Since Sony pioneered the 320-by-480 pixel screen almost two years ago, people have been asking the company to put one in a handheld with a tablet shape. Sony took its sweet time doing this but the wait is finally over… and it might even have been worth it.
Of course, the TH55 has more to offer than just a big screen. It also has built-in Wi-Fi, a camera, and a good battery life.
One of the best features of this model is the 320-by-480 pixel (HVGA) display. This gives it double the screen resolution of all but one Pocket PC and about 25% more than a lot of other Palms. Trust me, when it comes to screen resolution, more is always better.
Physically, the display is 3.8 inches across, the same size as the one in Sony’s NX series. Thankfully, it isn’t the reduced-size screen used in the UX models.
However, there is one significant area where the TH55’s screen falls short. It doesn’t offer complete landscape support, like palmOne’s Tungsten T3 does. A few applications on the TH55 can do landscape, but most only have portrait. Sadly, among the ones that aren’t landscape is the TH55’s web browser, an application that cries out for as wide a screen as possible.
The backlight on the TH55 isn’t as bright as on some previous Sony models. I don’t think this is bad, as on most models I keep the backlight at half power. On the TH55, I kept it maxed out most of the time, where it looks fine.
The display is transflective. This is a type that looks very good indoors but is still usable outdoors.
Sony’s earlier models with half VGA screens have used a clamshell shape and been far from small. They have packed in a lot of features, like mini keyboards, but they were fairly hefty as handhelds go these days.
The TH55 is a different story. At 4.9 inches tall, 3.0 inches wide, and .6 inches thick (121 mm by 73 mm by 16 mm), it is a fairly average-sized handheld. You can find smaller ones, like HP’s iPAQ h1945, but you won’t find anything smaller that has all the features the TH55 does. It doesn’t have a built-in keyboard, but it more than makes up for that in other areas.
Personal Information Management
More and more handheld makers are starting to realize that their products are mostly used for personal information management (PIM). This is a fancy way to say that they keep track of their owner’s address book and calendar.
The default PIM apps for the Palm OS do a pretty good job of handling this, but offering better versions is a good way to differentiate your handheld from your competitor’s.
This is why Sony has created a whole suite of applications it calls the Clie Organizer. I believe the concept behind this is to make this electronic organizer work more like a paper one.
The Date Book is probably the best example of this. It still allows you to create events and set alarms and all the other things you are used to in a calendar application. But, in addition, you can leave handwritten notes directly on each day. You can also paste pictures in.
But Clie Organizer doesn’t limit itself to what paper can do. You can make yourself a voice memo and paste a link to that on the calendar. Almost any kind of multimedia can be used.
By the way, all these files don’t have to be stored in RAM. They can be on a Memory Stick, too.
The TH55 has a nifty feature that makes transferring data between applications a snap. Say someone sends you an email that says “I’d like to meet with you on February 28 at 2:00 PM.” You can highlight that bit of text and push the Clie Organizer Free Notes button on the front of the TH55. A collection of options shows up, one of which is “New Date Book data”. Choosing this will create a new event that starts at 2:00 pm on February 28. Other options allow you to create a new email with some highlighted text already in it or open a web address.
The Clie Organizer seeks to do it all. It even has an application launcher built in.
If you don’t like the Clie Organizer, all the standard versions of the PIM applications are still there.
One of the most significant features of this model is its built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking. Wi-Fi is great when you are in range of an access point. You can get one of these for your home for a low price and there might also be one at your office. In addition, numerous coffee shops and bookstores have them. Wi-Fi offers a data transfer speed comparable to what you are used to on your PC, especially as you will mostly be using it to surf the Web.
It turns out there is a noticeable difference between the Wi-Fi range of handhelds with external antennas and ones without them. The TH55 doesn’t have one, and so its range is somewhat limited. I can access my router from anywhere in the house, but it peters out about half way across my yard. This is comparable with the iPAQ h4355, which also doesn’t have an external antenna, but is about 30 feet less than a Dell Axim X3i, which does.
Sony has put a lot of effort into making setting up a Wi-Fi connection as easy as possible. The TH55 has a Wi-Fi “sniffer” built into it, which looks for access points in its range and displays them for you on a list. You can then either pick the access point you want to connect to or just choose “Auto Connect” which will take care of this for you.
NetFront 3.1 I’ll give Sony credit, it has consistently offered the best Mobile Web browsers available for its handhelds. High-end Clie models have included NetFront for a while, but the TH55 has the latest version, which was recently released.
This is a highly capable browser that handles a long list of Internet standards and is comparable to a desktop browser. For example, I wanted to test the TH55’s capabilities, so I went to PalmGear and downloaded a game. It was saved as a ZIP file on my Memory Stick, so I went in with Clie Files and uncompressed and installed it. Hardly a minute after I decided to go find a game I was playing one.
Of course, NetFront 3.1 also has some features specially designed for handhelds. For example, it allows you to choose between viewing web pages at their full width or reformatting them to fit on the TH55’s screen. There are actually several options for doing this. One of my favorites makes every page into one long column. A lot of sites break their pages up into multiple columns. This is fine on a wide desktop or laptop screen, but means you sometimes have to keep scrolling back and forth to read articles. NetFront can display these pages so that all of the first column is displayed, then all of the second, then all of the third, and so on. Not ideal, but it eliminates the need to scroll left and right.
Still, this wouldn’t be as necessary if the TH55 used PalmSource’s standard API for landscape support, but it doesn’t.
Clie Mail The email app that comes with this handheld is best described as “adequate”. It allows you to check several POP3 accounts. It also supports filters and signatures. You can attach a picture you’ve just taken with the TH55’s digital camera to an email, then send it off immediately.
There is one fly in the ointment, though; you can’t be downloading your email in the background while you surf.
Another irritating limitation in Clie Mail is its lack of support for HTML messages. It also doesn’t support IMAP. Basically, it is good for light duty, but if you are going to be using it every day, I’d suggest you invest in one of the good third-party email 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. If you want to do this, you’ll have to get a third-party application.
Note: I learned just before this review was published that Sony is offering a downloaded version of Documents to Go Professional 6.0 to everyone who registers their TH55. I wasn’t able to test this application on this Clie, but I’ve used it in the past and found it to be a very capable word processor and spreadsheet application.
Bluetooth The version of the TH55 that will be released in Europe has Bluetooth, but the U.S. version doesn’t. I strongly disagree with this decision. Wi-Fi is great for use around the home or office, but once you are more than 300 feet from an access point, the party is over. That’s where Bluetooth steps in. In partnership with a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone, you can access the Internet from almost anywhere, though not as fast as with Wi-Fi. It’s great that the Europeans get to do this, but Bluetooth is catching on rapidly in the U.S. and Sony is missing the boat. You can use infrared to communicate with some mobile phones, but it isn’t anywhere near as convenient.
The camera in the TH55 is a 0.3-megapixel type, which means it can take pictures at a maximum resolution of 640 by 480 pixels. This is adequate for images you are going to put on web sites or email your friends, but not if you intend to print them out.
And there’s no flash, so forget taking pictures in anything but fairly bright light. Still, it’s nice to have a camera with you all the time.
If you haven’t used a handheld with a built-in camera before, the screen acts as the viewfinder. There is a button on the TH55’s left side that acts as the shutter. And you can view your images as soon as you take them.
Don’t worry about scratching the camera lens. A switch on the left side opens and closes a lens cover. Conveniently, this also launches and closes the camera application.
Surprisingly, the TH55 doesn’t come with Sony’s Photo Editor, which lets you make some simple changes to your pictures.
I’ve often complained bitterly about the poor battery life of many recent handhelds, especially wireless models. Sony has answered my prayers and the TH55 is actually a wireless-enabled handheld with a good battery life.
This model averages about eight hours of typical use on a single charge. This is far better than most handhelds I’ve tested recently, like the Tungsten T3 and Sony’s own Clie UX50. It even beat the iPAQ 4355, whose battery life I was impressed by.
When I say “typical use” I mean I used it as my primary handheld for several days. I kept track of my schedule, did a good bit of Web surfing, checked my email, read an ebook, that sort of thing. This wasn’t some kind of torture test.
Processor While this battery life is great, Sony had to make some compromises to get it. This includes using its Handheld Engine as the TH55’s processor. The speed of this processor varies between 123 MHz and just 8 MHz, depending on which application is running. Software that isn’t very demanding, like the PIM apps, run at a low processor speed, saving power.
While this is all well and good, the problem with the Handheld Engine is it tops out at 123 MHz. This means demanding applications can be kind of sluggish. I played a game on both a TH55 and NX80V, and the 200 MHz processor on the NX series model was noticeably faster.
Memory The TH55 has 32 MB of RAM, all of which is available to the user.
This is another compromise to save power. While everyone would like 128 MB of RAM or more, memory chips draw power, even when the handheld is off. The TH55’s 32 MB is a good amount, though you’ll probably want a Memory Stick for additional storage.
Incidentally, don’t make the mistake of directly comparing the amounts of memory in Palm OS and Pocket PC models. The Palm OS handles memory in a more efficient manner, so a smaller amount of memory goes farther.
Buttons and Navigation Aids
Sony has been experimenting lately with the best location for a Jog Dial. On the TH55, it is located on the back, near the top, above the camera lens. There is also a Back button near the Jog Dial and Left and Right buttons on either side of it.
The decision to put the Jog Dial and its associated buttons on the back has proved controversial, but I think it was a good idea. Admittedly, it took me a few days to get used to having them there, but once I did this arrangement is entirely comfortable. It is also great for lefties, as the old arrangement was more difficult for them to use.
I really like the way the Left and Right buttons have been integrated into NetFront 3.1. As you can tell I’m not fond of having to scroll back on forth on a web page, but it is a bit more tolerable when it can be done with the buttons, rather than the stylus.
The standard four application buttons are located on the front, along the bottom edge.
The way all the buttons are set up on the TH55 is just fine for most people, but the arrangement is not at all what you want if you are a gamer. The buttons on the front are all too close together to be usable if you are playing a fast game. In addition, the Jog Dial on the back is in the wrong place if you are going to use it and two of the front buttons to simulate a D-pad, as plenty of games do.
The left side of the TH55 is almost crowded with buttons. From top to bottom is the Picture Capture Button, a slider that opens and closes the lens cap on the TH55’s camera. Below that is the cover for the Memory Stick slot, then the Power switch. Finally, near the bottom, there’s the voice recorder button.
As it is a Sony product, of course the TH55 has a Memory Stick slot, which is located on the left side. This has a door that closes completely over the card when it is inserted, preventing it from being accidentally ejected. This is a nice touch, but is going to cause problems for people who hope to use non-memory cards in this slot, as these are longer than typical Memory Sticks.
The TH55 can take any form of Memory Stick, including the Pro and Select ones.
This is the only card slot the TH55 has.
Video In addition to its ARM-based processor, Sony Handheld Engine includes a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) and a graphics accelerator chip. This means that while typical applications can be a bit slow, the TH55 can play video at 30 fps at 320 by 240 pixels. Watching a movie on a 3.8-inch screen isn’t exactly home theater, but aside from that, video looks great on the TH55.
The TH55 comes with a Windows application for converting AVI, QuickTime, and MPEG files into files it can play. These are actually QuickTime files that have been shrunk down and given an .mqv extension.
If you are going to want to do this, invest in a big Memory Stick, though. At 320 by 240 pixels and 30 fps, you can only get 18 minutes of video on a 128 MB card. Of course, you can significantly reduce the amount of space needed by reducing the size or frame rate of the video. At minimal settings, one minute of video takes less than a megabyte.
Audio The TH55’s DSP is easily up to the job of playing MP3s. This handheld has an external speaker but I doubt many people are going to want to listen to music with it. Fortunately, there’s a standard-size headphone jack on the left side. The internal speaker, however, is perfectly up to the job of handling alarms.
Though the Palm OS isn’t fully multitasking, it is up to the job of playing songs in the background while you use other applications. Or, if you want to just listen to music, you can turn off the screen and extend the life of the battery.
For a long time, Sony handhelds did not handle audio the same way other Palm OS 5 devices did. Thankfully, it gave this up recently and the TH55 includes the Palm OS Sound API, so third-party audio applications work, giving TH55 access to Ogg files and variable bit rate MP3s.
Voice Recorder Like most of Sony’s other OS 5 devices, the TH55 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 The TH55 also includes a 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 web sites are written in it. However, this application isn’t integrated into the web browser so you can’t view Flash-based web sites.
Flip Cover On of my favorite features of this model is its flip cover. I think a flip cover should be standard on every handheld.
The TH55’s is a dark, translucent plastic. This means it protects the screen but you can see through it and discover what alarm just went off, without having to open the flip cover. However, the plastic does show fingerprints.
If you want to put the TH55 in a case, the flip cover comes off.
Stylus The standard Sony 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’m really not fond of this stylus; it’s like a coffee stirrer with a toothpick stuck in it.
Cables The TH55 doesn’t come with a cradle, but you can buy one separately. Instead, it depends on a power cable and a data cable. This isn’t ideal, but is the sort of compromise many companies are making to reduce the cost of their handhelds in this very competitive market.
It has Sony’s standard HotSync port, which means you can use it with many peripherals that attach to the handheld through this port.
At $400, the TH55 is $50 less than HP’s iPAQ h4155. It is a bit more expensive than Dell’s Axim X3i, but it offers features neither of those models do, like an HVGA screen and a camera.
It is the same price as palmOne’s Tungsten T3, which doesn’t offer Wi-Fi.
Two years ago, Sony led the pack in offering feature-laden handhelds at low prices. Last year, it seemed to concentrate on very high-end models, some costing well over $500. With the TH55, Sony is once again offering a model that has a good feature set at a good price.