(Posted November 20, 2003) --
Sony's latest, the NX80V, is a refinement of their vertical clamshell design. It is smaller, slimmer, and more functional than any of the previous NX series, with small improvements apparent everywhere. The NZ90 notwithstanding, we saw fit to name this device our Editor's Choice in the Pen Computing Buyer's Guide for Advanced Palm because it better suits the needs of the common PDA user, including excellent data features, slim profile, and good battery life. Though as of this writing there are two new devices entering this category (the Palm Tungsten T3 and Sony CLIE UX50), the NX80 still holds it own.
Compared to the NR and NX devices that have gone before, the NX80 is improved in almost every way. The device is a 200MHz Intel StrongARM device with a flip and twist 320 x 480 display and a built-in 1.3 megapixel digital camera with illumination lamp. Technically, it has 32MB RAM, but only 16MB are available for user-installable applications.
As for the NX80's capabilities, they are staggering. I'll have to hit upon them as I go along so as not to bore with long lists. The only thing I find lacking is Bluetooth functionality. WiFi is optionally available, and the wealthy courageous few can also opt for the foreign CLIE Bluetooth card (US$229 at MobilePlanet.com); unfortunately you give up Memory Stick expansion with this accessory installed, memory that is faster and more useful than CF expansion, as we'll see.
Since the debut of the WiFi slot in the NX70V, people have complained of two things: the extra bulk from the slot, and the lack of Compact Flash support. Sony has eliminated both complaints with the NX80's pop out expansion port, which is compatible with their WiFi card and most CF cards. The old slot was indeed what made the NX70 such a chunk to bring along. The new mechanism releases with a spring-loaded slide lock. The slot pops open, ready for action. You can insert a Type I or Type II CF card, which loads automatically. With the slot in use, of course, the device is once again about as thick as the NX70V, though it doesn't appear to be.
The addition of CF support will be good news to those wanting to carry large amounts of database or text information, as medical students often do. Most disappointing is the lack of support for photos and videos. You can neither record these data types from the device's camera to the CF slot, nor read photo or video files created on an external digital camera. You can copy them with the CLIE Files application to RAM or Memory Stick and read them then, but not natively from the CF card itself. You could also use the CF card as a means to store info collected onto the Memory Stick; unfortunately that can take some time and is cumbersome. MS Backup likewise only works with Memory Stick. The reason for this limitation is not clear.
New hinge design
The NR and NX devices had a slightly different hinge design, which integrated the hinge and camera on the same pin. The NX80 and NX73 both have the camera rotating around the middle of a fatter barrel, with the screen hinging off the front portion of this barrel. This serves a number of purposes. It allows room for the pop-out CF slot, allows room to move the stylus silo to the top instead of the bottom for a more traditional feel, and gives ample room for the dual-strength IrDA port (one for beaming out to the side, and a more powerful transmitter for remote control operations toward the front).
The camera is also better than other NX or NR devices. It rotates 300 degrees, and at its furthest-forward rotation snaps into place for lens protection (at this point it is facing down into the device). It can capture 1280 x 960 pixel images with the help of its illumination lamp and neutral density filter, both firsts in the CLIE line. The capture light is toggled on via an onscreen button, but the neutral density filter slides into place with a mechanical switch that you access either with the lens rotated fully forward or facing away from the user.
Pictures are decent, though those wanting film-quality prints shouldn't rely on the NX80 to deliver them. Instead, you should view the built in camera as a fun accessory for photos and videos that aren't too critical.
The lamp helps fill in the shadows when taking pictures of faces indoors, and also helps when using the camera as a stealth document copier, or with video. Video is surprisingly small and grainy when blown up, though it is cool that you're able to rotate the screen on playback to take advantage of the wide screen. Max resolution for video capture is 160 x 112. When videos are captured on another device and imported into the NX80, however, they can be as large as 320 x 240. I'd have liked to see 320 x 240 video capture at least, if not 320 x 480.
As has been true with other CLIEs, the software bundle is extensive. Users are able to upload videos, songs, and data files of all kinds onto either the onboard RAM or a Memory Stick. Data transfer is done in the cradle, but not through a HotSync application. Instead, the user launches the Data Export program on the PC, then launches the Data Import application on the CLIE, and hits the onscreen Connect button. Then it's back to the PC to select what you want to upload to the NX80V. It's not the most friendly interface, but it works once you figure it out. You're greeted with a blank screen that has two tabs: Begin Installation and CLIE Card Drive. Click on Add to pick what you want to upload. If you want to see what's on the Card already, click on the other tab. I still found it odd and uncooperative, but it did work for either deleting and uploading files to the card. An album of MP3s copies over in a minute or so. It's a heck of a lot faster than HotSyncing, in my experience.
As I mentioned, the stylus is no longer accessed at the bottom right of the NX80V. This was always a problem with the older units, because the stylus would fall out of gravity's ever-present influence; it was also just too different from any PDA that had gone before. Those who hate the CLIE's slim stylus will like this one even less, because its expansion capability makes it even thinner at the top when expanded. I'm fine with that, I just like that it's back where it belongs and is less likely to be lost. The expansion mechanism works fairly well, locking into place at the top of its stroke. Even without locking, it slides stiffly enough that it won't be collapsing without the user's consent.
One thing lacking from the other clamshell CLIEs was a second set of application buttons for use when the unit is in what I call PDA mode; that is, the screen is flipped over and folded back down. These first appeared on the NZ90, mounted on the bottom edge of the screen. On the NX80, they're round buttons in a more traditional position. They're deactivated in keyboard mode, where they are indeed less than useful. It's the kind of feature that makes it a worthwhile upgrade for otherwise happy NX owners.
Long overdue on many PDAs, including the CLIE is a backlit keyboard. Just press any button on the keyboard and it activates instantly. It's a dispersed set of yellow LEDs that appear hot in a few places; but the important part is that they're there.
The keyboard is mostly the same, and still lacks sticky keys. I do notice that they gave the @ symbol its own key. It's a good choice, because past models required users to press both the function and @ key at the same time--and they were right next to each other, making for a difficult maneuver. The number keys are sadly still embedded in the QWERTY line, despite that huge unused area below. These are not major matters for those who will be excited that there's a keyboard in the first place.
Well, let's see, there's USB, Memory Stick, CF, a microphone, a digital camera, IrDA, optional WiFi, and a keyboard; what other kind of input could there be? Pen input, of course. Of that type, there are three (four on my device, but I'll get to that in a moment). The traditional Graffiti has sadly been replaced by Jot-based Graffiti 2. There are still more keyboards, as well, including Palm's built-in keyboard and Sony's silkscreen-replacing keyboards. And now there's Decuma, the Swedish solution to text input that accepts whole words and numbers across a line. This works pretty well for whole word input, converting text into a neater version of what it thinks you wrote. Reminds me a lot of having a first grade teacher correct your work after each letter.
The fourth item I have loaded on my machine is TealPoint's TealScript, which gives me back my original Graffiti and makes these devices usable again. Decuma and maybe even Graffiti 2 will be great for completely new users, but give us veterans our Graffiti. TealScript will even allow you to customize your recognition with new strokes for characters you have trouble with. I've had trouble with recognition speed on the T2, but speed is excellent on the NX80V.
The NX80V is impressive and appealing. It has smoother lines and more delicate design treatment. Though I say delicate, I don't mean that it doesn't appear capable and sturdy. It's a mixture of refinement and utility that can only be grasped in person. I like the Memory Stick on the right side, with its disk access light and reset button nearby. The Voice Record slider is just above it; it's probably better that this feature is here to prevent accidental activation.
Most of the usual components are on the left, including the capture button, back button, jog dial, and power slider. They've improved this latter feature: it no longer accidentally snaps into "Hold" when the momentary switch is held down and released quickly. Hold turns off all features, quite the opposite of most user's intentions when hitting the power switch, and I'm sure that former tendency has frustrated quite a few.
My only complaint about these control features being on the side of the unit is that two of them become unavailable for use when the unit is in its included cradle. Those are the power switch and the Memory Stick. Crazy. The speaker is also blocked. Soon as I have a free moment I'll probably get my drill out of the truck and make a suitably-sized hole in the cradle's clear back.
Overall, Sony is to be praised for making such a comprehensive product. Without a single download or having to search on the Internet, users are able to customize their NX80V to do things they never imagined. They can also do things that most users would assume should be possible, but are missing from other company's offerings. Things like backing up files to an external card, made possible with Sony's built-in MS Backup (MS stands for Memory Stick). Not only can you make a backup with this app, you can make more than one and archive several copies of your device's configurations and data.
It has a world clock, remote control, desk calendar and picture frame program, voice recording, MIDI alarms, a Web browser and Email program, and a doodle pad built in, all in addition to the camera, music player, and organizer functions. Its brilliant, bright screen is sharp and has more intuitive information at your fingertips than past Palm OS devices have had. From nearly anywhere you can get back to the launcher and see both the time and battery status at a glance; a battery, by the way, that gets around 75% more time in MP3 playback mode. It is also the most expandable Palm OS device we've seen, with CF, Memory Stick, and USB ports. All these features and refinements add up to make the NX80V an easy best buy recommendation for upgraders and new purchasers alike.
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