Brighthand Reviews the Sony Clie NX80V

by Ed Hardy Reads (35,496)

The PEG-NX80V is the latest addition to the high end of Sony’s Clie line of handhelds. It follows the same general form as previous members of the NX series but it boasts a 1.3 megapixel camera, a unique, retractable CompactFlash slot, more RAM than any previous Clie, and a new system for handwriting recognition.

This is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary new model, improved in many ways from previous members of Sony’s NX series but offering no amazing new features.

Camera

The camera in the NX80V is a 1.3-megapixel type, which means it can take pictures at a maximum resolution of 1280 by 960 pixels. While this isn’t as high a resolution as you’ll get in a full-fledged digital camera, it is far better than the ones you’ll find on some mobile phones.

Taken with Capture Light -- Click for 640 by 480 Version Sony took the unusual step of adding what it calls a “capture light”, not a flash. This is intended to allow the NX80V to take pictures in low light. Basically, they have added a mini flashlight. This is useful if what you want to take a picture of is fairly small and relatively close to the camera. As you can see, I took a picture of one of my cats in a dimly lit room and got a decent enough picture. However, I also tried to take a picture of a group of my friends outside at night and got nothing useful.

Actually, I ended up using the capture light to help me find my way around in the dark more than I used it for its intended purpose.

Taken Outdoors -- Click for  640 by 480 Version Of course, you’ll likely be taking plenty of pictures in regular light and the NX80V does a pretty good job of this. However, based on the pictures I’ve taken, I don’t think most people would be happy using this as their primary camera. Still, having a camera with you all the time is very convenient. For instance, I went to party last weekend and, as I arrived, I realized I’d forgotten my camera. Then I remembered I had the NX80V with me, which worked just fine for taking a few candid shots of my friends.

Screen

One of the best parts of the NX80V is its 320 by 480 pixel screen. There are people who buy an NX series model just to get this screen, which has 50% more pixels than the newer Palm models and twice as many as any Pocket PC.

The only thing keeping this screen from being just about perfect is its lack of sensitivity. I have to push unusually hard on the screen in order to get it to register a tap. I’m concerned that people will prematurely wear out their screens by having to push on them so hard all the time, especially when entering text.

It’s a transflective LCD, which is a compromise between two other types. It looks very good indoors and pretty good outdoors, though not great.

The screen has a virtual Graffiti area, which means you can pull up an area at the bottom of the screen to enter text, and then close this area to use the full screen for something else.

Text Entry

The NX80V gives you several options for entering text: Graffiti 2, Decuma, and the built-in keyboard.

The NX80V uses Palm OS 5.0. Despite this, it includes Graffiti 2, which normally comes with OS 5.2. Graffiti 2 was introduced earlier this year and is supposed to be easier to learn than the original because the symbols used to make letters look more like the letters themselves.

With Graffiti 2 you enter characters one at a time and you have to use specific strokes to enter each one. With Decuma, on the other hand, you write whole words in an area at the bottom of the screen and you write the letters pretty much as you would if you were writing on paper. You have to print, though.

In addition, Decuma is much more flexible than Graffiti 2. You can configure it to recognize the letters as you like to write them. You can also set up special symbols to enter your frequently used phrases. For example, while I’m writing this review, I have to write ”NX80V” over and over. To save time, I configured Decuma so I just have to draw what looks like an uppercase N with a loop on the end and Decuma will fill in ” NX80V”.

Of course, you don’t have to fool around with either Graffiti 2 or Decuma if you don’t want to because this model has a built-in QWERTY keyboard. Sony has been putting keyboards on its handhelds for over a year now and it’s getting pretty good at it. The keyboard on the NX80V is the best I’ve used on any Sony model. The keys, though small, have enough separation that I rarely hit two keys at once. And they aren’t so hard to push that it’s hard on my fingertips.

Sadly, Sony is still making an elementary mistake. The keyboard on the NX80V makes you hold down the shift key while pressing another to make a capital letter. This works fine on a full-size keyboard but not on one you have to use with your thumbs, like the NX80V’s. Fortunately, you can get a handy little app called OKey for free that takes care of this problem.

I’m definitely faster on the keyboard than I am with Decuma or either form of Graffiti. However, I prefer Decuma to Graffiti 2. Decuma is easier to use and, honestly, it’s kind of fun. There is a learning curve, though not a big one.

Memory Card Slots

The NX80V has a slot for Memory Sticks and another for CompactFlash cards. Though dual slots are fairly common in the Pocket PC realm, this is the first Palm OS model to offer two fully-functional slots since the venerable HandEra 330.

Memory Stick As it is a Sony product, of course the NX80V has a Memory Stick slot. The camera takes up just about all the space at the top of this handheld so this is on the right side. It can take any form of Memory Stick, including the new Pro and Select ones.

NX80V Right Side CompactFlash Slot I’ll have to admit I was deeply surprised when I learned that the CompactFlash slot on the NX80V could be used for memory cards. The one on previous Clies can only be used with Sony’s Wi-Fi card, unless you buy a third-party app.

But now that I know all the details, it isn’t as wonderful as I first thought. Don’t get me wrong, I think this a great improvement. But various things about this device relegate the CompactFlash card to always being a secondary Storage method.

The CompactFlash card sits in a retractable slot. This allows you to close the slot and significantly decrease the size of the handheld. Unfortunately, you can’t close the slot with a card in it. I don’t think it’s a good idea to carry the NX80V around in my pocket with the slot open, so I have to take the card out whenever I want to go out of my house. This isn’t true of the Memory Stick.

In addition, a CompactFlash card can’t be used for everything a Memory Stick can. For example, you can’t play MP3s from a CF card. And Sony’s picture app, Clie Viewer, can only display images on a Memory Stick or in RAM. However, PicselViewer, which can display files in a wide variety of formats, from Microsoft Office documents to images, does fully support CF cards.

Still, it isn’t like the CF card is useless. You can store applications on it and run them directly from the app Launcher. And the file manager, Clie Files, fully supports it, allowing you to store files of all types on a CF card.

Even better, lots of third party apps support it, too. I loaded up AcidImage from Red Mercury and it immediately gave me a list of the images on my CF card. This is actually one of the best uses I’ve found for the CF slot. My regular digital camera uses CF cards. The screen on the NX80V is much better than the one on the camera so I’ll pop the CF card into the Clie to show the pictures I’ve just taken to people.

Web Surfing

The CompactFlash slot on the NX80V can be used for more than memory cards. You can also plug a Wi-Fi card into it and access the Internet if you have a Wireless Network in your home or office.

NX80V with Wi-Fi Card Inserted There is one caveat, though. You have to use either the WL100 or WL110 Wi-Fi card from Sony itself, not any of the others on the market. This costs about $150.

Once you get past this, though, I have to say that wirelessly surfing the Web on the NX80V is a dream.

First off, the range is amazing. I have an El Cheapo wireless access point but I was still able to connect to it with the NX80V not only from anywhere in my house but from anywhere in my yard.

Next, the Web browser that comes pre-installed is the best I’ve used on any handheld. This is a version of NetFront 3.0, which handles a long list of Internet standards and, most importantly, allows you to choose between viewing Web pages at their full width or reformatting them to fit on the NX80V’s screen. Plus, I have yet to get one of the “page too large” errors that cropped up all too often on previous Clie models.

And finally, NetFront lets you surf using the full 320 by 480 pixel screen. Viewing Web pages designed for desktop computers on a handheld can frequently be a frustrating experience but the NX80V’s large screen makes this bearable. I just wish you could rotate the screen 90 degrees, as so many web sites are laid out with a horizontal orientation.

Clie Mail The email app that comes with this handheld allows you to check several POP3 accounts. It also supports filters and signatures. You can attach a picture you’ve just taken with the NX80V’s digital camera to an email then send it off immediately.

There is one fly in the ointment, though. As Palm OS 5 isn’t fully multitasking, you can’t be downloading your email in the background while you surf. The only exception to this is music. The audio player allws you to play songs in the background while you use other applications.

PicselViewer There’s little point in including an email application that supports attachments if you can’t view the contents of files that are sent you. That’s why Sony included PicselViewer. This app can display files in Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint formats, as well as Adobe Acrobat, TXT, GIF, and JPEG.

It has a very unusual user interface which takes some getting used to but it does its job very well. It displays the files exactly as they would look on a desktop. Of course, it allows you to zoom in on them until they are readable. However, I want to emphasize that this is a viewer. You can’t edit the files.

Multimedia

With its large screen and relatively fast processor, the NX80V is pretty capable mobile device for images, video, and audio.

Clie Viewer I’ve already briefly mentioned this app, which organizes all your images, videos, and voice memos into one list. You can play any of them from here. Earlier versions of this app were excruciatingly slow when building its list of these files with thumbnails. The current one isn’t lightning fast, but it’s finally become quick enough to be useful.

Movie Play Clie Viewer isn’t your only option for displaying videos. The aptly named Movie Play can display both video taken by the NX80V’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, the NX80V has 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. You can store them on a CF card but they can’t be played from there. Still, you could get a huge CF card and fill it with MP3s, then copy the ones you wanted to listen to that day onto a Memory Stick.

Voice Recorder Like Sony’s other OS 5 devices, the NX80V can 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.

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. However, it isn’t integrated into the web browser so you can’t view Flash-based websites.

Photo Editor This isn’t exactly PhotoShop for the Palm OS but you can do some actual photo editing on it. For example, I used it a couple times to remove the “red eye” from pictures. Basically, I think Sony included it so you can snap a picture with the NX80V’s camera, write a caption on the picture, then email it to your friends.

Processor and Memory

The NX80V has a 200 MHz Intel XScale processor. This isn’t the fastest available but it is fast enough for the tasks I threw at it. It opened a 1280 by 960 pixel JPEG stored in RAM in a second or so and handles video at an acceptable framerate.

It technically has 32 MB of RAM, though only 16 MB of this is directly available to the user. However, the remaining 16 MB isn’t going to waste. It is being used as heap memory, which is available to applications. All this heap memory is why the web browser doesn’t get those out of memory errors I mentioned before.

The NX80V’s 16 MB is a decent amount of memory. Not great, but decent, especially when you can store applications and files on both a Memory Stick and a CF card. Though I have to say, 32 MB or even 64 MB would be better.

Form Factor

By now you are probably familiar with the NX series’ “flip and twist” design. If not, this design allows this handheld to assume a variety of shapes.

NX80V Left Side When it’s 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, putting it into the tablet shape most other handhelds are in all the time.

One of the most important decisions that has to be made when choosing a handheld is small size or lots of features. Though designers have made tremendous progress in miniaturization, they haven’t reached the point where they can fit all the features in the NX80V into a super-slim casing. As is, this model is 2.8 inches wide, 5.2 inches tall, .86 inches thick, and about 8 ounces.

Buttons

Because of its unusual shape, the NX80V’s application buttons and Up/Down buttons are in an unusual place, above the keyboard but below the hinge.

On previous NX series models the application launching keys are inaccessible inside when the screen is closed down over the keyboard. With the NX80V Sony has added a second set just below the screen. This is very convenient. So convenient, I think Sony should add a second pair of Up/Down buttons below the screen, too.

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 while you’re holding the handheld. For example, you can scroll through the list of available applications and launch one by pushing down on the Jog Dial with just one hand.

Above this is the Back button, handy for when you are using the Jog Dial.

Below the Jog Dial is the Power switch. This does double duty as 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.

Also on the left side is a Capture button, which is used to launch the camera app and to take a picture. This greatly speeds up the process of taking a photograph, and is something I think should be on every device with an integrated camera.

On the right side is a switch that launches the voice recorder and immediately begins recording. This is very convenient because if you are leaving yourself a voice memo, odds are you don’t have both hands free. I know most of the voice memos I make are reminders to myself to do something later and I typically record them while I’m driving.

Battery Life

In the past, the Clie line developed a bad reputation for short battery lives. This is an area Sony has made a lot of progress in and the NX80V’s is more than acceptable.

I haven’t been able to discover what the exact capacity of the battery is but it must be fairly high. Wi-Fi is a notorious power drain and, with very heavy use of the Wi-Fi card (e.g. on the Web almost the whole time) I’m getting 4 or 5 hours of use. This is about twice what I’m used to with my Toshiba e550g with a Wi-Fi card and comparable with the Palm Tungsten C.

With only occasional Wi-Fi use, the battery life shoots up to several days and if you don’t have a Wi-Fi card, you could probably use the NX80V for close to a week between charges.

The second biggest battery drain is the backlight for the screen. I typically kept this at about half its maximum. You can extend the battery life even more by turning this down to the minimum setting, at which the screen still looks pretty good.

One of the nice features of the Clie line is you can switch the screen off while listening to MP3s, which saves on power. I’ve listened to the audio player for several hours this way and seen the battery meter barely budge.

Accessories

NX80V's Stylus Above a Regular Sony Stylus Stylus The NX80 has a lot of features, some better than others, but there is only one thing about it I genuinely don’t like: the stylus. I’ve complained for a long time that the company’s regular stylus was too thin to be comfortable to use. I never imagined it would come up with one that is even smaller. This redesigned stylus telescopes and when it is closed it is just over 2.5 inches. It opens up to be 3.7 inches long but the upper portion is ridiculously thin. I’ve been referring to the previous stylus as the coffee stirrer; the new one is like a coffee stirrer with a toothpick stuck in it.

Headphones and Control Wand Any handheld with the multimedia capabilities of the NX80V demands a set of headphones and Sony bundles a pair of earbud ones with it. In addition, it comes 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 this your primary MP3 player. It can also be used to control the video 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.

The NX80V comes with a small adapter that lets you plug the AC adapter from the cradle directly into the handheld. This means you don’t have to bring the full cradle along with you on trips in order to recharge.

Value

With a suggested price of $600, the NX80V is hardly an impulse buy. Plus, in order to use its excellent wireless Internet access capabilities, you are going to have to spring for a $150 Wi-Fi card. However, this model has so many features it is difficult to judge whether it is worth the cost simply because there is no other handheld to compare it with. The NX80V essentially stands alone; no other company offers a model with a Hi-Res+ screen, dual slots, and an integrated keyboard.

Clearly, the NX80V is out of range of someone just looking for a handheld to keep their calendar and listen to a few MP3s. If that’s all you want to do, buy something that costs half what the NX80V does. However, if you intend to fully use all of its capabilities, I have to say I think it’s worth it, especially if you use a service like Shopper.com to get the best deal you can.

Conclusion

This model offers so many features it is bordering on a miniature laptop. Aside from the smaller screen, the NX80V is comparable with the laptop I was using until just a few months ago. I’d be quite comfortable going on a business trip and taking it as my only computer.

With its high price the NX80V isn’t for everyone. But for someone looking to carry the equivalent of a laptop around in their pocket, it’s your best option.


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