from Japan)Posted April 19, 2005 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief
Undeniably, Sony has made
some of the hottest Palm OS PDAs over the last few years. Sadly,
these were largely high end products with price tags to match,
and the US economy has been weak since 2001. This translated
into weak sales and Sony pulled out of the US market in 2004.
Sony Clie PDAs lived on in Japan, the the Sony Clie VZ90 became
their first Japan-only handheld. The features and price far exceed
prior Sony offerings, with the exception of the Clie
sported a stunning 2 megapixel digital camera and a very high
price tag. Other than the camera, the VZ90 knocks the socks
off of the NZ90 which has much less memory and a pedestrian transflective
display. What's that, you say? How could I belittle the NZ90's
excellent display? Because the VZ90 is the first mass production
PDA with an OLED (organic LED) screen, and believe me, nothing
else you've seen compares. The display is incredibly vivid, shockingly
bright, superbly contrasty and it doesn't eat up gobs of precious
a reputable importer of Japanese gadgets and computers offers the
VZ90 for sale in the US, and they sent us a unit for review. Though
Sony has announced that they won't be introducing new Clie models
in Japan, the device is well worth considering if your budget can
accommodate the $999 price. Keep in mind that this is a Japanese
PDA and both the handheld and manual ship from the factory
in Japanese. ICUBE pre-installs Clie Pet's excellent utility which
translates approximately 65% of the interface into English, but
the remaining untranslated items mean that you'll want to be
familiar with Palm OS PDAs, preferably Sony Clie models to help
fill in the blanks. The user interface is very similar to the
Clie UX40 and UX50, and you'll likely accommodate reasonably
well if you've owned one of those models.
Features at a Glance
The VZ90 is a Palm OS PDA with the usual Palm
OS and Sony value-added applications. It has a 480 x 320 landscape
touch screen display, plenty of memory, WiFi 802.11b, a Memory
Stick Pro slot and a CF type II slot (no hacks required to use
CF memory cards). The device is larger than the Sony Clie UX50,
being predominantly thicker, and is similar in size to the Sharp
Zaurus SL-C3000 and SL-C1000 with which it competes
both in Japan and in the US import market.
Sony bills the VZ90 as a multimedia device, and
unlike other Clies, the launcher is divided into four tabbed screens:
Movie, Music, Photo and the standard Palm OS PDA application launcher
(home screen) display. While the functionality isn't terribly different
from recent US high-end Clie models, the tabbed interface which
emphasizes multimedia makes it feel different. The black background
makes it feel like a multimedia device and sets off photos and
movies nicely. Like the UX50 and TH55, the VZ90 uses Sony's Handheld
Engine CPU with a maximum speed of 123MHz.
Horsepower and Performance
While 123MHz doesn't sound like much, Sony gets
very good performance with the help of an additional multimedia
DSP and a 2D graphics accelerator. While video playback on a 123MHz
Pocket PC or most Palm PDAs would be
abysmal, the Handheld Engine handles the job well.
The VZ90's memory is divided into three segments.
There's 40 megs of RAM (handheld memory) which serves the same
function as RAM on other PDAs: you can store applications and data
in RAM and any 3rd party software using conduits for syncing will
work fine. Then there's 95.9 megs of flash ROM (confusingly termed
internal memory) where you can also store programs and files, though
some apps that use HotSync conduits may not sync if installed here.
The flash ROM area is non-volatile which means it will survive
a complete battery drain or hard reset and it functions much like
a permanently installed Memory Stick. Program memory rounds up
this trio of memory types and it's where programs actually execute,
much like RAM on your PC. Sounds confusing, but it's quite similar
to the Sony Clie UX40 and UX50 architecture,
and somewhat like the palmOne
Tungsten T5's. Why this separation of memory? Palm OS 5 PDAs
can't address more than 64 megs of RAM, so in order to offer you
more, it must be divided into RAM and an additional flash ROM area.
The unit's unique slider-slate design is functional
but curious: why do we need two separate slabs attached via a slider
mechanism that only moves 1.25" to reveal the application launcher buttons
and directional pad? The bottom slab which encases the meat of the gadget:
expansion slots, motherboard, battery, ports and buttons is thicker than
the display slab which is 3/8". One can only assume that Sony wanted
to make the device easy to use as a media player, which means large buttons
and a very large d-pad. Of course, one need not worry about accidental
button presses waking up the device or changing songs since the controls
are covered when the slider is closed.
Right side view, with slider open.
The unit comes with a leather case, and this is the bottom view.
You can see the large screw which holds the case in place.
The device is very attractive and modern: the black
surround around the display makes the bezel seem small and reduces reflected
glare. The back and sides are gloss black and look classy. A silver sliver
adds a touch of contrast to the sides and functions as the backdrop for
the buttons and d-pad. Stereo speakers surround the display and there
are no other ports or controls on the LCD section. On the main slab you'll
find the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and stylus on the right side,
the sync connector, power switch (with hold function) and reset hole
on the bottom. Both the Memory Stick and CF slots are located on the
left side. The Clie has a WiFi indicator LED and another LED for charging
status and alarms, both of which are on the lower edge below the d-pad
and application buttons. The battery is user replaceable, and you'll
find its door on the rear, retained by one small phillips head screw.
Display and Sound
Words can't express how amazing the VZ90 is. Case in
point: we used some photos and videos to show off the display to quite
a few veteran PDA users and those who'd never used a PDA. All were smitten
with the display and commented that they'd never seen one so bright,
colorful and sharp. The OLED display's near surreal vibrancy, superb
brightness and extremely high contrast set it apart from older LCD technologies.
Though the display is keenly bright, it's not harsh on the eyes, and
the contrast is pleasing rather than a bit tiring when compared to the
HP iPAQ hx2750. From a professional
photographer or graphic artist's standpoint, the display isn't 100% color
accurate because it looks
better than real life. Colors are more saturated and intense
and appear to show more contrast than any LCD monitor or high quality
35mm photographic print. If nothing else, this review is an ode to OLED
display technology. While Sony's final Clie, the VZ90, is an end of the
line model, OLED is in its nascence and we can't wait to see it used
on mainstream PDAs from other manufacturers.
Like prior Clie models we've reviewed, the VZ90 plays
MP4 Quicktime format movies, though you can use 3rd party movie players
such as MMPlayer if you wish to play other formats. Sony's included Image
Converter 2 converts movies to MP4 for playback on the Clie.
The screen is truly vibrant!
Above: Comparing the excellent VGA display on the HP
iPAQ hx4700 and the Sony Clie VZ90 (right). You can see the Clie's display
is much brighter and has more contrast. The camera overexposed
the white portions of the children's shirts because the display
is so bright.
As you'd expect from Sony, sound quality is excellent,
particularly through the included stereo earbud headphones with integrated
remote. The device's stereo speakers flank the display and provide good
sound volume and quality by PDA standards. Put on a set of headphones
and you'll really enjoy listening to MP3s using the including MP3 player
application which is similar to that found on other recent Clies. The
MP3 player supports MP3 and ATRAC formats, and has basic features like
continuous playback and repeat. In addition, the Clie has a Voice Recorder
application and mic.
WiFi setup and connection management are quite similar
to the UX50 and other WiFi-enabled Clies. Some of the Network
preferences screens are in English, if you've recently used other WiFi
Clies, you can manage setting up a WiFi connection on the VZ90. The WiFi
auto discovery and listing of available access points (use the SSID "ANY").
64 and 128 bit WEP encryption, ad hoc and infrastructure modes, DHCP
and manual IP address configuration. When WiFi is turned on, the LED
glows and the device will automatically turn off the radio
to conserve power after a specified period of time. Once we set up our
connection, the Clie proved reliable and maintained its IP address even
when the radio cycled on and off repeatedly to conserve power. WiFi range
is good but not stellar and we got about 40 feet of usable range through
walls and floors.
Bright displays usually mean mediocre battery life,
but the VZ90's OLED display is extremely power efficient. Combine this
with Sony's Handheld Engine CPU which varies processor speed from 8 to
123MHz. and you've got the Energizer Bunny of handhelds. The VZ90's Lithium
Ion battery is physically large and though Sony doesn't disclose its
capacity, it looks like an 1,800 mAh or better pack.
The Clie VZ90 runs Palm OS 5.2.1 and includes
the usual assortment of Palm OS and Clie applications such as Date
Book, Address Book, Memos, To Do, Calculator, Clie Viewer (a photo
viewer), Clie Files (file manager), MS Backup (backup the unit
to a Memory Stick), Sound Utilities and an MP3/ATRAC music player.
Sony includes Clie Mail which handles multiple email accounts and
both POP3 and IMAP servers, the excellent NetFront 3.1 web browser
(unfortunately not translated into English) for your Internet pleasure.
Picsel Viewer, found on many US Clie models is included and the
application allows you to view (but not edit) native MS Office
documents and PDFs. Like all Palm OS PDAs, the device comes with
Graffiti 2 and Sony adds on the very good Decuma handwriting recognition.
In addition, Sony includes their absolutely wonderful Clie Organizer
which combines a daytimer calendar interface with photos, ink notes
and voice notes. This is the same application found on the the Sony
Clie TH55. Clie Organizer runs in portrait mode unlike the
other applications which run in landscape orientation. The VZ90
comes with Media Launcher which serves as the front end for working
with multimedia files (photos, MP3s and videos).
For syncing to PCs (but not Macs) you'll use
the Sony version of Palm Desktop 4.1 which is included, as is a
PC version of the Clie Organizer application. These applications
are in Japanese, but you should be able to use a recent version
of Sony's Palm Desktop in English from a US Clie, and supply the
CD when your PC says its found new hardware and requests drivers.
Yes, it's incredibly expensive for a PDA and
the Sharp Zaurus SL-C3000 and SL-C1000 with which it competes in
the import market offer more bang for the buck and is easily translated
into English. In fact, many importers pre-translate the Zaurii
for you. But if you're a Palm OS fan, a Clie-lover and above all,
want a powerful Palm with a truly amazing screen, the VZ90 is tempting.
The device is fast, beautiful, has WiFi and is
expandable. It makes a wonderful pocket multimedia player (just
get a large CF card). Did I say the screen is to die for? But two
further drawbacks dampen the VZ90's attraction: the partial English
translation and the fact this is an end of the road model in the
departing Clie line.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
Capacity unknown but it's clearly quite high and
the battery is relatively large.
Handheld Engine CPU. 40 megs RAM, 95.9 megs flash
ROM available for programs and files.
x 87mm x 23mm, 4.47 x 2.78 x .53 in. Weight: 270
grams, 4.67 oz.
in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo
headphone jack. Voice Recorder and MP3 player included.
version of Palm OS 5.2.1. Includes the usual Palm
and Sony applications such as Date Book, Memo Pad,
Address Book, To Do, Calculator, Clie Mail, Clie
Files, Clie Organizer, Data Import, Clie Viewer,
MP3 player, MS Backup, Sound Utilities, Security
and Voice Recorder. Media Launcher application is
unique to the VZ90. 3rd party applications: Picsel
Viewer (viewer for MS Office documents and PDFs),
NetFront 3.1 web browser, Graffiti 2 and Decuma Handwriting
Memory Stick Pro slot compatible with regular and
Pro Memory Sticks, 1 CF type II slot compatible with
CF memory cards.