Retail Roundup: Palm PDA and Accessory Availability

by: Kris Keilhack
October 11, 2006

With the future of Palm’s dedicated handheld lineup looking cloudy, it may be time for Palm OS aficionados to begin preparing for the inevitable. While I usually wouldn’t advocate circling the wagons and causing a panic, it looks like 2006 is going to pass as the first year since 1996 that Palm Inc. has not released a single PDA or handheld device. As of this writing, Palm.com lists the Z22, Tungsten E2, Palm TX, and LifeDrive as their non-Treo lineup and there are no signs that any new models are coming in the foreseeable future.

With all of this in time, it may be wise for those of us who have much invested in the Palm OS to start stocking up on extra styli, screen protectors and maybe even an extra handheld while they’re still available. Additionally, many PIC readers are similar to me in that they will not make a major handheld or accessory purchase without seeing the actual items firsthand…and despite the advances in e-commerce, traditional brick and mortar retailers are the only way to go about this time-honored tradition of “fondling”. Finally, traditional retail outlets are perfect for buying a last-minute accessory such as a replacement stylus or a travel charger prior to heading out of town.

Read on for my findings as I slogged through the retail trenches to see what the current retail presence of the Palm-conomy looks like. In the course of three weeks in September and October 2006, I went to the following chain stores in North and South Carolina:

Best Buy

Palm display at Best BuyBest Buy has always been a rather odd retail partner for Palm. They seemed slow to pick up on the Palm phenomena in the late 90s before finally catching fire around 2000 or 2001 or so. Then in early 2004, BB announced that they were cutting way back on PDA offerings in order to devote more shelf space to the omnipresent iPod and other higher-margin, flashy portable media players. Just when it seemed like BB was going to pull the plug on PDAs completely, the 2005 arrivals of the LifeDrive, TX and Z22 brought a bit of renewed focus. One notable casualty of BB’s shelf-clearing spree was all of the Windows Mobile and Pocket PC devices. I didn’t notice a single HP remaining at any BB store I visited.

At two local Best Buy stores, I was surprised to find the PDAs recently removed from the “mobile tech” counter up front with cell phones and mp3 players. Store #1 had set up a rather nice dedicated Palm area in a corner between the pocket calculators and the computer monitors. The other BB was still in the transitioning process, the clerk said, and had its Palms scattered around in their standard retail boxes and not under lockup. Could the diminishing value of Palm PDAs to thieves perhaps be a sign of the end times?

Store #1 (with the new display) had the TX, Z22 and LifeDrive out for purchase. Store #2 had only the TX and LifeDrive. Accessories for non-existent at both stores but a more detailed perusal of the mobile phone department revealed bright orange Palm packaged screen protectors, Treo styli and cases, and car + AC chargers for all Athena connector devices. Strangely, I didn’t see any Treos for sale at the Sprint or Cingular sections of the cell phone counter. The salesman I quizzed could not confirm that any of the “Treo” accessories would work on any of the regular Palm handhelds.

In another bizarre twist, both BB stores were selling their Palms for MORE than Palm’s MSRP. The TX was $308.99 and the E2 was $205.99. As a side note, this odd pricing strategy is not new—the usually low price-minded BB introduced it with the T3 in 2004 and has been doing it on and off ever since.

Rating: C
A decent selection of handhelds but clueless employees and few accessories make this one an iffy proposition at best. Only worth frequenting if you have Reward Zone freebie dollars to cash in.

Circuit City

Circuit CityI’ll always have fond memories of Circuit City since they were one of the first stores to carry Pilots back in 1996 (even thought my first Pilot was actually purchased at Egghead). Times have changed and so has Circuit City. The appliances are gone and the handhelds seem to be on their way out.

I visited one local CC store and noticed its PDA display in dreadful shape. A Z22 with barely functioning buttons and a totally dead E2 were the only models on display save for two iPaqs. The accessory selection amounted to little more than a few Palm and Belkin cases. About the only highlight at all was a reasonable selection of old MDM software titles on MultiMedia Cards reduced in price; Madden 2005, Atari Retro, and Game Essentials were available alongside a battered copy of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide 2006.

The CC store I visited is less than two years old and the PDA display has already been moved and rearranged at least three times. At least it usually stays within shouting distance of the notebook PCs. The one true highlight of Circuit City’s Palm inventory is the fact that it’s the only store where I’ve ever seen the T|E2 Essentials Pack bearing the current Palm branding (insert PIC story link here). The actual inventory of handhelds is kept under lockup in a glass case located under the display models. An actual reason for purchasing a Palm from CC could very well be their return policy; it's always been quite generous in my past dealings with them.

Rating: C-
Worth it if you need an E2 right NOW and want some free accessories with it. If you need your Madden ’05 fix, CC is the place to go. Otherwise, go elsewhere.

CompUSA

Just the thought of having to drive to one of the two local CompUSA stores makes me cringe…yet I end up going there more often than I care to admit. My trips there are usually harried rushes to get some specific accessory or PC-related item such as some Arctic Silver thermal paste at 5pm on a Sunday or a new ATX power supply when mine goes up in smoke the day before a project is due. So I usually don’t even pass the handheld section of the counter unless I have (lots and lots of) spare time.

At both local CompUSA stores I noticed, unsurprisingly, a changing of the guard. The Palm OS and Windows Mobile machines were in disarray and minimal inventory was available in lockup behind the counter. That said, a Z22, E2 and TX were all available for demonstration but the E2 was totally dead and the TX’s digitizer was wildly out of calibration. A lone LifeDrive sat behind the glass doors of the cabinet, presumably still for sale. I definitely had one of my better sales staff experiences here, as the middle-aged guy definitely knew his stuff. The only heinous bit of false information that he fed me on was saying that the TX’s Bluetooth supported the A2DP stereo headphone profile as well as audio capture from a BT phone headset mic. He definitely had been schooled in the fine art of upselling accessories and service plans.

Speaking of accessories let me mention them! This little stuff is far and away the best reason to set foot into a CompUSA store. Two aisles behind the PDA counter was a tremendous selection of Palm-branded and third party accessories, with an especially strong emphasis on cases. I saw cases for every current Palm formfactor, including the LifeDrive. Replacement styli were present for everything but Treos and every oddball items like Hotsync cables and Treo batteries were there. Some of it was even on clearance and really attractively priced, such as a Rhinoskin Zire 72 aluminum case for $15. As I continued shuffling through the store, I unearthed more PDA items on clearance on a table next to the Macintosh department, a few open box TX and E2’s mildly discounted in a cage up front and some more Treo cases interspersed with iPod accessories in the back of the store. If you have the better part of an hour to kill there’s no telling what you can find at your local CompUSA!

Rating: B+
It’s worth it just for the sheer number of accessories available. The sales staff are usually halfway decent but the store is usually in shambles and very disorganized.

Office Max

I spent very little time in the nearby Office Max for one simple reason: I’d never buy anything Palm-related from them due to their overly harsh return policy. The had a small sign next to the very neatly organized Palm end cap display saying that they accept no returns of personal organizers once the packaging has been opened. Aside from this major caveat, the Office Max display could come straight out of Palm’s corporate HQ. The lineup was comprehensive (TX, E2, Z22, Earthlink-branded Treo 650 in a hideous teal color) and the accessories (all Palm-branded) were fairly plentiful. Everything was neat, in its place, and priced exactly the same as it is at palm.com. However, I just cannot abide by their Draconian return policy. With Palm’s iffy quality control, you are at best locked into getting a replacement device instead of a full refund.

Rating: D
Avoid Office Max at all cost if you’re going to buying an actual handheld due to their harsh return policy. They’re fine if you need a quick Palm-branded accessory fix, especially if you have one of their common discount mailer coupons.

Office Depot

Office Depot PDA sectionOffice Depot is one of the few chains still trying to push conventional handheld devices. Office Depot is renowned for getting new Palms in early and keeping ‘em in stock. That, combined with the fact that they are convenient to my home and work, plus their excellent WorkLife Rewards program, is enough to get and keep my business.

I have bought at least three Palms at OD over the years due to the simple fact that they usually are the first ones to get the new models out for sale after Palm’s press release. I also like OD’s reasonable return policies and usually cheerful staff. I am very well acquainted with the two local OD stores, so I was rather surprised to find the Palm display area at store #1 devoid of the two most recent models last week (Z22 and TX). When I quizzed the sales rep, he said that they were “Making room for the new stuff”. He then reminded me that they had all four Palm/PalmOne models in inventory and for purchase and were just replacing the display models…but with what? Store #2 had all four Palms on display but only the TX and E2 available for purchase.

The actual handhelds are nicely presented in an upright fashion and only minimally strapped to the counter. This permits a very thorough fondling of the device and its buttons without impairing touchscreen usage. The E2 and LifeDrive that were on display worked fine, as did the various TomTom GPS units and Sandisk MP3 players that were encroaching on the Palm shelf space.

I think I can recall OD running a weekly promotion about twice per year over the past few years…when I bought my LifeDrive they were running a $100 mail-in rebate off of any PDA priced $299 or higher. OD loves mail-in offers and has been known to offer free IR keyboards or cases with handheld purchases in the past. Additionally, Office Depot (alongside Circuit City) was the only store offering the T|E2 Essentials pack (includes a case, multifunction stylus, and screen protectors) instead of the plain TE2 package, so there’s definitely a bit more bang for the retail buck by buying the bundle at these stores.

Accessory selection at OD is minimal but serviceable. It seems to vary drastically from store to store, as the smaller urban format stores have much smaller accessory offerings than the big-box Office Depots found near malls and in suburban areas. Most of the accessories were Palm-branded but I noticed a large amount of older Belkin stuff. If you need a charger or a case for your T|T or similar Universal Connector Palm then OD is the place to go! Also of interest was a very thorough selection of Handmark retail-packaged software such as Warfare Inc., Documents to Go, Monopoly/Scrabble and similar titles. Again, if you are out of town and don’t have an Internet connection, you can always go to OD and get your…umm, Palm OS game on!

Rating: B+
Always a good selection of handhelds in stock. Consistently agreeable return policies. If you can live with a mediocre accessory lineup, this is as good as it gets, especially if you can get in on their occasional PDA mail-in rebate offer!

Staples

Both of the local Staples stores are a bit off the beaten path for me so I seldom frequent them unless I’m in the area AND need office supplies (a rare combination of events).

I was pleased to see that the local Staples had split their PDA display into an interesting looking tower arrangement, with Palm OS devices on one side and WinMob devices on the other. The TX, Z22 and an E2 were all on display at Staples. The other Staples store I visited still has the older arrangement of the handhelds lined up and strapped down. One nice touch was that Staples was the only store offering printed Palm sales literature for the taking. Office Depot used to do this but ceased doing so sometime in the past year or so.

The 20-something sales clerk at Staples was super-helpful but not very informed about the latest and greatest advancements in mobile technology such as Bluetooth or virtual Graffiti. Nevertheless, in what must be a historical first, he recommended the Z22 for basic PIM needs instead of the higher-priced E2 or TX, correctly surmising that I had little interest in music or video playback since I told him I already had a “real” mp3 player. I bought my m505 from Staples back in 2001 and was able to get them to price-match some random e-tailer so that could be a possible way to score a better-than-online retail price at a brick and mortar retailer.

Staples’ accessory offerings were similar to Office Depot with perhaps a bit more emphasis on newer Palm-branded offerings. I also saw a fairly strong assortment of pre-loaded Handmark and MDM software at Staples, including the elusive Madden ’05 on MMC. I have no experience with Staples’ return policy so I really cannot comment on that aspect of the buying experience. I can say that their furniture department is superb, as I have outfitted my home office with some of their wares.

Rating: C+
Very much a middle of the road experience, despite the attractively laid out display cases and brochures. The salesman tried his best to be helpful and informative but he just lacked any real familiarity with the product.

Franklin Covey

Palm Retail Store in Palo Alto, CAAlso of note in my general area is a Franklin Covey store in an out parcel location near an upscale mall. This store has very short opening hours and was closed both times (~7pm & Sunday) when I visited them. I’ve actually been predicting this store’s doom for the past half-decade and it continues to solder on so maybe there’s something wrong with my hectic schedule instead of their operating hours…

Palm

Finally, Palm has a retail store in the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. I fortunately have not had to fly commercially lately and since this store is located past security, it’s not accessible by the general public. I have visited this store in the past and I consider it a slight notch above other Palm retail stores in staff knowledge and organization—probably due to the fact that it’s such a new store.

Other Chains:
In the course of my investigation, I visited at least one store apiece from Target, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, and Costco. All of these are establishments that have sold Palm OS handhelds in the past four or five years but ceased offerings them due to the sagging demand in the sector.

Of the chains listed above I was really surprised to not find any Palm models at Target. That retailer is generally regarded as rather hip and technically savvy. Target previously sold lower-prices T|E and Zire models in blister packaging and would seem a natural for something like a Z22 or E2 targeted at students and soccer mom types.