Sony CLIE TH55 Review

by Reads (40,836)

This is a complete review of the new Sony Clie TH55 wireless handheld.

Review Outline

Design

The main design of the TH55 is a simple rectangular slab like affair, with the sides crammed with buttons, sliders, and bevels, in traditional Sony fashion. Rounded edges on the back, a terraced effect on the front. The overall fit is good in the hand. The case is mostly black with silver trim around the camera lens and the screen. It’s a nice combination, and creates an eye-pleasing contrast. The casing is entirely plastic, and has an odd texturing to it, not at all like the smooth plastic usual to handhelds. The closest equivalent texture I can think of is antique frosted glass. I feel rather ambivalent about the textured case. Holding it or putting it in my pocket produces a discomfiting scratchy sensation, like dry skin against dry paper. The attached flip-cover is a smooth, translucent plastic with a dark tint. You can see the screen through it, but it does cut down on the brightness. The flip cover should be removable, and it wouldn’t detract from the looks of the TH55 too much, but Sony has opted to use an unusual kind of screw with a Y-shaped indentation. If you can get or improvise the right tool, however, it should come off easily. (Failing anything else, the very tip of a Farberware steak knife works acceptably, if you’re careful not to cut yourself.) The cover smudges a bit, which can be annoying.

Left, Sony Clie TH55. Right, Dell Axim X3i.

Bottom front, where most handhelds have their directional controls, all you will find is the four basic application buttons and the microphone (dimple at left). By default, the buttons are all mapped to functions of the Clie Organizer, which I’ll discuss later.

How, oh how, do I describe the buttons? The word atrocity seems a little melodramatic. I’ll settle for appalling, because they are. They are tiny bars, mounted in an L-shaped space between the raised frame of the screen and the main body of the case. They have little tactile response–unless you see your action on the screen, it’s hit or miss as to whether you’ve actually pressed them. They are uncomfortable to use, difficult to find, impossible for games, and of little enough purpose for anything else.

Yes, I know the argument for the button design is that you can use the buttons while the flip-lid is down, but that doesn’t make it sane. For one thing, without a 5-way directional pad, your ability to look up any information without the stylus is is almost zero. You would have to have one hand running the front buttons, and another wrapped around the back to access the jog barrel and left-right buttons. And if you have two hands free, why don’t you simply open the lid?

The Tungsten T-series proved that you can have good buttons and ‘touchless’ access to information–it was one of the most popular features of the line. Sony simply doesn’t know what the hell they are doing with regards to buttons and navigation.

And once again, Sony has released a Clie without a 5-way directional pad. It isn’t that the TH55 couldn’t support it. Just move the hinge back a little, move the screen up, and you’ve got plenty of room for a good d-pad and a set of usable buttons. No, it isn’t that Sony can’t. It’s that Sony won’t. For unknowable, unseeable, unfathomable reasons, Sony holds on to several of their worst design decisions religiously. No directional pad. Bad buttons. Toothpick stylus. And the jog barrel. These are the articles of faith for the Clie priesthood. I feel certain that to become a Clie engineer, one must swear to shield the users from comfortable navigation and writing–no doubt under some classicist Masonic penalty should one suggest the heresy of usability and standardization.

Let them. In the long term, they’re only hurting themselves–well, also their users, who will end up with gnarled and twisted claws from too many years of funky buttons and tiny styluses. The longer Sony refuses to add basic features like a directional pad, the more users they will lose to Palm and to the Pocket PC manufacturers.

The left side of the TH55 is crammed chock full of buttons, sliders, and connectors. Top to bottom: headphone jack, camera button, camera lens-cap switch, Memory Stick door, power slider, voice recording slider.

The headphone jack is self-explanatory. The camera button automatically launches the camera application, and then is used to snap pictures. The camera slider toggles a tiny grey plastic shield over the camera lens, protecting it from contamination and damage when closed. Good move. Opening the lens cover also automatically triggers the camera application.

Unlike the open slot design common on Sony Clies, the TH55 has its Memory Stick expansion slot covered by a tiny plastic door, molded to fit into the case. Slide the door out and back to reveal the slot, and reseat it when you’re done. It makes sense, as most users won’t be swapping Memory Sticks every five minutes, and this melds into the casing better as well as preventing the card from being dislodged if the TH55 is dropped.

The power switch is a three-position slider. The uppermost of the three positions is the ‘hold’ position. When the slider is set here, the TH55’s screen turns off, but the machine keeps running. This is intended for applications like playing music, or checking email, that don’t have to be continuously monitored. Thus, you can turn off the screen to save battery power. The position in the center is effectively ‘neutral’–this is where the slider is left in ordinary usage, or when the TH55 is off. To toggle the Clie on or off, you slide the switch down to the third position, which is spring-loaded, then let it slide back to center. You can also toggle the screen’s backlight on and off by sliding the switch down and holding it there for several seconds.

The right side of the case, by contrast, is nearly bare. On the upper right corner of the case is the IR lens (at top) and stylus silo (at bottom). In this picture, you can also see the angle of the flip cover when open, which is about 120 degrees.

The TH55 stylus is exactly the same as that used on the Sony UX, TJ, and new NX series Clies. If you’ve ever used one, you already know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, then you’re lucky. The TH55 stylus is a tiny, thin nub which telescopes out into a longer, thinner nub. To compare the TH stylus to a toothpick would not be hyperbole–it is a legitimate comparison. Take a look. The following are real photographs of the TH55 stylus next to an actual toothpick.

See my point? Do not assume that you can use the stock stylus comfortably. Unless your hands are triple jointed and never cramp, it probably isn’t going to happen. So you should budget cash and carrying space for a proper stylus replacement.

On the back of the case, top center, are the directional controls; a barrel control that serves as up and down, and to either side buttons which function as left and right. When I first saw the barrel controller in the specs, I was highly dubious that it would be at all workable. And while it isn’t as bad as I expected it to be, it’s still a far cry from being particularly comfortable. I realize that the intent was to make the scroll function independent of which hand was used, but I never had any problem with using a traditional jog dial with either hand.

Also mounted on the back of the case, near the directional buttons, is the traditional Sony ‘back’ button. Down and to the right of that is the camera lens, surrounded by a silver bezel bearing focal length information; specifically, “f = 3.6 mm 1:2.8”. And once more down and to the right are the tiny holes of the speaker.

You may have noticed that I haven’t pointed out the location of the reset button. That’s because on the TH55, the reset button is actually on the bottom, next to the docking connector. It’s an odd placement to be sure, made odder by the diagonal angle at which the button is mounted. It takes a half-dozen resets or so to get used to the positioning, and to press the stylus point up and in on the right angle, rather than having to lever it around in the hole in an attempt to hit the button.

Processor: Sony HandHeld Engine, scaling between 8 and 123 MHz
Operating System: Palm OS 5.2.1.3
Display: 320 x 480 transmissive/reflective LCD
Memory: 32 MB RAM (30.4 MB accessible), 32 MB ROM (0.0 MB accessible)
Size & Weight: 4.76 inches long by 2.88 wide by 0.52 thick (without cover) or approx. 0.6 inches thick (with cover)
Expansion: One slot for Memory Stick/Memory Stick Pro
Docking: Standard Clie T-series connector, USB sync cable
Communication:    Integrated 802.11b WiFi wireless networking
Audio: One monaural speaker; one headphone jack; one built in microphone
Battery: 3.7 volt, unknown capacity Lithium-Ion internal rechargable battery
Input: 4 remappable application buttons; touchscreen
Software: Clie Organizer, Documents To Go
Other: 310 K pixel integrated camera

next page >> (Processor, Operating System, Display, Memory, Size & Weight, Expansion, Docking, Communication, Audio, Battery, Input, Software, Camera, Conclusion)

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