PDA can go

First Inqpressions Time is on your side, yes it is
Sun Apr 30 2006, 11:10

Product: Abacus WristPDA
Web site: www.abacuswatches.com
Price: $50 to $90 Support: Fossil's web site
DO YOU keep your PDA with you all the time?. Really? How about during the early morning or late night exercise walk? -if you have one. And can you hear your PDA if it beeps while you're in bed? Well, with the Abacus WristPDA you can have your PDA with you all the time, because it's a PDA inside your wristwatch. Yes, a wristwatch, that thing that refuses to die, despite some gloomy predictions about it going the way of the dodo.

alt='wristpda-1'
Abacus WristPDA: a Watch plus a PalmOS PDA in your wrist. Just more comfortable.

In my opinion there are some situations and places where people don't necessarily want to have PDAs with them: outdoor exercise, while walking the streets of an unknown neighbourhood, while in bed, etceteras. But in all those situations, we can always have our wristwatches with us. In fact, have those that claim that people use their phones to get the time thought that perhaps we don't even take our mobile phones to those situations either?.

With the Abacus WristPDA you can read eBooks (provided you set the reader to use a BIG font), install dozens of third party freeware or shareware apps -from the thousands available for PalmOS PDAs-, set alarms, install health-related software, play games, beam data to other PalmOS PDAs or sync -all over the IR link-, share data with the to-do list, calendar or phone book in the PC-bound Palm Desktop. The possibilities are endless. alt='wristpda-2'
Touch screen, IR beaming and sync, the geek's dream

Just hurry if you want this chance, because it's currently going at less than half of its original cost, and the manufacturers seem to have pulled it from the company's web site, raising speculations about its almost uncertain future. In fact, Fossil seems to have pulled both the PalmOS and "MSN watches" (a "me too", knee-jerk reaction from Redmondia) from its catalogue. But you can still find the units in the online retail channel, and the support and product description pages are still there.

alt='wristpda-anim-3'
Anim: Backlight on and off

A troubled history

Fossil originally presented a wrist watch running PalmOS back in 2002. During 2003, rumour was that the unit was never going to make it to the retail channel. One year later, Fossil removed it from the company's web site, sparking a wave of rumours saying that the WristPDA was doomed and never going to make it. But the WristPDA returned with a vengeance last year. By mid 2005, Abacus was advertising the PalmOS wristwatch ("by Fossil") at their site, and selling each for $199. At that luxury price, it was no surprise that it didn't get mainstream, it was still a geek's status symbol.

But for some reason, by late 2005, prices on the retail channel went down to $40 for some models, and now are staying between $50 and $75. For the record, I bought my Abacus WristPDA back in December 2005 at Amazon.com and it arrived a week before yuletide. Now that I've been using it for about five months, it's time to report on the device's quality and endurance.

Features and comfort

As a watch, the WristPDA is slightly bigger than the average watch, but it isn't too heavy; I have "normal" sized watches that weight more than this one. When you open it you quickly realize the reason for the thickness... more than half of the device's height is dedicated to the internal rechargeable battery. And the "mini USB" slot on the side -covered by a sliding rubber cap- which is used to charge it or sync to a PC via USB, also adds to the equation.

alt='wristpda-anim-2'
Anim: "James Bondishly" hidden stylus

As a PDA the WristPDA offers exactly the same OS version (4.1) and memory (8mb RAM) as the Palm Zire 21 or the Clie T415, bulky devices in comparison that . Screen resolution is the standard for monochrome PalmOS 4.x devices: 160x160 with 16 shades of grey, more than enough to display the time in a choice of several clock faces, to use the standard palmOS apps: calendar, phone book, to-do list, read hundred of eBooks, or to run any of the thousands of available PalmOS software titles.

alt='wristpda-anim-1'
Runs all third party apps for PalmOS 4.x
Here: Yotta replacement watch face and a scientific calculator

The unit's "touch screen" even allows you to enter text using the PalmOS's handwriting style "Jot", although from my experience using the on-screen keyboard is much easier. For this, a small "stylus" is included, which sits securely, folded in the back of the wristband. Actually two are included, one in place along the unit and another as a spare in the box-.

I can recommend two add-on applications for this "smart wristwatch": Yotta, and "Big Clock" for starters. Yotta puts a new "face" on the watch application, and maximizes screen real state by showing battery charge, tasks pending, impending appointments of the day, and a sound on/off indicator all in the "watch" screen, while also conveniently allowing direct access to the calendar by using the up/down "rocker button" on the right side of the wristPDA. It's developed by David Trotz, a student at the Pomona polytechnic university in California.

alt='wristpda-6'
Mini-USB charger/data cable socket

BigClock, my second suggestion, is really mind blowing, it adds a much needed Timer, World Clock, and calendar view, all easily switchable by using the wristwatch's "rocker button", the middle button on the right side which can be pressed, and also moved up and down in 45 degree angle, serving as both an up/down movement on the menus and also as an "enter", a brilliant design, indeed. The only button on the left side of the watch serves as the "back" function, exiting apps and moving back to the PalmOS apps selection screen. All standard palmOS menus are supported by the device, including drop-downs.

Besides the standard third party PalmOS apps, there is a small selection of titles specifically tailored to the WristPDA at PalmGear.com. People who need to be reminded about medications, who need to count calories of everything they eat, who need to do exercise calculations will find plenty of PalmOS apps for every need. What the wristPDA shows is that once you create a good hardware platform and price it affordably enough, the developers will finally flock to it and make the device much more useful than the original in-house programmers would have envisioned.

The only minor drawback it has is that you've got to remember to put it to recharge its internal battery for at least a couple hours per day. However I've made it a habit of removing it from my arm and plugging it into the AC charger just before going to sleep. The device is very well engineered for ease of use and you hardly need to use the included stylus for moving between apps, unless you need to enter data.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Good:

  • Thousands of PalmOS apps available. Anything that runs on a monochrome Palm will run on it.
    Try that with your cheap wristwatch.
  • If you're a true computer geek, you can start coding and create your own app.
  • Street price now down to the much more palatable $50 to $90 price range
  • Good backlight
  • Excellent controls. Use of the micro-stylus is reduced to a minimum.
  • 8MB is a lot of space for apps and data, given the average size of PalmOS apps.
  • Good construction. I've used my WristPDA daily since December 2005, hasn't broken yet.
  • Multi-voltage (100-240v) power adapter
  • Multi-language Palm Desktop v4 included on the CD
  • Can sync using a wireless (IR) sync or via USB cable
  • Can speak (beam and receive data) with any PalmOS device with an IR port
  • Works with never versions of palm desktop software. Just keep your device user IDs different. No need to keep two versions of PalmOS. I've used my Clie's Palm Desktop 5.
  • SDK available from Fossil, allowing you to design apps that take advantage of the WristPDA's unique hardware features like the "rocker switch" on the side, or its IR port.
  • Same screen resolution as the original PalmOS 4.x grey scale PDAs

The bad

  • You need to plug it to the charger every night. Every two days at most if you run it in power saving mode with IR port disabled and enjoy the adrenaline rush.
  • Use the backlight only when really needed
  • Abacus/Fossil don't seem to be actively promoting this product anymore. Grab yours while you can.
  • No colour screen, no built-in Bluetooth. (okay, let me dream ;-).
  • Internal rechargeable battery is soldered, but nothing that a watch repair shop can't handle
  • No TV tuner like the one in this other watch . Okay, I know. We can't have it all.

The Ugly

  • Mastering the art of entering text with the included micro-stylus requires a lot of patience. Instead, use the on-screen keyboard for good results.
  • Buzzer not loud enough
  • Fossil and Abacus don't seem very interested in continuing their "smart wristwatch" experiment.

    The Verdict

    I give this unit four Fernandos in my personal one-to-five rating scale (or eight over ten, if you wish). While the "Industry Analysts" and other professionals of spreading Fear Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) try to convince people that "bigger is better" and that a pocket device's OS must be as fat and bloated as Windows Mobile to be of use, the Abacus WristPDA shows that smaller and less bloated code can sometimes be better. I just wonder aloud if both Motorola and PalmSource (now owned by Access) have given enough thought to the idea of the wristwatch market niche.

    While at the original $199 price it was only a geek's luxury item, at the current "closeout" price range of less than $100, it's certainly an enticing and useful accessory for the tech professional. The question remains of how low can the PalmSource royalties get and how inexpensive the bill of materials be, while still being able to make a profit. But I'm sure all the wristwatch manufacturers of the world wouldn't mind adding PDA functionality to their watches if the price to do so is low enough.

    I certainly wouldn't mind if my next "smart watch" also runs the supposedly "old" PalmOS 5.x series O/S on the also "supposedly ancient" 66 MHz Motorola Dragonball CPU, only that next time I wish it comes with a colour screen and Bluetooth. Okay, I know I've entered fantasy land, but please let me dream about the possibility of the impossible. In the meantime I will treasure my Abacus WristPDA and will try to get a second one as a spare replacement, before inventories of the units manufactured by Fossil last year gets too scarce.?

    See also:

    HealthyPalm - Health & Medical software for your PalmOS device (or watch)
    Yotta : enhanced clock for the WristPDA
    PilotDB - Open Source PalmOS database app
    PalmOS apps specifically made for WristPDA
    Karateka for the PalmOS Wrist PDA
    StayOn - Keep WristPDA backlight on for reading
    WristPDA users mailing list

    Official WristPDA Software Development Kit (SDK)
    Abacus WristPDA section at PalmGear.com
    NS Basic for PalmOS
    Gloomy predictions: 'time runs out for the wristwatch'

 

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