Lately, it seems like Sony has some kind of announcement about their handheld computers at least twice a week. New models are released faster than any other company I know of. Clearly, they are very serious about what they call the "multimedia organizer" and committed to the market's vast potential. I have no doubts that Sony is interested not just because they think PDAs are cool gizmos for keeping your calendar. A huge media conglomerate like this sees these devices as another profitable outlet for their movie, music, and game titles. After all, people can only spend so much time sitting in theatres or in front of a television, stereo, or PlayStation. Pocketable media delivery devices can take care of virtually all of the rest of your day. For the remaining eight hours we spend asleep, Sony engineers may even be burning the midnight oil working on a DreamStation.
The latest CLIE to grace my desktop is the N760C, essentially a blend of the most desirable features of the N710C and the N610C. The 710 lacked the latest version of Palm OS and, consequently, the ability to display 64,000 colors, while the 610 lacked digital audio support. The 760 has all this and more in the same exact chassis as the 710 and at the same price of US$499.
Internally, the 760 sports the familiar old 33MHz Motorola Dragonball processor now shared by every Palm OS device on the market. Thankfully, performance is not really an issue on current Palms, but that will change, perhaps as early as next year. Palm has indicated it is planning to move over to the 206MHz Intel StrongARM processor, the same chip used in all the new Pocket PC 2002 machines. It's an awesomely powerful chip, but it remains to be seen just what use it will be to the average Palm OS user. In a multimedia device such as a CLIE, it would get us past the jerky 10 frame-per-second video playback we see in the 760, as well as speed up the display of large folders of digital images. Other likely uses of this power could include an integrated mobile phone and/or wireless Internet access.
Meanwhile, back in the real world...
All that sounds great, but today we have the 760. I have found that it is a delightful machine to use, day in and day out - completely reliable and out-of-the-box compatible with everything but the Macintosh. In the same time frame, we received a bevy of new Windows CE-based Pocket PCs from Toshiba, Compaq, Casio, and NEC, all featuring the new Pocket PC 2002 software. Having spent quality time with both, I am left wondering why anyone would choose to bother with the complexity of a Pocket PC.
I don't say this unthinkingly. Pocket PC 2002 is quite impressive, but it is your typical Microsoft melange of conflicting intentions. Ultimately, the cost of their confusion is paid by the end-user in the form of anomalous, even capricious, behavior. The lines are rather clearly drawn between the two philosophies: Palms are for consumers and Pocket PCs are for suits. But both Palm and Microsoft are cross-marketing their devices to both constituencies, further confusing everyone.
Powerful media-centric Palms like the CLIE N760C blur this imaginary division between PDAs almost completely. Pocket PCs are making serious inroads in the marketplace, while Palm Computing just keeps making one silly mistake after another. Rather than waiting around and watching marketshare erode, Sony has boldly charged ahead. By narrowing the technology gap between Palm OS and Pocket PC, they might even save the platform.
The most compelling example of leadership manifested by Sony is their unique use of bright, 320 x 320 pixel, daylight-readable, frontlit LCD displays. At four times the resolution of almost every other Palm device on the market, it equals the latest Pocket PC offerings. Sony builds in a high-res set of system fonts available to all applications, making reading on the devices infinitely more enjoyable. Resolution enhancement is automatically applied to all applications, and in the event that one of your apps chokes, you can selectively disable this feature. As with the 610 I had before, all my apps work perfectly in high-res, provided I downloaded the latest updated versions.
In addition to the superb display, Sony builds a better digital audio player subsystem into the 760 than comes in any Pocket PC, including an elegant clip-on controller with a built-in stylus as well as a pair of superb earclip headphones. Pop in a nice, fat 128MB Lexar Memory Stick and you have an excellent little digital music box.
Let's backup a bit
Little has changed in the ROM-based software Sony includes with the 760 compared to previous models. A new Backup program lets you clone the contents of your internal RAM to your Memory Stick, but does not let you selectively restore files as the more more sophisticated BackupBuddy VFS does. The new Memory Stick Import app lets you mount your stick as a volume on your Windows desktop, and with MissingSync it works on a Mac desktop as well. PhotoStand is a Sony app I neglected to mention in my previous reviews. It allows you to turn your CLIE into a digital photo frame by tapping into whatever photo albums you have copied to your device using the included Sony PictureGear Lite application on the desktop. This simple little app is nothing short of brilliant. It's the little touches like PhotoStand that make me love Sony products, and they make it easy to justify the premium price compared to other products.
What did Sony leave out? The included 8MB Memory Stick is too small for anything but backing up the 760's internal 8MB of memory. Sony should bundle a 32MB stick, minimum. A voice recorder feature would be nice to have, particularly when I want to capture a thought while driving. Though it's not a deal breaker either way for me, I'd love a slim jacket for a CompactFlash or PC Card and built-in support for wireless LAN and WAN standards such as WiFi (802.11b) and CDPD. Most important to me is sync support for Macintosh. As I mentioned in my previous CLIE reviews, MarkSpace (www.markspace.com) offers a well-designed and inexpensive USB conduit driver for Macs called MissingSync, but Sony really should bundle this capability in the box for a machine this pricey.
A delight to both eye and ear, the CLIE N760c is unquestionably the pinnacle of Palm-powered devices. It offers virtually everything Pocket PCs do except for their confusing interfaces and their occasional unreliability. US$500 is no mere bag of shells, but the elegantly simple media features make it a well worth the cost of admittance.
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