Hands-on Review: Hard cases for the Tungsten T
By: Steve Gingras (firstname.lastname@example.org)
April 30, 2003
Indiana Jones had life easy. Oh sure, finding the Holy Grail was a little difficult with all those Nazis and that wrath of God thing, but at least Indiana knew that the Grail existed. I, on the other hand, have been scouring the countryside and battling evil in my quest and I'm not even sure that the object of my desire is out there - the ultimate hard case for a Tungsten T.
With all the excitement surrounding the release of the new Tungsten C and the Zire 71, you might have all forgotten about the best darn Palm model available. Built in camera? WiFi? Yeah, whatever. The Tungsten T still reins as the champion of PDA industrial design. Oh sure, more memory and on-screen graffiti out of the box would be nice, but a little shareware and a 256 MB SD card and Tungsten T owners are back on top. "Gosh, your new Tungsten C has only 64 MB of RAM? That must be rough." Okay, my insecurity has subsided...back to my quest.
If you read my last review, then you know that when we last met, I had settled for a Palm-branded hard case, but wasn't completely satisfied with the choice. While this case fits the TT quite well and features handy storage for two SD cards, it lacks a cutout to provide access to the TT's universal connector. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that the Palm-branded hard case's fit and finish just doesn't due justice to the TT. This case hides the TT's elegant design rather than complements it. While a rational man might just accept a couple flaws and actually start using his PDA, I cannot. I am not that man. I am on a quest.
A rose by any other name...
While scouring the web for alternative hard cases, one name kept surfacing above all others. Well, to be accurate, I should say three names. Innopocket, Saunders/RhinoSkin, and Proporta each sell a hard case for the Tungsten T that is based on a common design. In fact, the TT case sold by each of these companies is virtually identical with the exception of logo branding. Regardless of brand, users of cases based on this design have consistently rated the case design highly. Since such reviews tend to be somewhat subjective, however, I decided to test this case design myself and compare the results to the Palm-branded hard case. So which case did I buy? They are pretty much all the same...right? So what would a reasonable man do? Who knows. I bought all three.
I contacted each company on a Saturday evening (have I mentioned that I spend way too much time on these things?) and then moved outside to camp on my front steps waiting for the cases to arrive. Innopocket blew away the other two case manufacturers by responding to my e-mail Sunday evening and having their case arrive via FedEx Tuesday morning. I was actually pleasantly surprised when I accepted the package from the delivery man. A consistent thread that I noted with reviews of this case was that it was rather heavy and featured numerous sharp edges. I'm not sure what I expected. I suppose something like a brick with protruding razor blades. I'm happy to say that the Innopocket case was far less ominous.
My first impression of the Innopocket case was based solely on the case's appearance. While such an assessment is unavoidably subjective, I believe that anyone who appreciates the Tungsten T's design will immediately appreciate the fit and finish of the Innopocket case. The gunmetal grey color of this aluminum case matches the TT's color almost exactly. The finish is not as smooth, however, which is actually an advantage. Instead of the TT's smooth finish, the Innopocket case has a subtle powder coat, which reduces the chance of the unit slipping out of your hand - a frequent complaint of TT owners.
Impressed with the case's exterior appearance, I next decided to see how well the Tungsten T fit. My first surprise came when I opened the case. This case opens to the right, which is the opposite direction of the Palm-branded hard case. While I have been able to use the case without too much trouble, this design may provide a disproportionate advantage for left-handed users. The case is not available from any one of the three vendors in a model that opens to the left. Innopocket does, however, manufacturer dual versions of their cases for several other PDAs - one model that opens to the left and one model that opens to the right. In such configurations, Innopocket refers to the model that opens to the right as the version "for lefties". Thus, they may have a hard time explaining why this case isn't also a left-handed model. A close examination of the case, however, appears to reveal the motivation behind this design. Unlike the Palm-branded hard case, the Innopocket case's hinge does not significantly protrude from the side of the case. Instead, it is more tightly integrated into the case. While this design makes the case more compact, it appears to have prevented the designers from placing the hinge on the left side of the case without interfering with the cutout on the left side, which provides access to the TT's voice record button, microphone, and headphone jack. The result, however, is only mildly distracting when using the case and may even be preferred by some right-handed users. Regardless, all users will appreciate the access the lid design provides to the TT's side mounted controls when the lid is open.
An examination of the case's interior reveals a significant difference from the Palm-branded hard case. The Palm case is primarily a plastic skeleton with a thin metal veneer on the front and rear exterior faces of the case. No such flimsy structure here. The Innopocket case is made entirely of rigid aluminum, which provides a significantly greater degree of protection. While in the case, the TT's finish is protected by a thin layer of neoprene, which lines the case's interior surfaces. This neoprene also adds a limited degree of shock protection. The TT fits in the case by sliding downward between two rolled edges that girdle the lower portion of the unit. The case's neoprene lining helps ensure that the TT does not slide out of the case inadvertently. In fact, sliding the TT in and out of the case is rather difficult at first and requires a significant degree of force. Fortunately, the lining adapts to the TT after several weeks of use, after which, inserting and removing the unit becomes somewhat easier. After several weeks, however, inserting and removing the TT from the case still requires some degree of force...enough to know that the TT is never falling out of this case.
When inserted in the case, the user has easy access to all of the Tungsten T's controls and ports. The top is completely open so accessing the stylus, SD card port, and power button is a breeze. An opening in the case's left side allows easy access to the voice record button, microphone, and headphone jack while an opening in the bottom portion of the case allows access to the TT's universal connector. The case design does not, however, allow you to place the TT in the cradle while in the case. Instead, this opening primarily provides access for a portable charge/synch cable. If you want to place your TT in the cradle or use an accessory like the new Palm-branded ultra thin folding keyboard, you will have to wrestle the TT out of this case's neoprene grip. This limitation has not been a significant issue for me as my cradle sits idle for the most part. Personally, I prefer to use a portable charge/synch cable since they fit nicely in a laptop bag, backpack, etc. and are then always available. I do, however, wish that I could leave the TT in its case while using the new Palm keyboard. Oh well, I suppose that I'll cut Innopocket some slack and not mention how I cut myself while trying to get my TT out of the case during a meeting while attempting to use the keyboard. Whoops...I guess that I did mention it. It's not that the case has as many sharp edges as reports floating around the web might indicate, but the combination of a rugged metal case and the case's firm neoprene grip on the TT can be an issue if you are accident prone. I'm writing the incident off as more of an issue related to my hand-eye coordination rather than a flaw in the case design, but my lawyers are looking into the issue just in case. Did I mention that my neck hurts also?
Extending the TT in the case is a breeze. The top portion of the rear face has a thoughtful cutout that allows the user to grasp both the front and rear of the top portion of the TT to extend the unit out of the top of the case. Unlike the Palm-branded hard case, however, the case lid cannot be closed while the TT is extended. The top portion of the case lid has a lip that partially wraps around the top of the TT. I'm not sure what the designers were going for here. I suppose that this lip would stop the TT from sliding out of the case...that is, if the case didn't hang on to the TT like Anna Nicole Smith hangs on to a man with an AARP card, a pension, and a heart condition. This lip does provide a slight added measure of protection to the top portion of the TT. The lip also slightly recesses the TT's power button, which is welcome for those of us who have not yet installed shareware to defeat such inadvertent activations. The downside to this design, however, is that the user must ensure that the TT is retracted before attempting to close the case.
Another issue with extending the TT while in the case relates to the side opening for the voice record control and headphone jack. When the TT is extended, access to the voice record button is blocked almost completely. Access to the headphone jack is still available, but you must unplug your headphone cable prior to extending the TT and then reinsert the cable after the TT is extended. While I am not often tempted to extend the TT while listening to MP3s, I would have preferred a design more along the lines of the Palm-branded hard case's opening, which leaves the top portion of this side cutout open.
Unlike the Palm-branded hard case, the Innopocket case lid snaps shut firmly. When open, however, the case lid is free floating. Thus, the case lid tends to be either all the way open or closed. The case lacks the thoughtful hinge design of the Palm-branded hard case that allows that case lid to lock in the 45 and 90 degree open positions. While the free floating hinge design has not been a huge issue, I do miss the handy 45 degree stop position that was available with the Palm case. I also find the free floating hinge somewhat troublesome while reading an eBook for extended periods.
When closed, the lid provides excellent protection for the TT. Several reports floating around state that the neoprene actually presses against the TT's hard buttons. While I can see a slight indentation in the neoprene for the bottom portion of the TT's 5-way navigation button, no such markings are present for the buttons that actually power the unit on. Applying significant "don't try this at home" levels of force to the case lid failed to activate the unit.
So what about the weight? Well, this case is heavier than the Palm-branded hard case. In fact, it is a full TEN GRAMS heavier! Being from the States, I was convinced that this was something like four pounds, but several of my British friends convinced me that this is actually only a fraction of an ounce. They are generally trustworthy folks so I suppose that we can believe them. The highly scientific "balance a case in the each hand" test tends to back them up. I find the difference in weight to be negligible.
RhinoSkin arrives, Proporta still MIA
After I had finally managed to break in the neoprene on the Innopocket case, the RhinoSkin case finally arrived. A close examination of this case revealed that it was clearly the same design and, potentially, manufacturer. So is there any way that I was going to bag the Innopocket case and start wrestling with virgin neoprene that wanted to engage in TT tug-of-war? Well, did I mention the cool RhinoSkin logo?
The Innopocket case does not feature any exterior markings on the case. In this respect, the case is a simple yet elegant extension of the TT. The RhinoSkin case, however, features a subtle embossed RhinoSkin logo on the case lid. I suppose that the final assessment of which style is preferable is a personal matter, but I switched to the RhinoSkin case because I liked the logo. So what about the Proporta case? Well, I can't really say. That case has still not arrived. My research indicates, however, that the Proporta case is identical to the Innopocket and RhinoSkin cases with the exception of branding. The Proporta case has markings on both the case lid and the rear side. The marking on the case lid is an embossed version of the Proporta logo, while the marking on the rear is a silk screened URL for the Proporta web site. Once again, your preference will reign here, but pictures that I have seen would have me lean more toward an unmarked case than carry the Proporta case as branded. Your mileage may vary.
So...am I still using the Palm-branded hard case? Definitely. I am using it to protect a small portion of my bookshelf from gathering dust. It is unlikely, however, to grace my TT again. The hard cases from Innopocket and RhinoSkin provide substantially more protection and just look so much better than the Palm case. In my opinion, the Palm-branded hard case hides the elegant design of the TT while the Innopocket/RhinoSkin/Proporta case serves as an elegant extension of the TT design. In the look and feel department, there is no comparison.
From a pure functional point of view, the winner is not as clear. Both cases allow easy extension of the TT, yet only the Palm-branded hard case allows you to leave a headphone cable plugged in while extending. The Palm case also allows you to access the voice record control while the TT is extended as well as close the case lid - features lacking in the Innopocket/ RhinoSkin/Proporta case. The Palm case also allows easy removal (without Band-Aides) of the TT to utilize a cradle or other universal connector-based accessory. Of course, the Palm case must provide this ease of removal since it lacks a cutout providing access to this connector. The Palm case's lack of a death grip may also result in the TT becoming dislodged inadvertently. While I did not experience such an inadvertent dislodgement while using the Palm case, others have complained about this issue. The Palm case also features internal storage for two additional SD cards, which the Innopocket/ RhinoSkin/Proporta case lacks.
In my opinion, however, the Innopocket/ RhinoSkin/Proporta case is the superior hard case...and perhaps the best available for the Tungsten T. The side cutout limitations really haven't been an issue for me. Also, I tend to use a charge/synch cable rather than the cradle. I suppose the fact that I routinely go for days of extended TT use without ever feeling the need to remove the TT from the Innopocket/ RhinoSkin/Proporta case speaks highly of its design. If you use a cradle exclusively, however, and do not foresee purchasing a portable charge/synch cable, then you may want to take a closer look at the Palm-branded hard case. The same applies for anyone who uses a folding keyboard or other universal connector-based accessory. If you already own or foresee purchasing a portable charge/synch cable, however, there is no question that you should seriously consider the Innopocket/ RhinoSkin/Proporta. Since the TT hard case sold by all three companies is nearly identical, the selection of a particular brand is really more of an exercise in choosing a logo...or lack of a logo in the case of Innopocket...and going with a company that you trust. Personally, I have had excellent luck with all three companies (MIA Proporta case notwithstanding) so I would have a hard time giving you advice on that front.
Don't like hard cases? Well, in the future, I hope to bring you a review of the leading leather cases for the TT. Sick of case reviews for the TT? Well, send me a Tungsten C or a Porsche Boxter and I'll review that. Just make sure that you don't send me a left-handed Boxter...and leave a box of Band-Aides in the glove compartment.
RATING: 9 / 10
No actual AARP card holders were hurt during the writing of this review. Any mention of Anna Nicole Smith and her desire to hang on to such a man is simply recognition of her devotion and dedication to aging life partners. Please do not sue me Anna. Please. Did I mention that my neck still hurts?
© 2003 Stephen Gingras
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