The Palm LifeDrive is the first of what we hope will be many “Mobile Managers” by the once king of PDAs. The heart of the LifeDrive concept is integrating a micro hard drive into the PDA. If you ever thought it would be nice to have your essential PIM information in the same device as your pictures and music, all rolled up in a clean interface, your answer may have arrived.
Features and Design
Once upon a time, a small company by the name of Palm released a small pocket computer, and it took the world by storm. Once the pride of those who donned wrist watches with calculators, the PDA became a chic accoutrement for up-and-coming business people. Then the sleepy giant Microsoft awoke, smelling money in the wind, and launched its own PDA operating system. It was clumsy and the hardware was poor, but over time and with the help of tight integration with Microsoft’s other Office products, Windows CE picked up steam. As more third parties refined the hardware, and user complaints pushed for better software, the PDA that was once a laughing stock took control of the market.
Since then, Palm has spun off their software division, has been renamed a few times, reabsorbed their software company, and even managed to release a few devices in between. Overall, though, the PalmOS PDA hasn’t changed much. The lauded interface, renowned for its simplicity, remains with some nice upgrades, and the basic focus still is on managing personal information. The Palm LifeDrive continues in these veins, but adds mass storage at the core. Traditionally, pictures, music, and video were limited in quantity and quality by the miniscule storage of most PDAs. Even with inclusion of expansion ports for SD and CF cards, media was considered a niche use. But, with our media-rich, always-connected lives, “personal information” has come to include what was once multi-media.
Packaged with the LifeDrive are a few add-ons: A power cord, sync cord, case, and software CD. We were particularly disappointed that no cradle came in the box. The case is more of a sleeve meant for protecting the screen, and lacks a belt clip. The power and sync cords are of ample length. The sync cord uses a proprietary connection instead of a standard USB connection.
The LifeDrive itself is somewhat bulky, but sports a nice 4-in. diagonal HVGA screen with a native resolution of 320×240 (supporting 65,000 colors). The bulk is mainly in the thickness, which is just shy of a full inch thick. The front quick access buttons are different from traditional Palm models. In addition to the four-way directional pad, there are buttons for Home, Favorite, Files, and Media (photos). Above the screen is an orange hard drive access light that indicates the status of hard drive activity. Along the left edge are buttons for Screen Orientation Change (landscape or portrait) and Voice Memo Record, as well as the built-in microphone. The top edge has the Power/Hold button, SDIO/SD/MMC card slot, and stylus holder. The right side is bare, and the bottom contains just the dock connector, headphone port and reset button. The back of the unit has two rubber feet to prevent the LifeDrive from slipping off your desk. The casing has a nice, brushed aluminum finish, as do all of the buttons. Unlike many Palm OS devices, the LifeDrive has a soft Graffiti area–instead of having the bottom fourth of the screen set to handwriting input, the input area exists as software and can be dismissed.
Image Courtesy of Palm
Testing and Use
Even though little has changed in the arena of user needs, we found it disheartening that the LifeDrive uses only PalmOS 5.4. We hoped that Palm would include PalmOS 6, since version 5 was launched in June of 2002. The operating system update rate has been an Achilles’ heel for Palm, and is in part the reason Palm lost its market dominance. PalmOS 6 will support a more extensible architecture, and will add a number of important hardware support features. As it stands, PalmOS 5 may be functional, but many features have the feel of a well-glossed hack. Some system files and applications still have to be stored in RAM, and the integrated hard drive is for file storage.
Both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 1.1 are integrated nicely into the operating system. Out of the box, you get a web browser (Blazer), email client (VersaMail), and SMS application. The built-in web browser, as well as several third party options, connect over Wi-Fi, as does the email client. Bluetooth connectivity includes the ability to dial a Bluetooth-enabled phone from the LifeDrive and send SMS messages, in addition to support for printing to a Bluetooth-enabled printer. Since only version 1.1 of the Bluetooth standard is supported, there is no support for stereo headphones. Wi-Fi configuration includes both WEP and WPA-PSK with 128-bit keys.
The integrated 4GB hard drive is the centerpiece around which the LifeDrive is built. A DiskM Mode application allows the user to mount the drive as a mass storage device in Windows or on a Mac, and houses the media content as well as applications. While the hard drive is nice for the capacity, it takes a real toll on both system responsiveness and battery life. Every button press to switch applications is followed by a two to four second pause, which can be frustrating if all you want to do is add a contact and schedule a meeting. Add another two seconds if you are waking the device up from sleep mode. Battery life was dismal for a Palm device, clocking in at around two hours for video off a full charge, and four and a half hours of music playback. In regular, everyday use, we found ourselves able to make it through a regular day at the office before running home for a quick recharge. Sadly, gone are the days of once a week charging.
There is a camera companion application that allows the user to offload pictures from their digital camera. This does NOT mean it supports USB on the Go through the sync cable. Instead, Palm is simply referring to transferring files through the PC connection or by dropping your memory card into the expansion port. Still, if your camera uses a CompactFlash, Memory Stick, or xD card, you’re out of luck. Once transferred, photos of nearly any format, except RAW, can be viewed and manipulated. Even LZW and TIFF files can be viewed and added to slide shows.
Movies can be viewed through the Media viewer application, which also holds photos. Supported formats include AVI, WMV, ASF, MOV and QT. MPEG movies are supported, but only as ASF, MPEG-1, 3G2 and 3GP. DiVX and Xvid are not supported natively, but conversion programs can be found easily at your favorite shareware site. Playback is smooth and can take advantage of the full screen, and sound plays through the built-in speaker if headphones are not plugged in.
Music is handled by Pocket Tunes, or pTunes. pTunes will only play MP3s, and does not sync with iTunes, as the name might imply. There is a deluxe version that supports Ogg Vorbis, WAV, WMA (unprotected) and Microsoft’s PlaysForSure technology. There is also no support for AAC (protected or otherwise). Windows Media Player will recognize the LifeDrive and allows for easy syncing, compared to the default method. The interface for pTunes is clear, and sports the same brushed metal motif as iTunes. There are all standard functions, including playlists, repeat, background playback, and you can blank the screen to preserve battery. Sound quality of our few test songs was okay. The clarity was somewhat muddled and harsh, proving that the LifeDrive is not meant to replace your specialized MP3 player.
Aside from the media features, the LifeDrive is still a PDA. All the classic Palm applications are present. Contacts, Calendar, Calc, Expense, Memos, Tasks, and World Clock are all still there. Microsoft documents, including Word, Excel and Powerpoint can be created, viewed and edited using the included version of Documents To Go. Most common functions are supported for each file type, and the Graffiti area can be dismissed to view larger spreadsheets. The ability to rotate the screen orientation also shines when viewing Powerpoint slides.
Image Courtesy of Palm
The Palm LifeDrive is a good first stab at the PDA-Media Manager hybrid concept, and the overall design shows great promise. For Palm enthusiasts, this device is a great option, but it won’t be winning back any Windows Mobile converts. The sluggish hard drive and poor battery life need to be addressed in future revisions, and an operating system upgrade is essential for Palm to remain competitive. With recent drops in flash memory prices, hopefully the hardware issues will be wiped out in one fell swoop by ditching the hard drive.
- Easy navigation
- Highest capacity PalmOS device
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
- Slow hard drive load times
- Aging OS,
- Dim screen