Review – Sony Clie NZ90

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Review — Sony Clie NZ90

 

This is my first review of a personal entertainment device, or PED. That’s right, Sony doesn’t want us to think of the NZ90 as a PDA and guess what? I can’t separate the two. The NZ90 has everything other PDAs have, it just adds a few twists like a much improved camera and advanced multimedia capabilities. So why isn’t it a PDA? Well, it is. It’s also an entertainment device. The NZ90 is really an attempt to be almost all things to almost all people. The question at hand though, is the $800 MSRP a good investment for anyone?

 

 

Packaging

 

As much as I expect Sony to get flashy with their packaging, they continue to deliver in the familiar bright green box. I keep thinking they’ll try to rival Palm for the best package design, but I imagine they’re either content making better PDAs or they had a severe overrun on green boxes. Either way, it’s efficient and wastes little space, so the environmental oriented people are happy.

 

Form Factor

 

The biggest concern potential buyers of this device may have is the size. There’s no way to sugar coat it. The device is big and it’s heavy. The body dimensions are 3 x 5 5/8 x 29/32 inches and it weighs in at 10.3 ounces. It’s not a ton larger than the NX series, a touch wider, 1/8″ taller and 7/32″ thicker. It also adds 2.3 ounces of weight, which is 25% of the total NX70V.

 

All that being said, you’re not interested in this device because of its slim form factor. You’re looking at the NZ90 because it packs more features into a PDA than any other device. It seems to me that Sony has done an admirable job of fitting all these functions into the body it selected. It’s big and heavy yes, but it does more than any other device, so that’s the trade off.

 

The NZ90 builds on many of the design features of the NX series. It has the same swivel and fold screen and placement of the camera and keypad. The camera does not rotate like it does on the NX70V. This is due largely to its increased size, as it’s now able to take pictures up to a 2MP resolution. The camera eye is now covered with a manual release. You’ll be prompted to open the camera eye to take pictures, but not reminded to close it. Make sure to do so to protect the lens, it’s very easy to forget. Also added to the camera area is a flash, which is much appreciated, when it works properly.

 

Back/Bottom –

The HotSync port has moved to the upper back of the device, with a rubber cover. I’m not a huge fan of this implementation, as it usually takes two hands to get the Clie seated properly in the cradle. I can’t imagine how it will be possible for case manufacturers to create a syncable case design. It’s probably not, so don’t hold your breath.

 

 

To make room for the camera, the compact flash slot has been moved to the bottom of the device. I don’t know where I would have preferred they put it, but I really dislike the placement. With the WiFi card inserted it’s a bit of an annoyance, especially when using the keypad. The good news is that you can still fit the NZ90 in the cradle with the WiFi card inserted.

 

 

One of the major complaints about the NR and NX Clie’s concerned using the application launcher buttons when the screen was flipped and folded over. When this process takes place, the keypad and launcher buttons are covered. Sony has addressed this in a remarkable way by adding these buttons to the bottom of the screen. Well done and a definite improvement over older models.

 

 

Aside from the model number, logos and other markings, the back also holds the speaker, which is a bit of a disappointment to me. I would have really liked Sony to integrate the speaker in a user-facing position, rather than facing away.

 

Front —

The front is pretty standard, but Sony has added a few blinking lights, which is always nice. A silver strip near the top houses the power light which is also lit while charging, the Memory Stick access light and the Bluetooth light, which blinks blue whenever the Bluetooth is turned on.

 

 

Left Side —

The left side of the device holds the rounded IR port, which actually is a nice design element. The rounding looks cool. Sony’s jog dial, back button and voice record button also share this space in order from top to bottom. Right before you get to the bottom, you’ll find the reset button, which has almost always been found on the back of PDAs.

 

 

Right Side —

The top right has the capture button for the camera, which also launches the application. The stereo jack is next, followed by one of the other major improvements. Sony has taken a page from the Pocket PC world and added a removable battery option, which is huge. If you’re going to use this device for extended periods of time, you’ll need an extra battery or three. I’ll discuss power usage later. Clustered at the bottom are the hold button, power slider and the memory stick port. The Memory Stick was also moved from the top to allow for the increased size requirement of the camera.

 

 

Performance

 

Speed

The NZ90 doesn’t break any new ground under the hood. It relies on the same 200 MHz Intel XScale processor as the NX series. Program response time feels about the same, although I have not run any benchmark tests.

 

Screen

The NZ90 continues to excel in the screen department. The 320 x 480 pixel screen is the biggest, brightest and best one out there. It’s also very responsive to the stylus and really doesn’t have any major issues. They’ve even eliminated the shadowy edges that were found in some of the NR and NX devices. The blue tint is still noticeable when next to the Tungsten T, but it’s not enough to be a significant detraction.

 

 

The screen continues to leverage the virtual graffiti, which is huge in my book. I love having the option of turn the graffiti area on or off at any time. This is even more important with the keyboard, as you’ll often be using that for data entry.

 

Memory

The NZ90 has 16MB of internal RAM, but only 11MB is available to the user. By now, you should know that a memory card is a requirement to have fun with this device. Pictures, videos and MP3’s will all require a good sized memory card. Buy at least one 128MB card to address these needs. I wonder when Sony will ship units with more memory. It’s a sad statement when Garmin is the first to market with a 32MB Palm OS device.

 

Camera

 

One of the best features of the NZ90 is the inclusion of a “real” digital camera. The NX70V had a .3 mega pixel camera, which was better than the .1MP camera in the NR70. Sony has boosted the NZ90 camera to two mega pixels with the previously mentioned flash. The past cameras have been nothing more than gimmicks. This is the first effort that will let you take a picture that is even suitable for printing, in small sizes.

 

There are a number of severe battery issues associated with the camera software and flash. I’ve discussed these more in detail in the battery section of the review. For now, know that taking pictures in low light will result in poor quality anyway. The flash, while a nice addition, has only worked when the battery power is near 100% on my unit. Overall, I found the camera to be reasonable in good lighting conditions but poor to fair in low light.

 

While not a full featured camera, there are a number of options like:

 

  • Selecting white balance – You can select a white balance setting based on the current lighting conditions.
  • Changing settings for size and quality – You can select size and quality (1600 x 1200, 640 x 480 and 320 x 240) and create up to three original setups
  • Using spot metering – You can adjust exposure and focus to the selected point by tapping on the viewfinder.
  • Changing the flash light level – You can change the brightness of the flash.
  • Selecting focus mode – You can select to adjust focus manually or automatically.
  • Applying effects – You can apply an effect to the captured image by selecting the setting beforehand.

 

Perhaps the best feature of the camera software is the ability to attach the photos to an email in a straighforward way. I imagine this feature would be nice for any sort of field agent who needs to take a picture and get it back to the office or a client in a hurry. If that’s what you need of a PDA.

 

Here are a few shots I took on the highest quality settings —

Picture 1

Picture 2

Picture 3

 

The camera is also capable of recording video, albeit at the 160 x 112 pixel count. Yes, this is very small, although playback on the Clile can be stretched to full screen. This is a fun toy, but not much more unfortunately. I took a few shots of coworkers napping and sent them to the boss…well, not really, but that would have been the best use of the video camera in my book. The camera movie files can be eamiled as well and viewed on the PC with Quicktime 6.0.

   

Keyboard

 

The keyboard buttons are nearly flat on the NZ90, but they do provide good tactile response. Working with two thumbs is much better than two fingers. I found my data entry rates to be more accurate for longer emails than graffiti, but a little slower overall. New Palm OS users should enjoy the keyboard for the most part, especially once they get used to the combinations and the location of the function options in purple.

 

 

Wireless

 

The NZ90 has two options when it comes to going wireless. It offers both integrated Bluetooth and WiFi via compact flash. Configuring either option is pretty straightforward, being handled through the preferences setting. It doesn’t seem possible to operate the Bluetooth when the WiFi card is plugged in, which isn’t a major problem. I’m just accustomed to leaving the WiFi card in all the time. Another minor gripe is that if you operate the PDA on multiple WiFi networks, for instance at home and work, switching is not an easily completed at the program level. I’d like for programs like email and the web browser to ask me which of the wireless connections to use during startup.

 

No matter how you slice it, you may browse the web or use Clie Mail with either connection. The NetFront browser continues to be a major disappointment. It’s still version 3.0, but the build appears to be different and I noticed much better performance over the NX70V. However, most sites don’t load well and the page resize options are nice, but really don’t leverage the possibilities. I can’t understand why many programs, like the web browser, are not developed to operate in landscape mode. I keep hoping PalmSource will come up with a better option for OS 5, but I guess we’ll just have to wait it out.

Clie Mail is pretty solid. It handles attachments well, through the Pixel Viewer application. My main problem with the program is that you either have to leave the messages on the server or pull them all down to the device. There’s no way to delete a message on the handheld and the server like there is with Versa Mail on the Palm’s. The Clie version looks much nicer though and has a few other nice nuggets like a display showing the connection status.

 

The NZ90 falls short in the Bluetooth software options category, especially when compared to the only other Bluetooth enabled Palm device, the Tungsten T. The TT comes with a handful of applications that leverage Bluetooth connections between phones and other PDAs. The NZ90 only comes with a SMS manager, which works well for what it does, after a bumpy setup.

 

Battery Life

 

This is the worst feature of the NZ90. The battery and battery management software on this device is just plain disgusting. For normal use it’s not that bad, but when using the camera kiss it goodbye. The funny thing is, the battery doesn’t actually die, it just begins this very odd yo-yo pattern. For instance, my battery now sits at 75%. I turn of the camera and it pops a warning that I cannot use the flash because the battery it too low. The battery level now appears to be at 20%. I close out of the camera software and now the battery slowly rises back to 73%. This game is happening for many NZ90 owners but not all. Sadly, my requests for help from our contacts at Sony have gone unanswered. At this point, if you think you’ll want to use the flash, I’d stay away from this unit for that reason alone. As mentioned earlier, the battery is replaceable if you want to pony up $80 each for the replacements.

 

Multimedia

 

The NZ90 ships with a very good audio player that plays Sony’s ATRAC3 format as well as MP3’s. There’s a stereo jack on the device that works with normal headphones, or you may use the intermediary remote that comes with the unit to control things like volume and fast forward. I plugged my desktop speaker system into the stereo jack and it sounded great.

 

The speaker on the back of the unit is ok, but nothing special. It’s fine for games and such, but listening to music on it is faint and not very enjoyable. You’ll want to use headphones or external speakers.

 

There are a number of software goodies that really help the NZ90 shine in the multimedia arena. They’re even better when you combine the Clie with the advanced features in the cradle. Use the video out on the cradle and the Clie Album to show off your pictures on a nearby television.

 

They’ve continued to include the Flash player too, which is nice, but quite underutilized. I loaded a couple flash movies and they all ran very well, even resized by the Clie. This is an amazingly cool tool for sales professionals to be able to show off a brief demo on the go. When someone asks to hear your elevator pitch, show it to them on this device and they’ll be amazed.

 

The NZ90 also leverages the remote control program that’s been around for a while. I barely got over 7 feet with the IR port though, which is less than I expected. Also, you have to uses the remote facing sideways, due to the IR port being on the side of the unit. This combo makes this software a fun game at your friends house or local bar, but not usable in any meaningful way at home.

 

The voice recorder has a special launcher button which is a little annoying. Rather than just opening the application, it starts recording immediately, which means more trouble to delete unwanted recordings later on. I recorded a meeting that ran an hour and a half, which took up about 68MB using the standard record. The record and playback quality is impressive and it has both standard play and long play recording options.

 

Peripherals

 

Cradle

Palm hasn’t made a significant cradle change in years, and then Sony does this. They’ve made the most transportable cradle with the most innovation we’ve seen in a long time. Gone is the desktop paperweight used in the NR and NX series devices and in is the easel. That’s right, a foldable easel that is fantastically small and portable. What’s more, it has a USB connector that plugs into the computer to sync or into a printer to run off documents and such. The cradle also supports audio and video out, which is just a great feature. I doubt many people will use it, but the Clie with cradle might find its way into more conference room presentations now. I also love the sync button placed in the front right foot. It’s subtle, yet a great point to show off to jealous co-workers. The cradle is just great in so many ways.

 

 

 

Stylus

The stylus is fine, but very difficult to insert back into the slot. The stylus holder is on the side of the screen, but is not the typical silo used in most PDAs. The tip slides into a holder and the top kind of clips in. The design is not great and takes a while to get used to. The other downside is you won’t be able to use any existing third party styli for a long time. This one has a completely new design that will be a lot of fun [read: pain in the butt] for peripheral manufacturers to reproduce.

 

Conclusion

 

Sony went a little nuts with this PDA. It’s got so much going on, maybe too much. At times it seems like Sony has it all together with things like the tight integration of email and the camera. But then you look at the fact the SMS program doesn’t recognize any cell phones, even though I’ve established a pair with my t68i.

 

At a MSRP of $800, it’s also the most expensive on the market. To leverage all the features you need a $150 WiFi card and a 128MB memory stick. So the total bill is really more like $1000.

 

The sad thing is, I like the innovation, the multiple Wireless Options and some of the software goodies. But in the end the size, cost, poor battery, lack of Documents To Go and a list of other small issues forces me to not recommend this unit. In fact, I am struggling to envision any way this unit has a positive return on investment. There are a number of ways to go that make more sense. Buy a NX60 and a separate camera. Buy a cheap laptop. Buy the Tungsten T and a camera. Buy the iPAQ h5450 and camera. Do anything other than buy the NZ90 unless budget is not an issue for you and the positives I mentioned are more important than the shortcomings. Or…wait for it to hit the $550 price point — I think it works there.

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