Flirt with Handspring. Then break up.

Because I was going to be away in Bangor, Maine this past weekend, away from Reinvented HQ for three days and without regular Internet access, I decided to explore the possibility of managing my ‘net life using a Handspring Visor.

Like the Palm devices on which it’s based, the Visor is a tiny handheld computer with a tiny screen, a tiny amount of memory, and tiny little applications. It works well — and is wildly popular — when used to store addresses, datebook and to do lists. By strapping a tiny modem to the back of the Visor and connecting it to the Internet, I was taking things a little further: trying to make a Tiny Computer do a Big Computer’s job.

It worked, sort of.

On Thursday night before heading out to Bangor, I bought the Visor Platinum and the Xircom 56K Springport Modem Module from Futureshop in Charlottetown. The experience was as soul-sucking as most Futureshop experiences — the usual razmataz about extended warranties, etc. But I got out alive.

When I got home, I installed the desktop software and the cradle that plugs into my Big PC. Then I tried to sync the data on my PC with the new Visor. Didn’t work. Tried again. Didn’t work. Finally, after futzing around for an hour or so, and uninstalling and reinstalling the software, I was able to get things to work.

Next I needed to find a dial up Internet provider with service in Bangor. I looked at AOL, Earthlink and Prexar but none of them had what I was looking for: a low-cost account for occassional use. AT&T, however, had exactly what I was looking for: a $9.95/month plan with 10 hours of usage included. I was able to easily and quickly sign up online, and had my account information in hand within 10 minutes: very slick and the way all Internet providers should work.

Then I tried to get the modem on the Visor to dial in to AT&T. It worked. Then it didn’t. Then it did. I tried dialing in to ISN for comparison and got the same flakiness. It was getting late, and I was facing a long drive to Bangor, so I decided to leave the finer points to Bangor. I finished up by installing some slick Palm applications: the Eudora Internet Suite (for email and web) and Ton Gun SSH (to connect with remote computers).

Friday, it was off to Bangor.

On Friday evening I was able to successfully dial in to AT&T’s local number in Bangor, pick up my email, surf the web, check my server and so on. However the flakiness of the modem continued, and I could only get a connection 1 out of every 10 times.

Saturday morning I got a phone call early about some changes required to a server in Boston. I set up the gear again and just couldn’t get the modem to connect. In frustration, I popped over to Staples and bought a CardAccess Thinmodem. Back at the hotel I slid it into the back of the Visor, and my connection problems disappeared: I got rock-solid connections every time I dialed.

Using a combination of Eudora’s web browser and email client, and the Top Gun SSH client, I was able, over the course of a couple of hours, to get my work done. Because I wasn’t using a keyboard, but was rather “writing” everything into the Visor using a shorthand they call Graffiti Writing, I was working at about 10% of the speed normal. My hands wore out pretty quickly (one from holding, one from writing), but I was able to do everything from browsing the web to running vi.

So far, so good.

Unlike the Xircom modem I started with, which has its own (bulky) battery pack, the CardAccess modem draws its power from the Visor’s own batteries. As a result, using the CardAccess makes the Visor’s batteries wear out much more quickly — especially when you’re online for a couple of hours. So my next step was to go to the Bangor Mall to buy some more batteries. A bought a pack of a dozen AAA’s just to make sure I didn’t run out.

When I got back to my hotel, I decided I’d better change the batteries in the Visor as they were getting low. I knew that I had about a minute of grace time to insert new batteries once removing the old ones or the Visor’s memory would get erased. Unfortunately I misread the little “-” and “+” signs inside the battery pack, inserted the batteries the wrong way, fooled around trying to get them in the right way and, in the process, lost the contents of the Visor’s memory: addresses, datebook, to do list, notes, applications, everything.

It was my own damn fault, of course (although those +/- signs are awfully tiny!). However all was not lost (I thought): the CardAccess modem’s software gets re-installed automatically when you attach the modem, so I could just dial in to my Big PC at home and do a “network HotSync” (the Palm term for moving information back and forth between Big and Little computers). I would shortly be back in business.

Or so I thought.

Alas every time I went to do this, the Visor would crash with a weird “Line 2793: SerHwControl Error”. I called Handspring technical support and spoken to a confusing technician who informed me that such an error was not possible unless there had been a hardware failure (this sounded suspicious, esp. given that I could still use the modem to dial out to the Internet!). He went on to tell me that all I had to do was to return the unit to the place I bought it and a new one would be sent to me within 14 days.

Being as though I was in Bangor and all (to say nothing of the time limits involved), this wasn’t an attractive option. Unable to withstand any additional technical support frustrations, I returned the CardAccess modem to Staples, and then carefully packaged up the Visor and the Xircom modem. I returned them to Futureshop this afternoon upon my return to Charlottetown.

The moral of the story? It is possible to do real work, if slowing, over the Internet using a Handspring Visor. But if you slip, like I did, you can easily create a situation where you lose all of your data without a way of retrieving it, even over the wire.

I’m just glad I was in Bangor, and not in the middle of some European journey where getting back home to the Big PC I type this on would be a more difficult and costly proposition.

So I’m now searching for another more robust mobile solution. I really, really don’t want to lug around a big (or even a small) laptop — I don’t need to burn CDs and write novels, just check my email and surf the web. Suggestions welcome.