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New file system constrains Treo 650 storage capacity

PalmOne to offer free memory card to address the problem

Anyone who has treated themselves to the New PalmOne Treo 650 may find that they’re getting less than they’d bargained for. The change from DRAM (dynamic RAM) to flash memory for the new smart phone appears to have reduced rather than increased the amount of memory that is actually available to users.

As a result, PalmOne plans to offer a free 128MB expansion card to Treo 650 purchasers to get around the problem.

Small files, such as contacts or tasks, must now be stored in chunks that are much larger than the actual files themselves. This means that the same files a user stored on a Treo 600 might not all fit on the Treo 650. The Treo 650 was released to the public last week through Sprint and PalmOne's website.

A PalmOne spokeswoman confirmed the memory issue in a statement last week. The capacity problem is a design tradeoff caused by the decision to use a new file system that allows users to quickly change batteries and protect their data when power runs out, she said. Treo enthusiast websites were the first to highlight the problem.

As a general rule, users thinking about upgrading to the Treo 650 should understand that their old data will require 33 percent more storage capacity on the new smart phone, PalmOne warned users in an online support posting.

In the latest version of the popular Treo smart phone, PalmOne made two important changes to the system's design. The device's use of flash memory, rather than DRAM, to store data means it can store data without a constant supply of electricity, thereby protecting that data in the event of a battery failure or unexpected shutdown.

Users of PalmOne handhelds have clamored for flash memory for years, and the company finally accommodated them with the release of the Tungsten T5 and Treo 650.

In order to use flash memory in its products, PalmOne had to switch the file system technology that decides how files are stored. The Treo 650 now uses the NVFS (nonvolatile flash system) file system to store data in clusters. This file system is based on FAT (file allocation table) technology, which was the underlying file system technology for Microsoft's DOS operating system as well as Windows 95 and Windows 98. The Windows NT and XP operating systems use a different technology.

In the Treo 650, NVFS technology stores data in 512B blocks. This means that even small 20B files, such as a contact's phone number, are stored in 512B blocks. Smaller files stored in DRAM on older smart phones and handhelds took up only as much space as the size of the file.

However, the Treo 650 only comes with 23MB of user-accessible flash memory. This is actually slightly less capacity than with the Treo 600, which uses 24MB of volatile DRAM to store information. Users are further constrained by the 5MB of storage required for the Documents To Go application, which allows Palm OS users to view and edit Microsoft Office files.

Therefore, a user who wishes to transfer files from an older Palm device to the new Treo 650 might not be able to fit all of their applications or data onto the new system, the PalmOne spokeswoman said. A typical address book would take up an additional 800KB of storage space on the Treo 650, the company said in an online support forum.

Third-party applications should not be affected in the same manner as contacts and calendar data, but users should check with their application provider to be sure, according to PalmOne's online support page.

PalmOne believes that the issue will affect only a small percentage of users who have filled their Treo 600 units with data, the spokeswoman said. However, the company will offer a free 128MB SD (Secure Digital) expansion card to any purchaser of a Treo 650 who requests it, she said. Users should check PalmOne's support pages starting in early December for details about the free offer. A 128MB SD Card costs around $15 at retail.

If a user of a Palm OS device has filled 16MB or more of storage, they should consider offloading some data to the expansion card if upgrading to a Treo 650, according to PalmOne's support pages.

The company plans to release a ROM upgrade that will improve the efficiency of its flash memory, the spokeswoman said. It will also post information on its support site about the issue.

While the NVFS memory problem will not affect most Treo 650 users, it's somewhat embarrassing for PalmOne's flagship product to ship with this type of issue, says Sam Bhavnani, an analyst with Current Analysis in La Jolla, California.

"It's surprising this wasn't uncovered internally before. It might be one of those things where they needed to hit a launch date" in order to have the product out in time for holiday shoppers, he says.

PalmOne's decision to use the NVFS file system could signal that it plans to eventually incorporate an IPod-like hard-disk drive into the Treo product, says Will Strauss, principal analyst with Forward Concepts in Tempe, Arizona.

The Treo 650 has a more powerful processor than its predecessor, allowing the smart phone to handle more-complex video encoding and decoding. The new XScale chip from Intel, coupled with a higher-resolution screen, could mean that PalmOne is preparing to launch a video-enabled Treo in the near future, Strauss says. Any video handheld would require enough storage to make a flash memory storage design impractical, he says.

PalmOne declined to comment about future plans for the Treo family.

For more information on storage technology, our sister site Techworld has a comprehensive data storage resource centre.


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