Late this spring, Palm, Inc. took the wraps off the Foleo, the first device in its new third product category. When it debuts in the next few months, this won't be a handheld or smartphone, instead it will something Palm is calling a mobile companion.
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I recently spent some time with a prototype unit, and I'd like to share my first impressions.
One of the most important features of the Foleo is obvious at first glance: it's really quite small. For something shaped like a laptop, I mean. Naturally I didn't get a chance to carry one around for a few days to get a real idea of how convenient it's going to be, but it's certainly going to be easier than lugging around my full-size laptop.
This device has a nice rubberized coating and ridges on its top, so I wouldn't worry too much about dropping it.
The Foleo isn't held closed with a latch, and can be opened with one hand after a bit of practice. This exposes the 10-inch display and full size QWERTY keyboard.
At 1024 by 600 pixels, the screen has a higher resolution than many UMPCs, and was definitely large enough to easily display web pages, documents, and emails.
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Andrew Baxter from NotebookReview.com was with me, and he was pleased with the Foleo's keyboard, which is impressive as he's very demanding about such things. He said the key spacing and travel were both good.
In the middle of the keyboard is a track point which is used to control the on-screen cursor, and at the bottom of the keyboard is a pair of selection buttons. Between these is a track wheel. Palm says the keyboard and control buttons were designed to allow you to use this device without having to move your hands away from the keys.
The only external ports on the Foleo are along its right side. These are a headphone jack, the SD card slot, video out port, a USB port, and the power port. There's also a CompactFlash slot hidden behind the battery.
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Speaking of the USB port, I was told by Paul Cousineau, the director of Foleo marketing, that this functions as a USB host, which means you can plug a mouse or a key drive into it. This is good news for all those who aren't fond of using a track point. It can also be used to charge a Treo.
The overall build quality of the Foleo is solid, at least on the prototype I used. The casing is plastic, but that doesn't make it flimsy.
Let me emphasize here that my time with the Foleo was very limited, but I think I got the basics down.
Despite this device's similarity to a laptop, there's at least one significant difference between it and a PC or Mac: there's no desktop. To switch applications you hit the "Apps" button on the keyboard, which opens up a drop-down window that operates a lot like the Start Menu in Windows. All file management is handled through a dedicated file manager.
The web browser is good, but it's certainly not Internet Explorer or Firefox. It can handle most web pages, and I even went to Home Star Runner to confirm that it correctly displays Flash-based web sites. But it's not perfect. Many of the advertisements on Brighthand didn't display correctly, for example. And, or course, plug-ins designed for other browsers won't work.
I didn't get a chance to see the Foleo's biggest trick, its ability to keep itself synchronized with a smartphone. The web surfing I did was using Wi-Fi.
When you want to get on the Internet, you have the choice of either making a direct connection via Wi-Fi or making a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone, and then using that device as a modem. If I understand correctly, if you tell the Foleo pick whatever's available it will choose the Bluetooth option before Wi-Fi.
Depending on Third-Party Apps
One of the most controversial things about the Foleo is its weak support for multimedia. This brings up what could be the Mobile Companion's Achilles' heel: a strong need for third-party developers to embrace this new platform.
If developers come through as Palm is hoping, then there will be a large selection of software titles available, and the Foleo will approach a laptop in functionality. If they don't, then this device will be very limited in what it can do.
So far indications are good. Several companies have announced plans to release Foleo software, including a PIM application, VPN software, and some games. And Palm is going to the LinuxWorld developers' conference later this summer to drum up more interest in this platform.
It has deliberately left some opening for third-party development. Although Palm isn't going to bundle an MP3 player with the Foleo when it launches, the company expects there to be third-party ones available in short order. That's why this device has a headphone jack.
Video playback is harder question. Still, Cousineau says he sees no reason why this device couldn't play Flash video, like YouTube or Google Video, albeit in a separate player, not embedded in a web browser.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video should be worth a whole volume. That's why Brian Beeler and I recorded a brief video overview of the Foleo, which will hopefully give you a better idea of what it will be like to use the first mobile companion yourself.
Please excuse the general sound quality. We were filming in a very busy room.
As you can see, the instant on feature works just as advertised. Launching applications is also relatively quick, but does vary from app to app. There's no delay opening the Foleo's email application, but a very large one like DataViz's Word To Go takes a second or two.
To re-iterate something I said in the video, you shouldn't judge the speed of the Foleo's web browser by what you see here. There were half a dozen units all using the same Wi-Fi bridge, which was itself connected to the Internet over a cellular-wireless network. This is hardly a typical set up.
Release Date Still Unknown
Despite my best efforts, I can't get anyone at Palm to say anything more specific about the Foleo's release date other than "later this summer". At least that gives them some kind of deadline, even if it's one that's two months from now.
Palm promised to send Brighthand a review unit, so a more in-depth review of this device should be available before the Foleo is released.
Thanks to Jerry Jackson for putting the video together.
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