Review: PalmOne LifeDrive
LifeDrive is here and I have one in my hands for review. Find out what all the fuss is about, and what to expect from this trendsetting mobile device. Read my first impressions of this new device.
It had to be one of the worse kept secrets in the industry in a long time. Rumors of PalmOne’s latest model have been cropping up online over the past few months with the frequency of an overactive bladder. Now the wait is over and the curtain is pulled back, LifeDrive is here. The only question that remains to be answered is how good is it? While I can’t yet publish a full comprehensive review, owing to the fact I just received my review unit from PalmOne on Monday, I can however give you some of the gritty details about this product, and how well it performs so far.
Lets get the specs out of the way first, for all of you who drool over hardware data:
- LifeDrive specs:
- Dimensions: 4.76″x 2.87″x .74″
- Weight: 6.8oz.
- Battery: Rechargeable Lithium-Ion providing 2-2.5 days of battery use, 1660mAh capacity.
- Expansion: SD, SDIO, MMC slot
- Processor: Intel 416mhz Xscale CPU
- Screen: 320×480 Transflective TFT color display with 65,000 colors
- Memory: 64MB Program Memory, 4GB Hard Drive (3.8 available to the user).
- File management: LifeDrive smart file management
- Wireless: Dual wireless connectivity; Bluetooth 1.1, WiFi (802.11b)
- Hitachi Microdrive specs:
- Storage: 4GB
- Weight: 16grams; weighs less than a single AA battery
- Processing: Transers data 30 percent faster than previous generation
Let’s start with the usual “What’s in the box” stuff. LifeDrive comes with a USB Sync cable which uses the “Multi-connector” interface, a power adapter, and complete documentation. The included CD gives you extras like Documents To Go 7, Adobe Reader (PalmOS), a trial version of HandMark’s Pocket Express. RealNetwork’s Rhapsody software, WiFile (a network utility), eReader, Pocket Tunes desktop plugin for Windows Media Player, plus a link to upgrade to the full version of Pocket Tunes Deluxe (more on that later).
When you open the box and pull out LifeDrive, your first impression is “Holy cow is this thing big!” Although still roughly the same dimensions as a Tungsten T5, the device is substantially thicker than any other mobile device on the market. It’s the Big Mac of PDAs. What’s that you say? LifeDrive is not a PDA? It’s a whole new category of device? Au contraire, but I’ll get into that later.
LifeDrive is designed to look unique from other mobiles devices it competes with by eschewing the curvy looks of similar products like the Tungsten T5, instead sporting a more boxy form factor. This makes it look less like a PDA and more like an external PC peripheral. This takes some getting used to, but it grows on you. I like it.
Despite its behemoth girth, the device actually feels pretty good in your hands. Weighing 6.8oz., LifeDrive is comparable in weight to an early iPaq device, or roughly in the same class as the Tapwave Zodiac (6.3oz). The angled sides conceal its bulky size, allowing it to be held comfortably in the palm of your hand. Carried in the pocket, however, it’s not so svelte. Be prepared to suffer those agonizing cliche remarks like “Is that a LifeDrive in your pants or are you just happy to see me?” Size factor aside, I am immediately impressed by two important aspects; one is the industrial design, which is incredibly rock solid. A great deal of thought and detail went into this product’s development, and the folks at PalmOne deserve a lot of credit for putting so much effort into this. The body is sold and tight, with no flexing or creaking whatsoever. The other thing that really puts a smile on my face is that the body is made from an elegant brushed aluminum. You heard me right; I said aluminum…as in metal! The entire device, front to back, is brushed aluminum. And you know what a fan I am of metal. No cheap painted plastic here. The design is sleek and elegant, just what you would expect from a pedigreed mobile device.
One small concern I have is with the back of the device. PalmOne packed so much hardware into such a small space that all those electronics give off heat. At times LifeDrive even feels slightly warm in your hands. To combat this, perforated metal was used for the back, allowing air to flow through and cool off the internal components. You can actually see through the tiny holes to the “stuff” underneath. The only potential downside to this arrangement is that the possibility exists for something other just air to get in. Like dirt, pocket lint, crumbs, a 12oz. bottle of Coke perhaps?
The button layout on LifeDrive is somewhat different from other offerings, past and present. The top of the device sports a new toggle switch that doubles as a power switch and hold button. By that I mean that instead of depressing a button to power on/off the unit, you actually slide the toggle to the right to perform the same function, the button then slides back to its original position. Behind that is the SD slot. To the right is the stylus silo. Good news for Tungsten T fans; the retractable spring-loaded stylus has returned!
On the left side of the device is located a Voice recorder button for taking voice memos. Below that is a new hardware button for rotating the display, which works slicker than snot.
On the bottom is the stereo headphone jack (yeah, I’m disappointed they put it there too), the Multi-connector, and last but certainly not least the reset button. On front we have an amber colored LED that blinks or glows whenever the internal Hard Drive is active.
LifeDrive’s most unique design aspect is the introduction of a new button layout. Two rocker style application shortcut keys replace the traditional independent button arrangement found on other palmOne offerings. PalmOne refers to these buttons as piano keys. The new D-pad is truly like nothing else before it, at least in terms of aesthetics. A ringed-lip allows you to scroll up, down, right, and left. While a center activation button allows you to select items on the screen. The collaborative effect these two buttons have is to enable one-handed operation of the LifeDrive, thereby reducing the need for stylus navigation. Similar to the Tungsten T5 and Treo 650 series.
LifeDrive, Live and in concert
When you power on LifeDrive for the first time, you’re greeted with a luscious bright display and rich vivid colors. PalmOne claims this display to be brighter and offers better color saturation compared to the T5, but I found brightness to be nearly indistinguishable from one another. The most noticeable difference here is clearly color saturation, which is considerably improved over the T5. LifeDrive’s display is superb for viewing photos and images.
But LifeDrive isn’t just about photos and digital slideshows. It handles video as well. A new built-in app called Camera Companion can import video files and images from digital cameras, using the SD card slot. From there, your content can be viewed using the Media app.
Camera Companion is a brilliant piece of software that works wonderfully. Just pop in an SD card from your digital camera into LifeDrive’s SD slot, and the app automatically launches. From there you are presented with three different options; copy from a camera, copy to PC, or view the images and media directly from the card itself. Very simple and painless.
In terms of the operating system and software, there is very little difference from this product and recent models like the Tungsten T5 or E2. LifeDrive runs a slightly updated version of PalmOS Garnet (5.4.8). The only immediately apparent cosmetic change is new color scheme for the toolbar area, which is now grey instead of the traditional Tungsten blue. Not a big change, but noticeable nonetheless. The display options offer a ton of new background wallpaper to choose from. Everything from scenic backgrounds and nature, to abstract art.
Overall I’m a little disappointed that LifeDrive is running Garnet and not Cobalt. In today’s competitive mobile space, Garnet is beginning to look like an old draft horse standing alongside champion race horses on the track. Where is Smarty Jones when we need him? To put it mildly, Garnet is looking a bit archaic.
Its crippled multi-tasking environment (unless otherwise supported by applications) is a limitation that holds back software development in many ways. The OS still relies on a proprietary file system that requires nearly everything it touches be converted into Palm Database files (.PDB). Not to mention the questionable reliability it offers in terms of overall stability. I’ve had more problems with PalmOS devices crashing in recent years than any other platform.
That said, what Garnet does, it does extremely well. It’s simple to use, offers excellent usability, and provides access to a large pool of third party software. And it’s for those attributes that Palm OS has endured so long.
While it would have been nice to have Cobalt, that OS is targeted at Smartphones. So the likelihood of seeing a non-cellular device running Cobalt in the immediate future is probably not good.
The Heart of LifeDrive
Within the chest of LifeDrive beats a 416mhz Intel “Bulverde” CPU. Benchmarks done in Speedy put the LifeDrive performing slower than the Tungsten T5 with a benchmark score of 1648, compared to 1875 for the T5. Tungsten C tops out the chart at 2000.
The big news with LifeDrive is of course the introduction of an all-new 4GB Hitachi Microdrive. Rather using traditional ROM to store internal OS and embedded applications, LifeDrive uses a built-in hard drive to accommodate everything. When you launch an application, the software and data is written from the hard drive and gets cached. When the Hard drive is active, the amber LED glows to indicate what is happening. However, during these moments of activity, LifeDrive lags..sometimes for more than few seconds. At time it performs more like an early Pocket PC device than a Palm. According to PalmOne, the last few applications you access get cached, and will open immediately without any hesitation the next time they’re accessed. Meaning you shouldn’t experience lag time thereafter. This is true, for the most part, but in my tests the Hard drive is accessed nearly all the time, whether I’m opening applications that I have already accessed or sorting through previously accessed data. The bottom line is that you experience a great deal of pausing whenever the hard drive is writing/reading, which makes the overall experience far different from what you may be accustomed to on previous handhelds. On my Tungsten T5 for example, everything you do takes place instantly without any hesitation. If you tap the Calendar icon, the program pops right up on your screen. Do the same task on LifeDrive, the LED comes one and things come to a pause as app gets cached. For most users this won’t be a big deal. But be forewarned, this is not quite like using a Tungsten or Zire.
Consider it one of the tradeoffs of having the luxury of a 4GB hard drive in the belly of your mobile device.
Since I’ve only had this device for less than 48 hours, I haven’t had much chance to put its multimedia capabilities to full use. But here is what I’ve experienced so far.
LifeDrive comes bundled with NormSoft’s Pocket Tunes audio player software for PalmOS (3.09). This is a custom version that sports a cleaner interface and skin that closely resembles iTunes. In my early tests, audio quality is simply outstanding; basically on par with what you would expect on iPods or other media centric devices. Music piped through my Sony MDR headphones sounded smooth and rich from the headphone jack.
However, this is not the deluxe version of Pocek Tunes. In order to get the full experience which includes a built-in equalizer and support for Windows Media DRM (required for playback of purchased music downloads), you need to download Pocket Tunes Deluxe, which will set you back an extra $25. Having to pony up more money after shelling out $500 for a new PDA may be a bitter pill to swallow for some users.
The biggest downside to this software, and all audio player software for PDAs, is that it is designed to look and feel like a desktop audio player, which begs to be touched with a stylus rather than one-handed operation. To access music in your playlist, you simply scroll down the list of songs and click the center button to select it. The D-pad also controls audio playback functionality is well. Sounds all well and good for a device capable of holding only a few songs. But that’s where the problem starts. LifeDrive is capable of storing and managing the bulk of a whole music library. Unfortunately Pocket Tunes is rather poorly designed for accessing whole libraries in the way that an iPod or other media device would. For example, if you want to drill down into your library, ala iPod style, you use the ringed D-pad to select a music note icon (surprisingly tricky to do that) which takes you to the “Choose songs” screen where you are then greeted with a list of options to choose from; Artist, Album, Genre, Playlists, etc. Similar to an iPod. Sounds simple enough, right? Well this is the part where usability starts to suffer. In order to select these hoices, as well as your music, you have to go through a series of thumb-driven acrobatics. Scroll to Artist, Album, Genre …hit the center button. Find the artist you want, hit the center button. Find the album you want, hit the center button. Find the song(s) you want, hit the center button, or select all the songs in the album by mucking around with the D-pad to navigate down to the bottom of the screen to the where the “Select All” button is located. This is process is clumsy to say the least. The same task on my iPod takes a fraction of the time. Why? Because the iPod interface is designed for just that purpose. Most PDA audio software such as Pocket Tunes bolts library management on almost as an afterthought, in part because software designers are chasing the wrong horse; modeling audio playback software after desktop media jukeboxes. If more thought would go into audio software design trying to replicate the iPod or Creative Zen micro interface rather than Windows Media Player, that would dramatically improve the user experience on handhelds.
Admittedly some of my complaint is more a reflection of PDA hardware/software integration than Pocket Tunes shortcomings. But those two factors combined generally turn me off. Still, for PDA geeks and Prosumers (I love that dot com era buzzword) who don’t want to carry around a media player, Pocket Tunes is a worthy choice that gets the job done, and truly does sound awesome! Mainstream consumers looking for a serious audio player device however, should look elsewhere. LifeDrive…you’re no iPod.
As for video, it’s still too early in the review process to give a final conclusion or benchmark. But here is some errata from my initial experience.
The built-in media app handles AVI files natively, but not Divx or xvid. There are sever third party video solutions like The Core media player and MMPlayer. Here are a few screenshots of video running on Core.
AVI video file..
Full screen mode shots..
More video info coming in the second part of my review. Stay tuned.
I’m still putting the improved Wireless capabilities to the test, especially with regards to battery life impact. But to sum up, we now have dual Wireless built into a PalmOS device, and that’s reason to cheer! Bluetooth works just as it does on any other PalmOS handheld, which is to say..bittersweet.
Still working on WiFi, but so far it works much better than expected. Getting it to work with my “Secure” network however is a real pain in the…well, more on that in part 2 of my review.
What LifeDrive is
When PalmOne first announced the addition of this new device category to its product lineup, I found myself initially asking…Mobile Manager? What’s that all about? Is this a completely new product segment whose existence was, until now, unknown to us? Has PalmOne just turned the market upside down and created something so revolutionary it requires a category all to itself? Well, my perception, based on the experience thus far tells me no. Despite the marketing mantra LifeDrive is really nothing more than a robust PDA and little more. That’s not to say in any way that it’s a weak product offering or poorly placed. Just that it lives within the same category as other PalmOne handhelds, and not in fact outside the realm as they imply.
So why place this product into its own unique category? Two reasons, simply:
A. Marketing spin. This is a great new product that has features not found on any competing product on the market today. So, why not flaunt that fact in the face of consumers and corporate customers by positioning LifeDrive as something other than a handheld, even though it’s really not. Placing it in the same category with Tungstens and Zires would give the subconscious (and unfair) impression that it’s just another handheld.
B. Declining PDA sales. With traditional (read: disconnected) PDA sales declining, PalmOne wants to do whatever it takes not to associate this product with a declining product segment. And what better way to do that than to NOT call it PDA?
Giving LifeDrive a category space all its own allows PalmOne to dodge two bullets at the same time, and perhaps give this product a chance to experience real success and acceptance in the market place. Will that strategy pay off? Time will tell.
What LifeDrive is not
Those of you who were expecting LifeDrive to be some miracle multimedia wonder device or iPod killer are in for a disappointment. Whatever this product’s intended purpose, it most certainly is not in the same class with iPods or Portable Media Center devices, and is in no way marketed as such. It lacks the software and capabilities to fill that role, and I see no indication PalmOne ever intended LifeDrive for that purpose, other than to enable the user to take some of their content with them on the go. It replaces your PDA, not your iPod. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that, if anything, LifeDrive competes with Laptops more than any other type of device.
LifeDrive is definitely a trendsetter. Arguably, PalmOne now takes the lead role as innovator in the mobile space. Between it and their Treo line, PalmOne is a company to be admired. However, I think there will be great challenges in selling this product as it struggles to find a target market. Who is this device intended for? Consumers? Business users? That’s something even palmOne couldn’t quite answer directly. During a recent press briefing, someone asked the presenter that very question. His answer was rather vague, giving no guidance on the subject, except to say PalmOne expects that initial LifeDrive sales will be driven by our installed base, which means Palm fans and gadget freaks. That’s certainly an affluent market to go after, initially, but it’s short lived. Once all the gadget heads get their geeky fix, LifeDrive will face the mainstream consumer and business markets, where expensive non-cellular PDAs haven’t exactly met with great success in recent years, and sales have dropped sharply as a result. Can LifeDrive reverse that trend? I’m dubious. I see this product having tremendous potential in vertical applications such as the healthcare industry and real estate.
Personally, I feel that PalmOne should have integrated this wonderful technology into a new Smartphone product rather than a traditional PDA. Combining massive storage and on the go content access with Treo’s Smartphone savvy would make for a killer combination.
Will there be more products added to the new Mobile Manager category, perhaps even in non-PDA devices? That’s a question I asked of PalmOne at the recent press briefing. While they wouldn’t commit to answering questions about future products, they did hint that indeed that category is open to additions and that the company will look at adding LifeDrive technologies to other form factors. Which should make any gadget fan drool at that possibilities of what may be ahead, further down the road for this segment.
So far I’m pretty impressed with this product. It’s certainly the most innovative product to come from palmOne since…well, the Treo 650! But what really interests more is the potential LifeDrive may have for application developers to take the new hardware and run with it. While this device may not have an immediate impact on developers, it could be a significant catalyst in the coming year.
That’s all for now. I will be putting LifeDrive through more tests, so look for my second part review and final conclusions later this week, or shortly thereafter.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 18th, 2005 at 12:01 am and is filed under Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.