Review: palmOne's LifeDrive

With a hard drive and business and multimedia apps, the LifeDrive boldly updates the idea of the PDA in a device that's strong . . . and a bit clumsy.



A few Internet ages ago when iPods were new, I bought a 20GB model, the biggest one Apple then offered. I filled it with data and files from my various computers and, every time I had a system crash, it saved the day. And, of course, it played all of my favorite songs (and still does to this day).


palmOne's LifeDrive
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That's exactly the kind of mobile power that palmOne is trying to provide with its new LifeDrive, which sports a built-in hard drive and both PDA and multimedia capabilities. This is a much more revolutionary device than we've come to expect from palmOne, which lately has stuck to relatively simple evolutionary changes in its Tungsten line of PDAs. The company deserves a lot of credit for this attempt to re-define the PDA and LifeDrive will, indeed, appeal to many users.

Still, at times, LifeDrive seems clumsy because it's trying to do too many things for too many people. It's not, for example, as simple and easy to use as a consumer device like the iPod. And in making LifeDrive a jack of all trades, palmOne made design and physical heft compromises. Plus, at $499, the price is hefty, meaning that if you only need a PDA, music player or external hard drive, you'd be better off going with the individual devices.

But its features do hit the target market of corporate executives, the digital elite, and anyone who needs a full-featured device in a small form-factor. And, if nothing else, it's a significant and fascinating first step toward a new type of mobile device.

In trying to think outside the box, it is rather amazing what palmOne crammed inside it.

This device is based on Palm OS 5.4 (Garnet), not the more advanced Cobalt version of the Palm platform, which can do multitasking and multithreading, and it is built on a reasonably hefty (for a mobile device) 416 MHz Intel XScale processor. . The most substantial addition is the use of a 4GB Hitachi microdrive for primary storage, along with 64MB of RAM for program space. The program RAM is typical RAM and not the flash memory used in palmOne's Tungsten T5 and E2 PDAs, but having the 4GB microdrive continues palmOne's move towards non-volatile storage, meaning that users won't lose all of their data even if the battery runs down. The device also has a SD Disk expansion slot.

The device also is quite connective, with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 1.1 support. The screen is an absolutely crisp and brilliant marvel with a 320x480 resolution " twice that of typical Pocket PC devices. The LifeDrive also adds a hardware switch on the side of the unit to rotate between normal portrait and landscape mode inside of any application. In addition, the voice recorder is back after being inexplicably dropped from the Tungsten T5, accessed via a side switch, and the quality of the rear-mounted speaker seems to have been improved.

For those who want better fidelity than any micro-speaker can provide, a standard audio jack is on the bottom of the unit, but it appears to be for audio output only -- those hoping to run Wi-Fi VoIP through the LifeDrive with a headset will be disappointed. Having permanently ditched their previous "Universal Connector," the LifeDrive continues palmOne's recent use of the new "Multi-connector" for charging and data synchronization (via an included USB cable instead of a cradle).

PalmOne, obviously understanding that this device would need lots of power, built in a beefy, internal 1660 mAh Lithium-Ion battery. If not quite the two to two-and-a-half days per charge palmOne claims, I got at least a full day of heavy use, which is a refreshing change from many wireless-enabled units that often have a battery life measured in a few hours of real-time use.

A rough run-down test on the LifeDrive, with MP3 files playing constantly and accessing the drive, Wi-Fi active and in use, and the screen on maximum brightness, was still in the range of 3 hours. This is in welcome contrast to earlier Palm OS devices, which when using the add-on Wi-Fi SDIO card, you could almost see the battery indicator dropping as you watched.

The LifeDrive feels rather pudgy at 4.76"x2.87"x.74", and a hefty 6.8 oz. PalmOne beveled the back of the unit to provide a slimming profile, but the extra thickness and weight compared to its T5 PDA is definitely noticeable in your hand. That's the tradeoff for 4GB of storage and both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but this is a much more brick-like device than any previous palmOne product. Still, the unit has a very solid-feeling, with a brushed-aluminum finish more like the Tungsten T3 than the T5, and a notably clean combination of style and functionality.

In the end, the 4GB microdrive is a mixed bag. The extra storage space is, as intended, extremely useful for storing large presentations and media such as audio and video files. 4GB still isn't quite enough to hold serious enterprise-related data. For instance, I used to store multiple OS images and other multi-gigabyte files on my venerable 20GB iPod, but that isn't possible on a 4GB drive.

More significantly, the LifeDrive takes a noticeable performance hit from using a rotating-media drive. For reasons of performance and battery life, the LifeDrive does its best to pre-cache data it thinks you'll need from the hard drive into RAM. However, frequently I experienced delays in response while the drive spun up. It wasn't unusable by any means, but those used to the near-instant-on response of typical PDAs may find themselves annoyed by occasional perceived slowness.

The built-in Wi-Fi is generally solid. Setup is simple and easy, and I had no trouble finding and accessing 802.11b and g access points on my network, as well as public access points (palmOne includes a 30-day free trial on T-Mobile's network.) WEP and WPA-PSK encryption is supported, but palmOne no longer bundles Mergic's VPN client, so you'll have to purchase that separately if you need it.

Another possible instance of tradeoff is that, while using the included Pocket Tunes application for playing MP3 files, there was at times some noticeable audio interference between tracks, and a distinct delay when skipping tracks in the forward or reverse directions, particularly when playing tracks off of both the hard drive and a 1GB Secure Digital expansion card. The LifeDrive does a reasonable job of being all things to all people, but if what you really want is a dedicated MP3 player, you're probably better off with an iPod.

PalmOne continues its wise bundling of DataViz's excellent Documents To Go application, providing better compatibility with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files than Microsoft's Pocket PC devices do. With the addition of an external keyboard and a video-out add-on like Margi's Presenter-to-Go SDIO card (not available for the LifeDrive at press time, but likely to be shortly), it should be possible to give complete, media-rich presentations and leave the laptop at home.

PalmOne includes a competent array of bundled software to help organize and manage photo, audio and video media, and the Versa Mail application in combination with Documents To go allows you to receive media files or Microsoft Office files as attachments, view and edit them, then mail them back via the LifeDrive.

Other included software is designed to work with and manage digital camera image files located on SD cards, allowing use of the LifeDrive as a portable image tank, to backup and display digital camera images on the road. The LifeDrive Manager program did a reasonable job of synchronizing files between Windows computers and the LifeDrive, including media conversion on the fly where necessary, and a simple to use Drive Mode allows the LifeDrive to appear as a standard external USB drive for both Macintosh and Windows computers.

Using the LifeDrive is exciting because if, for no other reason, it represents the first example of the next generation of a venerable type of product - the PDA. And while it is pricey, it does many things reasonably well, serving as a corporate-level PDA, music and media player and even external storage device. It doesn't, however, do any of those tasks quite as well as devices dedicated to those specific tasks.

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