How to Transfer Files To-From Your Palm Pilot Without Using HotSync Software
For High-Tech Low-Budget Travelers

With the explosion of cyber cafes in almost every part of the world, many travelers like to use email to keep in touch with friends back home while they're on the road. However cyber cafes are not always convenient to get to. Days or weeks may pass before a traveler has a chance to visit a cyber cafe, or the hourly rates may limit the amount of time one can afford to spend online.

One answer to this dilemma is to bring a laptop along, which can be used to answer emails and/or compose messages at one's own convenience. If the user has access to a local internet service provider, they may also be able to dial-in directly to the internet, and thereby send and receive messages without the need of going to a cyber cafe.

However there are two problems with this solution. First, laptops are not always easy to travel with. One must be constantly concerned with breakage and/or theft, and locate places to recharge batteries. Second, it isn't always convenient to dial-in using a local ISP. One must find a local dial-in number, deal with technical issues of configuring the dial-in software, and find a phone they can plug their modem into. This approach can be expensive as well. This may not be an issue for business travellers, but could be a real obstacle for low budget travellers such as backpackers.

A second solution is to bring along a small PDA device such as a Palm Pilot. Palm PDAs are much cheaper than laptops, extremely compact, take a beating, and can run for several days or weeks on a pair of AAA batteries. Although the software for Palms is much more limited than that for laptops, there are a number of simple text editors for the Palm, and with accessories like the full-size Palm Portable Keyboard, you can work almost as quickly as you could on a desktop.

The problem with using a Palm to compose/answer email while travelling is getting the information out of the Palm and on to a desktop so you can email it or print it. Palms don't have a floppy disk drive, and most cyber cafes will not allow you to install the proprietory Palm HotSync software that you normally would use to sychronize your files on the Palm with those on the desktop. You can always buy an modem attachment for the Palm (the Palm VII has a built-in wireless modem), however that requires that you still have to deal with the sames issues and expenses of finding a local ISP.

This document describes a way that you can download files from your Palm without using the HotSync software. It isn't as easy as it should be, but for those who want to travel with a Palm so they can compose/answer emails on the road, this technique may be an option worth pursuing. Note however this procedure requires a number of steps which may be not be entirely self-evident and requires some basic knowledge of how computers work. Hence although I have tried to be clear, this may not be appropriate for the technically challenged.

Method One - Creating a Serial Connection with Hyper Terminal and ZBoxZ


One way you can tranfer files to/from the Palm is to "call" the Palm using a standard terminal program like Windows Hyper Terminal. (Before the internet, terminal programs are what computer geeks used to call bulletin board servers through modems). You can 'call' the Palm after you connect the Palm and the desktop with a serial cable. But for this to work, you also need to install a program on your Palm which can communicate with a terminal program and send files back and forth over a serial cable. One such program is called ZBoxZ.

Step by Step

  1. Make certain you have a text editor installed on your Palm. The Palm doesn't come with a text editor. The closest thing is Memo Pad, but memos created with MemoPad are limited to 255 characters. There are a variety of 3rd party text editors you can get for the Palm. I use one called SmartDoc, which has no limitation on the size of the files you create. Most text editors, including SmartDoc, can't do anything except edit plain text (in other words you can't apply character formatting such as bold or italics to text). Another text editor which doesn't put a limit on file size is QED.
  2. If you plan to do much writing on your Palm, I would strongly suggest getting an external keyboard, such as the full-size Palm Portable Keyboard. Anyone who has tried to enter information on the Palm using the stylus pen quickly learns how slow and frustrating it can be. The use of the portable keyboard lets you type as fast as you normally could, and folds up to a size not much larger than the Palm itself.
  3. Most text editors on the Palm save text files in the DOC format. The DOC format can be either compressed or non-compressed. Compressed DOC files are smaller, however if you plan to open the file on your desktop with a word processor, you will have to uncompress the file first, which is just another step. So unless you're running out of space on your Palm, or are writing really big text files, I would suggest saving your text files in uncompressed DOC format.
  4. In addition to your Palm, you need to bring along either your HotSync Cradle and/or the smaller HotSync Cable. This is the cable you will use to connect your Palm to the serial port on the desktop computer in the cyber cafe.
  5. You will also need to install a communcations/file program on your Palm. I use one called ZBoxZ. This application is actually several programs together and does quite a few things, but the relevant one here is the Serial function (i.e., communicating with a desktop through the serial cable). You can read about ZBoxZ here, or just download the Palm application you need to install here. (Once you download the file, unzip it and then install it on your Palm using the Palm Install program).
  6. On the desktop PC, you will need to use a terminal program such as HyperTerminal to communicate with the Palm. HyperTerminal comes bundled with Windows 95/98/NT, and is usually part of the stardard setup (look for the icon under Accessories). However in case the computer you're using doesn't have HyperTerminal installed, you can put it onto a floppy diskette and carry it with you. If you want to do that, you actually need to copy onto the diskette two files: hypertrm.exe and hypertrm.dll. Normally these files will be in C:\Program Files\Accessories\HyperTerminal. Note also that Windows NT has its own version of HyperTerminal, so those same two files from NT need to be put on a another diskette if you want to have the program for use on NT machines.
  7. Let's assume now that you have:

    To transfer a file from the Palm to the desktop, follow the following steps:

    Prepare the Palm

    ZBoxZ is now ready to send files to the desktop. But first you have to get the desktop ready to receive the file(s) and make the connection.

    Prepare the Desktop

    Let's review. You have now:

    You are now ready to transfer the file(s) from the Palm to the desktop PC:

  8. If everything worked properly, the file you created on the Palm should now be available on the PC. It will have a 'box' extension because you boxed it, but it will still be in its original format (i.e., DOC).
  9. If you didn't save the text document in compressed DOC format, you can just open the box file using a word processor or text editor. There will be a little garbage at the beginning and end of the file, but most of it will be appear normal. You can just copy and paste the text into your web browser or email software.
  10. If the text document was compressed on the Palm, you need to decompress it before you can open it. You can use a small DOS program called MakeDoc.exe to decompress the DOC file and make a plain text file. Suppose your compressed DOC text file is called To convert it to a plain text file, you would issue the command:


    Then you can open the plain text file in a word processor.

Transfering Text Files from a PC to the Palm

Suppose you have downloaded some emails in the cyber cafe or exciting information about your next destination. You now want to put them on your Palm for future reference or editing. To transfer text files to the Palm without using HotSync, follow these steps:

  1. Make certain you have a text editor and ZBoxZ installed on the Palm, and a connection between HyperTerminal and the Palm using the serial cable (i.e., same as above)
  2. Select 'Send file' from the 'Transfer' menu on HyperTerminal. Select the text file that you want to send. Make certain that the 'Protocol' is set to 'YModem', and then click 'Send'.
  3. On ZBoxZ, select 'Serial' and then 'YRec'. The file should then transfer.
  4. The text file is now on the Palm, but the Palm doesn't know that it is a text file. It thinks its a 'box' file. So in ZBoxZ, click on 'Install' to get to the install sub-menu. Then select the box and click 'Txt2Doc'. Select 'Replace' to replace the (useless) box with the text file. Now when you switch to your text editor, you will see the new file in the Unfiled category.

Method Two - Using PenguinBackup

A second solution to transfering files to/from your Palm without Hotsync is to use PenguinBackup. PenguinBackup is a free utility that fits onto a floppy disk and allows you to backup your entire Palm onto a second floppy disk. (Currently the program can only backup Palms up to 2 MB, but future versions will allow more). The program is written using UNIX, which means it will only work on a PC and you have to reboot the PC with the Penguin Backup diskette in the floppy drive. You also need to connect your Palm with the PC using your Hotsync cable or cradle.

PenguinBackup is menu driven and fairly easy to use. However if you want to only download one file from your Palm (as opposed to the entire thing), you have to use the command line. To do that, go to the Command Shell and type

#pilot-xfer -f 'my palm file'

This fetches the file from the Palm and puts stores it in a virtual disk. Note that 'my palm file' has to be a pdb file (which DOC files are). Then you need to copy the palm file from the virtual disk onto the hard drive or a floppy (which you can access in Windows) using the mcopy command. If you're saving it on a floppy, be sure to take out the Penguin Backup floppy (which is LINUX formatted) and insert MS-DOS formatted disk (that Windows can read).

#mcopy 'my palm file.pdb' a:

This should put DOC file onto a floppy disk. Note that the DOC file is still in its original format. If the DOC file is uncompressed, you can simply open it in a word processor or text editor and delete the small amount of garbage at the beginning and the end. If the DOC file is compressed, you need to use to the DOS program MakeDoc.exe to convert it to a text file (see description above).

To transfer a text file from the PC to the Palm, simply convert the file to DOC format using MakeDoc or some similar program, and then use the 'Install Single Program' command on the PenguinBackup menu.

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