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PalmOne's LifeDrive Puts the PDA in Overdrive

The device -- with nearly 4 gigs of storage and loads of features -- has come a long way since the Pilot, but more isn't necessarily better.

June 26, 2005|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

LifeDrive is the latest hand-held computer from PalmOne Inc. -- the company formerly known as just plain Palm. That's the outfit that took the tech world by storm in 1996 with its Pilot 1000, the first practical, personal digital assistant.

You didn't have to be a gadget geek to fall in love with the little Pilot, which could hold hundreds of address book entries and your appointment schedule for years to come.

LifeDrive is the result of nearly a decade's additional research and development. It still has those original PDA components, much improved, but this new model also can play music, get e-mail via Wi-Fi, edit documents, record voice memos and display photos and videos.

It's not only the first time PalmOne has packaged all these functions as standard in one device, but with LifeDrive it has also provided the digital storage capacity -- nearly 4 gigabytes, or about 30,000 time more than the original -- to handle them. And LifeDrive sports a larger display screen than previously offered.

The Pilot has clearly come a long way. But in this case, more is not necessarily better.

Somewhere along the way, the folks at Palm forgot what made that original so wonderful. That little gadget did just a couple tasks, but it did them so well that it became part of our daily lives. Not only could we toss out our cumbersome paper address books and calendars, but we suddenly also had an easy way -- because the Pilot could be synced with desktop computers -- to back up the information in case of loss or theft.

The expensive LifeDrive ($499) might do lots more, but there are hand-helds that do these extra functions better, or at least as well, even if they are not attempting to be all-in-one packages. Except for the large screen on LifeDrive, the extra functions don't justify the bulk and price of this hand-held.

Even worse, LifeDrive lacks the one truly major advance in PDAs: a phone.

PalmOne's own Treo and Research in Motion's BlackBerry have incorporated PDA functions into cellphones, and although these products are still a bit too expensive and cumbersome to use, they're getting better and gaining in popularity.

Indeed, PDA sales are falling sharply while so-called smart phones such as the Treo and the BlackBerry are on the rise.

With a trend like that working against it, LifeDrive is DOA.

It's a shame because some of the same kind of engineering ingenuity that went into the early Palms lives on. LifeDrive does a fine job with e-mail. It's a pleasure to read messages on the brightly lighted, 2 3/8 -by-3 1/4 -inch screen -- much larger than is found on mainstream cellphones and portable music players.

And the wireless delivery of the mail works quite well after a somewhat troublesome setup. (As with all setups involving wireless communication, it's a good idea to make sure the help lines are open when you do it.)

The problem is that e-mail on the LifeDrive can be received and sent only when the user is within the range of a Wi-Fi hot spot. The BlackBerry and the Treo are far more practical in that they can send and receive e-mail just about anywhere cellphones can be used.

The music player feature is frustratingly difficult to set up, particularly if you use -- as the instructions direct -- Windows Media Player to handle the sound clips. Try the RealPlayer instead.

Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod and companion iTunes software are far easier to use, and even the biggest iPod is easier to carry around.

Making a photo slide show to display on LifeDrive -- to show off baby or vacation shots, for example -- is also too time-consuming and frustrating, partly because of the lack of options for displaying the pictures. For example, there is no way to gracefully end a slide show presentation; it repeats endlessly until manually stopped.

I have to admit that when I finally finished creating a little show that included pet, vacation and nature shots, all backed by music, I was delighted with the results. So much so that I took the LifeDrive out of my pocket and forced it on everyone I met. Friends started crossing streets to avoid me.

Other hand-helds have jumped on the slide show bandwagon, including Sony Corp.'s PlayStation Portable, which is designed primarily to play games. The PSP is about half the price of a LifeDrive, and although it doesn't come with the PDA or document functions, it can play MP3 music and show photos and videos. Indeed, the PSP screen, which is about the same size as LifeDrive's, is brighter and displays richer colors.

Documents look fine on LifeDrive. But I would not want to do much serious reading on the screen. It might be big for a hand-held computer, but it's still much smaller than the more comfortable screen that comes on most laptops.

Editing a document on a touch screen, without the use of a real-world keyboard, is laborious but can be done in a pinch.

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