Abacus Wrist PDA

The first thing I’d like to do is congratulate Fossil for finally bringing the Wrist PDA to market. The Fossil and Abacus Wrist PDAs have been in the works for at least four years, and now they have finally arrived. Thanks, Fossil, for not giving up on the Wrist PDA. In my opinion, it was worth the wait.

Before I get into specifics, I want to answer the biggest question I had when I first started reading about the Abacus and Fossil Wrist PDAs: yes, they do actually work. I don’t just mean that they function, but they really do actually work. The screen is big enough, the fonts are readable, the handwriting recognition is impressive, the synching functions as expected, and the battery life is sufficient. That’s not to say the Wrist PDA is perfect, however. There are still some bugs to be worked out, and a few rough spots that can definitely use polishing (all of which are described below), but generally speaking, yes, this watch really does put a PDA on your wrist, and yes, it is actually usable. Now let’s look at the details.

Features of the Abacus/Fossil Wrist PDA

  • Palm OS 4.1.2. I guess you’d have to say the number one feature of this watch is that it runs version 4.1.2 of the Palm OS and comes with the standard Palm personal information management applications installed. (See below for details.)
  • Built-in stylus. The Wrist PDA comes with a tiny folding stylus tucked into the buckle for writing on the screen.
  • Jot. Jot is a handwriting recognition system that allows you to write letters in a very natural way right on the watch’s screen. I found it to be surprisingly accurate.
  • Backlight. The backlight on the Wrist PDA is just like the one on my old Palm IIIx: blue, and plenty bright (at least by watch standards).
  • Multiple watch faces. Choose from one of 11 different watch faces, ranging from traditional analog displays to unusual digital layouts.
  • Infrared port. The IR port lets you beam data to and from all kinds of devices.
  • Rocker switch. The rocker switch is a sort of three-way button used to make navigation and selection more efficient.

What’s In the Box

  • The watch, of course.
  • One folding stylus stashed in the buckle, and a backup stylus in the box.
  • AC adapter and power cord.
  • CD with Palm Desktop and synchronization software for both Windows and Macintosh operating systems.
  • USB cable for synching and charging the watch.
  • Getting started guide.
  • Warranty card (one year for people in the US, two years for those lucky Europeans).
  • Three wallet-sized Jot cheat sheets (in English, French, and Spanish).

Specifications

The specs on the Abacus and Fossil Wrist PDAs really aren’t half bad for a watch. In fact, they are much more impressive than my old Palm IIIx which I once thought of as being pretty advanced with its 16MHz processor, massive 4MB of RAM, and two AAA batteries.

  • Palm OS 4.1.2.
  • Motorola DragonBall Super VZ 66MHz processor.
  • 4 MB flash ROM memory + 8MB RAM memory (7.7MB RAM available for use).
  • Touch screen LCD with 160×160 resolution and 16-level grayscale display.
  • Lithium-ion rechargeable battery.

Applications

The Wrist PDA comes with the following 12 applications installed:

  • Address. Manage contact information.
  • Calc. Why buy a calculator watch when you can have an entire PDA on your wrist?
  • DateBook. Manage appointments.
  • HotSync. Initiates the synchronizing operation with your PC.
  • Jot. Configure Jot preferences, tune Jot for improved handwriting recognition, and practice with the Jot tutorial.
  • MemoPad. Manage simple memos.
  • Prefs. Configure and customize your Wrist PDA.
  • Security. Lock your Wrist PDA, and assign a password.
  • Skills. General tutorial on the Wrist PDA and the Palm OS.
  • ToDoList. Manage lists of to do items.
  • Watch. Puts the watch into watch mode (details below).
  • Welcome. Go through the initial setup routine.

Getting Started with the Abacus Wrist PDA

One of the nice things about the Wrist PDA (over, say, an MSN Direct watch) is that you don’t have to wait for it to fully charge before you can start playing with it since it can easily be operated while charging. When you first plug the watch in, after a couple of Palm and Fossil branding screens, you are asked to calibrate the touch screen by tapping in the center of three little targets. Take this step very seriously and tap as accurately as you possibly can. On full sized Palms, it’s not such a big deal, but with the Wrist PDA, you are working at such a small scale that every pixel counts. The first time I calibrated by Wrist PDA, I was too hasty, and I didn’t tap close enough to the center of the targets which made the watch pretty frustrating to use since the ensuing configuration screens have you tapping tiny arrows which are very difficult to hit if the screen has not been calibrated properly. Don’t worry, though — if you screw up your first attempt, you can always go back and recalibrate anytime you need to (go to “Prefs” and select “Digitizer” from the menu). Once the touch screen has been accurately calibrated, I found the watch to be surprisingly easy to navigate.

The next thing you’re going to want to do is set up the desktop software. There are two parts: the Palm Desktop (which you can replace with Outlook, if you want), and the HotSync Manager (the software that manages the process of synching the watch with either Outlook or the Palm Desktop). There are a lot of different possible configurations: Windows, Mac, Palm Desktop, Outlook. It might even be possible to get the watch to sync with Apple iCal and Address Book using iSync, though I didn’t try it. In fact, I only tested the plain vanilla installation of the Palm Desktop on Windows XP Professional, and everything worked just as expected.

Now you’re ready to explore the rest of the watch. I’m happy to report that I found the Wrist PDA to be very intuitive to use, and convenient to operate one-handed (thanks to the rocker switch). Granted, I do have the advantage of having used various Palm devices for many years, but I found I was able to operate every function on the watch without once opening the instruction booklet. If you’re not familiar with the Palm OS, and especially Jot, you will definitely want to take a look through the instruction manual and the various tutorials available on the watch itself. I can say pretty definitively, though, that anyone interested in owning a watch like this, and who has gotten this far in my review, will have no trouble getting acclimated to the Wrist PDA.

Watch Mode

The “watch” portion of the watch (as distinct from the PDA) seems to simply be implemented as a Palm application. You can select it from the application menu, or you can allow the watch to enter watch mode automatically after a configurable timeout period. This generally works out fine, especially since the Palm OS displays the time in the upper left hand corner so you can still see what time it is even when you’re not in watch mode, although I would like to see a shortcut for putting the watch back into watch mode when you’re done using the PDA. Maybe holding down the rocker switch button for two seconds, or something like that. The problem is that the Palm OS doesn’t display the date, so if you’re in PDA mode and you need to know what day it is, you either have to go into the calendar (not very convenient), or wait for the watch to timeout and go back into watch mode.

Once in watch mode, you can select from 11 different watch faces using the rocker switch. The watch faces range from traditional analog displays to unusual digital layouts. This is similar to MSN Direct watches’ ability to use different faces, and is a very nice touch.

I would have liked to see some very basic applications installed to give the watch more of a traditional watch feel, like an alarm application. Of course, you can set an alarm using the calendar application, but it would be nice if there were a streamlined way of setting an alarm that worked more like a standard watch alarm. Same goes for a countdown timer and a stopwatch application. The A+ application by BEIKS provides a stopwatch, and I’m sure other third-party applications can be downloaded to provide additional functionality, but it would be nice if they were installed right out of the box.

The watch produces plenty of beeps and chirps from it’s internal speaker during normal operation. I found them to be loud enough to be useful audible cues, but subtle enough not be embarrassing in public places. The one complaint I have with the watch’s speaker is that the appointment alarm could be louder. In an office setting, you’ll probably hear it, but while commuting or having lunch in a crowded restaurant, you most likely won’t.

The Design

The Wrist PDA’s case is a well designed, solid hunk of stainless steel. The buckle is stainless steel, as well, and the band is a leather/rubber combination (the manual mentions a model with a metal bracelet, but it is nowhere to be seen on the website, and I think the rubber works better, anyway). The only complaint I have regarding the construction of the watch is the plastic buttons. They don’t have the same solid, robust feel as the case, especially the rocker switch. I’d like to see future versions of the Wrist PDA have a rocker switch as well built as a Sony jog dial, though to be fair, I don’t want to pay Sony prices. Something in the middle might be more appropriate.

The watch is big. No one is disputing that. But considering it has an entire PDA built into it, it’s actually not so bad. And it’s not excessively thick. I think whether the watch looks cool or dorky ultimately depends on you. If you’re a cool guy with carefully tussled hair and clothes from places I don’t even know the name of, it will probably work on you. If you wear taped glasses, slacks from the 70’s, and you only shower when your mother makes you, then the watch will only serve to compliment your dorky ensemble. However if this describes you, then you probably don’t care how it looks or what people think, anyway.

The bottom line is if you like it, get it, and don’t worry about the size. It won’t bother you because it’s not excessively heavy, and it’s actually quite comfortable to wear. And if your mates make fun of you for wearing a PDA on your wrist, just tell them it’s the only way you can possibly keep all the girls’ numbers straight. They’ll know you’re lying, but it’s a snappy comeback, nonetheless.

The Stylus

The Abacus Wrist PDA comes with two styli (technically the proper way of referring to more than one stylus). One is to keep in the slot in the watch’s buckle, and one is to keep in a safe place at home as a backup. The stylus is half metal and half plastic, and unfolds to a length of 1.5 inches (almost 4 cm). It stays very securely in place in the buckle, so hopefully you won’t be needing that backup, but it is actually somewhat difficult to remove when the watch is strapped on because the excess portion of the band covers the tiny knob that you use to slide it out (see the Abacus Wrist PDA photo gallery for details). Ultimately, I found that a full sized stylus is the only way to go with this watch. I have a combination pen/stylus/laser-pointer which works beautifully with the Wrist PDA, and made writing on the LCD surprisingly easy. If you decide to pick one of these watches up, I strongly recommend keeping either a pen stylus, or even a standard replacement PDA stylus that you can buy from any office supply store, in an easily accessible pocket. In fact, this would be a very cool accessory for Fossil to consider including.

Using Jot

Gone are days of the esoteric hieroglyphics known as Graffiti. Although I was once quite the Graffiti master, after using several other handwriting recognition systems, I now recognize Graffiti as the menace its name implies. Thankfully, the Abacus Wrist PDA uses either Jot or Graffiti 2, and it uses both quite well. Data input was my biggest concern with the Wrist PDA, and I’m happy to report that it’s actually far better than I expected.

Jot allows you to write on a large portion of the screen as opposed to confining you to a tiny quadrant as the old Palms did. Use the left side of the screen for lowercase letters, the center for uppercase letters, and the right side for numbers. You can have a little arrow appear at the top center of the screen to help you visually divide the writing surface by checking the “show mode mark” in the Jot configuration application. Selecting is also surprisingly easy. Double tap on a word to select it, or tap and hold until the watch chirps, then drag to select only a portion of a word or sentence.

If Jot is not your thing, you can use the old on-screen keyboard, but for this, you will have to have bionic eyes. You can toggle the on-screen keyboard on and off from the command toolbar. To open the command toolbar from any screen, make a single upward stroke going from left to right.

I have to reiterate that data input is probably the one thing that impressed me most about this watch. I wouldn’t want to write a novel on it, and I still prefer qwerty thumb boards when I can get them (like on my Sidekick II), but for taking down quick notes and contact information, the Abacus Wrist PDA is very usable.

Customizing the Wrist PDA

The Abacus Wrist PDA can be customized to some extent. Of course you have the 11 different watch faces I mentioned above for customizing watch mode, but the PDA mode can be customized as well, primarily through the Prefs application. You have all your standard Palm preferences (time and date formats, number formats, sound settings, etc.), but there is also a Wrist PDA section which allows you to customize a few additional functions. For instance, you can decide whether you want the Wrist PDA to go into watch mode when PDA mode times out, whether you want the screen to simply go blank (to preserve power), or whether you want the watch to remain in PDA mode (though it still “locks” so you don’t accidentally create arbitrary appointments while thrashing about in your sleep). There’s a section for picking your watch application, though the only choice right now is “WatchA” which refers to the Watch Mode application, but it looks like in the future, you might be able to select different watch applications. There’s also a “Lock Face” option which is supposed to prevent you from changing watch faces with the rocker switch in watch mode. Whatever you do, do not select this option. There is a bug in the Wrist PDA software which will cause the watch to freeze up after it times out into watch mode when this option is selected, and even a hard reset will not bring it back. (I reproduced this bug twice, and both times, spent well over an hour getting the watch into working order again.) Fossil, if you’re listening, this would be a really good one to fix as soon as possible.

Of course, you can further customize your Wrist PDA with third-party applications. How well Palm applications work on your Wrist PDA really depends on how well they adapt to the 160 x 160 screen. You are definitely going to have the most luck with applications created especially for the Wrist PDA like those from the new BEIKS Wrist PDA site. According to this page, a Wrist PDA software store will be coming soon to Fossil’s site, as well. And finally, if you’re the do-it-yourself kind of geek, the Fossil Wrist PDA SDK (software development kit) will allow you to write your own watch software.

Beaming

Beaming data to and from the Wrist PDA is a snap. I beamed several records back and forth between another Palm device (a Garmin iQue 3600) with no problems whatsoever. In order to preserve battery life, you might want to go into Prefs > General and turn “Beam Receive” off which means the watch is not using power waiting for an incoming infrared signal. Just remember to turn it back on before trying to beam data to the watch again, or it won’t work.

Beaming data is nothing new. In fact, we’ve been beaming data using infrared for probably close to a decade now, and more recently, we’ve started using Bluetooth, wireless networking, and GPRS. But I have to say, beaming data to and from my watch put the experience in a whole new context, and it seemed as fun and geeky as the very first time I did it.

Battery Life

According to the manual, “The rechargeable battery on your Wrist PDA should last 3 to 4 days with an average of 30 minutes of PDA usage per day with no infrared port beaming and no backlight usage. This duration may vary depending on the amount of PDA usage, the temperature, and other factors.”

I found Fossil’s claims of 3 to 4 days of moderate PDA use to be accurate, though I’d be pretty worried on that forth day. If you use the PDA often, you might want to just get in the habit of plugging it in every night so you’ll never have to worry about it. My cell phone has taught me that it’s better to be on a short but predictable charging schedule than on a longer unpredictable and irregular one. If you charge your watch every night, you’ll never have to worry about it. Since the watch isn’t water resistant, you have to take it off anyway to shower, so why not just take it off at night, plug it in, and put your fully charged PDA back on your nice clean wrist after your morning soak?

If your computer has a powered USB port, you can charge your watch just by connecting it to your computer so that you don’t have to use the separate AC adapter. (It’s always nice to be able to ditch a cable when traveling.) Also, if you completely deplete the battery on your watch, charge it as soon as possible to avoid losing your data. You have about a day to get the watch some juice before your data is forgotten and you have to restore it by synching it with your PC.

Watch Controls

There are three buttons on the watch, and one “rocker switch”. The rocker switch is a nice addition which allows you to navigate and scroll more efficiently than you could with just buttons. The rocker switch moves in three directions: up, down, and in (like a standard button). Here is a general description of how each of the buttons are used:

  • Rocker up: Scroll up one item at a time.
  • Rocker down: Scroll down one item at a time.
  • Rocker in (enter): Open the selected application or selected item.
  • Page up (top right): Scroll up one screen at a time.
  • Page down (bottom right): Scroll down one screen at a time.
  • Back (bottom left): Go back to the previous screen or Launcher category.

Resetting Your Wrist PDA

For those of you who found this review by searching Google for “Fossil Wrist PDA reset” (I read my server logs, so I know you’re out there), to perform a soft reset, just use the stylus to gently press the reset button located on the left side of the watch, just below the hinge for the USB port cover. Soft resetting your Wrist PDA will not affect your data. Think of it as rebooting your computer. During the course of this review, I found I had to reset the Wrist PDA a couple of times because it started acting funky. A soft reset takes only a few seconds, and almost always fixed whatever issue I was having (the only issue it didn’t fix was the freezing problem I described above).

Before I explain how to perform a hard reset, note that all of you data and third party applications will be deleted when performing a hard reset, so hopefully you’ve been syncing on a regular basis. If not, let this be a lesson to you. After a hard reset, from a software perspective, your watch will be exactly like it was when you first took it out of the box. To perform a hard reset, hold down the rocker switch and press the reset button with your stylus. When the Palm powered logo appears, release the rocker switch. When prompted, press the page up (upper right) button to complete the reset, or press any other button to abort.

System Requirements

I’m guess if your technology savvy enough to have found your way to this review, you’re computer will more than meet this watch’s system requirements, but just to be on the safe side, here are the minimum requirements for the Wrist PDA as stated in the manual:

  • Windows 98 SE, Millennium Edition, 2000 Professional, XP Home, XP Professional, or Mac OS X v.10.2.1 or higher.
  • Pentium 233MHz with MMX technology (Pentium III 450MHz or better recommended).
  • 64MB of RAM (at least 128MB for Windows XP).
  • 800×600 display resolution with 16-bit color or better.
  • 150MB or more of free hard disk space.
  • CD-ROM drive.
  • USB port (use of a USB hub not recommended).

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that this is an impressive piece of technology. Although Fossil has not actually invented anything new here (both Palms and digital watches have been around for a long time), they deserve plenty of credit for the vision and execution that resulted in finally bringing the Wrist PDA to market. Did they get it right after four years of research, development, and speculation? Yes and no. There are still a few kinks to be worked out, and one or two improvements to be made. But is it close enough? I think so. For $199, I think it presents a pretty compelling solution for someone who wants the convenience of a PDA without the hassle and burden of carrying it around.

Additional Resources

By Christian Cantrell

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