The PEG-NZ90 was announced by Sony last month and is expected to be available for $800 in the next few weeks. It’s the first handheld to include an integrated 2 megapixel camera. It also has Bluetooth wireless networking. It runs Palm OS 5 on a 200 MHz XScale processor and has a 320 by 480 pixel screen.
The appearance, especially the size, of the NZ90 has been a topic of sometimes rancorous debate since it was announced a few weeks ago. There’s no doubt this thing is big. By my own measurements, it’s 5.5 by 2.9 by 1.15 inches. It’s also heavy, about 10.5 ounces.
I don’t think this makes the NZ90 a brick, as some have described it. But it is a niche product. The main reason this device is larger than even the NX series is it has that 2 megapixel camera. It has been designed for people who frequently need a wireless-capable handheld and a digital camera. It allows you to quickly snap a picture, attach it to an email, and easily send it off. It’s going to be great for real estate agents, insurance claims adjusters, journalists, and even parents with a new baby.
However, if you don’t need to have a digital camera with you all the time, then the NZ90 isn’t for you. This isn’t a fault, it’s Sony’s strategy. It isn’t trying to make general-purpose handhelds, like other companies are. It’s creating models for specific purposes. So keep in mind, the NZ90 isn’t the replacement for the NX70V. The two devices were created for different groups of customers.
The NZ90 uses the same basic clamshell shape as its NR and NX models, with a keyboard on one side and a screen on the other. It also has the “flip-and-twist” screen that lets you use it in both clamshell and tablet modes. However, almost everything else has been moved from the previous models.
The camera takes up just about the entire hinge area so the Memory Stick and Communications Card slot had to be moved. The Communications Card slot is where the HotSync port was on previous models so that was moved up below the camera. The stylus is now beside the screen and is exposed for much of its length. The power button is on the right side, at the bottom. I’m only pointing this out because it has taken me a while to get used to this very different arrangement.
There is one change that I like a lot, though. Sony has added additional hardware buttons below the screen which take the place of the regular ones when these are hidden inside with the keyboard.
With 2 megapixels, the NZ90 can take pictures at high enough resolution that you can print them out as 4 by 6 inch prints and they look like you took them with a regular camera. (If you don’t have the expensive printer necessary to do this, lots of places like drugstores have started to install them.)
This is the only handheld you can say this of. The built-in cameras in the Sony NR and NX series have been good enough for Web pages and emails but not preserving the image of your child’s first steps. The camera attachments you can get for handhelds are also of moderate image quality. The NZ90 is good enough for just about anything you’d use a regular camera for.
It’s also the first handheld with a camera that includes a built-in flash. This significantly increases its usefulness.
I have to pint out, though, this isn’t a cutting edge camera. While 2 megapixels is pretty good, you can get 5 megapixels if you are willing to pay for it.
The camera is quite easy to use, but has a lot of preferences you can set to help you get better pictures.
There is a button on the left side that launches the camera application. Pressing the button again takes a picture. The NZ90’s screen acts as a viewfinder.
Honestly, I was going to give you a detailed description of all the functions of the camera but I did a quick count and there are at least seventeen different settings you can change. The manual needs ten pages to cover this subject in a minimal way. The best I can do with the space I have here is just mention some of the highlights.
Images can be taken at sizes ranging from 320 by 240 pixels to 1600 by 1200 pixels, which is the one good enough to be printed out as a regular picture I mentioned earlier. If you are planning to make a bunch of the big ones, invest in a big memory Stick. These pictures run about 800 KB each.
You can’t directly control the shutter speed but you can pick from some typical situations and the NZ90 will try to set the right shutter speed for you, like if you are trying to take a picture at night.
You can set the strength of the flash, plus it has a red-eye reducer. You can also adjust the camera’s exposure, white balance, and much more.
Maybe instead of trying to tell you about the camera, I should just show you a couple of images it took. A picture’s worth a thousand words, as the saying goes. Both of these are at 1600 by 1200 pixels:
The camera can also be used to take videos. These, however, aren’t up to the quality of the still images. The only resolution it offers is 160 by 112 pixels, which isn’t good enough for you to use it for anything serious. I did enjoy sending short video greetings to friends and family but I wouldn’t, say, film my baby’s birth with it.
Of course, you can’t use the flash and videos are a bit dark in anything other than bright light, like daylight. No adjustments I made helped much.
The NZ90 is also on the cutting edge by including Bluetooth wireless networking. This allows you to exchange files with other Bluetooth-enabled handhelds.
Actually, I need to clarify this: other Bluetooth-enabled Palm OS handhelds. I’ve never been able to make a Bluetooth connection between any Pocket PC and a Palm OS device.
The NZ90 also includes software that allows you to HotSync with a Bluetooth-enabled computer.
Curiously, it doesn’t come with the software it needs to let you connect to the Internet through a Bluetooth phone. I assume this is possible but I wasn’t able to test it.
The NZ90’s audio player, called Audio Player logically enough, can play music in both MP3 and Sony’s ATRAC3 format.
This handheld includes some features that make it a nice portable music player. It has a jack that lets you plug in its set of earbud headphones. These include a control wand that can increase the volume or change songs without making you pull the handheld out of your pocket. A switch turns off the screen so you can play music without too much battery drain. You don’t have to use headphones; the NZ90 has a built-in speaker that’s pretty good.
Of course you can play MP3s in the background while doing other things.
The NZ90 has a built-in voice recorder, too. This allows you to save voice memos, handy if you want to remind yourself of something and you don’t have both hands free. Like Pocket PC models, it has a dedicated button just to launch this app.
It also includes Clie Viewer, Sony’s app for displaying images, audio, and video. This would be a great app if the developers could find a way to speed it up. It displays thumbnails of the images, which would be handy if it didn’t take so long to generate them. This goes so slowly that, if you have more than a few images stored, this app is just about unusable.
Sony has also included a new version of Clie Album, which allows you to collect your images into digital photo albums, with comments. The coolest feature of this app is it allows you to display these images on your TV. There is a video-out port on the cradle that takes care of the physical connection.
Sony also includes the Flash player that it developed with Macromedia. At this point, the only way to get this app is buy a Sony handheld. A wide variety of games and utilities have been developed for the Pocket PC Flash player; every one of these I’ve tried has run fine on the NZ90.
It even includes an app that lets you use the NZ90 as a universal remote for your TV, VCR, or other pieces of home electronics.
If you are going to have a multimedia handheld, you have to have a good screen and Sony delivers. The NZ90 has a 320 by 480 pixel display, which is a bit larger than the 320 by 320 pixel one on the Palm Tungsten T and significantly larger than the 240 by 320 pixel one on all Pocket PC models.
It can display 16-bit color, which is pretty much the standard these days. Colors are good, though the screen has a blue tint, which is really only noticeable when large areas of white are displayed.
I’m happy to be able to say that Sony has fixed the problem with wavy shadows appearing along one edge of the screen. Or at least they don’t appear on the model Sony loaned me.
The screen uses a virtual Graffiti area, which means it can be on screen when you want to use Graffiti or hidden when you want to enter text with the keyboard. Most of the big name apps make use of this additional screen real estate.
I have to admit, I love this big screen. I can see the advantages of a small handheld but there is also a lot of appeal in a screen that doesn’t make you feel cramped.
While Graffiti has its place, if I’m going to be entering more than a few words of text I want a keyboard. The one that has been integrated into the NZ90 is pretty good.
Of course, there is no question of touch typing. Instead, you hold the NZ90 between your hands and type with your thumbs. The keys, while pretty small, are big enough that they don’t make your finger tips ache after a while.
While some prefer Graffiti, I’ve found that after a bit of practice I’m about 20% faster with this keyboard than I am with Graffiti.
On the Inside
Internally, the NZ90 is almost indistinguishable from the NX series. It runs Palm OS 5 on a 200 MHz Intel XScale processor. It has a very good response time. I never ran into anything that I thought had an unacceptable delay.
It has 16 MB of RAM; unfortunately, 5 MB of of this isn’t available to the user. This just doesn’t leave enough. I frequently ran into problems with inadequate memory. For example, the NetFront Web browser takes up over 2 MB of this scant memory, plus NetFront tends to crash a lot if the NZ90’s memory is almost full.
Sony has got to find a way to implement OS 5 in a way that lets the user access more RAM. It’s possible; the Palm Tungsten T has 15 MB available.
The NZ90 includes a slot that allows you to plug in the Sony WL100 wireless networking card. This lets you access the Internet through a Wi-Fi (802.11) access point.
Though this is actually a CompactFlash slot, you can’t use memory cards in it. This is because Sony wants you to use Memory Sticks for storage.
Once you are connected, you can surf the Web with NetFront 3.0, which would be the best handheld Web browser ever if it weren’t for one severe flaw.
Of course, Web surfing is only half the equation. Clie Mail handles the rest. This allows you to send and receive email from a variety of POP3 accounts. It also comes with a conduit that transfers email to and from your desktop email application.
One of the most difficult things about reading email on your handheld is attachments. The NZ90 handles this beautifully. Clie Mail lets you save them to a Memory Stick, then you can look at them with PiscelViewer.
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.
This is the absolute best tool I’ve ever seen of this type. However, I want to emphasize that this is a viewer. You can’t edit the files. Documents To Go, the app Sony included on previous handhelds for editing Microsoft Office documents, doesn’t come with this one.
I’m sorry to say that the NZ90’s battery life just doesn’t cut the mustard, especially if I use the wireless networking card. High-end Sony models have a reputation for having short battery lives but the NZ90 is the shortest of the lot.
I don’t have exact figures so I’ll tell you about a typical day for me. I get up in the morning and pull the NZ90 out of its cradle. I then read my email and check some web sites while I drink my coffee. This typically takes 15 or 20 minutes. I then sit down at my computer and get to work. I occasionally use the NZ90 to look up a phone number or make a note of something I want to remember later. With this usage pattern, I frequently get a low battery warning before the end of the day.
This obviously doesn’t come as a surprise to the designers because they included a removable battery, which allows you to pop in a fresh one. These will set you back $80, though. If you are going to be heavily using a NZ90 on the go, I think a better solution would be a recharger that plugs into the cigarette lighter of your car. You can use one designed for any Sony T series handheld.
One thing you have to be careful about with the NZ90 is its special features shut down as battery power gets low. For example, below 35% you can’t use the flash and below 20% Bluetooth networking stops.
Of course, using the flash drains the battery, but not as much as I thought. With a full battery, I was able to take 10 pictures without a problem. The battery wasn’t even halfway drained at this point.
One of the shining stars of the NZ90 is its cradle. As I mentioned earlier, the HotSync port has been moved up to below the camera, which required Sony to do cradle redesign, too. You can see from the picture at left that the contacts for the port are now at the top of the cradle. You open a small door below the camera then slip the NZ90 into the cradle,
Its best feature is it folds flat so you can easily carry it with you on trips. It also includes the video-out port I mentioned earlier. The cradle even allows you to insert the handheld without having to remove the Wireless Networking Card, even though it is at the bottom of the NZ90.
Sadly, I’m much less happy with the stylus. Actually, I’m OK with the stylus itself, I just don’t like the new stylus slot. It’s next to the screen and only the tip of the stylus actually goes into a slot. There is a small catch at the top that holds it in place. After two weeks of daily use, I still frequently have problems putting the stylus away.
The NZ90 offers the convenience of a good digital camera and a handheld combined into one. It’s smaller and easier to use than two separate, equivalent devices. However, the combination is larger than most people are going to be willing to carry around unless they frequently need both parts.
Its $800 price is a bit of a shock but this is about what a Tungsten T or a NX60 plus a 2 megapixel camera would cost.
I admire Sony for going out on a limb with this device. They had to know how people would react to a handheld of this size but they were committed to combining a really useful camera and handheld into one. It’s unfortunate that the device couldn’t be smaller.
Maybe by the time future versions are being developed, technology will have progressed to the point that Sony can offer this same functionality is a smaller package. And if better batteries are available, too, Sony will really have something.