Brighthand Reviews the palmOne LifeDrive Mobile Manager — Part II

by Reads (34,760)

This is Part II of this review. Part I should be read first.

Audio player

Though I said we should compare this device to other PDAs, other PDAs do serve as MP3 players, so let’s start there. Used for music alone, LifeDrive would hold about 1,000 songs. That’s more than most PDAs can hold, unless that PDA has a CompactFlash slot. I’m not an authority on audio quality, but as MP3 players go, it sounds great with my 128K files.

As long as audio playback is all your LifeDrive is used for, it will play without interruption. If you slide the Hold switch on or off the music gaps momentarily. Try to do anything else, and the audio will sometimes stop for seconds at a time, or gap in and out over and over while the amber drive access light flashes. This happens whether the music is on an SD card or on the internal drive.

Early MP3 player software programmers worked hard to eliminate this problem on earlier Palm devices, until they all pretty well got it right. But now, both Pocket Tunes and AeroPlayer gap like crazy when trying to do anything while playing music in background mode. The way Palm has designed the LifeDrive has changed the rules. It appears Pocket Tunes had to rewrite its version to work more like other disk-based MP3 players, preloading a certain portion of the song into some part of the 32MB buffer. PocketTunes reloads this buffer at exactly two minutes, and at the beginning of every song. This strategy allows the drive to spin down quickly after the buffer fills, thus saving energy.

The current version of AeroPlayer — my usual choice –accesses the drive several times a second, which would keep the drive spinning as long as you play music. I’m sure Aerodrome will work this out soon, but for now, LifeDrive owners should stick with Pocket Tunes. The free version included with the LifeDrive doesn’t have some of the cool features in the full version, like crossfade and bass boost, but it works well.

Pocket Tunes As I write this, I’m listening to music via Pocket Tunes. I managed four hours of music playback, which included a few interruptions to browse the Web via WiFi, fiddling with the “gapping” issue, and playing back five movie trailers before the low battery warning came on. I’m guessing I’d have gotten at least another half hour on MP3 had I not stopped to play those trailers for my wife before she went to bed. That was also after a day of carry, where I used the device only a little to check email, again via WiFi, and to show off a few snapshots of the new baby. Not bad. Not terrific, but not as bad as I’ve seen others report.

Palm sells a cradle that was originally intended for the Tungsten T5 and Treo 650. Since the LifeDrive shares a connector design with these two, the LifeDrive gets access to a feature that was clearly intended for its arrival: the audio jack that’s built into the cradle base. But performance is spotty. As I’ve seen others complain about the T5, the speakers often pick up the electronic noise from the LifeDrive. This insufficient shielding makes an otherwise great idea — a new connector with audio-out — less than useful. Interestingly, when WiFi is active on the LifeDrive, the noise completely goes away.

Thankfully, when using the headphone jack on the LifeDrive’s bottom, this noise is absent, though I do notice some static between songs.

Headphones are not included, so I’m using the very nice ones that came with the Sony NX80V. I like the placement of the headphone jack on the bottom of the LifeDrive, because it doesn’t get in the way when you’re holding it. Unfortunately, you can’t plug the headphones in with the unit in the cradle, because there’s no room.

I do hope that at least one of the makers of speaker docks for iPods will adapt a design to the LifeDrive. Palm should release a new cradle too. For fifty bucks, it should work as advertised.

Not including headphones with the LifeDrive was a missed opportunity to compete in the current branding war, with iPod’s signature white headphones now a status symbol. I’m sure they decided to just keep out of it, but chrome or matte silver to match the LifeDrive’s case might have been interesting.

As I’m sitting here still listening to music on the device, I’ve confirmed something I suspected earlier. The wall charger included with the T5 cradle kit is insufficient to keep up with the LifeDrive’s power drain as it charges. To keep listening I had to connect the data cable to the USB port of my iBook. I’m still not sure it’s keeping up, because when I disconnect the device from power, battery level drops to zero and the unit shuts down, resuming only after thirty seconds in the cradle.

Loading music on the LifeDrive can be done in several ways. On a Windows machine, you’re supposed to be able to install a Pocket Tunes plugin that integrates with your Windows Media Player to easily copy music to your device. I’ve installed this in both Windows 2000 and Windows XP without any luck. It’s just as easy to use the LifeDrive Manager to copy them; or on the Mac, I just drag MP3 files from iTunes directly into the Music folder on the LifeDrive. This works great on both platforms. You cannot, however, play iTunes protected AAC files on the LifeDrive. That would require an Apple logo on the back of the device, instead of palmOne, which is a shame.

You can also install Rhapsody on your PC, and sign up for a 30-day free trial to the music subscription service. It’s not for me, but could be a good idea for some.

Camera Companion

If you own a digital camera that takes an SD card, the LifeDrive’s Camera Companion software allows you to quickly offload your pictures so you can resume shooting. You can also view the pictures on the relatively large screen and even email full-size photos to friends. You also have the option of copying your images to a connected Mac or PC using USB drive mode, or you can just view the images on the card.

The new Media software is faster at bringing up photos than the T3. Slideshows can be played with music accompaniment. Some video formats can be recognized and played as well. AVI files generated on a Canon PowerShot A510 copied right over and played immediately. MOV files from my Minolta Xt do not appear at all, either in the file system after copy, nor are they even viewable on the card with the Files application. Once transferred to a PC, or viewed from the LifeDrive Manager window, they can be copied over to the PC, then copied back for conversion and playback.

Of course, when it comes to talking about photos, everyone wants to know about the screen. I haven’t mentioned it, though it used to be a big deal to me. That’s probably because like the screen of the T3, T5, and Zire 72, the LifeDrive’s screen is excellent. Palm says that they’ve made some improvements to color depth since the T5, but since I don’t have a T5 to compare with, I can only say that my T3 is still brighter, and has a warmer color to it. The LifeDrive has a cold blue color cast. My T3 was from an early batch, and I understand there was quite a bit of variation among T3s, so I can’t say how the LifeDrive compares to other T3s you may have seen. Taken on its own, the LifeDrive screen is beautiful and easy to read in most lighting situations. It appears to be interlaced, as well, with a strange flicker appearing occasionally, but not often.

Movies

Aside from a few trailers and home movies, I’ve never bothered to try loading a full feature-length movie on my T3. It’s one of the items mentioned as an advantage to the LifeDrive’s storage, so I had to try it. Both PalmGear and palmOne’s websites have a primer on how to make your DVDs into miniature movies that will run on your LifeDrive, and they both use the same programs: Pocket DVD Studio to do the conversion on a PC, and MMPlayer to play the files on the Palm.

LifeDrive Showing Movie I bought Pocket DVD ($32) outright, since I didn’t want to encounter demo limitations, and downloaded the demo of MMPlayer. You also have to download a codec to actually compress the files, and there are two that are free: DivX and XviD. I know next to nothing about doing this, but I forged ahead. I won’t go into all the settings I tried, but I’ve managed to encode movies at 24fps with stereo high audio quality that play at almost full screen, and all movies run very well on the LifeDrive.

There are two ways to copy movies created in Pocket DVD to your LifeDrive. The first is to copy the AVI file to a folder on the LifeDrive and play it with MMPlayer. I did this, and the video was noisy. Because I didn’t buy the full version, I can’t be sure if the registered version does it, but minor static or hissing sounds like a flurry of digital birds in both ears. Not a good sales pitch if the limited version of MMPlayer can’t handle audio. So I tried my second strategy, which no one — not even palmOne — suggested. I just wanted to see if it would work, so I took the AVI file and dragged it onto the LifeDrive Manager. It offered to copy or convert the video file for me. I chose convert. It took some time, about 20 minutes (a fraction of the time it took to encode, by the way, which was about 1.5 hours for a 2 hour movie on a 2.8GHz Celeron), but the resulting file, encoded now as ASF, played pretty smoothly, without the digital birds.

As for the video jerkiness others have mentioned, I’ve only noticed actual stopped frames at the higher resolution settings, and only with a lot of detail changes in a scene. This happens on digital TV all the time, so I’m not so sure we should be too upset. What I notice that is slightly more annoying is a tendency of the video to “wave,” or “surge.” It’s subtle, and I thought it might be due to the double encoding; but I had a thought and copied one of the half-gig files over to my 1GB Lexar SD card. Playback was smoother, and the disk access light wasn’t flashing in my face the whole time.

I haven’t used even one dedicated portable video player, so I don’t know how they compare. Movie recording and playback is really not a feature directly supported by Palm, so take it for what it’s worth. Players with bigger screens are going to do better, no doubt, but the Palm aficionado will get a kick out of making his little computer do just one more thing for very little money.

Another problem I noticed when viewing movies on the LifeDrive was that the screen didn’t handle movies with dark scenes very well. Blacks tended to blend with the background, and in some cases they glowed unless you tilted the screen a bit. I was able to tweak the output brightness setting in Pocket DVD Studio to good effect, however.

Now, I happen to have a friend who’s a copyright attorney. He was somewhat dismayed when I inquired about the legality of copying movies to a handheld computer. Most of us assume that the American DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) allows us to make backup copies of all media we’ve purchased. Apparently that’s only true if we can do so without breaking encryption. As soon as we use some kind of cracking tool to access data that’s been locked up, we are in violation of copyright law, and we are in danger of being sued civilly for $150,000 per movie or television show, plus a year in federal prison and a fine of up to $100,000. Applicable code: 17 USC 1201(a)(1)(A) “No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.”

I know this is open to debate in the minds of many, and even the programmers of Pocket DVD have a statement at the bottom of their home page saying that what their software does is perfectly legal under the DMCA. They also note, however, that “the copyright tag and your information may be encrypted within the file. Unauthorized distribution of those movies files to the public may lead you to legal trouble.”

I was surprised that I didn’t think of this problem before I tested it out. More surprising is that Palm doesn’t have any qualms about encouraging this activity, which can at best get LifeDrive users in a heck of a lot of trouble should someone decide to prosecute. My understanding is that download and playback of movies will be legal in the near future, enabled by one or more sources; but until they are, we are all subject to the law outlined above. So I’ve taken the risk as an investigative reporter to show that it’s possible. Consult your lawyer for whether it’s legal.

This review has been broken up into sections:


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