Reviews: Hardware (Devices)

Palm (PalmOne) LifeDrive Mobile Manager

     Palm (formerly PalmOne) decided earlier in the year to expand their products lines from just the Zire, Tungsten, and Treo, to include a new category, the Mobile Manager. The Mobile Manager product line revolves around media and taking your data with you. This means the Mobile Manager devices are suppose to include more memory for managing data and software functionality out of the box for making your device ready for mobile computing. The first device in the line, the LifeDrive, is not only the first Mobile Manager from Palm, but is the first PalmOS based device to include an embedded hard drive. The embedded 4GB drive is what really sets the device apart from other products, though Palm has packed in other features as well to augment the large amount of memory.

Basic Internals
     The Palm LifeDrive has a pretty standard set of specifications?except when it comes to memory of course. The device is powered by a 416 MHz Intel XScale processor. There is an SDIO slot for expansions and memory but the device includes both WiFi and Bluetooth embedded in the device. The screen is 320x480 pixels at 16-bit color. The device packs a powerful batter, rated at 1660 mAh and the device runs Palm OS 5. The LifeDrive is of a fairly standard size though the form factor is unlike any other Palm OS device. Of course, there is a Hitachi 4GB Microdrive inside the device for user storage and the 32 MB of RAM works like a conventional computer.

Device Style
     One of my favorite things when looking at this device is the front face. The LifeDrive has a great front, a strong silver finish with flat buttons. The front is very smooth looking and has a different style than other devices on the market. Instead of the buttons being round and defined like other Palm products, the four buttons on the front face simply surround the direction pad making a rectangle. On the front of the device also is an LED for notifications including charging status and hard drive access. On the top of the device is the SDIO card slot, the styles, and the on-off switch. The right side of the device has nothing and the left side has one button for voice recordings and one for flipping the screen mode to and from landscape. The bottom of the device has a standard sync port which doubles as a power jack, the reset button, and the headphone jack. The back of the device has a cool design like the front. It has grips so it doesn?t slide around when set down. The bottom has a nice big PalmOne (Palm) logo with a set of holes around it which may be for additional airflow for the hard drive. The LifeDrive is not by any means a small device. It has a substantial thickness, though likely not much more than an iPod in your pocket and if you already carry around a PDA and an iPod or iPod Mini, you could just combine them into one device. The back of the device is tapered to make it not seem quite as thick but obviously the extra room is used, at least partially, for the internal micro drive.
     The LifeDrive seems relatively large when used. It is one of the larger PDA?s on the market, but is no where near too large to carry in a pocket (at least for me). Obviously you get what you pay for, and the number of features in the LifeDrive simply can?t be packed into a very small package. Bluetooth and WiFi are also both in the device requiring some room for each and their respect antenna?s. I found each to have a somewhat standard range in comparison with other products. Both, along with the hard drive, obviously bring issue to the size of the battery. Using all three can drain the battery rather quickly, though with them off the LifeDrive has a fairly long, multi-day life under moderate use.

The Hard Drive
     Before I get too far, I should really talk about the hard drive in the LifeDrive being that is the major focus of the product. There is both some good and bad things related to it, but that it is even in the device is huge. Until the LifeDrive, the only way to get that kind of expandability was thought using a CompactFlash Microdrive, and such products could cost anywhere from $100 all the way up to as much as the LifeDrive itself. Palm said they chose the Hitchai drive for a number of reasons, including its performance and ability to withstand drops. Obviously this is an issue that has been heavily considered and it is said the drive in the LifeDrive is better than that of the iPod Mini, specifically related to drops and failures. But one thing you will immediately notice is that the hard drive hurts the performance of the devices use. Because things are constantly being accessed off the drive, the speed you would expect form a PDA isn?t there. Remember, Palm OS, like Windows Mobile, has been built to run on flash memory unlike Window which has been built to run off of hard drives. Even though older devices had slower processors, the combination of flash memory and the smaller operating system made things run fast. But when you remove the flash memory for storage, you are left with a 416 MHz computer with a hard drive and 32 MB of RAM. The performance does leave something to be desired. So you don?t feel like you are waiting for nothing, Palm has the LED on the front of the device flash when the hard drive is accessed. This can be annoying if you are doing something like watching a movie, but I am glad there is some sort of notification of drive status.
     One major use for the drive is going to be music. Palm was great and included PocketTunes, which is a good program for music playback. It has a WinAmp style for simplicity and ease of use. One of the major drawbacks of using the LifeDrive for music is partially software and partially hardware. Because it is a hard drive and not all flash memory, loading a song and starting to play it takes longer. There did seem to be to be any optimization for having the next song loaded and being able to quickly move to it. Also, at lower volumes using headphones, the noise between tracks, likely created by the hardware, was unbearable. As the song was fading out I didn?t really need to hear the drive (or whatever was making the sound) crackle. When I used speakers I did not notice as much.

Camera Sync and Drive Mode
     Another major feature of the LifeDrive is the Camera Card Sync functionality. This is a great idea and something I wasn?t expecting. Basically what you can do is take an SD card directly from a digital camera, put it in the LifeDrive, and copy/view pictures from the card. What is more is the LifeDrive keeps the camera?s data enacted when it is copied so that it can be easily used by a PC?s photo software the same as the camera would. For someone like my girlfriend, who only has a 16 MB SD card, this is a great solution while on vacation and you don?t have to worry about memory loss on the device since it is a hard drive. There did seem to be some problems detecting which folder had the pictures from her camera, but that was easily fixed. The camera data can be pulled off the card through the LifeDrive software on the PC.
     When you have 4 GB of memory on your PDA you really want to be able to get at that data from just about any computer. Palm built in Drive Mode which allows the LifeDrive to be recognized by a computer without ANY LifeDrive drivers. That is correct. No download, no CD. Nothing. When the LifeDrive is in USB mode a PC only needs standard USB mass storage drivers and the hard drive of the LifeDrive will show us as a conventional USB thumb drive would. You can still do this connection even with the LifeDrive software installed on the computer if you don?t want to use it for transferring material. What is more is that the SD card also shows up as its own drive. This was great to see that the SD card wasn?t left out as I would have been disappointed if I would have had to use my thumb drive to get data off it.

Color, Touch, and Accessories
     An important thing to me is screen color and touch. The brightness of the LifeDrive screen is great. High resolution makes images crisp and clear and much of the explorer functionality of the Palm OS looks great on the device. Palm OS always leaves a little to be desired with me and it doesn?t bring much of a multimedia experience to the table in terms of pushing the screen to its limits. But, of course with the LifeDrive you have movie playback software and it was neat to see the included demo of the Lion King on the screen. I could almost see myself using the LifeDrive for watching movies if I was on a flight, though I would have to further explore what frame rate the screen can handle. The touch portion of the screen did not quite live up to my expectations. It seems a little finicky and tough. I often felt like it wasn?t as responsive as I would have liked and found some Palm OS functionality difficult. For instance I felt it was hard to be precise in taping the Palm OS scroll bars. I often also found that it was difficult to use my finger to tap things, which I often do.
     I really like the style of the buttons on the front of the device. They are new and unique and I would like to see more devices with buttons like them. Also included with the device is a USB cable for syncing which plugs into a relatively large sync port on the bottom of the device. Both the sync port and the power port (which is part of the sync port) are proprietary, though the sync port is the same as other devices like the Tungsten T5. The LifeDrive does not come with a cradle, though interestingly the standard HotSync button still appears on the sync cable. The power cable can also be connected through the sync cable for charging and syncing at the same time. The stylus of the LifeDrive is relatively unique. It telescopes slightly to become longer than expected. This was a must have for my hand as the smaller size would have been difficult to use. Also in the box with the device is a simple slip over case. This was a nice addition and fits the device well. I didn?t really feel I needed to look around for another way to carry the life drive around and the case does allow for use of the headphone jack while the device is in the case.

Final Thoughts
     The Palm LifeDrive is one of the first PDA?s to really catch my eye as doing something new in the mobile devices market space. You know I am serious about that when I am crediting a Palm OS based device for doing something interesting since I obviously have a Windows Mobile bias. If the device had Windows Mobile, it might have spoken to me a little more, but this is a hardware review so I am trying to keep the operating system argument out as much as possible. The LifeDrive is unique and bold. It deviates quite a bit from Palm?s rather standard line of products. It is a product I would have expected more from Sony?s old line than Palm's current line, which is good, because it says to me Palm is starting to get the multimedia device landscape. But one thing that Palm has done a great job with is combining power, style, functionality, and price. It is rare those four things would come together. Price at under $500 the LifeDrive is really a steal. Considering you get the functionality of a standard Palm OS based PDA plus WiFi and Bluetooth, basically an iPod Mini, movie player, photo viewer, camera backup, flash drive, SD card reader, and more, I think Palm has packed in quite a bit. Hitting the $500 is amazing in my book and was done well with a solid product. I hope to see more devices in the Palm Mobile Manager line that improve on the features in the LifeDrive creating an even stronger product. (And personally, I wouldn?t mind seeing one running Windows Mobile.)

Dave's Score - 8.5
This means, this product is a very good product, though has some features which could be improved.  This product embodies quality in its design and application, and is something I would use though I think there are still areas for improvement.  Weigh the pros and cons before purchasing, but in my opinion this device is a good buy.

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Feel free to email me about your own PDA, questions, comments, articles, rumors, and reviews.  I can be reached at dave@davespda.com.