This is Part V of this review. Part I should be read first.
The basic HotSync interface begins just as it did with the Palm Pilot. A little icon in the Windows tray has a confusing flyup menu from which you make your modifications. On top of that are layers of different programs with their own interfaces and windows that pop up as syncing commences. You have Quick installer, AddIt Manager, DataViz Docs to Go, VersaMail, LifeDrive manager; and if you’ve enabled it, AvantGo sync comes up and takes a little longer than normal, probably due to the hard drive.
I’ve been at times impressed, and other times disgusted with HotSync. Sometimes it goes off without a hitch. Sometimes I have to stop the process and soft-reset the device. AvantGo has been unusually problematic.
Unlike the Tungtsen T5, my experiments haven’t required but one hard reset, and that was when I tried to HotSync while the LifeDrive was playing music. I don’t recommend that at all, but it is easy to do by accident. One thing they did right is that when you enter programs like Pocket Tunes, the LifeDrive Manager automatically disables. It’s a pity that doesn’t happen for HotSync, because after my mistake Pocket Tunes refused to recognize any more songs until I purged the device.
I chalk most of it up to new platform jitters. But be warned, and think hard about how you’re going to manage your data. I haven’t had the trouble yet, but syncing some docs through Documents to Go and others through LifeDrive Manager could result in version craziness if you’re not careful.
As with other recent devices, a cradle does not come with the LifeDrive. This move keeps the costs down, yet still gives the end user the cables they need to charge and sync even while traveling. When Palm was including heavy metal-based cradles (back with the Palm V), I’d agree that it was expensive to include one with each device. But looking at what I paid $50 for, I’m not so sure they’re saving much. I’m not saying it’s not a decent cradle. I like the design; it’s light and efficient enough to take along if necessary. The lighted base offers some intrigue, but I could do without the extra energy drain, regardless how efficient LEDs are.
The dual-piece cable design that plugs into the cradle base is another CLIE design element that is welcome. I just wish they’d offer people the base itself, without the cable, charger, and international power adapters, say for $20. That would take a page from the Tapwave playbook, and likely sell more cradles. Face it, most of us don’t travel overseas that often. By the time I do again, I’ll have lost the adapters anyway. Sell more cradles, Palm, by unbundling them from the overpriced cradle/travel kit. Customers will be happier, and many will buy two.
Without the cradle making the cables neater on your desk, there is still a risk of the cables snagging on your leg and slamming the device onto the floor. Thankfully, Palm did put rubber feet on the back of the LifeDrive, toward the top. These have a tendency to keep the unit in its place. When I forget to pack the cradle to work, I just put the LifeDrive in Landscape mode and run the cables back across the desk to avoid snags. Nevertheless, as I’ve been writing this, the LifeDrive took a spill to the floor (I’d been testing the rubber feet idea).
What does come with the LifeDrive is a decent little protective slipcase that harks back Handspring Visor cases. I was never crazy about those. Their use of elastic meant that the buttons got pressed all the time, and the elastic quickly wore out.
This case, on the other hand, is leather, with a stiff card in the front to protect the screen. The sides are held together with a stippled vinyl or rubber that is firm and looks like it will last a bit. Inside, front and back are covered with a soft felt. It does leave the entire top and bottom corners open to impact, and the SD card and stylus can be knocked free in a fall. But for an included case, I think it’s a good deal.
On the bottom is a place for a headphone jack to pass through. I’m not sure why this would be here, since you’re never going to want to use it this way. There’s no control at all when the device is in the case. Though I think it is a good travel case, I’ll be looking for a nice leather flip case soon.
You never know when they’re going to happen, but there are really too many delays when using the LifeDrive. The worst delays are only momentary, because you’re just not sure whether your tap wasn’t registered. If you tap again, you’re liable to set off an unfortunate sequence of events. So you learn to wait a few seconds.
Most often the LifeDrive responds quickly, just like a T3 or T5. Other times it can go for thirty seconds before it comes back. David Pogue in his review claimed it took six seconds for this and six seconds for that. His might have been different, but the delays I’ve experienced are inconsistent. Usually they’re negligible. Sometimes they represent a crash, requiring a soft reset. Thankfully, you just take the stylus out and press the reset button. Unfortunately, the full soft reset takes two minutes.
If you’ve used computers for any length of time, you suspect what’s going on. The drive is part of the bottleneck, and the cache is another part. We’re used to PDAs that read and write as fast as memory chips. With a hard drive, you need a cache, sometimes more than one, to even approach such speeds. There’s 10MB of RAM on the LifeDrive that fills and flushes as necessary. If you’re running the same programs over and over, your experience should be good; but if you load a lot of data or open programs you haven’t opened in awhile, it’ll take a little longer to load the cache to run your program. I don’t think this explains everything, but it explains some of it.
Though they probably stuck with the drive alone to keep the bill of materials down, I really wish Palm had kept some kind of RAM, flash or not, to hold the main Palm OS apps, using the hard drive for backup, data, and extra storage. I think speed would have remained what users expect. We’re used to some delays with hard drives on our PCs, but not on our PDA.
I also occasionally pick up the device and an onscreen message tells me that some program crashed and caused a reset while I was away. That’s a little disturbing when I wasn’t even using the device, but it’s good that I’m being told which program caused the fault. Quite often it’s SnapperMail, which is crashing because it’s set to check email hourly. It crashes when I’ve set the Hold switch, which keeps SnapperMail from doing its job. I’m sure SnapperFish can fix this one.
I’m hopeful that most of these glitches can be fixed with software tweaks. When it’s performing well, which is actually most of the time, I really like the LifeDrive. It’s just what I’ve been waiting for. But I’ve been perfectly clear with you about the problems as well. This is an ambitious project, one I’m glad Palm set itself to. But Palm has to follow through with updates and improvements to make sure the Mobile Manager line succeeds. With the whole team back together, I’m optimistic they will.
Palm absolutely got the physical design right. LifeDrive is a great name, and build is solid and handsome. The physical interface is refined, and the five way nav is the most comfortable I’ve ever used. Synchronization delivers nearly all that it promises, and LifeDrive Manager is probably PalmOne’s best application in years. It’s a shame the extremely loyal group of Mac users was left out, but a small company like Palm can’t serve everyone. We’re all crossing our fingers that Mark/Space will continue to impress.
I look forward to what hardware and software developers come up with for LifeDrive. I think it represents a huge opportunity to innovate. The only item missing from the Palm platform to make it a fully functional mobile computer replacement is WYSIWYG printing. We’re all so used to it on our notebooks and desktops, most have forgotten what it means, but it’s essential. Naturally, it would be too difficult to type in WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) mode on such a small screen, but the ability to generate, preview, and print Microsoft Word quality pages on the device is completely missing, and I’d like to call on DataViz, Bachmann, Steven’s Creek, PalmSource or anyone who can to fix this gaping hole in the Palm OS’s capabilities to please do so. I have Bluetooth, and I have a Bluetooth printer. Make them work better together. It’s the final piece in Larry Becker’s vision of The Laptop Lost.
I also look forward to the arrival of compatible backup solutions for on-the-road restoration, like a 4GB SD card and the software to go with it. Hopefully Palm will be aggressive in introducing accessories and software updates to make the LifeDrive even better. An external battery is a natural, as is a speaker cradle.
My life is easier with a LifeDrive. Instead of carrying a backpack laden with a notebook and power supply, I just slip the LifeDrive and palmOne Universal Keyboard into my camera bag, and I’m ready for anything. I HotSync before I leave one computer, and first thing when I arrive at the other, and I’ve had no corrupted folders or files yet. What’s better is that I have at least one backup somewhere should anything go wrong, and that’s reassuring. Photos and large data files no longer frustrate me, nor force me to delete my music collection to carry them, I just drag them to the LifeDrive that’s already loaded on my desktop. Much as I love my T3, I don’t think I can go back. It’s LifeDrive from here.
This review has been broken up into sections: