A New Breed of PDA

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted July 27, 2005

If you need to take your files on the road or need to transfer them to other computers quickly and easily, then the LifeDrive, a new type of PDA from PalmOne, could be exactly what you need. In fact, if you travel with a laptop more for its storage capacity rather than its computing capability, you may be able to replace it with a LifeDrive.

The device includes a 4GB hard drive, built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless networking and, at 4.76x2.87x 0.74 inches and just 6.8 ounces, LifeDrive is a lot easier to carry than a laptop. It fits easily in a jacket pocket or purse.

It also does most of the light computing tasks you're probably using your laptop for now when traveling. LifeDrive lets you store and organize contacts, track expenses, send and receive e-mail and instant messages, browse the Web (over a Wi-Fi connection), make handwritten or spoken notes and keep yourself entertained with videos and music.

If you add a wireless keyboard — PalmOne has one, but others also work with it — you can even type large volumes of text in the DocumentsToGo version of Microsoft Word.

This is just part of what you can do with the pre-loaded applications. You'll find that most of the manyPalmOne applications you can download from sites such as Handango also work on the LifeDrive.

The $500 price tag may seem a bit high. Music players with 4GB hard drives cost far less — but then LifeDrive does a lot more than play MP3 tunes. Its one big drawback as a PDA: no phone capability.

Some people will reject LifeDrive because it has no telephony capability, but while I admire smartphones that work on cellular networks and also include many of the applications shipped with LifeDrive, I'm not sure it's essential to have one device that does everything.

If you carried a LifeDrive plus a tiny cell phone, they would take up little more pocket space than a single PDA-style smartphone — and probably offer more flexibility. If the phone had Bluetooth capability, you could even dial phone numbers on it from the LifeDrive Contacts list.

A Full Load
PalmOne claims that you can use the LifeDrive to carry all your files with you all the time, including music, photos and video. This may seem like an overstatement. When your desktop PC has a 250GB hard drive, 4GB doesn't sound like that much. But LifeDrive holds a surprising amount.

According to the company, LifeDrive can hold 300 songs, two hours of video, 1,000 photos "and more." We were skeptical until we started doing the math.

Three hundred three-minute MP3 songs each ripped at 128 kilobits per second (Kbps) takes up 900MB. A thousand photos taken on a three-megapixel camera use up another gigabyte of storage. A thousand Word documents at an average of 50KB each will take up a mere 50MB. Throw in 10 PowerPoint presentations at 5MB each, and you're up to 2GB. Can you fit two hours of video into the remaining 2GB? You probably can, though it wouldn't be very good quality.

The LifeDrive's expansion card slot takes both SD (Secure Digital) and MultiMedia Card (MMC) format memory cards for even more storage capacity. SD cards come in sizes up to 1GB and MMC in sizes up to 128MB.

Besides letting you add additional storage, it also means you can take an SD or MMC card from your digital camera, put it in the slot and use LifeDrive's Camera Companion software to view photos and videos, copy them to a computer over a Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or synch cable connection or copy pictures from the computer to the LifeDrive.

The screen is impressive, a bright, clear 320x480 pixel transflective TFT touchscreen capable of displaying more than 65,000 colors. It's superb for most PDA computing activities and better than average for viewing photos and videos. Not very many PDAs offer more screen real estate or colors.

A small button on the side lets you toggle between portrait and landscape mode in the blink of an eye. This is great for viewing photos and videos. Landscape is also probably the best orientation for word processing.


 PalmOne LifeDrive
Orient Yourself — The LifeDrive lets you switch between portrait and landscape views with the touch of a button.

Powered by the 416MHz Intel XScale chip, a fairly high-end handheld microprocessor, the LifeDrive runs the latest version of the Palm OS, 5.4. We found the device occasionally responded a bit slowly, and it's especially slow to reboot after a reset, which — with the Palm operating system — you have to do almost every time you add new software. But for the most part the processor was powerful enough to run the applications we ran.

As with all Palm PDAs, LifeDrive uses HotSynch software to automatically synchronize data between the PC and handheld. The program loads contacts, appointments, tasks and reminders from Microsoft Outlook on your PC into the PalmSource Calendar, Contacts and Tasks applets on the LifeDrive. You can configure HotSynch on the PC to determine which items you want synchronized.

Out of Synch
Our out-of-the-box experience, most of it related to the synchronization process, was not the best. When we installed the PC software and plugged in the USB 2 synch cable, our PC's Bluetooth wireless mouse and keyboard froze, requiring a reboot.

We tried uninstalling and reinstalling the LifeDrive software and plugging into different USB ports, but the best we could do was get the mouse and LifeDrive working at the same time, never the keyboard. When we called technical support, we were left on hold for over 25 minutes, and then the PalmOne phone system hung up on us.

Later we spoke to a PalmOne engineer who suggested experimenting with moving the Bluetooth dongle to a different USB port — which solved the problem. USB devices sometimes conflict because they contend for the trickle of power supplied over the USB interface.

The engineer told us that LifeDrive draws the maximum allowable power,. So if you have a number of USB devices plugged in to your PC, you may experience similar conflicts, though it appears they are fixable.

One of the LifeDrive's best features is its multiple connectivity options — a good thing since we ran into a few problems in that department. When the synch cable connection wouldn't work, we tried synching over a home office Wi-Fi network using the LifeDrive's built-in Wi-Fi radio. The radio worked fine for the most part — although it occasionally wouldn't connect to the network on the first try.

Once it connected, we browsed the Web and even download files from the host PC using WiFileLT, another application PalmOne includes with LifeDrive. The one thing we couldn't do was synch with the PC using Wi-Fi. This problem still remains unresolved.

We were also unable to connect to the host PC using the built-in Bluetooth radio — another issue that remains unresolved. As with the Wi-Fi problem, it's just as likely to be a configuration problem or incompatibility with the device at the other end of the connection.

The Bluetooth documentation for both Windows XP and LifeDrive leaves much to be desired. Bluetooth worked fine when connecting LifeDrive to a Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard from ThinkOutside. We had to download a new piece of software for the keyboard, but it then worked well.

Despite these problems, we like LifeDrive. The storage capacity is enough for most trips, and the form factor is very appealing — tiny, light and elegant with its brushed metal chassis. Music sounds remarkably good, as good as any PDA we've tested and photos look great on the screen.

The collection of office applications included is impressive, especially the stripped-down Microsoft Office work-alike applets from DataViz. They include mobile versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

Bottom Line
PalmOne clearly must solve the wireless connectivity problems, but for the right kind of business traveler — i.e., one who enjoys fiddling with gadgets — LifeDrive is a great solution. If you decide to buy, though, make sure you can return the product to your retailer if you run into the same kind of wireless connectivity issues we did.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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