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Palm LifeDrive

The first Palm with a hard drive has its pros and cons

SUMMARY--Though they have been available in iPods and other device for a while, the new palmOne LifeDrive is the first PDA ever that comes with an internal hard disk. This gives the LifeDrive massive storage capacity (per palmOne: 1200 Office docs + 6000 emails + 1000 pics + 300 songs + 10000 contacts + 10000 appointments + 50 voice memos). When connected to a PC or Mac, the LifeDrive shows up as a disk drive and you can easily drag files to and from it. Sporting a sleek new design, the LifeDrive is no bigger than a Tungsten (but weighs a bit more). It has a terrific high-res transflective display that can be used in portrait or landscape mode. 802.11b Wifi and Bluetooth permit wireless connectivity almost anywhere. All of this makes the US$499 LifeDrive an impressively flexible and powerful PDA and photo/music/video multimedia device.

FULL REVIEW--It's become clear to me where mobile phones and handheld computers are going to be by the end of this decade. Follow the trends in miniaturization, wireless internet access and peripheral connections, miniature hard disk capacity, battery technology, flat panel display cost, media digitization, and widespread social acceptance of mobile technologies, and I believe you end up with a fully integrated, dual-device solution for all personal computing, media, and communications functions.

The common mobile phone will shrink to the size of today's smallest wireless headset, worn over the ear and weighing almost nothing. Calls can be answered simply by slipping the thing onto your ear, or if it is already on, by tapping the earpiece with a finger; tap again to end a call. Calls can be dialed using voice recognition or through your pocket computer's virtual keypad or address book icons.

Notebook computers and handheld computers will merge into a single pocket-size device that runs not Windows Mobile, Palm OS, or a Symbian variant, but real Windows or Mac OS without any compromises. When at home or the office, the computer will slip into a charging dock that is connected to a flat panel, a keyboard, and a mouse. When away from a dock, the device's built-in 5- or 6-inch touchscreen display will show the most relevant information only: incoming messages, RSS feeds you've subscribed to, appointments, tasks, and other PDA-style data. Slide-out keyboards will make data entry easy, and handwriting recognition will be an option for those who prefer it over common QWERTY. You'll have all your communications, documents, photographs, current video selections, and PIM data in one device. No syncing headaches, troublesome file conversions, or any of the other hassles we take for granted in today's multi-computer world. And it'll cost under $500 -- cheap enough to lose or destroy one or even two per year without breaking the budget, as most of us do with today's mobile phones.

Until the day arrives when traditional embedded PDA operating systems are as irrelevant as floppy disks, today's handheld makers are gradually adding increasingly PC-like power into their devices. Today's handheld computers have as much raw horsepower as the laptops of the late 1990s, though until now they lacked enough storage capacity to cut into laptop sales. First of many

The arrival of Palm's LifeDrive "mobile manager" is the first of what will be soon be dozens of microdrive-equipped handheld devices. The LifeDrive is an admirable first effort in what is arguably a new category of personal device, but it is far from perfect and in some ways it is a step backwards. By any measure, the LifeDrive is a gorgeously designed piece of personal tech. The all-metal body has iPod-like sculpted back edges that look as good as they feel in your hand. Buttons and controls are all top notch with a decisive feel. Graphic treatment is typically Palm-elegant. I think it is the most physically attractive handheld computer ever made, though I'm sure some will argue that it's overly thick. Considering what's under the hood, I'm willing to forgive a bit of excess depth.

Flick it on and you go though a boot process that's as protracted as that of most laptops. Several minutes later, you see a standard Palm user interface. Palm users will recognize the Garnet UI from the E2 and T5 machines. Little of importance has changed for the LifeDrive revision (5.4) beyond a few trivial color alterations that only an obsessive would notice. If you were expecting a fresh new interface on this supposedly category-defining new machine, you will be disappointed -- essentially, it's just a modern Palm with a 4GB microdrive inside, along with built-in 802.11b WiFi and Bluetooth 1.1 wireless. They could have called it the T6 and no one would have blinked.

Palm OS: Crumbling beauty

That's not to say the LifeDrive hasn't got some mighty impressive functionality, or that's it's not worth the $500 Palm is charging for it. It may be the coolest Palm-powered device ever, but it's still just a Palm. It inherits the flakiness of recent Palm OS 5 devices along with a lack of real multitasking. Compared to Windows Mobile and Symbian, Palm OS is showing signs of neglect. It's still just as pretty as ever, but there is a patchiness to its underpinnings that betray an aging codebase. Wireless in particular feels as though it was hastily bolted on; the iffy performance of both WiFi and Bluetooth in this machine borders on pre-beta.

If you can get past the creaky operating system and wireless annoyances, you'll find much to appreciate in this new machine. The 320x480-pixel, 64K-color display is a slightly improved version of the one on the T5, that is to say bright, crisp, and readable outdoors. Text of any size, photos and videos look fantastic on this display -- no complaints here. You can stare at it for hours without fatigue.

If you do stare at it for hours, it probably won't be as many hours as you might like. Though the LifeDrive sports a big 1660 mAh lithium-ion pack, the microdrive, 416MHz processor, and that lovely bright screen eat up the amps pretty fast. Palm claims a battery life expectancy of two days, but that's based on "typical" usage patterns cooked up by some marketing people. Like a Pocket PC, you'll have to charge this thing up every night or wake up to disappointment before lunchtime the next day. Incidentally, the LifeDrive battery pack is not replaceable without special tools, so forget about packing a spare. Apple's world-beating iPod has made the miniature hard drive hip. It was only a matter of time before they started showing up in all manner of mobile device. The largest maker of microdrives is Hitachi, to which IBM sold the technology and turned over all manufacturing a couple of years ago. Hitachi has since added some improvements in capacity and roadworthiness to the design, making them ideal for use in handheld computers. The first LifeDrive has the latest 4GB mechanism, a 16-gram wonder of the modern age.

LifeDrive software

All that storage capacity fundamentally changes the way you'll think about a handheld computer. Suddenly, you can carry thousands of documents and media files instead of dozens. Using Drive Mode, you can plug your LifeDrive into any modern personal computer and access the contents from your Windows or Mac desktop. Forget about HotSyncing all this stuff, just drag it over. On a Windows machine, you can use the supplied LifeDrive smart file manager to structure your portable data, while on a Mac you have to do it the old fashioned way of manually putting things where they make sense. I'm a Mac person and I know how Palm OS organizes its various folders, so I had no trouble. This LifeDrive PC software is not particularly sophisticated, so creating a comparable Mac version will be trivial once Palm gets around to it. One thing I did miss in my PowerBook to LifeDrive experience was the option to have files intelligently converted and changes synchronized, as it does on the Windows version of the software.

While we're talking about that little hard drive, let me describe the memory management scheme we have in the LifeDrive. The microdrive is used in place of RAM, 64MB of it dedicated to program memory. There is some caching going on but basically everything you do on your LifeDrive entails spinning up the drive and waiting a few seconds. Some stuff is kept in program memory, such as emails, while their attachments go on the user-accessible portion of the drive. They call this user memory and it is the rest of the microdrive. It's all kind of confusing, but it works well, if a bit slowly. If you are used to speedy program access in a late model Palm, the LifeDrive approach will take a little getting used to. It's the price you pay for all that capacity and current technology cannot do anything about it without raising the product's price and reducing the battery life even further.

Application tour

LifeDrives offer the latest Palm applications, all revved up to support the microdrive. VersaMail is as pleasant as ever, and the Blazer web browser hums right along as expected. The personal information management apps are unchanged, doing what they've always done so well. In place of Photos, we have Media, a catch all organizer for all your still and motion pictures. Working with Media is the new Camera Companion, which fires up when you insert an SD card from your digicam and offers you a variety of ways to view and move your shots around. (Users of cameras that use other kinds of flash cards will want to buy the forthcoming media adapter cable from Palm. At press time, we unfortunately did not have one to test.) Now you can use your LifeDrive to archive all your photography while away from your personal computer, then use Media to build slideshows on the fly.

For the four or five of you that don't yet own an iPod and prefer to use your handheld computer to listen to music, LifeDrives ship with a basic version of the decent PocketTunes application. It can play MP3s and do a serviceable job of creating playlists and organizing your audio, but to play WMA files from some online music stores you have to pony up another $25 to upgrade to the full version. After forking over $500, I'd be surprised and disappointed to have to pay more for what should be core audio functionality. What's worse, even after upgrading you still cannot play AAC format files from iTunes, either ripped from your own CDs or purchased from the iTunes Music Store. I didn't really expect the latter, as Apple is jealously guarding its iPod hardware franchise, but the ability to play unprotected AAC files should definitely be there. Even $100 Nokia phones can do that, so why can't a $500 Palm? Smells like corporate intrigue to me.

Office to go

One of the functions that the LifeDrive does particularly well is work with Microsoft Office documents. The latest rev of Dataviz' Documents to Go is preinstalled, and it works beautifully on both the handheld and on your PC or Mac. I love the way it works with email attachments. Native files just come right up for editing and can be round-tripped over and over without drama. I predict that many a LifeDrive will be sold to folks who need to carry loads of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files around with them. Add in the excellent Palm Wireless Keyboard and you've got a formidable mobile office that weights less than one pound.

Though I've mentioned a number of drawbacks in the LifeDrive, I must admit that I found the device compelling enough that I was sorely tempted to become a Palm guy again. Paired up via Bluetooth with a good GPRS phone and synced up to my PowerBook with the superb Missing Sync for Palm (, I have a powerful suite of interconnected tools that gives me outrageous flexibility in both my professional and personal lives. The deal breaker for me is the on again, off again wireless performance, tired old twentieth-century OS, and pokey performance. Oh, and the execrable Graffiti2 character recognition system is intolerable for a ten-year, multi-platform Graffiti veteran like me.

Still, when I hold the LifeDrive in my hand I can imagine something very much like it five years from now, running my operating system of choice and securely holding my entire digital life. The LifeDrive a significant evolutionary step towards the fully converged personal computer of 2010. --David MacNeill