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Sony Clie NZ90

(discontinued)

Posted Feb. 15, 2003, by Lisa Gade, Editor-in-Chief

The NZ90 is the most significant, innovative and bar-raising PDA to be released since the Compaq iPAQ 3600 series nearly 3 years ago and the Sony NR70V less than a year ago. While in some ways it is evolutionary rather than radical, building on the NX70V in terms of form factor and digicam integration; the NZ90 offers so much that is new to the Clié line, and new to PDAs, that this guy is more than evolutionary. At what price? This is not a small or light unit: it weighs 10.3 ounces and is 1/8th" longer, wider and is considerably thicker than the NX70V. It's also not cheap at $799, but you do get more features and functionality than on any other PDA, so read on.

Sony Clie NZ90

Similar Basic Specs as NX70V

The NZ90 has all the features of the NX70V, including Palm OS 5, a 200 MHz XScale processor, 16 megs of RAM (10.5 megs available to user), an integrated keyboard, MP3 player, a voice recorder that records hours of very good quality audio to a 64 meg Memory Stick, and a CF slot that accepts Sony's WiFi card.

Though the NZ90 looks similar to the NX70V and NR70V, nearly everything has been moved around. The CF slot is now at the bottom, there are separate voice recorder and image capture buttons, the stylus is mounted in a semi-exposed silo next to the screen, the memory stick slot is on the lower right side of the unit, the reset button is on the left side and the IR port has been moved to the left side (near the top, wrapping a little bit around to the top). The jog dial and back button are on the left side, in the same location as on the older models. Since the NZ90 is as thick as the thickest section of the NX series, there is no need for a hump to accommodate the CF slot. There is a hump on the top back area of the unit where the camera and hotsync port are located, however.

What's New? A Lot!

Here's the short list: 2 megapixel camera with flash, built-in Bluetooth, a removable smart Lithium Ion battery and a funky new cradle that outputs via AV to your TV and via USB to printers.

The keyboard has also improved: gone is the membrane keyboard used on the NX and NR series. This keyboard has true mini-keys that are easier to press and allow more accurate typing. The keyboard area and the keys themselves look very slick and high quality.

Just when you thought it couldn't get much better than the NX series, the NZ90 screen, with the same nominal specs of 320 x 480 resolution with 65K colors and a transflective LCD has a noticeably brighter display. At just under 2/3 of max brightness, the NZ90 equals the NX's maximum brightness.

backside of the NZ90

The back of the NZ90. You can see the flash and the lens to the right of the flash. The slider next to the lens controls the lens cover. The small holes above the flash are sensors for flash and autofocus.

 

 

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Sony WiFi card Sony's WiFi card: Read our review!

 

Camera

The 2 megapixel camera includes a flash, auto focus, red eye reduction, 2x digital zoom (no optical zoom) and a max image size of 1600x1200 pixels. It also supports video recording at 160 x 112 pixels with sound (same as the NX70V). The video quality is nothing to write home about, but it is pretty amazing when you consider that they were taken by a PDA. The sound quality of the videos is truly excellent.

To take photos and videos you place the NZ90 in tablet mode (so it looks like a tradtional PDA). This way the LCD faces you, and the camera lens faces out the back of the unit. You could also take a self-portrait because in fully opened clamshell mode, the camera lens faces towards you as you look at the keyboard and screen. Unlike the older NX70V and NR70V, the lens does not swivel, so you must move the PDA around to get your subject framed. I miss the swivel feature, because it was great for taking stealth pictures-- much more subtle.

How are the still pictures? Ohmygod! They are as good as the 2 megapixel Epson and Pentax/HP cameras I've owned. I now use a prosumer 6 MP camera, and I don't feel like I'm slumming when I use the NZ. I'm a semi-pro photographer, and I really didn't expect to be this impressed with the NZ's images.

Unfortunately, the camera app takes just under 9 seconds to load, which seems like a small eternity when you're dying to take that quick candid picture. The camera app takes about 3 to 4 seconds to write a standard quality 1200 x 1600 pixel 420k image to the Memory Stick, but it buffers the shots, so you only have to wait about 1 second between shots. Images taken at 1200 x 1600 standard quality range from 410k to 450k. Images shot at 1200 x 1600 at fine quality are around 800k, but really don't look much better! I've tried blowing them up in Photoshop, printing them to a photo printer, and the standard and fine mode pix look nearly identical. Perhaps the JPEG compression algorithm used for standard mode is so good, it's truly hard to see a difference between the two compression levels.

You can see some examples on the right. If you wish to compare them to the NX70V images, read that review and take a look at some sample NX photos- there is no comparison.

Bluetooth and WiFi

The NZ90, like the NX series, has a type II CF slot that accepts Sony's WiFi wireless Ethernet networking card. The card works just as well in the NZ as it did in the NX. The Japanese analog CF modem drivers floating around the Net for the NX also work on the NZ. If you're interested in using a CF 56k modem, the Ambicom 56k EZ Jack modem (targeted at Pocket PC users, but ignore that!) is readily available in the US at BestBuy, Amazon.com and other retailers, and works well using the Japanese drivers.

But wait, you also get Bluetooth built-in! Unlike Palm's packaging of Bluetooth for their SD card and Tungsten T, you don't get a nice set of apps or wizards for setting up Bluetooth connections. Instead you'll select Bluetooth under Prefs, then discover devices. Since there aren't any custom BT apps, you'll likely only be able to use BT for activities already supported by Palm OS 5 networking: file transfer, HotSync and using your BT enabled cell phone as a modem. The manual does not state which Bluetooth devices are supported, though it does tell you how to set up HotSync over BT, and has pictures of an NZ talking with a cell phone, Sony digicam with BT, and other NZs. I was able to setup BT HotSyncing in about 5 minutes, using a Belkin Bluetooth USB adapter on my desktop. It's almost as fast as cradle syncing! I do not have a BT enabled phone since GSM service is weak in the Silicon Valley area, so I won't be able to report on that functionality.

Mac Users: the Sony Clié doesn't come with software to sync to the Macintosh. I didn't have any luck trying to connect using OS X (Jaguar) and its built-in support for Palm OS PDAs via the cradle or Bluetooth. You'll need to buy MissingSync from Mark/Space to sync with a Mac. It costs $30 and does an exceptional job in Mac OS 9 and X.

Sample photos taken with the NZ90 at 1200 x 1600 resolution, standard quality, auto settings. Click on an image to see the full sized original, unaltered in any way. If you are interested in viewing the full sized images repeatedly, please right click on them and save them to your computer to help us save bandwidth. Full size images are between 400-450k. The flower photo was taken outdoors on a cloudy day with no flash.

The picture below offers a challenge to non-prosumer level digicams: water on the leaves. Many digicams have difficulty dealing with the refraction and highlights of the water. The NZ did pretty well.

sample photo

Sammy the cat. Indoors, using filtered light coming through the sliding door (flash didn't need to fire). Notice the detail on his fur and in the carpet!

sample photo

Battery

The NZ90 has a removable battery, which means you can swap in a replacement whenever you need. Additional batteries are $79 direct from Sony. It's a 1200 mAh battery that slides in behind a door on the lower right side of the unit. It's a smart Lithium Ion battery which means you can get detailed info about its current state and long term life. If you click on the battery icon on the taskbar, it'll tell you percentage of charge remaining, approximate runtime in hours and minutes, time required to charge it to full, how many charge cycles the battery has been through and overall degradation (how much the battery capacity has diminished due to number of charging cycles and age) in percentage. It also tells you when certain functions are turned off due to low charge: Bluetooth turns off when the battery is down to 20%, the WiFi slot turns off at 25%, the Memory Stick slot turns off at 10%, voice recording and MP3 playback stop at 15%, and the camera flash stops at 35%.

How is the battery life per charge? With the backlight set at 50% and Bluetooth off, the NZ90 battery applet tells you that you have 5 hours 10 minutes runtime with a new battery that's fully charged. I have noticed that placing the NZ90 in its cradle while turned off for 18 hours increased runtimes. Why did I do this? The manual mentions that it can take 24 hours to charge a fully discharged backup battery, so I gave it a try. You should only need to do this once, unless you let the backup battery drain fully (which happens after 12 hours if no main battery is installed or the main battery is totally depleted). The button backup battery was probably increasing drain on the main battery as it trickle charged itself to full capacity, and thus reducing runtimes. I would imagine leaving it in the cradle overnight for a few nights would also charge the backup battery fully.

Here's what I've found so far: with Beam Receive off and brightness at ~40% I can use the NZ with the Sony WiFi card to surf for about 1 hour, play games for an hour, take 20 photos (5 with flash), HotSync via Bluetooth a few times, use the PDA for standard stuff like accessing contacts, connect to the TV and view images for 5 minutes, view images (30, all on Memory Stick) with AcidImage a few times and have 20% power remaining at the end of the day. Its about as good as Pocket PCs, but not impressive by Palm OS standards. It's worse than Pocket PCs if you use the camera. It is not nearly as good as the NX70V, but some of the cool new features like outputting to the TV, taking 1200 x 1600 images with the flash and printing also are not possible on the NX70V and do require more power. You can also swap in a spare battery, so if these features are worthwhile to you, then at least you can swap in another battery to extend runtimes. If you use the camera for several shots and/or use the WiFi card, you'll probably need to charge the NZ90 every night .

How does the camera affect battery life? Even when using the flash, I can take 20 shots and see about 20% drain on the battery. This should translate to about 65 top quality photos before the NZ disables the flash at 35% remaining charge. All rechargeable batteries will temporarily read lower than they really are after a high drain activity, but the NZ90 shows a large temporary drop in voltage when your launch the camera app and initialize the camera. I've started the unit at 70% charge and fired up the camera only to get a warning that battery level is below 35% so the flash will be disabled! Exiting the camera app and relaunching sometimes works to get around this problem because the voltage reading seems to stabilize. Once you're done taking pictures, the battery level should rebound up within 2 minutes.

Cradle, including AV output and printing

The cradle has been redesigned and resembles a folding easel. It has a USB port that supports direct printing to USB printers and an AV out jack that allows you to connect a monitor or TV to view images and movies on the NZ90. The AV cable (mini jack to RCA connectors for left audio, right audio and video) and the USB printer cable are included. Very consumer electronics, very Sony!

The only app that supports output via AV is Clie Album, which means you can output still images but not videos. Please Sony, give us an app for outputting video! Clie Album is also the only app that supports printing via the USB port on the cradle. It comes with drivers for the following Epson printers: Photo 820, C60 and C62. Please Sony, give us more drivers soon! I tried using the Photo 820 driver to print to my Photo 870 printer, but the Clie told me the driver didn't match the printer (gee, I though it'd be close enough). I was impressed at the sophistication of the driver: you can set paper type (plain, ink jet, photo and matte), position (centering), number of copies, scaling (in a range of 10 - 100%), paper size (letter, A6 and A4). For the Photo 820 printer, quality is set to high and can't be changed.

Now that we've covered the cradle's neat features, how do I like the cradle itself? It drivers me bonkers. While it's attractive and folds down flat for great portability, it is too light weight. I have it a few inches from the edge of my desk and each time I remove the NZ90, the cradle falls off the desk. Why? The sync and power cables have anti-RF interference modules mounted about 1 inch from the end where they attach to the cradle. You know, they're the weighty little cylindrical thingies you see on many computer cables. They outweigh the cradle, so if they're not supported by your desk, they'll pull the cradle over. I also find it quite difficult to get the NZ seated on the cradle such that it makes a good connection for syncing and charging. The NZ90 does not snap firmly (or even weakly) into the cradle, which means if you're carrying it around to your TV or printer, it will likely disconnect and have to be reseated. Ugh!

CF Slot for WiFi (802.11b) card

As with the NX Series, the NZ90 has a type II CF Communications Slots. Only the Sony WiFi card is supported, though you can use the Japanese CF analog modem drivers floating around the Net to get support for a few CF modem cards (the AmbiCom CF56M-EZ being the easiest to find in the US). You can download the driver files here. You must install all of them. After that, just pop in the modem card, the utility software will load on screen, and you're ready to setup your dialup connection. These Japanese drivers were translated by a fellow who goes by the name Pelaca on cliesource.com.

The NetFront web browser is included with the Clié and is version 3.0, revision 1.1.30. I can't see any difference (other than the revision number) from the one on the NX. It's a very capable web browser that runs full screen and supports most current web standards. It does have a few quirks. Here's one tip: if you keep getting "page too large" warnings, set the cache to zero in prefs. Oddly this reduces the number of warnings and improves page loading.

Software

The software bundle is pretty much the same as it was for the NX series. You get the new Launcher, Sony MP3 player, AV remote to control your home video and audio gear, Picture Gear, Intellisync Lite (for syncing to Outlook), Movie Recorder, Movie Player, NetFront web browser and a new product, Picsel Viewer, which allows you to view Word and Excel documents. Documents To Go Standard Edition is gone from the standard Clie bundle, which is a disappointment for a high end unit at this price. While Piscel views MS Office docs, it doesn't allow you to edit them or create new docs, as does Docs To Go. Note that there's a bug in the Audio Player: it doesn't show artists' names or song titles for ATRAC recordings. I imagine Sony will issue a fix for this. MP3s do display correctly.

Size Comparisons

Since the NZ90's size and weight is somewhat controversial, I've provided several size comparison images below.

Above: Sony SJ30, NZ90, Dell Aximm X5 and iPAQ 3970

Top to bottom: iPAQ 3970, Dell Axim X5, NZ90, Clié SJ30

NZ90 in hand. Think of this as an average man's hand since I have large hands for a woman (hey, I'm 6' tall!)

The top of the unit, where the camera is located, is the thickest section. Yes that section is thicker than my Titanium Powerbook!

Conclusion

Well, it just doesn't get better than this! A 320 x 480 transflective display, integrated keyboard, AV remote to control your TV and home video/stereo components, great quality MP3 playback, 2 MP digicam with flash, videos, and Palm OS 5 running on a 200 MHz XScale processor. Heck, I can't believe it doesn't have a TV tuner too, since everything else is here. What are the cons? It ain't cheap, and it is neither light nor easily pocketable. And please, someone find a way to get more than 16 megs of internal memory into Palm OS PDA! I do wish the camera swiveled, as it did in the NX70V and older NR70V. Battery life is not good, and the transient voltage drops associated with firing up the camera means the flash may be disabled even though the battery does have enough charge. The camera takes a long time to fire up, which means you might miss some spontaneous photos. Final verdict: while prefer something I can fit in my pocket (even the NX series did), I can forgive the NZ90 because it fits more functions and features into a PDA than ever before. And while it is quite expensive, for $200 it does add a noticably better camera and Bluetooth to the also lovely NX80V.

 

Specs:

Display: 320 x 480 pixels, 65,000 colors backlit TFT active matrix display. High resolution.

Performance: 200 MHz ARM processor. 16 megs of built in RAM (11 megs available), 16 megs ROM.

Size: 3 (W) x 5 5/8 (H) x 29/32 (D) inches (not including the "hump" on the back where the camera housing protrudes, thickness at camera section is 1.3"). Weight: 10.3 oz.

Communications: None included. Bluetooth is included. CF slot for optional Sony WiFi card.

Battery: Uses a rechargeable Lithium Ion Polymer battery. AC adapter/charger included.

Audio: FM Synthesizer, 16 chords, ADPCM sound (monaural), Monaural Speaker, Monaural Microphone. Built-in stereo MP3 Player (Memory Stick storage card required) output through stereo headphone mini-jack. It plays real sounds rather than only Midi synthesized sounds. Voice recorder built-in.

Software: Palm OS 5 and the usual suite of Palm and Sony applications. Sony apps: CLIE™ Album
CLIE™ Camera, CLIE™ Mail, CLIE™ Memo, CLIE™ Paint, CLIE™ Remote Commander, CLIE™ Viewer, Flash Player 5, Image Converter v.1.0 (for PC), Memory Stick Backup, Memory Stick Export v.1.1 (for PC), Memory Stick Import, Movie Player, Movie Recorder, PictureGear™ Studio (for PC), PhotoStand, Photo Editor , SonicStage™ LE v.1.5 (for PC), Sound Converter v.1.0 (for PC), Sound Utility, Voice Recorder, World Alarm Clock. 3rd party software (not trial, full versions): MobiPocket Reader (Franklin® Electronic Publishers), NetFront Web Browser, Picsel Viewer for CLIE™, Intellisync Lite.

Camera Specs: Effective pixels: 2 megapixels
Imager: 1/2.7 CCD Image Sensor(2,110k Gross Pixels)
Lens: F2.8 focal length f=5mm
Picture Size: 1600x1200, 1600x1072(3:2), 1280x960, 800x600, 640x480, 320x480, 320x240
Movie Size: 160x112
Picture / Movie Format: JPEG(DCF), Movie Player Format, MPEG movie (playback only)
2x Digital Zoom / Auto Focus / Manual Exposure Adjustment (+/- 2EV, 1/3 EV Steps)/ White Balance (Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Flourescent, Incandescent, Custom) / Scene Modes (Normal, Twilight, Twilight Portrait) / Flash Modes (Auto, Forced Off, Forced On) / Flash Level (High, Normal, Low) / Red-Eye Reduction / Flash Effective Range (0.5 to 1.5m) / Picture Effect (Black & White, Sepia) / Video Output (NTSC/PAL Selectable)(JPEG still picture only), Self Timer Function).

 

USB sync cradle, headphones w/remote, AV cable, USB printing cable, rechargeable removable battery and A/C adapter included.

 

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