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Review: palmOne LifeDriveBy Larry Garfield, Wednesday 18 May 2005
GALLERY
palmOne LifeDrive
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palmOne LifeDrive
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palmOne LifeDrive
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What is silver, has a hard drive, and replaces a handheld, iPod mini, laptop, and video player? palmOne says it's their new LifeDrive. Read on to get Larry Garfield's opinion.

There are many companies in the handheld market that one thinks of as "unconventional". HandEra, Sony, and Toshiba are names that come to mind. palmOne is generally not. Yet there's no other good way to describe palmOne's latest model, sporting the rather silly name of "LifeDrive Mobile Manager", part of the company's newly coined "Mobile Manager" device category. In non-market speak that means very-multi-purpose devices that still fall under the much-abused handheld category. And multi-purpose it is, capable as a PIM manager, micro-laptop, portable audio player, and even portable media viewer in a pinch.

A meaty mobile manager

The LifeDrive is on the large side as a handheld, measuring 121 x 73 x 19 mm, but weighs in at a substantial 193 grams; still pants and purse friendly, but not shirt-pocket friendly. That heft packs a punch, though. The aluminum exterior is well-designed, with no rough edges and a good feel in the hand.

The screen is no surprise from palmOne. A slightly updated design from the company's usual recent models, it measures a crisp 320 x 480 with virtual handwriting area and screen rotation. Buttons consist of a power/hold switch on top and a quartet of application buttons below the screen surrounding the annoyingly-smooth oval-shaped directional pad. Rather than the usual defaults, however, the buttons map to Home, Files, Media, and Favorite, respectively. More on those later.

The left side of the LifeDrive sports a hard rotation button and a (remappable) voice recorder button, both of which are slightly sunken so that we've yet to hit them accidentally. It's about time, too. The base of the device includes palmOne's Multi-Connector and a stupidly-placed stereo headphone jack. There is also a single LED on the top front face, and the usual Secure Digital slot and infrared port on top.

Look ma, no wires

Besides the standard SD slot and IR port, the LifeDrive is palmOne's first device to support both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a party to which palmOne is more than fashionably late. The Bluetooth support is only Bluetooth 1.1, but the Wi-Fi support (802.11b, specifically) now supports both WEP and WPA security. Both worked like a charm, too, with convenient wizards and auto-discovery of both Bluetooth devices and Wi-Fi networks.

The LifeDrive also supports high-speed USB 2.0, which is extremely rare for a handheld yet very welcome. Unwelcome is the pop-up message that appears in Windows every time the device is HotSynced on a USB 1.1 connection saying how much faster it would be on USB 2.0, even if there are no USB 2.0 ports on the desktop. Oops.

Hey baby, feel my specs

palmOne's logic for the LifeDrive name goes along the lines of "You can store your whole Life on this Drive!" That's true, if your life can fit into a 4 GB micro-hard drive, the LifeDrive's main attraction and most unconventional feature.

palmOne has almost completely abandoned the traditional Palm OS memory architecture in favor of their own setup. That starts with 65 MB of user-accessible main storage, which appears to the user the way the RAM storage used to despite actually being on the hard drive. Then there's 3.85 GB of secondary storage on the drive, which, like the ROM store of the Tungsten T5, appears as an always-present flash card to most programs. Then there's an undisclosed amount of actual RAM that is used for active, running programs.

A side effect of the new memory setup, like a desktop or Pocket PC but unlike most previous Palms, a program must be copied from the hard drive to RAM before it is executed. Since a hard drive is an order of magnitude slower than RAM, that makes the LifeDrive feel noticeably sluggish compared to most of its predecessors when switching applications. It's not show-stopping, but it is noticeable, manifesting itself in issues such as audio hiccuping when switching applications. Whether or not it is an acceptable trade-off for gigs of storage and no data loss in case of power loss is a matter of opinion, but this reviewer thinks it is for heavy users.

Hard drives, as they have moving parts, suck power faster than RAM. We ran our standard battery burn tests on the 1660 mAh Lithium-Ion several times under different circumstances. Using the included Pocket Tunes music player (which is a bit less frugal with battery power than RealOne), we were able to get just under 8 hours of play time off of an SD card; a bit above average, but not amazing. The same playlist off of the hard drive lasted a little over 5 hours, however. A video file with the screen on medium brightness lasted about 2 and a quarter hours, long enough for a non-Peter Jackson movie. Writing the first draft of this review on the LifeDrive itself with an IR keyboard over the course of about 3 hours used up about a third of the device's battery. In all media tests there was still a little bit of power left, although trying to play a file resulted in a soft reset. Oops.

All of that memory is controlled by a 416 MHz Intel XScale processor, standard for a high-end handheld today.

Nothin' soft about my software

Not surprisingly, the LifeDrive comes packed with software. The core is palmOne's now heavily-customized Palm OS 5.4 Garnet, augmented by palmOne's now-familiar suite of applications including the enhanced PIM suite, new Favorites launcher, VersaMail with Exchange Active Sync, Documents To Go 7 with support for native MS Office documents, the Web Pro web browser, and palmOne's AddIt software manager.

The LifeDrive includes palmOne's solid one-thumb functionality, as well as a virtual handwriting area with task bar. The rotation icon is gone (now a hard button) in favor of a Wi-Fi applet, which complements the Bluetooth applet nicely.

Of special mention is the Files application, previously seen on the Tungsten T5, which finally offers decent card file management (although not for RAM, grrr), and Drive Mode, which allows the LifeDrive to be used as an external storage device by the desktop OS to copy files directly to the hard drive or SD card without a HotSync. There is even the ability to queue up selected files and directories for automatic synchronization between the desktop and hard drive, an innovative and welcome feature. The Media application is back and largely unchanged, with support for pre-converted video and MPEG-1 in an ASF wrapper as well as JPEG images.

palmOne has dropped RealOne's audio player in favor of NormSoft's Pocket Tunes, a move which had potential to deliver excellent audio playback features - but alas, the version bundled by palmOne lacks many of this application's best features. Format support is limited to MP3, and what regards the general capabilities in the neutered version available they're best described as mediocre.

Still, given the supple storage capacity of the LifeDrive, it's only natural to pit it against a dedicated player such as the iPod mini. The two offer roughly the same storage, but the the LifeDrive is larger and heavier. On the other hand, the LifeDrive is compatible with a battery of audio management applications and not just iTunes - but at the same time lacks a tie-in to online music services of any kind. For those in need of such - and other - functionality, however, the LifeDrive at least has one feature the no iPods currently match: it's upgradeable beyond simple firmware.

As a video player, the 3" screen is smaller than most Personal Media Viewers but is therefore more pocketable. The screen is also not non-reflective, meaning darker scenes are hard to see. To be fair, though, the same is true of most PMVs. The lack of any pre-packaged means to convert a DVD to portable format makes its use limited, but then, no other PMV does either for a host of legal reasons we won't delve into here. Third party software exists, but costs extra. In short, the LifeDrive is a small but functional video player that needs work, but with the exception of its small screen no more so than the rest of this still-emerging category.

Mobile office users of course are more interested in the business apps, and the LifeDrive shines there. VersaMail and Docs To Go are currently best-of-breed on any mobile device, and 4 GB is a lot of Powerpoints. Also new is a Camera Companion, essentially a wizard for accessing files on an SD card from a digital camera and dumping them to the LifeDrive's hard disk for viewing and to free up space on more-costly-per-meg SD cards. Combined with a good folding keyboard (support for which is still unfortunately not as good as it should be in Docs To Go), it can almost replace a mini-laptop. Almost, but most laptops don't fit in a purse.

Availability

The LifeDrive is at the time of press shipping worldwide for $499 USD from selected outlets. Full retail availability is expected in June, 2005.


Pros:

Record-setting storage; comprehensive software bundle; versatile functionality
Cons:

Sluggish when launching programs and switching applications; heavy
Conclusion:
The palmOne LifeDrive is a jack of all trades, and as is often the case is therefore king of few. The PIM suite is palmOne’s familiar best-of-breed software, although the hard buttons don’t default to it. Its office suite is first-rate, and paired with a folding keyboard functions as a limited but pocketable laptop replacement. Wide audio format support counters its large size, and despite a small screen it’s no worse at video than the rest of a still-infant category with regard to media provision. 4 GB of luscious storage is offset by a noticeably sluggish system, but were all of these features to be purchased separately it would cost several hundred dollars more and outweigh the slightly weighty LifeDrive by a kilogram. If you can live with its sluggishness and weight, the LifeDrive is a truly comprehensive all-rounder.
80%
Very good


Price and availability

Available in the U.S. in May 2005, the palmOne LifeDrive is priced at $500 .

 
 
 
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