PalmOne LifeDrive Review

by Brighthand Staff Reads (211,657)

It’s no secret that PalmOne has been readying a new model, and that leaks have been coming like rain in Seattle. But now, the hat is off, the non-disclosure agreement has lifted and we can present you with an in-depth review of PalmOne’s newest flagship handheld, the palmOne LifeDrive Mobile Manager.

Design and Construction

 

Left, PalmOne LifeDrive. Right, Dell Axim X50v.

The outer casing of the device is partly a flat aluminum, mixed in with areas made of plastic. Though the device itself is rectangular, the back side is curved enough to make holding it more comfortable than would be immediately apparent. Its design is very contrary to the smooth, rounded look of recent PalmOne devices, taking a harder and more squared off styling.

The application buttons are broad, flat, and utterly rectangular. They take up most of the bottom front of the device, curving around the directional pad in the center. Their size makes them easy to press despite being pressed up against each other and the directional pad. The only catch about the front buttons is that you can sometimes trigger one of them if you try to tap an object on the system bar with a bare finger, particularly with the thumb. It seems impossible to do, but it can happen, because there’s no border between the screen and the top of the buttons. Or perhaps I just have large fingertips.

The directional pad is well built, and has a good response in all directions. Unlike the impression of it given in some pre-release images, the depression in the center isn’t all that deep, just a gentle curve to tell your fingers where they are on the pad.

PalmOne has, miraculously, finally listened to their users and installed a status LED in the Lifedrive. Hallelujah. The LED, sitting dead center along the top front of the device, serves several functions: it flashes green for WiFi activity, amber for hard drive access, solid amber for charging, and solid green for a full battery charge. It will also flash for alarms if the device is set to silent mode.

Looking down from the top, we see the stylus, SDIO slot, and power switch. Also present is the infrared port, lurking in the unmarked space over to the left of the power switch.

The stylus is a bit unusual. Unlike a typical stylus, where you would pull it out of the silo, the LD stylus requires you to press down on it first. This triggers a spring-mechanism in the stylus, popping up the end to allow for removal. Yes, it’s the return of the spring-loaded clickable stylus. While it has the moderate benefit of being snazzy looking, I’m not sure I like wondering whether my stylus will wear out with extended use. Otherwise, the stylus is a well-built stainless steel barrel, and has a catch residing in the silo to keep it snapped in place when not in use.

Curiously, the SDIO slot on the Lifedrive looks far wider than is normal. An SD card fits in perfectly, but it still seems abnormally long. I believe that it’s an optical effect caused by the two small indented bars on either end of the slot, which would seem at first glance to be continuations of the slot.

The power slider is fairly straightforward. Slid towards the center of the device, it powers the Lifedrive on and off. Slid outward, it snaps and holds into the ‘locked’ position. Unlike the Sony version of a three-way power switch, the ‘locked’ position doesn’t put the Lifedrive into a screen-off hold mode. Instead, it functions more like the Axim X50′s hold switch, stopping all input from the Touchscreen and buttons. The Lifedrive will then carry on as it was, cheerfully oblivious to any tappings or clickings. You do have to be careful sliding the switch out of the locked position, to avoid powering off the unit.

Pray tell, PalmOne, what was wrong with the traditional power button? It just seems that of late, not a single PalmOne model has had a nice, classic power button along the lines of the m500 series. First it was top-mounted micro-mush buttons, now three-way sliders. I just have to ask: what’s wrong with something that’s comfortable to press and makes a pleasant clicking sound?

The Lifedrive’s headphone jack has been moved to the bottom, across the docking connector from the reset button. Normally this would present a problem if you were to put the LD in a cradle but still wanted access to the headphone jack. However, the PalmOne cradle that’s compatible with the Lifedrive has an audio-out jack built right into the base. The docking connector is the new PalmOne ‘Athena’ multiconnector, the same as on all their other recent models.

On the left side are two additional buttons. The upper button is for the voice recording feature, placed right below the tiny microphone holes. Midway down the case, the second button now performs the portrait/landscape screen rotation, whose control was removed from the system bar and replaced by WiFi. I found the side buttons to be rather mushy and not suited to comfortable use. They tend to melt into the case when you press on them, and you have to exert a considerable measure of force to activate them. The orientation button doesn’t matter as much, because it’s not a function that would see such regular use, but the voice recorder button would matter much more.

One thing that you won’t find on the unit is a vibrating alarm, because there isn’t one. Presumably, even if PalmOne wanted to include the feature, the safety of the microdrive was incompatible with a vibrating alarm.

For some reason, in using the LD, I ended up with something of a deja vu sensation. Upon reflection, I eventually realized what the Lifedrive reminded me of. It’s similar in size to the Sony NX80, and the light metal casing and styling enhance the resemblence. It even has a similar type of 3-way power switch, and a collapsible stylus, similar to the stylus on the Sony. There’s actually been some speculation online that the Lifedrive is really a co-opted Sony design, but I tend to doubt this. The button and directional design doesn’t seem remotely Sony, and I would think that the amount of retooling a Sony design would have to go through to become the Lifedrive would be impractical. More than likely, it’s simply the surface similarity, causing that deja vu reaction.

Overall, the Lifedrive’s design and construction is not bad. I’ve seen better and more inspired designs, but the basic concept of the Lifedrive forces it into something of a cubioid shape. The casing feels good, and despite a few questionable points it’s well built.

 

Hardware

 

Processor:  412 MHz Intel XScale PXA270 with WMMX
Operating System: Palm OS Garnet 5.4.0.3.23
Display: 3.77″ 320 x 480 pixel transmissive/reflective 65k LCD
Memory & Storage: 65 MB “Application memory” (65.2 MB usable); 4 GB Hitachi micro hard drive (3809 MB usable)
Size & Weight: 4.76″ long x 2.91″ wide x 0.79″ thick, 6.8 ounces
Expansion:

Single SDIO slot

Docking: PalmOne ‘Athena’ multi-connector; USB cable; optional cradle
Communication:

Integrated 802.11b WiFi wireless networking; Bluetooth 1.1

Audio: Internal microphone; mono speaker; 3.5mm stereo headphone jack
Battery: 3.7 volt, 1660 milliamp-hour non-replacable Lithium Ion battery
Input: 5 remappable application buttons; 5-way navigator; touchscreen

 

Processor

The Lifedrive runs on the same 416 MHz Intel XScale processor that drove its predecessor, the Tungsten T5. In turn, the T5′s predecessor, the Tungsten T3, was driven by a 400 MHz processor. While 416 MHz is plenty for almost all Palm OS functions, I must confess that there are a limited number of ways to say “This device’s processor is the same as the last.” And I’m rapidly running out.

One of the biggest adaptations to the Lifedrive is that it’s slower than other Palm OS models. The snappy interface, long the hallmark of the Palm platform, has bowed to the necessities of having a built-in hard drive.

Sometimes an application will come up quickly, sometimes it will take several seconds to load. The same goes for the application launcher. Documents To Go dragged a bit while loading a PalmOne press release included on the internal drive. The delays were longest when an application was searching for a file or files: 4 GB is a lot of space to search for a small machine, and it could sometimes take upwards of ten or twenty seconds to search the entire drive. Likewise, powering down is no longer an instantaneous operation. The period from the time that you hit the switch to the machine actually shutting off is usually 3-4 seconds. It still does instant-on, though.

I wasn’t excessively bothered by the speed of the unit. Working with PocketPCs, I’ve grown accustomed to everything from the droolingly slow HP iPaq rz1715 to the instant responses of the Dell Axim X30 and HP iPaq hx2750. The few seconds of lag periodically found in the launcher or various applications doesn’t seem unreasonable for a unit that has a hard drive to spin up and down. I would prefer, certainly, the faster response time of solid-state memory, but it didn’t drive me crazy. The only time when the Lifedrive’s performance became seriously annoying was while playing music, which I’ll discuss later on.

That said, don’t expect instant results. Sometimes, even bringing the status window from the system bar can take 3 to 4 seconds. If the slightly reduced speed of PalmOne’s recent models using flash RAM doesn’t work for you, the Lifedrive would probably drive you to apoplexy.

On the bright side, some applications take to the microdrive like a duck to water. I loaded Tomeraider 3 and the 518 MB text-only database of the Wikipedia, the world’s largest free encyclopedia with some 570,000 articles. Even from a standing start, with the microdrive not running, it only took a few seconds to bring up a new article, and almost no time after that. I’m sure part of this speed is the application being smart about database access, but that doesn’t change the fact that it works well on the Lifedrive.

Despite the Lifedrive’s relatively slow processor speed, video playback worked rather well. For a test, I deposited a 42 minute, 350 MB DivX video on internal drive, and played it back using The Core Pocket Media Player. Fast motion scenes were choppy if they displayed at all, but the majority of the video played with relative fluidity.

 

Operating System

The Lifedrive runs on Palm OS 5.4, the Methuselah of mobile operating systems, intended to be used for six months three years ago, and never replaced. PalmOne’s steadfast refusal to adopt the latest version of Palm OS–which is now in the middle of its 17th month in the Vaporware Hall of Shame–has been a major sticking point with high-end users, particularly after the lackluster Tungsten T5. However, I think we have to be honest with ourselves. Palm OS 6, a.k.a. Cobalt, isn’t going to make it out of vaporland soon, if ever. As such, 5.4 is what we’ve got.

Just about the only significant change in the OS for the Lifedrive is the system bar, which has changed from a high-contrast blue color scheme to a low-contrast gray, and replaced the landscape button on the bar with a WiFi icon. The new color scheme suffers somewhat in comparison to the old. Besides lacking the colorful visual dash of the blue, the new bar isn’t as easy to read under a variety of conditions–such as direct sunlight–as the old bar was.

Though the OS changes are fairly minor, they are apparently enough to render useless the Grafitti 1 hacks developed for the Tungsten T5 and other models running OS 5.4. Just trying to restore classic Grafitti put my unit into a soft-reset loop that required a complete wipe to fix. So much for that time I spent filling the hard drive.

Noticibly lacking in the pre-loaded and bundled software, on what is supposed to be a model with a multimedia bent, is a serious video player. The standard Media app comes with a few sample videos, but compared to real video players such as The Core, or even Kinoma, it’s very lacking. I think this is an important oversight–if someone just wants to play music, they can buy an iPod with ten times the capacity for the same amount of money. Where the Lifedrive distinguishes itself is in the capability for video, for massive data storage, for reference, and other advanced applications an iPod can’t handle. If I were PalmOne, I would have considered packaging the most recent version of the Wikipedia on the CD, along with The Core Pocket Media Player.

 

Display

The 320 x 480 pixel transmissive/reflective hybrid LCD used in the Lifedrive is a fairly typical high-end display for a Palm OS unit. Its transmissive/reflective properties mean that it’s viewable indoors as well as in direct sun. As is typical for recent PalmOne models, there’s no way to turn off the backlight, which would save a considerable amount of battery power when in direct sun. Color depth and vividness is good, but not perfect.

Left, PalmOne LifeDrive. Right, Dell Axim X50v.

Left, PalmOne LifeDrive. Right, Dell Axim X50v.

 

Memory & Storage

Built by Hitachi, the microdrive that sits at the core of PalmOne’s LifeDrive is based on a one-inch magnetic platter, boasts a theoretical maxmum burst transfer speed of 7.2 MBytes per second, and spins at 3600 RPM. Manufacturer rated average seek time is 8.33 milliseconds. It runs nearly silent, producing only the barest of audible whirring and ticking noises when active.

In the place where most devices would feature RAM, the Lifedrive offers an area labeled “program memory.” While I’ve been unable to get an answer out of PalmOne’s PR reps, I’m virtually certain that the “program memory” is actually a partition on the hard drive, rather than being solid-state flash memory, as on previous models. This means that whenever you load an application, you’re activating the hard drive. Even if the application is on an SD card, the hard drive spins up, though I’m not sure why–perhaps because PalmOS is hardwired to copy an application to program memory, which was originally RAM, before running it.

Combining a hard drive into a handheld isn’t exactly a new idea. The Sharp Zaurus SL-C3000, released late last year, had a built-in 4 GB microdrive, and PocketPCs have had access to CompactFlash microdrives for years. The Lifedrive, however, is the first PalmOS based model designed with a hard drive, as well as being the first mainstream model in the U.S. to come with a microdrive built in.

Unfortunately, PalmOne has chosen to keep the same implementation of Drive Mode as is used in the T5. This means that while the Lifedrive is attached to a desktop as a removable drive, you can’t do anything else with it. I would much rather have seen an option to leave Drive Mode running in the background, so that you can do other things while you’re moving files, or could even leave it in drive mode all the time. This wasn’t a huge problem on the Tungsten T5–filling the T5′s 225 MB of memory couldn’t take more than a handful of minutes. With 3,800 MB to fill on the Lifedrive, it becomes an annoyance.

If you don’t think this is a problem, imagine being in the middle of a 20 minute file transfer and suddenly needing to look up a phone number or appointment.

To test the speed of the microdrive, I grabbed a 1.4 GB lump of files off my desktop’s primary hard drive, a 160 GB Hitachi SATA model, and moved them to and from the Lifedrive while it was in drive mode.

 Read speed

Write speed

2067 KB/second

1407 KB/second

As the size of the transfer increases, the KB per second speed increases as well. That’s because there’s a certain amount of minimum amount of time for the system to spin up the drive, start writing data, and spin down the drive. As the length of the transfer increases, the overhead time becomes less relevant. So, though it might take 5 seconds, start to finish, to copy a 5 KB file, it might take only 10 seconds to copy a 1000 KB file.

With the speed information we have, we can conclude that to fill the entire 3.72 GB available area of the microdrive would take roughly 46 minutes. Not exactly speedy, but presumably most people would load the LD with their files and then leave them there.

Using the microdrive for music isn’t quite flawless. Because of the way the system treats the drive, there’s a several second delay for buffering from the time you choose a song, or hit skip, until it starts playing. This this can result in the annoying sensation that the player isn’t responding to your input. This isn’t the only problem, though. When playing music, the unit seems to suffer from vastly degraded performance. Doing anything, even pulling up the status screen from the system bar, seems to take several times as long as normal, and causes stuttering in the music.

I can’t be sure, but I believe that the LD is using whatever real RAM is in the device as the buffer for music off the microdrive. This would suck up most of the device’s resources in one task, making even the ‘background’ multitasking allowed in Palm OS 5.4 nearly useless. This doesn’t mean anything if you don’t intend to use the unit for other things while playing music, but would definitely be a problem otherwise.

Microdrives have a considerable number of safety features, such as automatic cutoffs to prevent overheating, and freefall sensors that park the disk heads if the device is dropped. Still, even with as many safety features as you can pack into a matchbox sized hard drive, microdrives are still inherently far more fragile than solid state memory. A certain percentage of them will die, either from defect or incidental damage. This is more or less to be expected, since you can’t nail them to a tree and have them still work, the way you can with flash cards. (No, that’s not an exaggeration–a digital phototograhy site once took five different flash memory cards and nailed them to a tree. Afterward, they were able to recover pictures from all but one of the cards.) Obviously, you’d like for the microdrives not to be inside a $500 piece of hardware when they do die, but that’s unavoidable. Hopefully, PalmOne will improve their support and warranty coverage to provide for this problem, at least better than some of their past issues.

Unfortunately, there’s one other hitch to the whole microdrive deal. Any form of hard-reset will erase the entire contents of the hard drive, without exception. When you issue the command for a hard reset, you’re given two options: a fast erase that takes 5 minutes, and a “secure erase” that takes 30 minutes. Given that the Lifedrive has government-use security certification, a secure erase presumably entails zeroing out all the data on the drive so that it can’t be restored or recovered. Either way, you can’t simply reset the device and expect to have your files waiting when it boots. And the days of being able to restore from a hard reset with a single HotSync are over. The very nature of the LD’s Storage capacity renders moot any idea of backing up to an SD card, which could hold at most a quarter to a half of the drive’s capacity.

And as a last note to PalmOne: Whoever chose that quasi-music that you pre-load onto the Lifedrive needs to be beaten about the head with a sturdy implement.

 

Size & Weight

The Lifedrive is noticibly larger and heavier than most PalmOne models, particularly its predecessor the Tungsten T5. The majority of this added bulk is due to the addition of the microdrive, which is about the size of a matchbox, and the 50% larger battery to power it. The dimension that shows the most increase is thickness. A large battery and microdrive don’t significantly increase the device’s footprint, but thickness does have to increase in order to accomodate them. While not twice as thick as its predecessor, as some rumors had reported, the LD is definitely way over the edge for shirt-pocket comfort. A pants or jacket pocket would be more in line with the Lifedrive’s thickness.

 

Expansion

The Lifedrive features the PalmOne standard single SD card slot. The slot features support for SDIO, but this seems slightly irrelevant, since built-in WiFi makes the one major SDIO peripheral–the WiFi card–useless.

Contrary to some peoples’ hopes, the internal hard drive on the LD can’t be removed and replaced with a solid-state memory card. This is primarily because the drive inside is an OEM model, meaning that its interface is not the same as a standard CompactFlash card.

 

Docking

Once again, PalmOne has failed to provide a cradle with their extremely expensive high end unit. I’m even more disappointed with this now than I was with the T5. When PalmOne discontinued use of the ‘Universal’ connector, a large part of their rationale was that the new connector would allow for audio and video out features on future units. The standard cradle even includes an audio out jack. The Lifedrive cries out for an audio-output cradle, or better yet an audio/video out cradle, to dock the LD to a stereo or home entertainment system. With that option, and the storage of the LD, it would be a natural combination.

What the Lifedrive does come with is a basic USB cable and AC adapter. As with other models sporting the new Athena connector, you can plug the AC adapter in either via the USB cable, or seperately–though to have both plugged in at once, the AC adapter must go through the USB cable. The USB cable has a HotSync button on it, and is the only way of connecting the Lifedrive to a desktop or laptop for Drive Mode. As with the T5, this forces the user to choose between compromising their mobility by carrying the cable, forgoing the use of Drive Mode, or buying cables or cradles for any spot where they might want to use Drive Mode. And, as with the T5, I predict booming sales of retractable USB sync cables.

 

Communication

The Lifedrive is only PalmOne’s second handheld ever to include the popular WiFi wireless networking standard, and the first to include both WiFi and Bluetooth. I must say, it’s about time–for too long, PalmOne has been not just been trailing the pack, but actually being lapped by them, on the subject of WiFi and dual wireless. Hopefully, the Lifedrive signals a wakeup on PalmOne’s part, and we’ll begin to see WiFi appearing on more high-end and mid-range models.

The Lifedrive has a handy little feature in its WiFi implementation: the system will automatically turn WiFi on when network access is required, and leave it on until it reaches a specified period of inactivity: 3, 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Then it shuts down until its needed again. The only user intervention required is to activate WiFi for the first time, and to setup the various networks. You can also choose to disable the automatic WiFi, if you prefer.

Point two in favor of the WiFi implementation: IP addresses, routers, DNS, and other networking details are configured on the basis of what network you’re connecting to. In other words, you can have different settings for each network. I can specify a static IP, router, and DNS for my home network, and use dynamically assigned settings for the free hotspot down in town without reconfiguring. Now this is how you do a WiFi implementation. Are you listening, Windows?

WiFi range is acceptable, though I could be happier with it. Put side by side with my Axim X50v, the Lifedrive holds a slightly weaker signal than the Axim, which in turn holds a slightly weaker signal than I would like. Still, in my admittedly WiFi-saturated house, the Lifedrive held a good signal even in the weaker spots.

For web browsing, PalmOne bundles Blazer 4.1, which possibly got its name from the fact that it looks like it crawled out of Palm OS 4.1. And I thought that Pocket Internet Explorer was pitiful. Blazer, at any rate, serves as a functional standard web browser, despite the cringing and wishing for Opera that it inspires.

Browsing over WiFi was as fast as can reasonably be expected, given the latency issues on the connection being used, and the initial network connection was fast as well. Several times, I was forced to perform a soft reset before I could use WiFi. I didn’t mind, but some people find this to be intolerably annoying.

Bluetooth is handled by more or less the same implementation as previous Palms, presumably on the principle that if it works, it doesn’t need to be changed. And changed it has not been. The setup wizard contains all the familiar choices for setting up a connection to a phone for dialing or internet, a connection to a PC for HotSync or file transfer, or a LAN for network access.

 

Audio

The quality of the internal speaker is disappointing. The sound is tinny and filled with static. Volume is good, however, so it’s at least useful for alarms. Conversely, headphone quality is good, and the volume should be more than enough for anyone.

 

Battery

To support its power hungry microdrive and WiFi radio, the Lifedrive packs in a 1660 milliamp-hour battery. While relatively large compared to the 1300 mAh battery in the T5, I would have liked to see an even larger capacity given the extremely draining nature of a spinning hard disk. This is doubly important for non-multimedia use.

Like an iPod, the Lifedrive buffers large chunks of multimedia files it’s playing into solid-state memory, thus running the drive less often and saving battery life. However, frequent random access–caused either by someone with a penchant for continually hitting the skip button on their playlist, or by accessing small files like Word documents, business files, and databases–will keep the drive spinning more often, and cause greater battery drain.

Test Definition Result
MP3 Player Test Playing music from the microdrive, screen set to automatic off, moderate skipping, no wireless. 4 hours, 20 minutes
Moderate Use Test Screen brightness set to maximum, some use of drive mode, some WiFi, some music. 3 hours, 37 minutes
WiFi Test

Screen brightness set to maximum, WiFi active, no deliberate use of microdrive.

2 hours, 50 minutes
Video Test Playing video from microdrive. No wireless was active. 1 hour, 44 minutes
Torture Test Nearly continuous use of the microdrive, along with maximum brightness, Bluetooth, and WiFi. 1 hour, 13 minutes

 The battery performance is not great under any of the tests, but with a microdrive it’s never going to be. You sacrifice a certain amount of battery life for the storage capacity you get. Personally, I would much rather see the Lifedrive with a removable battery to combat this kind of showing, but PalmOne obviously didn’t see a need.

 

Conclusion

The biggest feature of the Lifedrive, the 4 GB internal hard drive, is a mixed blessing. I love the huge storage capability, which offers a lot of different options. But the performance hit in both speed and battery life is disappointing. Still, if you want major storage, this is the only way to go on Palm OS.

The pricetag for the Lifedrive is also rather high for some of the features–you could literally buy a dual wireless PocketPC for half the price of a Lifedrive, and still have money left over for a 4 GB solid-state flash memory card. But the Lifedrive is a one of a kind model, for which you usually have to expect higher pricing. It’s also currently the only option for dual wireless on PalmOS, which commands a hefty premium. I’m not neccessarily saying I like that fact, and I would very much like to see a model with the dual-wireless and large battery capacity without the microdrive selling for $300. But in the interim, the Lifedrive packs in a lot, even if I wish it were cheaper.

Pros:

  • Dual wireless
  • Large Storage capacity
  • Large battery
  • Part metal casing
  • Convenient WiFi software

Cons:

  • Very expensive
  • Marginal battery life
  • Slower than other Palm models
  • Cradle not included
  • Comparatively large size

 

Bottom Line:

A unique high-end model with a lot of features, some trade-offs, and a big price tag.




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