Last Spring, Sony broke new ground in handheld design with its NR series, which offered a 320 by 480 pixel screen and an MP3 player, plus an integrated keyboard and, on the NR70V, a digital camera. All of this was in a handheld that could take on a clamshell shape or be converted into a tablet shape.
The NX series is Sony’s updated version of the NR series. It still has all the features I just mentioned but adds a ton more. The most important of these is Palm OS 5, which allows it to run a 200 MHz Intel XScale processor. This greatly increases its ability to play multimedia, including MPEG videos. Speaking of which, the NX70V doesn’t just have a digital camera, it can also record MPEG movies. Both NX series models have a slot that you can plug a wireless networking card into and a voice recorder.
Processor The feature that probably a bunch of you are drooling over is the 200 MHz Intel XScale processor. This leaves the processors of all previous Palm OS models in the dust. They were fast enough for most text-related activities but bogged down when it came time for multimedia. Not so the XScale. It can open a 640 by 480 pixel JPEG image in about a second. It can decode and display MPEG video in real time. In short, it’s plenty fast.
The XScale family are what are called ARM based processors. This is because its processor core was designed by a British company, ARM Holdings. Intel, like several other companies, licenses these designs and builds microprocessors around them.
Screen The first thing you’ll notice about the screen is it’s pretty darn big, about 3.8 inches when measured diagonally. More size gives more room for pixels and the screen resolution is 320 by 480, which is better than almost any other handheld.
One of the ways it achieves this excellent resolution is by including a virtual Graffiti area. This means that, instead of having an area at the bottom of the screen that is totally devoted to text input like most Palm OS models have, the NX series can use this area for text input and other things, like displaying larger images.
The NX series uses the same screen as the NR series. This is a good one but not perfect. It has a distinct blue tint and some light gray shadows appear along one edge. It looks good indoors and out.
Memory Sadly, we’ve come to one of these handhelds’ few weaknesses: RAM. The NX70V and NX60 ship with just 16 MB of memory for storing applications. And the story gets worse. About 5 MB of that is taken up with applications you can’t delete. These are good apps and ones you’ll probably like, like the MP3 and video players but, geez, you are left with just 11 MB. I suggest you get yourself a good-sized Memory Stick immediately, which will help alleviate this problem.
Another facet of memory is ROM, which is where handhelds store their operating systems. If a handheld has flash ROM, its operating system can be upgraded. The NX series does have flash ROM so potentially it can be upgraded to the next version of the Palm OS. However, Sony hasn’t committed to this. This is an important point because OS 6 is going to be a significant improvement over OS 5.
Keyboard While many people have come to accept and even love the Graffiti system for entering text, not everyone likes it. In fact, I’m convinced that fear of having to learn Graffiti is one of the major factors preventing many people from buying their first handheld. The NX series includes a built-in keyboard that means you never have to learn Graffiti at all if you don’t want to.
Of course, this keyboard isn’t anything like full size and you can’t touch-type on it. Instead, you either hold the handheld between your hands and push the keys with your thumbs or put it on a table and use your index fingers.
After using it for a while, I’ve become fairly proficient with this keyboard. I can actually write a bit faster on it than I can with Graffiti.
However, it isn’t perfect. My biggest complaint is that it doesn’t appear to have any equivalent of the Command key. Without it, you still have to use the Graffiti version, which means getting out the stylus to do a single stroke, then put it away again to type some more.
Another minor hassle is you have to hold the shift key down in order to write a capital letter. I know this is how full-sized keyboards work but it’s not the best solution on a keyboard this small.
Camera The only real difference between the NX70V and the NX60 is the NX70V has a built-in camera. The NR series had a camera, too, but it was restricted to rather small still images. The latest version can take larger still images and MPEG videos.
The camera is on the hinge and you can point it at yourself when you are holding the handheld or swivel it around at something in front of you. The handheld’s screen acts as the viewfinder.
It can take still images as large as 640 by 480 and as small as 160 by 120 pixels. All videos are taken at 160 by 112 pixels and have audio.
The quality of these is decent but if you are looking for really good images or videos, get a regular camera. The real value is the convenience of always having a camera with you. If you see something you want to tell your wife/friend/co-worker about, you can snap a picture of it in few seconds. Or if you keep a blog, you can make it more interesting with pictures and videos.
Voice Recorder Another one of the NX series’ new multimedia features is its ability to record voice memos. These are saved in WAV format and can also be converted into alarms right on the handheld. This makes it easy for you to have your handheld say “It’s time for your next meeting” rather than just beeping at you.
Speaker The NX series includes a speaker that alarms and other applications use. It’s pretty loud and you probably won’t miss any of your alarms. It’s OK at producing music and voice, though I doubt any serious audiophiles would be happy with its quality. Of course, it also isn’t your only option; there’s a headphone jack on the left side.
The disadvantage of having the speaker on the back is it gets muffled if the handheld is lying flat. However, it has been moved higher up on the back so it’s not also muffled by the cradle, as is the case with the NR series.
Memory Stick Slot Hell hasn’t frozen over so the NX60 and NX70V have Memory Stick slots. This allows them to store applications and files on removable cards, which is absolutely necessary given these handheld’s limited amount of RAM.
This slot can be used for more than just memory. Sony makes a Bluetooth wireless networking card that can be plugged into this slot. MARGI Systems is about to release a version of its Presenter to Go for it, too.
Wireless Networking Card Slot Both members of the NX series have a slot that allows you to plug in Sony’s WL100 wireless networking card. This can tie in to 802.11b networks, which have a max data transfer speeds of 10 MB per second at 300 feet, under ideal conditions of course. Sorry, I can’t tell you much about this right now. Sony is sending me a WL100 soon and I’ll do a complete review of it then.
This slot is actually a CompactFlash slot, though Sony doesn’t advertise this. However, the NX series doesn’t ship with drivers for CF memory cards. This isn’t surprising as Sony knows this will cut into sales of Memory Sticks. But that isn’t the end of the story. Sony engineers in Japan have admitted that all that is needed is for someone to write a driver and we’ll be good to go. Developers, are you listening?
When one of these handhelds is closed, its screen and keyboard are protected inside. It opens into a clamshell shape, with the screen on one side and the keyboard on the other. This is the configuration for when you want to enter text with the keyboard; however, using Graffiti in this configuration isn’t easy. Fortunately, the handheld has another trick up its sleeve. The screen can rotate on a second axis located just above the hinge and then close down over the keyboard. This puts it into shape that is similar to that of most other handhelds, though the application launching keys are inaccessible inside.
The NX series offers a lot of features but it’s not what anyone would call small. It’s 5.3 by 2.8 by 1.0 inches and weighs 8 ounces.
Some people are going to think that is too big, especially when compared with something like Palm’s new Tungsten T or the thin and light Pocket PC models coming out soon. However, the NX series offers features those models don’t, like a higher resolution screen, integrated keyboard, dual slots, and, in the case of the NX70V, a built-in video camera. Really, it all comes down to personal preference. If you really want these features, you’ll accept the added bulk. If you’d rather have a handheld that will ride easily in your shirt pocket, buy something else.
Buttons Because of its unusual shape, the NX series’ buttons are in an unusual place, above the keyboard but below the hinge. This means that when the handheld is in its tablet configuration, they are hidden inside. Still, they are good buttons, though not arranged in a straight line. This is going to make it challenging to play games that use them to substitute for a D-pad.
On the left side is a Jog Dial. This works a bit like Up/Down buttons but is more convenient because it can be done with the thumb as it’s holding the handheld.
Sony has done a pretty good job of integrating the Jog Dial into its software. You can scroll through the list of applications and open one by pushing the Jog Dial in. Or you can scroll through a long list of addresses and open one the same way.
There’s a button on the left side of the hinge that opens the video camera, still camera, or voice recorder, depending on your user preference. Once the chosen app is open, the same button can be used to take a picture or start/stop recording a video or memo.
Also on the left side is a switch that turns off the screen but lets the rest of the handheld continue to function. This means you can play music with a minimal drain on battery life.
Battery Life This isn’t one of the NX series’ strong points. In my reviews I usually give hard figures for this but the app I use won’t run under OS 5, so this one will be more subjective. With heavy use, I’m having to recharge the NX70V every two days. Of course it will be much longer for people who don’t use their handhelds for more than an hour every day like I do. This puts the NX series near the low end of the scale but probably isn’t a deal breaker for most people.
Palm OS 5 Because the NX series has that XScale processor I mentioned earlier, it needs the latest version of the Palm OS, which isn’t a radical departure from previous versions. The appearance has been improved a bit but all of the real changes are under the hood. Primarily, OS 5 is a port of OS 4 onto ARM based processors, which the XScale chip used in the NX series is.
Despite the change from Dragonball processors to ARM-based ones, every Palm OS application doesn’t have to be rewritten. PalmSource included into the operating system code that lets most apps written for the old processors run on the new ones. The exceptions are apps that broke PalmSource’s rules for application development. And developers have been busy over the past few months updating their apps to be sure they are compliant.
Making sure that their apps don’t crash on new models like the NX series isn’t the only reason developers have been releasing new versions for OS 5. Many apps can be greatly speeded up by including what are called ARMlets, small snippets of ARM-native code that handle processor intensive tasks. For example, several image viewers have added ARMlets to vastly increase the speed of opening JPEG files.
Launcher One of the most popular categories of Palm OS apps is replacements for the application launcher. Well, Sony has weighed in with one of its own and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a handheld.
It displays a list of all your applications which you move through with the Jog Dial. If you put in a Memory Stick with apps on it, they will be added to the list.
I think it has been designed for beginners because it also offers a brief description of the built-in apps. However, I don’t think it will catch on with power users. If you have a lot of applications on your handheld scrolling through all of them gets tedious after a while. Happily, you can switch to the familiar application launcher.
Unfortunately, Jog Assist is not included. This means you can no longer hold down the Jog Dial to pop up a list of all your categories in the launcher or in any app, like you could on previous Sony handhelds. This makes the Jog Dial less useful and I wish Sony would add it back in.
Standard Palm Apps Of course, the NX series includes all the usual Palm OS apps, like the Address Book, Date Book, etc. The only change is Sony has made these virtual Graffiti aware, which the versions on the NR series aren’t. This means you can hide the Graffiti area and see far more info on the screen.
CLIE Viewer Sony included an app that was a good idea in theory but turns out to be weak in execution. CLIE Viewer organizes all your images, videos, and voice memos into one list. You can play any of them from here.
However, your only option for listing these is a thumbnail view and building this list is very slow. Plus, thumbnails aren’t cached so the app has to rebuild the list every single time. If you have more than a couple images, this quickly becomes excruciating.
Sadly, CLIE Viewer is the only app that comes with the NX series for viewing images. I quickly loaded up a third-party image viewer and avoided CLIE Viewer thereafter. Sony, if you are listening, start caching thumbnails of images on Memory Sticks.
Movie Play Fortunately, CLIE Viewer isn’t your only option for displaying videos. The aptly named Movie Play can display both video taken by the NX70V’s camera and MPEGs that have been put on a Memory Stick. It works very well. I copied over some MPEGs I got off the Internet and they looked great. Movie Play can even rotate them so videos, which are almost always wider than they are tall, can be enlarged to almost fill the screen.
AudioPlayer Like all high-end Sony handhelds for over a year, the NX70V and NX60 have an integrated MP3 player. This works as you’d expect, though I ought to point out that you have to have a Memory Stick because MP3s can’t be stored in RAM. Users of previous Sony models will be happy to hear that you can set the order songs are played in.
Flash Player One of the frequently overlooked apps is the Macromedia Flash player. Flash is something that started out as a way to make small, animated movies and has grown to the point where full-blown applications and whole websites are written in it. The player that comes on the NX series is compatible with the latest version of Flash and I downloaded several Flash files designed for handhelds and all of them worked beautifully.
Photo Editor Sony began including a simple drawing application with its handhelds a long time ago. Photo Editor is a much more advanced version of this. It isn’t exactly PhotoShop for the Palm OS but you can do some actual photo editing on it and it doesn’t have the size restrictions the old drawing app had. Plus, it’s a nice addition to the camera on the NX70V.
CLIE Memo Sony has taken a page from Palm’s book and included an app for drawing quick notes for yourself. This shouldn’t be confused with the Photo Editor; its more like Post-It Notes.
CLIE Mail and NetFront The NX series handhelds come with an email application and a Web browser. I’ll cover these in my review of the WL100 wireless networking card.
Stylus The NX series uses the standard Sony stylus, which I call the “coffee stirrer”. It’s a good length but so thin that it isn’t comfortable to use for very long.
Headphones and Control Wand Any handhelds as multimedia-oriented as these demand a set of headphones and the NX series delivers. It includes a decent pair of earbud headphones, not the larger clip-ons some earlier Sony models had.
In addition, they come with a control wand that lets you change songs with the handheld still in your pocket. This is a nice feature if you are going to make one of these your primary MP3 player.
Cradle The cradle is fairly large but looks sleek and professional. You won’t be ashamed to have it on your desk at work.
Like I said, battery life isn’t one of the NX series’ strong points so it’s very convenient that the AC adapter from the cradle can be plugged into the handheld. This means you don’t have to bring the full cradle along with you on trips in order to recharge.
The NX70V costs $599 and the NX60 costs $499, which puts them near the top of the scale. In fact, the NX70V is the most expensive Palm OS model available, though there are Pocket PC models that are more expensive.
Are they worth this? Like I said earlier, these two models have a lot of features. If they are features you want, you aren’t going to find another model that has them for less so I think the answer is “yes” these models are a good value.
The NX series offers a cutting-edge design and a combination of features not found on any other handheld, like an integrated video camera and keyboard. However, they could use some more memory and their battery life isn’t stellar. They aren’t for everyone but people looking for tons of features and who aren’t concerned about their handheld’s weight will snap these up.