Palm LifeDrive Mobile Manager
Something more than a PDA?
Review So what exactly is a Mobile Manager? To Palm, it's an entirely new category of portable device, but it's hard to conclude that it's anything more than a PDA with more storage. Palm needs to create a new device type, of course. Despite more than half a decade of Palm trying to convince consumers that a PDA is more than an electronic organiser, that's still how most people view them. And if you're going to put a hard drive into a PDA, you may as well try and make it sound like something new, something special. But the fact remains: the LifeDrive is a Tungsten T5 with a greater, 4GB storage capacity.
That's not to say there aren't improvements - gone, for example, is the ropey RealOne MP3 player, replaced by the Ogg-enabled, iTunes-styled Pocket Tunes from NormSoft - but beyond the quantity of data you can hold on the thing, there's little in the way of new functionality on the device itself.
Voice recording makes a come-back. Added to the original Tungsten, it was subsequently dropped, but with almost every other media player and PDA allowing their users to record spoken memos, Palm obviously decided it was prudent to bring the facility back.
Bluetooth has been part of the Tungsten line since the first model. The LifeDrive is no exception, but Palm has built Wi-Fi in too. The handheld has an 802.11b adaptor backed up with some easy to use access software activated by clicking the signal strength icon in the task/status bar. The code scans the 2.4GHz band for access points and computer-to-computer networks. Select one and it will connect if it can. The LifeDrive can cope with old-style WEP encryption and the newer WPA security standard in its Pre-Shared Key (PSK) form.
How long the handheld will stay connected to the base-station is up to you. The default is three minutes, but you can change that to five, ten or 15 minutes, but no longer. Given what extended Wi-Fi usage does to the LifeDrive's battery, that's probably for the best.
That said, the LifeDrive's aluminium and plastic enclosure doesn't make for the best wireless reception. I've yet to find a spot in my three-storey Victorian flat where my PowerBook can't pick up a signal from my access point, but the LifeDrive found more than a few. Even then, despite being left untouched, it would lose the signal and be unable to reacquire it.
Still, Wi-Fi access speeds are a real pleasure after connecting to the Internet using a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone - still possible with the LifeDrive, which now lists a much greater number of supported handsets than past Palms - and the Blazer browser and VersaMail email apps come into their own.
The LifeDrive's other enhancements take place at the host-PC end. The T5 added the ability to operate as an external drive, and the LifeDrive builds on that with folder-level synchronisation. Both Mac and Windows users can transfer files between their computers and the LifeDrive using the latter's Drive Mode utility. However, only Windows users can use LifeDrive Manager (LDM), Palm's new sync tool. Unlike HotSync, LDM operates at the file and folder level, automating the transfer of Office documents, songs, photos, videos and so on whenever the LifeDrive is connected to the host. Files can be copied over once, with photos and videos reformatted on the fly to fit the handheld's display. Or you can mark files to ensure what's on the PC always matches what's on handheld.
Because LDM operates at the folder lever, if you get it to 'watch', say, My Music, any MP3s added there will be automatically transferred to the LifeDrive next time you connect it to your PC, space permitting.
LDM - and, indeed, Drive Mode - only install to the hard drive or an SD card if you have one fitted, not to the device's 64MB of Flash memory. Palm's documentation quietly notes that some apps may not run from the drive, but at least you can copy the offending file(s) over to the Flash using the Palm OS, which is version 5.4.8, by the way.
Speaking of SD cards, the LifeDrive joins the long list of device with hard-to-use slots. Palm's done a better job before, but here it has allowed your fingers no extra room beyond the edge of the casing to push the card in, either to lock it on place or eject it. What it has done, for the first time, is add a lock to the power key. Slide it one way to turn the device on and off, and the other to ensure that accidentally pressed buttons have no effect. This is good for power conservation, and for folks who will use their LifeDrive as a pocket music player.
The LifeDrive ships with another new app, Camera Companion, designed to provide digital photographers with an easy way to transfer pictures. Alas, it's limited by the LifeDrive's choice of card slot, so it's useless if your digicam uses one of the numerous other formats.
Some reviewers have criticised the LifeDrive's girth, but it's actually little bigger than the old Tungsten E I happen to have to hand, and is narrower than the T5. It's thicker, mind, but Palm could have shaved two or three millimetres off with a better screen bevel and button cluster design. There's no question it's bigger than an iPod, but not by much and the iPod has a much smaller display. At 190g, it doesn't weight much more than the 60GB iPod either. Compared to a Sony PlayStation Portable, the LifeDrive is positively compact.
The screen is the same 320 x 480, 65536-colour job found on the T5. It's a nice display, with bright colours and good viewing angles. This time there's a button on the side to activate the screen rotation - the icon has gone from the task bar, presumably to make room for the Wi-Fi tool.
There's a 416MHz Intel XScale processor inside the LifeDrive, but Palm has admitted in the past it underclocks its processors. The Orange SPV M500 has the same CPU, but I found the LifeDrive ran much more slowly. It got positively painful at times. The UI is responsive enough, but running applications or getting date from the hard drive was always laggy.
Launching Contacts after a warm reset was so quick on the above-mentioned Tungsten E I could barely measure it. The same process took over two seconds on the LifeDrive. Other, more complex apps were likewise much slower to load on the LifeDrive, though there didn't seem much difference between loading from the Flash memory and from the hard drive. Apps that have already been run load more quickly but still not as quickly as they did on the 32MB, 126MHz Tungsten E. More generally, I encountered plenty of Please Wait... messages - too many, in fact.
Palm's Life Drive spec sheet coyly fails to mention what capacity the device's battery offers. Running movies isn't too bad. I encoded ten minutes' (41.9MB) of Doctor Who, recorded onto an SD card using Neuros' MPEG 4 Recorder device, then copied to the LifeDrive's hard disk. Despite being an MPEG 4 .asf file, Palm's Media app wouldn't play it, but the open source Core Pocket Media Player came to the rescue, albeit without sound. Looping the video yielded just under 3h 20m play time, with the display set to 50 per cent brightness. That's plenty of time to watch one, possibly two movies on your LifeDrive, provided your host computer has the power to rip and reformat a film in a reasonable timeframe. And the software too - Palm doesn't provide you with any help here.
Using the Wi-Fi adaptor drains the battery more rapidly, but you'll still get plenty of surfing and email time on a single charge. Running Blazer to view a variety of sites in a half-hour period reduced the battery's charge by around 20 per cent. That assumes you maintain a connection. Using the LifeDrive on a more casual basis - doing other things, but pausing occasionally to check my email or a web site, and having a quick peek at some of the photos I'd transferred across - ate through the battery capacity.
The screen's the killer, but there's no escaping that. As long as you're happy recharging your LifeDrive every evening, you'll not do badly out of the battery. Alas, iPod-style, the battery is not removable, so you won't be able to slap another one.
The LifeDrive is a bold attempt to keep the PDA alive in a world dominated by iPods, multimedia smart phones and portable video players. It's a good attempt, too, and while the device has its flaws, there's no doubt it makes a fine PDA. I enjoyed using it as such.
But, according to Palm, it's not a PDA. Yet the 4GB LifeDrive lacks the capacity to be the mobile Home folder it so desperately wants to be. It can only hold a sub-set of the music, videos, photos and other documents you hold dear. Sure, 4GB is better than the T5's 160MB of storage space, but since one device is a PDA and the other isn't, we shouldn't be comparing them this way.
Until the LifeDrive family is truly able to operate without a host computer, by offering a higher capacity and better device connectivity - you can't connect the device to a camera's USB port out of the box or to a DVD player's output - it's going to remain a PDA. It's a good one, but arguably part of a dying breed. ®
|Palm LifeDrive Mobile Manager|
|Pros||Good size; nice screen; Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; improved computer connectivity tools; Pocket Tunes.|
|Cons||It's slooww; limited camera card support; no movie conversion software; LifeDrive Manager is Windows only.|
|More info||The Palm LifeDrive site|
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