It was just a few days before the release of the Apple Mac Mini that I hoisted my backpack on my shoulder for the 20-minute walk to work. Though it was only a short distance, I’d grown tired of lugging my iBook along with several cameras for even a short walk. It wasn’t just the weight, but the danger to my aging computer. Wouldn’t it be great if I could just slip something as small as a Palm device in my pocket? I could leave my notebook at home, and work off the PC at work, just using the PDA as a shuttle. And if I need to do minor editing or handle email on the road, I can do it with just my PDA and a cell phone. I’ve been doing this for years with various Palm OS devices, but carrying a notebook has become more practical as file sizes have increased, especially digital image files.
The small size of the Mac Mini had me thinking that since Palm hadn’t done it yet, perhaps I’d just buy one of these little white computers and stuff that in a backpack. Still not a bad idea, until I need to use it on the road. The Mini needs a monitor to be useful anywhere but an office, and ideally it should be palm-sized for use on tradeshow floors, with a screen and a reasonable battery and data capacity. It was clear that the Mac Mini would not meet my needs. What I needed was a Palm device with a hard drive.
Though the news has long since aged with all the rumors, I can tell you conclusively that the device I need–the LifeDrive–is here, about to usher in a new era of PDA utility.
What it is
Put simply, it is what most of us were looking for last Fall: the successor to the Tungsten T3–something we didn’t find in the T5. As I surmised then, the T5 was only a shadow of what was to come.
LifeDrive is not as small or as fast as the T3, but it does do what so many have requested, and what I have requested since 2002. It accesses the Internet and other computers via both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and stores a respectable amount of data on its 4 GB Hitachi internal hard disk.
Its 416 MHz XScale processor is not a huge leap in performance, and frankly the hard drive slows some processes down. I’m hopeful many of these slowdowns will be fixed with software upgrades, but I’m sure some of them are due to the time it takes to spin up a hard drive after it’s spun down to save power.
Unlike the Tungsten T5, the LifeDrive has a metal skin of brushed aluminum. It is smooth on the front and sides, and an aggressive 50-degree taper softens the nearly three-quarter inch thick device. Early photos of the device attempt to conceal this thickness by only showing the front from slight angles. Some won’t like this extra thickness, but it’s not that much thicker than the HandEra 330 with its flip cover in place.
The LifeDrive weighs 6.8 ounces, and measures 4.76 by 2.87 by .74 inches. Battery life is expected to be about 2 – 2.5 days with “normal use,” something we’ve not tested yet. It supports SD, SDIO, and MMC cards. The LifeDrive scores 1648 on Speedy 5.1, while my T3 scores 1875.
How it looks
As one who has watched the world of Palm devices grow from the beginning, I see much from the past in the new LifeDrive. Many long-tested and innovative ideas have been brought into this one device. In one sense, it is the T3 without the slider, for it is slightly narrower than the T3, but its screen is just as slender and tall. This hand-friendly narrow design is made more comfortable by the taper on the back, which comes from the incredibly popular Sony N- and S-series Clies; and the sliding power switch with the built-in hold setting is also of Clie origin. The stylus is none other than the Palm T-series stylus, and though I’m not sure it goes with the design at all, I’m glad they kept it. It gives the line some continuity, and reminds me of the Newton’s expanding stylus designs.
The leather case is obviously related to the slip cases that housed (and sometimes smushed) so many Handspring Visors, though this is a nicer design than any I recall. The front and back are made up of one piece of leather, with a stiff card inside to protect the screen. The sides use rigid, stippled rubber. All inside surfaces are lined with softer materials.
I’m disappointed to see that there’s no door covering the SD slot when it is empty, as exists on the T3. Hard drives especially don’t like dust. The back has an interesting pattern of holes, presumably to vent the heat generated by the device’s big 1660 mAh battery and spinning media; though again, I’m hoping the components inside are shielded from dust and dirt.
The bottom of LifeDrive has the same connector as the Treo 650 and Tungsten T5, which combines the power and HotSync components into one jack, and also allows the user to plug in only the power if desired. This connector reminds me of my Sony-Ericsson T610, and seems to be worth the loss of the Universal connector in exchange for its versatility. Adjacent to this connector are the reset button (I don’t recall ever seeing one here) and headphone jack (ditto).
On the left side are the record button and mic holes, and something unique I’ve not seen before on anything but a Tablet PC: a screen rotate button.
Back to the front: the status/charge/disk access LED is top dead center, and flashes green or amber depending on the activity in question (amber seems to be both disk and card access).
Nowhere to be felt is the third essential for a business PDA: Vibrating alarms. It’s one of the casualties of using spinning media, obvious only in retrospect.
The five-way nav is smooth and sensuous, with just enough tactile feedback to tell you exactly where you are. This softness is offset by the two beveled slabs that serve as the four application buttons. They must be plastic, though they appear metallic, for rather than rock up as the other side goes down, the slab bends in the middle. The only danger here is their getting snagged on a piece of fabric and breaking. Still, they are striking, and lend to that serious, hard drive feel.