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d53293c5Avery (hopefully) better writing aaaaaaaaaaaa 8 months ago

#title: "Using a Palm PDA in 2022" date: "2022-01-09T04:23:13.721Z" tags: [] draft: true toc: true

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 was a fun project.

#Choosing a device

Choosing a device can be intimidating. There were dozens of Palm devices released from 1996-2005, along with other manufacturers who licensed Palm OS to put on their own devices.

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 only places where you can buy refurbished Palm devices and get them 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, and I take it with me pretty often. My pockets can get a bit full though, so I've been looking at replacing my wallet with a wallet case for the Palm.

The build quality is also great. 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 it a nice weight in your hand. Both plastic ends can be unscrewed from the metal body. The end that you tap on the screen (I'm assuming) 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

Something I want to call out is how snappy this device 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 open that app.

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.

#Graffiti writing

The Graffiti writing system is a set of single-stroke gestures that you can perform in the Graffiti area to write letters, numbers, symbols, and run application shortcuts.

{{< figure src="/images/palm-graffiti-gestures.png" caption="Graffiti gestures for letters and numbers (source)" alt="A cheatsheet showing the Graffiti gestures for letters and numbers"


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 only took me about 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 that people use, 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,

There are two tweaks that I've found that make the writing experience even better:

#Quick Graffiti reference

Open the "Prefs" app, go to the "Buttons" page, click "Pen..." at the bottom. This will let you assign an action to when you perform a swipe up from the Graffiti area. One of these is "Graffiti Help", which is a quick Graffiti gesture reference. This was super helpful when I was learning all of the basic textures, as well as when you need to write one of those more obscure symbols.

Of course you can also press the keyboard button at the edge of the Graffiti area if you want to bring up an on-screen keyboard.


By default, to write an uppercase letter, you swipe up then perform a gesture for a letter. 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. This is a small time save, but it adds up when you're writing longer memos.

#Day-to-day usage

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.


PalmDB link

HandyShopper lets you keep track of your shopping list. As you use it, you build up a database of everything 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, and you can even include tax.

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.


PalmDB link

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.

#Desktop Sync

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