Review – PalmOne’s Life Drive

I like computers, a lot. For a long while I’ve liked the idea of a computer I could take anywhere. Something small and handheld, laptops are still too large and require frequent charging. I’m not sure when I picked up this idea, maybe it had something to do with that show Lain. The characters all seemed to carry these rather sophisticated hand held computers they would use to log onto the internet from anywhere.

Enter the PDA. Hey, look, that’s sort of like having a little computer… only… not.

32 meg of memory, 128 meg of memory, what the heck am I supposed to do with that? It’s black and white too, not to mention it won’t connect to the internet. It’s essentially a glorified address book. I don’t want a 200 dollar address book, I want a computer that fits in the palm of my hand.

And so that dream was put on the back burner until PDA technology managed to catch up with my needs.

Hey, what’s this new device? The iPod? Put out by Apple you say? What? Gigs of space to play MP3s? Why all those other MP3 players are limited in space. I could barely stick an hour and a half’s worth of music on that, I may as well use a CDR. But this iPod, now that’s capacity. All my favorite tunes will fit on that thing. It’s a bit pricey though. Do I want it? Do I not want it?

Enter the LifeDrive.

I found the LifeDrive originally while browsing on Amazon for Tablet PCs, PDAs, and Laptops. Ironically, the day before I had been talking to my dad about PDAs and he mentioned hearing about some sort of new large capacity device on the market. He couldn’t remember the name at the time I had been browsing Amazon.

So after learning of this device I headed out to find some user reviews and recommendations. There had to be a catch or a drawback. In the end it seemed there were only a few. Most reviews reported delays of 1-2 seconds when opening applications. Since I wasn’t exactly used to other “lightning quick” Palms, I decided that it wasn’t much of a concern. The other was the lack of a user changeable battery. Then again, the mechanically inclined could replace it with a third party battery if it should ever die.

After months of waiting and flip flopping, I decided to go ahead and purchase the device. Circuit City had them on sale for twenty five dollars less than the 500 dollar asking price, it wasn’t much, but it every little bit helped.

On a semi related note, I ended up purchasing from a Circuit City outside of my hometown. The clerk in Springfield was completely unhelpful offering only the advice that he “does not like the Palm OS at all”. It was pretty annoying.

I brought it home and after opening the package was disappointed to find that the device required charging for 4 hours before it would be ready to use. No big deal, a little more waiting wouldn’t hurt. Soon I would find out if I had spent my money well or if I’d just picked up a 500 dollar paper weight.

Now, I had considered at this point going on a sort of step by step log of my experiences with the Life Drive, but I’m thinking it might make for an easier read if I just touch on the highlights in detail.

We’ll start off with Solitaire. Why? Because it’s probably what I use the most, though I’ve lately ‘discovered’ that I can archive articles and such on it for later reading. Solitaire is pretty much the only worthwhile game included on this device; my primary complaint is that the engine used tends to generate impossible deals. According to the stats, I’ve played 304 games of Solitaire, though some of those were played by others, and of those 304 games I’ve had 24 wins. The longest loss streak is 54 games; the longest win streak is 2 games. It has some slightly irritating auto-play features that don’t help, though they can be partially turned off. Anyway, if you want to play Solitaire all the time, there are certainly cheaper alternatives.

Aside from Solitaire, I tend to use it for its music features secondarily. I’ve loaded quite a few MP3 files on it and regularly play tem while at work. It sounds decent enough coming out of the desktop speakers I’ve got though it also includes an internal speaker if you’re desperate. The included Pocket Tunes player is decent enough, though it could use a few more play list options. Specifically, I don’t see a way to append the play list on the fly. Also it comes with an annoying shortcut control option set to on by default which causes the player to pop up all the time while tying to use the writing pad.

Another nice feature is the contacts list. You can add all the necessary information about any number of people to your list of contacts. They can be broken down into categories for easier sorting. You can even add a small icon snapshot to each contact (i.e. a photo). This information comes up nicely organized. I do have some issues with the standard layout of the fields, and there isn’t a way to change them. Since I don’t use this primarily for business related activities, I don’t care much for having the business related information quite so accessible.

Speaking of organization, the more I use the calendar, the more I like it. It has a lot of nice features for quickly adding reoccurring events. On the monthly view it creates little color coded icons on each day. It automatically picks up birthdays out of your contacts list. It’s pretty neat.

What about word processing. You probably won’t be writing a novel on this device. The interface is slightly awkward. I imagine if you used it a lot one could become exceptional at it, but initially it’s rather clumsy. I’ve been primarily using the “writing” style input, that is, you write in a little box and it detects what letter you’ve written. I often end up with the wrong letter and have to backspace. I’ve given up spellchecking anything of any length on the device, I can do that more quickly once I dump it off onto the desktop. It’s great for jotting down ideas, not too good for the final draft. It does feature the ability to read and write Microsoft Word documents, though I had trouble opening at least one file. You can also use the memo feature to make short notes or lists if you’d like.

There is also a note pad sort of feature, sort of an electronic post it note if you will. I’ve found this feature isn’t nearly as nice as the standard memo feature and I’ve pretty much just used it to make little sketches and doodles. The functionality for this is iffy as well however.

One major feature I’ve not had too much experience with yet is the WiFi internet access. I spent maybe an hour once when I had access mostly surfing Google and trying to access my Livejournal. Google has a nice palm version that pops up automatically but Livejournal seems to have an excessive amount of formatting that doesn’t translate too well onto the Palm. I’ve also tried a few AvantGo sites as well as a local copy of my personal website that indicate the Palm has difficulties parsing some CSS code. Lameazoid hangs off the left side of the browser with no ability to scroll over.

The WiFi also eats battery power. Browsing for an hour will almost kill a full battery. I’ve recently discovered the third party AvantGo service that downloads local copies of websites for later browsing when Hotsync is enabled. It works pretty well so far and is certainly easier on the battery charge. It’s also a lot faster, the WiFi runs at almost modem speeds.

There’s one last large scale feature I’ve used to be covered, the Camera Companion. When you insert your SD memory stick from your camera into the Lifedrive, it will automatically copy off new media. This is infinitely useful while on the road. My 128 meg card has more or less increased in size exponentially. If I need more space I can dump everything off and delete files from the card with ease. It also has a lot of options for organizing photos into groups.

One major complaint I have however, the “new media copied” is based on files in the camera companion directory. Basically this means if you organize your photos onto the LD, then copy files again, previously copied files may show up again. I would prefer it keep track of the last file copied (sort of like my desktop PC does) and simply copy from that point on. Better yet, remember the date and time of the last backup and copy only newer files.

I suppose this would make a good bridge into the hardware itself. The SD card slides into a slot on the top of the Lifedrive. It is ejected out again when you press on it. The store demo featured a bank to fill this slot but I am pretty sure my Lifedrive didn’t come with one. This slot is located next to the power switch and the IR port. The power switch has two functions, slide it one way to turn it off, and it springs back to the middle “ready” position. Slide it the other way and it locks the LD into its current state. This keeps it from turning on by accident as well as allows you to keep say, a picture or text file up for an extended period (the device has a power saving timeout feature). There is also a small activity indicator light on top of the device.

The right side has no buttons or ports, though the stylus slides down into a slot on this side (from the top). The stylus is decent enough, the spring for it is actually in the stylus itself and allows the end to pop up allowing it to be pulled out easily. Down the left side you’ll find a shortcut button for the voice memo feature as well as the microphone for the device. I’ve had poor results in the performance of the voice recorder myself though it’s not a feature I really need. I was also trying to use it in the car while driving down the road. There is also a button on this side that switches the device from regular to wide (sideways) viewing. Along the base is a headphone jack, a small reset button that works well with the stylus, and the PC-LifeDrive interface plug. The power charger plus is also on the bottom and can be interfaced through the Hotsync cable for easy charging while hooked up to the Pc and (presumably) while in a cradle.

The face controls, the primary controls contain two major parts. There are 5 physical buttons and a direction “circle” located near the bottom and then there is the obvious touch screen. The Touch screen serves as the primary interface, though the buttons are extremely useful in assisting with regular operation. The 4 outside buttons have preset icons and shortcuts but they can be configured to run any application the user may desire. By default they will open Home/Favorites, the Photo Manager, the Directory structure, and Pocket Tunes. Personally this default set up works great for my purposes though I could see the calendar or memo feature possibly being useful on one of these buttons. He other physical button is the center surrounded by a directional control ring. This allows one to navigate and activate menus with ease.

The primary interface however is the touch screen. This can be used with your fingers is you’d like but the included stylus works much better. The Home menu and favorites menu serve as a launching point for most applications, they are fairly similar in design except the favorites menu uses larger icons and is limited to 24 shortcuts. I’d say chances are you can narrow down your list of programs to under 24 except the enormous capacity of this device’s micro-drive means you won’t really need to uninstall much. Basically you’re likely to easily accumulate a ton of useful apps. There is also a standard menu bar always present along the bottom edge of the screen for things such as WiFi, Bluetooth, activating the writing pad, etc.

It’s not quite Windows but the Palm OS is fairly similar and easy to use. It’s reasonably customizable too. You can change sounds (though I prefer to keep them off), there are several color schemes to choose from, you can even set the background image for several apps such as the tasks list and the favorites menu. One complaint though, the background images will not resize to fit the screen properly on their own.

I do not have any previous experience with Palm PDAs, but I can say I really enjoy the LifeDrive. The more I use it, the more and more uses I find for it. I imagine I’ll find it infinitely more useful once I get my home wireless network set up. Eventually I hope to use the LifeDrive as a remote to control multimedia throughout the home (music, TV etc), a task I understand it is fully capable of (with the right program set up). Anyway, if you’re looking for a handheld and can afford one, I highly recommend the LifeDrive.