IBM WorkPad 20X: The 1998 Palm PDA Experience

IBM WorkPad 20X: The 1998 Palm PDA Experience


[jazzy intro commences] Greetings and welcome to another LGR thing about IBM personal computing! This time with a pleasant sprinkling of Palm OS thrown into the mix cuz today we’re looking at the IBM WorkPad PC Companion. The two megabyte model to be specific, that being the WorkPad 20X, costing $399 when it launched in June of 1998. This delightful little handheld was IBM’s
second entry into the realm of Palm personal digital assistants, or PDAs. A series of products IBM dubbed “WorkPads” keeping in line with their ThinkPad series of laptops. Even if, confusingly, IBM made another WorkPad
that looked more like a ThinkPad, the model Z50. That WorkPad was an odd Windows CE machine
that’s a topic for another day, whereas this WorkPad is more along the lines of a
Palm PDA. And by that I mean that’s exactly what it
is: a rebadged 3Com Palm III, built for IBM by 3Com just a couple months after the Palm
III came out. Same specs, same case, same software, same
accessories. The biggest difference is that IBM’s WorkPad had a black plastic shell instead of the Palm’s charcoal-colored one. And of course, it’s an IBM, which means… things. Professional things, respectable business
person things! Things that mattered to a company’s existing
relationship with Big Blue, meaning that businessy business folks could bring about business
with IBM PDAs matching their IBM laptops and IBM desktops and IBM servers and IBM IBM mlenuneh! Yeah, from IBM’s perspective, that was the
strategy: forge an agreement with 3Com subsidiary Palm while keeping IBM customers under the
IBM umbrella. While you could buy your own WorkPad through
an authorized reseller, chances are more people received one instead, as part of a package
deal through IBM or through their employer. Like, purchase a five thousand dollar IBM
desktop, get a four hundred dollar WorkPad alongside it, that kinda thing. Either way though, end users were nestled
into the massive Palm ecosystem that boasted a 63 percent worldwide market share. And ended up with a rather capable Palm OS 3.0 PDA, without or without the IBM WorkPad branding. Just like the Palm III, it’s a more streamlined,
rugged case design compared to its predecessors, while remaining super lightweight at 147 grams
or 5.2 ounces. Ideal when recording haphazard b-roll and
dropping it from eye level to the floor. [PDA crashes to the ground] Not a dent though, not even a scratch! This thing is almost Nokia levels of bulletproof. The LCD screen is basically the same as the
earlier Palm Pilots though, being a touchscreen measuring 85mm or 3.3 inches diagonally. It also has the same 160×160 pixel resolution
2-bit grayscale display capable of showing four shades of gray, with adjustable contrast
using a tiny knob under the left side edge. And of course, being from the late 90s it’s
a resistive touchscreen, so pressure needs to be applied using a fingernail or using
the included stylus tucked away in the back right corner. No smart input features here, just a passive
plastic pen for tapping and dragging items on-screen, simple and effective stuff. In addition to the LCD touchscreen, this pale
green rectangle below is also touch-sensitive. Providing four shortcuts for searching files
and text, opening the calculator app, accessing drop-down menus, and displaying installed
Palm OS 3 applications. There’s also a center rectangle for inputting
text, with letters entered on the left-hand side and numbers on the right. These are drawn using Graffiti, which was
Palm’s single-stroke handwriting recognition system. And yeah, it’s one of those things where
once you get used to it, typing in text can be accomplished pretty quickly indeed. It’s all done using predefined gestures
and shapes, so the learning period varies depending on how you normally write. Personally I find Graffiti 2 a tad more intuitive,
but yeah. This first generation works well enough, I
just have to refer to the cheat sheet on the folding cover more than I’d like. Besides, if it gets annoying there’s always
the option of bringing up a virtual keyboard by tapping the bottom left and right corners. Or you know, just plug in an external keyboard
or docking station. Though at that point you’re forgoing some
of the advantages of PDAs outright so yeah, pick your poison. Another nice feature of the WorkPad is its
electroluminescent backlight, enabled by holding down the power button for a few seconds. A pretty desirable feature in low light situations,
though lacking the inverted pixel option seen on later Palm devices, so it’s always black
on blue and not the other way ‘round. Really it’s a tough time finding ideal lighting
either way due to the screen’s narrow viewing angle, with bright indoor lights or sunlight
being ideal, but not too much since the plastic screen is reflective as nuts. Thankfully, it’s also efficient as nuts,
able to last several months in standby mode using only two AAA batteries. Of course, it’s not gonna last nearly that
long under constant use, especially if the backlight is turned on. But even then the battery life of the WorkPad
is stellar, I’ve used it for a good ten hours on this set of batteries and the power
meter hasn’t budged. Something to keep in mind though is that data
integrity is reliant on power. So if the batteries die or are removed, whatever was running in memory is lost after about a minute. And after a few months the internal backup
battery runs outta juice and user data is lost, reverting back to factory settings. On the topic of storage, when IBM says this
is a two megabyte WorkPad? They mean it, the 20x here has no external
memory option. However, looking inside you’ll see a little
expansion slot, and that can be upgraded with a larger memory module. Mine only has the factory-installed two megabytes
of EDO DRAM. In addition to those two megs, there’s also
another two dedicated to storing the Palm OS 3 operating system and built-in applications. And all this is being run by a 16MHz Motorola
MC68328, one of their mid-90s DragonBall CPUs based on the classic Motorola 68000. There’s also this teeny little monophonic
speaker for playing beeps and bloops, similar to that of a PC speaker but amusingly even
punier. [cute little beeps] One big feature 3Com and IBM were super happy
to brag about was the integrated infrared transceiver, letting users transfer files
wirelessly using IrDA 1.0. Previous models only had this available through an expansion, so having built-in infrared was rad. Radfared. But yeah, as neat as all this is from a technical perspective, what can you actually do with an IBM WorkPad? Well let’s get it synced with a Windows
98 PC, try out the software, and play some games! [jazzy interlude fades out] So getting the IBM WorkPad connected to a PC is absurdly simple. As with all Palm OS devices, there’s this
magical feature called HotSync, where you can synchronize data between your machines
at the press of a single button. This button, the HotSync button, for syncing
hotly in a hot synchronized fashion. The WorkPad has a hidden serial interface
on the bottom for connecting it to Palm’s proprietary cables and cradles, and thankfully
this bundle came with the latter. Plop in the WorkPad so it clicks in place,
connect the 9-pin cable to a serial port on your PC, and then it’s down to the software. This package came with two CD-ROMs, but all
you really need is this one with the relabeled Palm Desktop software: IBM WorkPad Desktop. The other disc just comes with a few trial
programs that no one really needs. But yeah, so long as you’ve got your COM
port selected, the Desktop software takes care of everything! Simply hit the HotSync button [cheerful beeping noise] and your computer and the WorkPad talk it
out for a bit, synchronizing user data between your desktop and your PDA, matching everything up. It can take anywhere from a handful of seconds
to a couple minutes depending on much data there is, but once it’s done, that’s it! [successful beeps] Your PC and PDA and now in-sync. Things like emails, calendars, addresses,
documents, installed programs, everything you need really. So what you do on one system is cross-referenced and updated on the other every time you HotSync, and it’s awesome. This is also how you install new programs,
something to do ASAP since from the factory the WorkPad only comes with a handful of PDA
productivity basics. Most of the time, Palm programs are distributed as PRC files, like these games here provided by Palm with the WorkPad. Once they’re copied over, that’s that,
no further setup required. I seriously love how simple this is to use,
it’s just a pleasure. As for the games it came with, Giraffe here
is the simplest one of the bunch, designed to help users learn the Graffiti system. Draw each letter before it reaches the bottom
of the screen and… that’s what that is. Hardball is a Breakout clone, doing a great
job at highlighting the image persistence limitations of this particular LCD. It’s fine though, and introduces the idea of using the application shortcut buttons for controls. Minehunt is a straightforward Minesweeper game, something ideal for a pen-based touchscreen device. Tap the boxes and don’t blow yourself up,
you know the drill. Flagging mines is a little awkward though,
done by tapping boxes while holding the page up or page down buttons at the bottom-middle
of the device. Puzzle is another lackluster freebie, being
one of those sliding number puzzles that I have never found enjoyable in my entire life,
but that’s just me. Works well as a monochrome touchscreen game
though. And finally, there’s Sub Hunt, one of those
games where you’re a battleship destroying submarines using depth charges, just like
Sega’s classic arcade game Deep Scan, also known as Sub Scan. Easily the best of the bunch in my opinion,
since its slow pace and simple concept are bare-bones enough for the WorkPad’s controls
and display not to interfere. However, this is only scratching the ocean
surface when it comes to early Palm OS games, I tell you hwhat. All WorkPad and no PlayPad makes LGR a dull
BoyPad, so let’s install some third-party games about selling illicit substances! Yeah that’s right, there’s no way I wasn’t
gonna start with the dopest Palm game of all: Dope Wars! A definitive computer gaming experience going
back to the 1980s, where you play a sketchy New York City drug dealer trading all manner
of uppers, downers, and all rounders. [chuckles] Ahh this brings back memories. Whether it’s Dope Wars, Drug Wars, for MS-DOS,
for TI calculators, doesn’t matter. Growing up, it seemed like every new device
that came along had some version of this strategic arbitrage classic, and it’s just as addictive
as ever. Same goes for Space Trader, which I actually prefer when it comes to early monochrome Palm games. Similar idea to Dope Wars, but with more spaceships
and fewer trenchcoats. Think a text-based version of Elite and yeah,
entirely too fun and the perfect kinda game to play on a small screen with a stylus. And since I know someone’s gonna ask, no,
the WorkPad 20x does not run Doom. But it does play SimCity! Yeah, there was actually an official port
of SimCity Classic to grayscale Palm OS systems in 1999. And believe it or not, the gameplay is not
held back in any significant way, this is a proper city-building experience. Which you’d hope considering it cost $20
back in ‘99. That 3-inch mono display doesn’t do the
game any favors of course, and accurately placing large buildings can be a tad iffy. But seeing as SimCity’s normally played
with a mouse, playing with a pen and a touchscreen works awesomely. Also making great use of the WorkPad’s limitations
is the freeware game SFCave, one of those endless flyer games where the goal is simply to make it from left to right without hitting anything. Instead of tapping the screen though, here
you press the page up button and hold it down to gain altitude exponentially. Yeah, dead simple, oddly addictive, a must-have time waster. Blocks is another free Palm OS classic, and
it’s exactly what it looks like. Tetris, on a portable system,
ya gotta have it. There was an official port of Tetris for Palm OS as well, but eh, this one’s more than good enough. Next up I have to mention Vexed, another freebie puzzle game with an amazingly simple but devilishly addictive quality. All you need to do is connect the tiles with
matching patterns together in such a way that you’re left with zero by the end. Straightforward but seriously tricky later
on, especially with some of the downloadable level packs. Yeah that’s right, free DLC on a 90s PDA
game, that was a thing. And finally, of all the PopCap games I could
mention, I gotta go with Bejeweled. Astraware was omnipresent back in the day
when it came to paid Palm OS games, and PopCap thrived on the platform. It’s just the original Bejeweled, nothing
fancy, and it’s in monochrome at that. Yet they still managed to make each jewel
shape distinct enough without color, so it remains highly playable. I’ve had Bejeweled on every PDA I’ve ever
owned with good reason, the match-3 gameplay is utterly timeless. But yeah, that’s the IBM WorkPad from 1998! What a lovely device to use even decades later, despite how woefully outdated it is on a technical level. Its miniscule two megabytes of storage, reliance
on old HotSync software, and lack of, well, any modern wireless capability means that
there’s little reason to grant it serious usage in the 21st century. But that’s not why I like these old PDAs
so much. It’s all about stepping back into a time
where Palm OS devices felt like the future, where anything seemed possible once Moore’s Law took hold of the burgeoning handheld computer market. Seeing the productivity and entertainment
that folks managed to pull off on such a limited device is endlessly fascinating to me, making
for a device that’s ultra-usable even if underpowered, stylishly designed yet too small
to supplant the need for a laptop. So if you happen to run across an IBM WorkPad
PC Companion or any of its late 90s Palm OS relatives, and you find this kind of retro
simplicity as intriguing as I do, then grab it! If nothing else then to while away the hours
trading robots and firearms between technocratic planets while dodging police raids and pirate attacks. [jazztastic outro music] And if ya dug this PDA retrospective then
might I recommend my video on the HP iPaq Pocket PC? Or other LGR things in general since I cover
retro hardware and software each week. As always though, thank you for watching what
you just did!

Author:

100 thoughts on “IBM WorkPad 20X: The 1998 Palm PDA Experience”

  • To those asking about that folding ThinkPad keyboard: I've got an entire video about it!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRVJCtREW38

    Also I misspoke saying the WorkPad uses AA batteries instead of AAA. Heh, no. Definitely triple-As 🤦‍♂️

  • Oh my gosh this hit me so hard with nostalgia. Hardball was the first video game I ever got mad about! My dad had a Palm III (IIIe, I think?) for work and I'd play that and Hopper (Frogger clone) during church and wooooow this brought back a huge flood of memories.

  • Patrick Elliott says:

    Man, those things where annoying. Had an "older" one, with barely enough memory, and a tendency to crash while running, an "emulator" for the SNES. Tried to run the same thing on a new one, which had double the memory, and it **wouldn't run at all**. Why? Seems that the new one had shit memory management, since, well, after all, it had, "so much more memory". Sigh… Sadly, other than, briefly, using it to keep track of my work schedule, it was almost utterly worthless. lol

  • This is epic. I had an IBM WorkPad c500 back in 2006. That thing was nothing more than a rebadged Palm m500, but the case design was actually more stylish, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. PalmOS 4 had a ton of freeware for the taking on a site that a lot of people probably remember (Freeware Palm). When its 8MB of Ram were filled, (which wasn't often, because PalmOS apps were extremely efficient) the SD card slot would pick up the slack. The m500/c500 continued where the Palm3 and Palm V left off with a rechargeable battery too, which I never did manage to run down. Those things could last forever, even with the 160×160 screen being improved for that generation to be able to produce 16 whole shades of gray. That thing was a great little device for what it was, and I ended up selling it for almost as much as I bought it for, years later.

  • EncoreEnterprisesLLC says:

    I'm probably the only one who is curious about that Bonus Pack CD that came with this, even if it is trial-ware that you can no longer buy. Do you know what kinds of trials are on that disc?

  • Vladimir Castellanos says:

    I used to have a Sony Cliè s360 or something like that, it was the last awesome palm OS monochrome experience, I loved Sim City and Bejeweled back in the day, there was a kind of doom clone I played then I don’t remember it’s name but it could run it pretty well

  • I still get my Palm V out every now and then, just to marvel that the 22 year old integrated battery still has like five days of standby time. My favorite apps are Frotz (Infocom text adventures), Lemmings (Lemmings), and Afterburner (overclocking, helped a lot with the gameboy emulator). I somehow never knew about Simcity on Palm though, gonna have to get the thing back out and have a look. Good video as always man.

  • infinitecanadian says:

    Like that it can run on AA batteries. No special batteries that will be impossible to find once they run out.

  • I wanted one of these so badly I subscribed to Time Magazine to get a "handheld organizer" so I could at least pretend…

  • I had one of those. There actually was a gameboy emulator for it that worked pretty well. The inverted backlight was kinda cool too.

  • I had one of those and used it a LOT to scout for books..it was delightful…i created a velcro wrist strap for it

  • My favorite feature that not a lot of people found out. If you unscrew the plastic top from the rear of the stylus, there's a fine pointed tip for pressing the reset switch on the back of the device. I was a kid taking all sorts of stuff apart when my dad got his palmIII. Definitely a personal Indiana Jones discovery moment.

  • Jorge Araya Maggiolo says:

    So you’re using some Tyler Durden techniques inserting those frames, hope you don’t make childs cry.

  • Had one which I got for work, ugh horrible sold it within a week for 1/3rd the price and got a Psion 3 (clamshell, keyboard, AAA batteries, spreadsheet calendar job done) talking 97/98 ISH fuck FreeBSD, KDE man was I eager!

  • KAE Eberhardt says:

    I never ride the bus, but If I had one of these, I'd play games on this while riding all over town and seeing the envious looks I'd get from all my fellow passengers. 😀 Cheers Clint!

  • My dad had one of these and used it religiously for 3 years until he "upgraded" to an HP pad running Windows CE. He regretted that decision so much he returned the Windows one and kept using the IBM for another few months before getting another PalmOS device, a Dell I think. That one lasted a year and then broke, but by that point Smart Phones were becoming a thing so he got one of those and a Netbook and was set for another few. Alas, I believe he recycled the WorkPad before I could "inherit" it.

  • Never owned a palm device but a friend had a trio 680 while I had the trio 700w long ago. The inferred is good to troll tv's in restaurants, bar or wherever there was one on a shit show. As for nokia level bullet proof the trio is up there with the weight to be used as a weapon .

  • Back in the day I had a CDPD cradle for the palm pilot which made it a proper (if huge and slow) mobile internet device. I’d use it to read Usenet while commuting. It’s weird because it’s ancient history but actually doesnt feel so long ago (time sucks. LOL!)

  • I admire all your retro-tech videos (Ps i have watched every LGR video you made also LGR blerbs and Lgr foods!)
    Your biggest fan Fred!!!!

  • Nathan Chisholm says:

    I love watching videos on crappy old tech while I view it on the top off the line laptops and smartphone! Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Also I saw that subliminal message at 8:10 of a famous boy band…

  • i have something like this burried in my closet from 20 years ago, i think it still has all my info in it, going to dig it out, i liked them

  • Palm os always makes me shudder in ecstasy
    I kind of have to pat myself on the back for tracking down every palm os astroware game cracked for free 😅

  • Karak Holgerson says:

    The first 5 minutes of this video made me miss my Treo 650. Kids today will never know the glory of having a phone with a full QWERTY keyboard AND a touch screen!

  • Kaito Kuroyuki says:

    Are you interest on reviewing xperia x1 its not the 90 product but still i think thats the last pda i ve everseen and used with windows phone os on my country

  • Livinghighandwise says:

    I still have mine in a drawer in my office. Only because I'm a technohoarder.. Anyone want a Timex Sinclair 1000 with a 16KB RAM extender? (Not sure where the power supply is..) I remember playing a chess game on that thing in the mid 80s and waiting 45 min before it would make a move..

  • Rommel Galicia says:

    Retro hardware review at its best Clint! Had this piece of gear from yesteryear! Really nostalgic video indeed! Looking forward to the next retro hardware review bro'! More power and God bless from the Philippines!

  • William Hollinger says:

    One thing i hated that Microsoft brought out palm os and phrase it out like rare games microsoft loves to waste things.

  • Someone please come out with a throwback device. Full color touch screen. Option for USB-Cx2 and start off with a Raspberry Pi Compute module. We can go up from there. BT/WiFi of course.

  • I had a Palm III, then a Kyocera Palm phone, and a Palm IIc color model at various times back in the day. Graffiti fit my writing style, and they were amazing for how long the ran on regular batteries, later ones had rechargeables. Last one I had was an early Treo smartphone.

  • Ingwie Phoenix says:

    ahh…PDAs. I used an IPaq way before I used an iPhone, let alone an iPod. My dad bought it as a GPS but could never handle it, so it eventually became my possession and it was great. Storage sucked, but it had all that I basically ever needed o.o I like those devices ^.^

  • I had one of those Palm devices (don't remember exactly which one…) when I was a kid, got it for free used when my moms then boyfriend replaced it with something else and was just going to toss it otherwise… Neat little gadget..

  • Gustavo Maricate says:

    I wonder at the time a police officer taking your PDA with dope wars installed and saying so this is how you control your business.

  • Used to work for a Palm development platform called Satellite Forms. It's astonishing how much productivity you could get out of that little device using just a little imagination…

  • Had a slightly newer version of the WorkPad (the C3) that came out in around ~2000 I think. Same deal though, just a rebranded Palm PDA. It was a bit thinner than this one and the cover opened horizontally instead of vertically.

  • Yeah, I remember these. I think the one I had, was fitted with a RAM expansion and had some mediocrely ported arcade games like Asteroids and Galaxian. It also had a weird universal remote control app that crashed upon startup (likely because the hot sync function didn't work properly during the transfer), and a multi-function basic and programming calculator app that didn't like dividing by zero. I mostly played Spades on it.

  • Those Palm gadgets were a bit too rich for me at the time.
    I had one of those sharp multi function things i bought for about 70$ at Club price.
    It worked for me.

  • I had a Palm 105. The greyscale was bad, the inputs were awful and twitchy, memory sucked (both limited and easy to lose all your date), no RAM card slot, etc. Computer nostalgia is everywhere, but few people look back fondly on PDAs.
    9:30 – Bah. Who flags mines? ….. 14:00 – Who's that?

  • What coincidence, I also have a folder dubbed unscrupulous nonsense! Filled with bit fodder for the discerning dorky palette 🙂

  • 10th Scale Garage says:

    I was a huge palm fan. I had a palm tungsten for years before getting my palm Treo 750 in 2008. I had nothing but palms until the iPhone. Alas. I still have my treo 755, treo Pro and Palm Pre in a drawer. Those were the days.

  • Oh man, I just about cheered when you mentioned Space Traders. I used to play that all the time on my Palm IIIc.

    In addition to file transfers, the IR port would also let you print to IR-enabled printers if you had access to one. In one of my classes I would take notes on my IIIc (using the foldable Palm keyboard), and if I ever needed to print them I could just walk over to the printer and print them wirelessly, in 2002 no less!

    Palm was truly ahead of its time. It's a shame they couldn't keep up.

  • My god, I had the Palm Pilot version of this way back in the day, I remember the one I had not having a 3com label on it, it was just branded with Palm, I think it was a later advanced model because there was some letters after the III, I think it was ce, or xc, or something like that. My dad had it originally, then got a new one a couple years later that had a higher resolution color display and ect and gave me the old one to fiddle with.

    I actually legitimately used it back in the day for notes (mostly), calendar stuff, phone numbers, and syncing E-mail up to it to read later, and I remember a few times composing E-mail as well to send later after syncing. This was the early 2000's so I was a teenager at the time so I didn't really have much going on, but tending to forget things often I actually had a decent use for it. I got really proficient with that graffiti text for a while. I even had SubHunt, which was a fantastic timewaster if I was somewhere and forgot my gameboy.

    Can't remember what happened to it, I vaguely remember the screen dieing.

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