Review – Sony Clie NX80

by Reads (60,372)

Let us get this out of the way. While this is a review of the NX80, most comments can also be applied to it’s lower-end sibling, the NX73. The NX73 and the NX80 are essentially the same unit, except as follows: The NX73 has 16 MB RAM, 11 available to the user. The NX73 has a .3 megapixel digital camera, rather than the NX80’s 1.3. And the NX73 has a black case, instead of silver.

Packaging and Accessories

The NX80 comes packed in Sony’s perennial green box. I can honestly say that there is nothing remarkable about the packaging in the least. I’ve been trying to think of some kind of meaningful insight into the packaging, but I’m coming up blank. It’s a box. It’s green. Sony’s been using them so long, I think everything that can be said about it has been. You just wait though–the very day that we all stop expecting Sony to change the packaging, they’ll do it.

Box

Included in the box are the following:

One USB cradle

One AC adapter, 5.2 volts 2000 milliamps, with a Sony proprietary tip

One travel adapter to allow mini-USB and/or Sony AC adapter connection w/o cradle

One pair of cheap earbud headphones

One remote control passthrough cable.

Sony driver and software CD

One wrist strap

One Sony PEGS-NX80V

The cradle that comes with the Clie appears to be the same type sold with the earlier NX60 and 70 models; a kind of slightly spacey, highly modern style made of silver and transparent plastic. I think it looks good–it’s stylish enough to fit in next to the rest of your high-end gear, but not so gratuitous that it would look out of place in a business environment. Under the rear portion is a non-removable USB cable, and the Sony 3-conductor plug for the power brick. For a cradle that doesn’t offer any special features (besides a cheap and largely useless stylus holder, seen on the right side) this is a very nice one. It’s extraordinarily easy to insert and remove the Clie, even with one hand, and it slides onto the connector very smoothly. In the center of the base is a standard Hotsync button. The only potential issues that I could see with it is that it’s very light, so it may not stay in one place, and that it will take up a lot of desktop space. In general though, this is a great cradle.

Cradle

The AC adapter is a two-part brick type with a non-standard three-conductor tip, backwards compatible to Sony’s earlier power supplies, and rated at 2 amps of current. It can be attached to the Clie either through the cradle, or through the travel adapter.

The travel adapter is simply a small piece of plastic that lets you directly attach the Clie to either a mini-USB cable for syncing, or the AC adapter for charging, or both. It’s about one inch wide by three quarters high, and two-tenths thick, and plugs straight onto the sync port. A mini-USB cable is not included, so if you want to use the travel adapter to sync you’ll need to buy one.

The included earbuds are rather cheap; anyone serious about music on the NX80 will want to replace them with something of higher quality. They’re enough to listen to a game without disturbing others, but not much more.

The remote control passthrough is a short audio cable with a a special plug on one end, and on the other a small plastic panel featuring a set of audio control buttons, an alligator clip for mounting, and a standard headphone jack. I’ll cover the actual remote control capabilities more closely when we get to the NX80 itself.

 

Case and hardware

The overall look of the NX80’s case is significantly different from both the NX70 that it replaces and it’s relative, the NZ90. There is an overall harder, more squared-off look than the NX70, and it is distinctly smaller and slimmer looking than the NZ90.

Closed

The casing itself is silver plastic, very thin and extremely hard. The quality of it is reminiscent of a metal case, and the body of the NX80 is, in fact, strengthened with metal at strategic points such as the screen rotation mechanism. When stress-testing the case, it did not flex, creak, or otherwise distort. I’ve seen no evidence of wear marks, nor of scratches. The casing seems to be of very good quality.

For those not already familiar with the previous Sony ‘clamshells’, the basic premise is this; the case is comprised of two halves which open up to reveal the screen on one side, and a keyboard on the other. It’s somewhat like the design of a laptop, except that in this case the NX80 is longer than it is wide. As in most handheld computers that come in a clamshell form-factor, the NX80’s screen can be rotated around 180 degrees and flipped back down, turning it into a more ordinary looking ‘tablet style’ PDA.

This is a profile of the NX80 from it’s lefthand side. The first thing that veteran Sony-watchers will notice is that the NX80 lacks the rather enormous bulge that the NX60/70 used to accomodate the CompactFlash slot. This is obviously a big improvement, since the bulge was a major failing of the older model. The NX80 uses a unique method to keep it’s CF slot out of the way when it’s not needed. I’ll touch on that in a minute.

Left profile, CF slot closed

From the top, the first things that we see are the infrared port, and to it’s left the lanyard eyelet. (A lanyard is a carrying strap that goes around the wrist or neck.) Though it curves around the corner a bit, the IR port is almost entirely on the left hand side of the Clie, so you’ll have to beam from the side. To the right, nearly invisble from this angle, are two LEDs. The upper one one glows red when recording audio or video, the lower is amber when the NX is charging, and green when it’s on. Below and to the left of these is the large silver camera button. This button both launches the camera application and takes pictures when the camera app is open. Tactile response is acceptable, though it could be better.

Continuing downward is the jog dial and back button. These allow you to navigate one-handed through a large number of applications, including both the Palm and Sony launchers. Tactile response is excellent, all directions on the dial and the button are smooth and firm.

Below that is the power slider. Sliding it down once toggles the power on or off, functioning like the power button on most other handhelds. Sliding it down and holding it down for a few seconds before releasing it will turn off the screen’s backlight, allowing you to save power while in direct sunlight. Sliding the switch up from it’s normal position will activate the ‘hold’ feature, turning off the screen to maximize battery life. I’ll admit, I’m not really a fan of the whole power-slider design; I prefer a simple on/off button. The power slider is mounted too low to use comfortably with your index finger or thumb (depending on which hand you grip the Clie with) without shifting your entire grip. Also, the hold function is somewhat less useful with the NX80 since when you close the lid the screen turns off automatically.

The sharp eyed will notice that below the power switch is a small removable panel. This leads to the battery compartment. While the battery is not user-swappable in the traditional sense, you can access it and replace it if you have a spare. This would be handy when the battery’s lifespan runs out, but knowing Sony’s product cycle the NX80 will likely be five generations old by the time that happens, so it seems like something of a wasted gesture.

Camera lens

Looking down from the top end, left to right, we can see the top of the stylus, the microphone, camera lens, capture light, and on the extreme right, the edge of the IR port. The NX80’s stylus goes beyond simply poor into the realm of truly apalling. I am not joking when I say that it is only slightly thicker at it’s widest spot than the average wooden toothpick. It’s an extendable design, metal with plastic tips, and if you pull on the ends it telescopes out. It’s not spring-loaded–this is strictly human power–and it doesn’t really latch in this position either, so a little pressure on the top half will cause it to collapse. Closed, the stylus measures 2 1/2 inches long; extended, it is 3 3/4 inches, and is 5/32 of an inch wide at it’s thickest point. Unfortunately, the size of the closed stylus is also the size of the silo, so short of a miracle no even halfway decent stylus replacement can be carried in the NX80.

The microphone is somewhat directional, but otherwise functions acceptably. Pickup was limited to a maximum of about 7 feet (pointed at the speaker) or 4 feet (pointed away). It is mounted on the hinge of the Clie pointing outwards, and can not be rotated.

The NX80’s camera lens sits in the space between the two ends of the hinge, and freely rotates around a roughly 270 degree arc, from pointing straight ‘down’ at the body of the NX to 90 degrees out from the back. It automatically compensates for it’s alignment, so you do not need to flip over the Clie to get a vertical shot no matter what way you rotate the camera. The lens appears to be fixed focus, though no ranging or focal length information is given. It also features a manually-activated Neutral Density filter, which improves detail and contrast for pictures taken in direct sun.

The capture light is not a flash–it’s essentially a mini-flashlight that can be turned on while taking pictures or video in low-light environments. Strangely enough, though the capture light provides very little illumination, the pictures taken in low light with it on are much superior to those take with it off. I can only surmise that turning the capture light on tells the NX80 to adjust for low light, something that presumably it does not do automatically. No light is a different story, and the capture light does little to nothing for these conditions.

Profile with slot open, no card

The right side of the Clie is as feature-packed as the left side. In this photo however, you can see the CompactFlash slot extending from the back of the case. The NX80’s CF slot is spring loaded and retractable, meaning that when you don’t need it, you just push it back into the case, eliminating it’s bulk. Whenever you need it, slide a switch and it pops out. Unfortunately, you cannot close it with a memory card inside–the top of the slot runs up against the camera mechanism.

At the very top, left of the CF slot, you can see the teeth on the end of the stylus. Moving from top to bottom, we arrive at the headphone and remote control jacks. These consist of a standard 3.5mm jack for audio, and a square 4 conductor plug for remote control abilities. This gives you a couple choices of how to set up your headphones. The simplest option is to plug your preferred headphones directly into the NX80. This would minimize cables, but you would have to access the Clie directly when you wanted to pause, change tracks, or adjust volume. The other option is to use the remote control dongle. It’s basically a ~3 foot cable which plugs into both the headphone and remote control connectors on one end, and on the other features a small plastic remote control with 6 buttons, a standard headphone jack, and an alligator clip for mounting on clothing. The remote is a very nice arrangement, and makes me wish that is was a standard feature with other PDAs. From the remote, you’re able to play, pause, skip, go back, and adjust the volume of the Sony audio player without ever digging the Clie out of whatever pocket or pouch you carry it in. There is also an undeniable ‘cool’ factor to controling your music with a single gesture. As nice as the remote is though, it’s not without some issues. Because the headphone jack is right on the remote, it’s somewhat inconvenient to arrange your ‘wire topography’ so that the remote is in a convenient place and you don’t look or feel like a cyborg. I’d prefer a design with a split cable, so that the remote has it’s own cable end with no passthroughs. Better yet, a wireless version. Bluetooth, anyone?

Returning to the NX80, the next item down is the voice recorder slide-trigger. Don’t ask me what Sony’s love of sliders is, I don’t know. Below that is the Memory Stick access light, Memory Stick slot, and reset button. The MS access light works like the hard drive light on a desktop computer. Whenever the Memory Stick is accessed, the light blinks. This doesn’t really serve a purpose, but it’s there.

The Memory Stick slot itself is reasonably standard, accepting the usual spread of cards. This is more fully discussed under Expansion.

The reset button is just a small, recessed button that when pressed soft-resets the NX80. I haven’t had to do this very often–the NX80 seems decidedly stable. The button is sized for the NX80’s stylus tip, but in a pinch almost any pointy thing will do.

Profile with WiFi card

Even with the Sony wireless LAN card inserted, the NX80 remains relatively compact. For the record, it is possible to have the NX80 open, have the WiFi card inserted, and still be able to take pictures with the camera without either the screen or the card coming into the frame, but you have to position the lens very precisely.

Let’s take a look inside, shall we?

Overview

From bottom to top, thumb keyboard, primary application buttons, hinge, screen twist mechanism, screen, and secondary application buttons. Let’s start with the buttons.

Secondary buttons

Secondary application buttons

When talking about the NX80’s buttons, you actually have to specify which buttons. Sony has partially rectified a long-standing liability in their clamshell format, that being the fact that you can’t access the application buttons while in tablet mode. Why partially? Well, they have added four buttons to the screen half of the case, what would be the ‘bottom’ while in tablet mode. However, there are no up/down buttons in this set, so you’re still forced to either rely on the jog dial–which doesn’t perform all the same functions as the normal up/down keys–or open up the case to get at the main set.

Buttons

So what can you say about the buttons? Well… They’re very flat. They don’t have much key travel. And it’s very hard to know when you’ve pressed one. The main set of application keys are the best about this, and you can get some tactile feedback from them, but they would still be uncomfortable to use for too long. The secondary application buttons are likewise marginal, but with almost nothing below them to hold on to, they’re impossible to use for a game, or anything other than launching applications. However, the worst offender is the thumb keyboard. It’s keys are nearly flat to the case, are hard to press, harder to find, and grossly unusable. The very best thing I can say about the thumb keyboard is that the orange backlighting looks cool, but even this is a failure–since even if you can see the keys themselves in dim light, you can’t see the legion of tiny markings next to the keys which specify punctuation, function keys, and other neccessary characters. To summarize, do not buy this thinking that you will be able to use the keyboard the way you might hope. You won’t. At the very least. try it out at a store before buying online.

The screen twist mechanism is extremely simple: open the Clie, then gently turn the screen clockwise until it faces the opposite direction. Fold it back down on the base, and you have a traditional, tablet-style handheld. Reverse the process, turning the screen counter-clockwise, and you have a self contained clamshell with no need for a case to protect it’s screen. Simple.

Whether it’s desirable is another debate. One school of thought says that the design protects itself, offers more options to the user, and allows more features to be packed in than otherwise possible. The other argues that the clamshell form-factor is unneccessarily complicated, introduces more parts that will just break, and is a lot more hassle to have and work with than more elegant one-piece tablet designs.

I honestly am not sure which side to take. I’ve flip-flopped half a dozen times since I got it. At points, the clamshell form-factor comes in handy–at others, it just gets in the way and feels kludgy. In the end, while I’m not particularly against it, I’ve found I’m much happier with a solid one-piece design.

Returning to the twist mechanism itself, the screen seems to ‘wobble’ back and forth a bit at the neck. It isn’t really an issue, and in fact I believe it’s supposed to bend a bit to make it more resiliant, but it makes me worry that sooner or later one good bend will result in a grisly snapping noise. I realize that Sony has been using this technology in their camcorders for a very long time, but I still worry about it.

The writing surface of the screen is somewhat soft and springy, and has the soft-plastic feel usual with naked screens. Those who insist on a firm writing surface will probably be dissatisfied with the springiness, but I don’t think it should affect others.

If you’ve used a desktop or laptop LCD display, you know that pressing on the display causes an almost rippling effect on the displayed image, because you’re distorting the LCD a tiny bit. Usually this is not present in handhelds because the LCD is under a thick plastic digitizer, and thus cannot have pressure applied to it. In the case of the NX80, because the screen half of the case is so thin, the digitizer is also thin and pressing on it can cause slight distortions in the screen. This isn’t really an issue as long as you don’t try to crush your display with the stylus, but I note it for completeness.

Also possibly due to the thin digitizer, the NX80 seems to have a slightly lower level of glare and reflectivity on the display. This is definitely a good thing, and I found it comfortable to use without needing an anti-glare screen protector.

Rear Casing

The back is mostly plain other than the usual stickers, the speaker and battery screw (bottom right), and the CF slot release, upper right.

Overall I have good impressions about the NX80’s case and physical hardware, despite some reservations about the screen’s ‘neck’. The NX80 is durable, but it is not rugged: it’s meant to be a technological plaything, not a go-everywhere, does-everything computing companion. It’s resistent to the ordinary bumps, drops, and squashings that occur in domestic use, but I would hesitate before taking it on a hike or to the park.

Now, at the risk of writing a book, let us examine the core systems of the NX80.

Processor 200 MHz ARM-class Intel XScale
Operating System Palm OS 5.2
Display 320 x 480 pixel 16-bit transreflective LCD
Memory 32 MB, 16 MB available to the user
Size & Weight 2.87″ wide x 5.25″ long x 0.8″ thick, 8 ounces
Expansion Memory Stick slot, limited CompactFlash slot
Docking Standard Sony connector
Audio 3.5mm headphone jack, monaural internal speaker, microphone
Battery Lithium Ion Polymer battery rated at 3.7 volts, 1200 milliamp-hours
Input Four app buttons, up/down buttons, jog dial, back button, touchscreen
Other Serial IR port, 1.3 MP camera, remote control, Decuma input

Processor

The NX80 is driven by a 200 MHz Intel XScale processor. Presumably it’s the newer PXA255, however this isn’t mentioned anywhere that I can find. Performance seemed quite good at most points, but when thumbnailing digital images taken with the onboard camera the NX80 slowed down to a crawl. Granted, these are large images, from 200 to 400 KB, but this is supposed to be a very fast processor, and I encountered no such slowdowns anywhere else–even playing video converted from my desktop ran smoothly. This may be simply a bug in a program, but it was very annoying to have to wait a good 5-10 seconds to access a major feature of the Clie.

 

Operating System

The NX80 runs a modified version of Palm OS 5.2. This version omits some small items like the color scheme applet, and the Palm Photos application, and substitutes the normal array of Sony applications including a full-screen sketchpad/memo program, audio, still image and video players and recorders, and a special Sony application launcher. (If you prefer, you can still use the standard Palm launcher, as I do.)

All of the basic applications I found more or less satisfying. They may be imperfect, but I didn’t feel an absolute need to replace any of them with alternates–which is good, since I couldn’t if I wanted to. The main Sony applications are hardened fast inside the system, and can neither be removed nor replaced. You get one MP3 player, one camera program, one video player. None of the third party MP3 players work on the Clie, and while there are other video players they can’t play the videos taken with the onboard camera. In other words, be sure you can live with the built-in applications, because they are all you’ve got.

Also included is the Flash player for Sony, which is good, and the Netfront web browser, which I hate with a vengence. It’s user interface is terrible, it lacks proper reformatting options, it leaves all images at full size, and in general makes browsing the web much more of a chore than it should be. Unfortunately, it too is set in stone by Sony, and can’t be removed, though there are other web browsers that you can get and use independantly of it.

 

Display

Certainly, one of the defining characteristics of the NX80 is it’s 320 pixel by 480 pixel LCD display. It’s large and sharp, the highest resolution available on the Palm OS, and twice that of PocketPCs.

NX80, Axim X5, iPaq 5550

Left to right: Sony NX80, Dell Axim X5, iPaq 5550, all at maximum brightness.

The NX80’s screen has very good brightness and vividness of colors. Photos look great on the high resolution screen, and they’re very sharp. However, despite being the best of the three shown here, the NX80’s RGB (red, green and blue value; a method for measuring color) is not leaps and bounds beyond my Axim and the 5550. The differences in color and brightness are subtle enough that you need to look at them side by side to see them. Also, the NX80 has a slight bluish tint to it’s whites. The difference in resolution is definitely noticible however, and though the Palm OS needs more ability to take advantage of these screens, that’s no fault of Sony’s. Everything is extremely crisp.

Altogether, the NX80 has an excellent screen, even if it doesn’t blow away the competition. The combination of it’s good color rendering and extra high resolution makes for a screen very well suited to photos.

 

Memory

The NX80 is advertised as having 32 MB of RAM, which would make it the first Clie with greater than 16 MB, and 32 MB of flash ROM. Aye, there’s the rub; advertised. Half the NX80’s RAM is used by the system and the built-in Sony applications, leaving the user with only 16 MB for their use. Almost as annoying, none of the 32 MB of ROM is usable, despite it being a selling point on the box.

It’s hard not to notice that Sony has fallen distinctly behind the curve on memory. They’ve been standardized on 16 MB for well over a year, while Palm went from 8 MB to 64. Sony desperately needs to play catch-up, but they seem to be refusing to budge.

 

Size & Weight

Size and weight is always a slightly tricky thing to review, because preference varies so much from person to person, and it’s not made any easier by the NX80’s design. It’s very long, longer than most PocketPCs, at 5.25 inches. However, simultaneously, the NX80 is fairly narrow, just 2.87 inches wide. I found the size to be a bit awkward, since with the squared off style of the Clie it’s width didn’t sit right in my hand, and I couldn’t get a comfortable grip on it that I could use for a long time. Likewise, it’s length limited the pockets I could put it in. My slight discomfort aside, the size is not unreasonable if you’re looking for features. In fact, the NX is barely larger than a normal-size PocketPC. The weight may be another factor. At 8 ounces, the NX80 feels decidedly heavier than my Axim, and heavier even than the rather weighty iPaq 5550. I would say that like the size and shape, the weight rests right on the line edging over towards uncomfortable even for tolerant users. I strongly advise that potential buyers take the time to play with a display model before comitting.

 

Expansion

The NX80 supports two main methods of expansion. The first is the Memory Stick slot, supporting Sony’s Memory Stick (up to 128 MB), Memory Stick Select (up to 256 MB), Memory Stick Pro (up to 1 gigabyte), and a few peripheral add-on cards.

A major point of contention when the original NX70 was released was that it’s CompactFlash slot did not support CF memory cards, only Sony’s very expensive wireless LAN card. Then still limited to a maximum of 128 MB, many Memory Stick users practically rioted to get drivers for the broadly available CF cards, which ranged from 256 to 1000 MB. Eventually, through dedicated hacking, third-party CompactFlash drivers arrived, making many users very happy.

Now flash forward to the current moment. The good news is that for the first time, the Clie’s CompactFlash slot supports CF memory cards straight out of the box, without any need for third-party software. The bad news is that Sony has implemented only a very crippled feature set for CF cards. You can only use select brands and sizes of CF card. You can not use CF cards to store pictures or video from the camera, or music for the MP3 player. The only things that you can use CF memory for are the standard Palm OS card functions, such as storing applications, backups, and databases. This is certainly better than nothing, and it frees up the Memory Stick slot entirely for pictures, video, and audio, it is still a very far cry from proper dual expansion.

There are third-party programs that can circumvent these limitations, but for Sony to have imposed them at all is idiotic and self-defeating. The only reason for Sony to have done this is to keep their users dependant on the Memory Stick format, which Sony owns and recieves payment for from every manufacturer. This constitutes an inexcusable level of gross corporate greed.

 

Docking

The NX80 uses a standard Sony “T series” type connector, located on the bottom edge of the case. This allows compatibility with previous Sony peripherals, including cables, some cradles, and adapters.

 

Audio

The built-in speaker on the NX80 is a typical cheap mono speaker for alarms and sound effects. It’s output volume is low, so don’t expect to use this as an alarm clock unless you’re a very light sleeper. Sound quality is a little bit better, and it’s not unreasonable to listen to your voice memos and home videos through the speaker, however headphones would be a definite improvement.

Note that you will DEFINITELY want to go into Preferences and turn off the ‘system sounds’, also known as “10,000 extremely annoying noises to make even when turned off”.

Voice recording quality through the microphone is moderate, about on par with a miniature tape recorder–rather tinny, but servicable for the majority of applications. Pickup is semi-directional, about 7 feet pointing the microphone at the target, or 4 feet otherwise.

The big star of the audio system is the MP3 player. Audio volume through headphones is excellent–I actually had to turn it down for comfort’s sake at a couple of points. Quality of sound is good, approximately equal to the limits of most computer audio hardware. Unless you’re a hardcore audiophile, I doubt you’ll have any gripes about sound quality.

 

Battery

I was rather disappointed in the performance of the 1200 milliamp-hour battery on the NX80. Even on relatively miserly settings, with the backlight on minimum and a moderate amount of CPU activity, I barely managed 4 and a quarter hours of use. Considering that other Palms with 25% smaller batteries can go much longer than that at maximum drain, the NX80 is a rather poor performer.

The stress test consisted of having the backlight at maximum, playing music, and browsing the web over WiFi. Given the circumstances, it performed rather well in that test, but it’s not enough to save the overall poor results.

Backlight minimum, moderate CPU use

4 hours, 20 minutes
Backlight on Maximum, playing music 3 hours, 40 minutes
Stress test 3 hours, 7 minutes

 

Input

The NX80 includes four basic methods of text input. The thumb keyboard, the on-screen keyboard, Grafitti 2, and Decuma. The keyboard is worthless, for the reasons already discussed. The on-screen keyboard is about the same as it ever has been. Grafitti 2, though some users dislike it, is fairly efficient and not too hard to deal with if you already know Grafitti.

New in this model is the Decuma handwriting recognition system, an alternative to Grafitti 2 for handwritten text input. In theory, Decuma is intended to bring high-end Palms closer to the capabilities of PocketPCs and their Transcriber HWR system. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near that class. Decuma lacks support for cursive or script writing, and had an abysmal failure rate in character recognition for each of the several different people that I tried it out on. The only way to get Decuma to consistently recognize characters was to print them in excessively careful detail, which brought input to a near standstill. You can retrain the characters to suit whatever you want, but you have to do it one at a time and recognition is still poor. It’s a good idea in theory, but Decuma is nowhere near ready for the big time.

 

Camera

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I guess that this is particularly true when you’re reviewing a camera. So with that in mind, I’ll present a few unmodified samples of what the NX80’s 1.3 megapixel camera can do before discussing it. Consider yourselves warned, these images are rather large and may take several minutes to download.

Cat (162 KB)

Pond (220 KB)

Sunflower (315 KB)

Go ahead and count the petals, I’ll wait.

Okay. Obviously, the NX80’s camera is a light-year ahead of most of the cheap, fuzzy built-in cameras and camera attachments available. You can, in fact, take credible pictures with it, and it could be used as a complete digital camera by someone who wasn’t at all picky. It won’t replace a decent quality 2 MP or higher camera, but that practically goes without saying. Still, other than an occaisional picture which featured a strange fuzzyness reminiscent of tape-based home movies, quality was very good.

In terms of photographic technique, the Clie’s camera behaves similarly to my standalone HP 2.1 MP camera. Both resulted in similar numbers of ‘misfires’ (shots resulting in a blurry or otherwise unusable picture) and had similar tolerances for motion. While the standalone camera was clearly superior for it’s automatic focus (as opposed to the Sony’s fixed focus) and automatic image adjustments, the NX80 performed well enough to be impressive.

To actually take a picture, you have the option of using the camera button, pressing the space key on the keyboard, or tapping the capture button on the screen. Be warned that there is a tiny delay, about three-quarters of a second, between pressing the button (whichever button) and it actually snapping the picture. Action shots are out.

Optimal distance for the fixed focus, as near as I can tell, is 3 to 6 feet. However, for a fixed focus, the NX80 again performs very well, snapping good quality pictures at distances from 18 inches to 15 feet. Beyond that objects tend to become fuzzier the farther out they go, although they never become too fuzzy to view. For instance, the far treeline in demonstration photo #2 is about 1200 feet beyond the edge of the pond in that image, and while not sharp, you can still see the trees.

The camera application offers the user a number of options in controlling the camera. You can save images to internal memory or a Memory Stick, adjust brightness, activate a self-timer, and toggle a few novelty options (black and white, sepia, negative image, etcetera). A 2x digital zoom feature is also included, though digital zooms are notorious for poor quality, and this one is no exception.

There are four choices for resolution of pictures. The largest and highest quality is the 1.3 MP setting, 1280 x 960. Also included are ordinary VGA, 640 x 480, QVGA 320 x 240, and a Clie-sized portrait shot, 320 x 480. While having the choice is nice, I doubt that they will be used much unless one is trying to save memory, since there’s not much point in having a 1.3 megapixel camera if you don’t use the resolution. A completely empty 128 MB Memory Stick will hold about 300 to 350 images taken at full size, which breaks down to roughly 300 KB per photo. You also get a convenient indicator telling you how many more pictures you can take with your current memory.

The video recording on the NX80 hasn’t changed much from previous models. Video is postage-stamp size, and fairly poor quality. You can record a little more than 1 hour at the highest quality to an empty 128 MB memory stick, 2 hours at the lower of the two settings.

I encountered one minor issue with the camera. Apparently, the NX80 I got has a gremlin in it. Sometimes, while the camera application was open, but while the buttons were not being pushed, it would start snapping pictures. I don’t know why or how, but it doesn’t seem to be a big problem.

 

Conclusion

The NX80 is a strange beast. Sony has always been a paragon of ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome. They consistently avoid using standard solutions and features in favor of their own proprietary designs. Sometimes this works out well, sometimes it doesn’t. But when a company seems to be going out of their way to avoid improving their product, something is really wrong. You can’t tell me that Sony is incapable of putting a real 32 MB of RAM in a Clie. You can’t tell me that it’s impossible to playback music from a CF card.

I feel like Sony could have had the King of all Palms here, but was hamstrung by their own unwillingness to adopt new features. Things like a directional pad, peripheral support, and >16 MB RAM are now standard, yet Sony seems to be living in 2002. Aside from form-factor improvements, not much has changed since the NX80’s predecessor was released late last year. Had Sony not put the restrictions they did on the CompactFlash slot, had they included even a half-decent directional pad, and had they included support for more peripherals, the NX80 would have competed with the rest of the high-end and possibly won. As it stands, they’ve produced what amounts to a techno-toy. That’s great for some things and some people, but not everyone wants a novelty, and Sony seems to be forgetting that. Without a more serious, meat-and-potatoes feature base, I don’t see how Sony can compete for more serious power users.

Pros:

  • Good screen
  • Durable case
  • Good quality camera
  • Convenient remote control system

 

Cons:

  • Extremely limited CompactFlash support
  • No directional pad
  • Mediocre battery life
  • Bait-and-switch memory allocation

 

Bottom Line:

The NX80 has a lot of things going for it, but it also has a lot of things going against it. In the end, whether or not it’s a good machine is a personal judgement. It’s features are primarily aimed at those who use their handhelds strictly for play, rather than work or a balance of the two. If you fall into that grouping, you’ll probably be quite happy with the NX80. If not, you may find something better suited to you elsewhere.

Purchase Info:

Sony Clie NX80 price comparison engine.

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