Features at a Glance
The LifeDrive is both a Palm OS PDA and a multimedia device. Similar to recent high end Palm handhelds like the Tungsten T3 and Tungsten T5, it runs Palm OS 5, and has a half VGA 320 x 480 high res+ transflective color display that works in both portrait and landscape modes. The device has Bluetooth, WiFi, 64 megs of program memory (works like RAM) and a 416 MHz Intel XScale processor, making it quite powerful by Palm OS standards and competitive with Pocket PCs. The LifeDrive plays MP3s, has a stereo headphone jack, plays videos and works as a photo and slide show viewer out of the box. Documents To Go is included for viewing, editing and creating MS Office documents. And of course, it has all the standard features of a Palm OS PDA, allowing you to keep track of contacts, calendar items, tasks and more.
In the Box
The LifeDrive comes with a USB 2.0 sync cable with a HotSync button— Palm went for the cable rather than a cradle since you might want to use the device on the go us in USB Drive Mode with various computers, and who wants to carry a cradle everywhere. You get a compact world charger that you can plug directly into the LifeDrive or into the sync cable (same as the Treo 650), leather slip case, stylus, software CD for Windows and Mac, a thin printed guide (the larger PDF manual is on the CD) and a certificate good for 30 days of free T-Mobile WiFi Hotspot access.
Design and Ergonomics
Given all that's packed into the LifeDrive, it's one of the larger PDAs on the market, being bigger than the Tungsten E2 and T3 with slider closed. It is a tad smaller than the VGA HP iPAQ hx4700 Pocket PC (one of the largest recent PDAs) and the T3 with slider open. By portable media player standards such as the Apex E2go MP-2000, Archos PMA400 and the Creative Zen Portable Media Center, the LifeDrive is small.
A metal casing and a very attractive bright silver finish cover the LifeDrive which is basically a rectangle with attractively and ergonomically curved corners. The back's tapering sides make the unit easier to hold and it fits easily into all but very small hands. The LifeDrive is both good looking and hip, with a minimalist flair: when we carried it with us on visits to various venues in Silicon Valley, everyone from waiters to engineers ogled it. Folks wanted to know whether it was a PDA, mini-computer or a portable media player.
Four front application buttons integrate cleanly into the design, surrounding the center oval 5-way directional pad with center action button. The application buttons launch Favorites, Files, Media and the favorite application of your choice by default and you can re-assign them if you wish. The DIA (dynamic input area) where the silk screen Graffiti input area appears at the touch of a taskbar icon, has application icons for VersaMail, Calendar, Web and Contacts. On the left side you'll find the voice recorder button, mic holes, and the hardware button that switches screen orientation on the fly. There are no controls on the right side, and you'll find the standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack and the sync connector on the bottom. The LifeDrive shares the Palm Multi Connector used on other recent models such as the Treo 650, Tungsten E2 and T5. The back has a large grill: the speaker is located beneath the upper section and we imagine the remainder of the grill area functions to keep the unit and particularly the MicroDrive cool.
Up top you'll find the combined power and hold switch, IR port and SD card slot inset into a black plastic panel. That hold switch is handy: use it to prevent accidental button presses from turning on the machine while it's in your pocket or purse. Conversely, you can use it when the unit is on and you've handed it around for folks to view a slide show or presentation— no worries that someone will accidentally hit a button and stop the show. The stylus, a typically nice Palm weighted metal telescoping affair, lives up top on the right corner. All in all, an excellent design both in terms of functionality and aesthetics, though given the device's role as a portable MP3 and video player, I'm surprised that Palm didn't incorporate a hardware volume control into the design.
Horsepower and MicroDrive Details
The LifeDrive uses the same Intel XScale 416 MHz processor found in the Tungsten T5. This is a very fast CPU for a Palm OS device and is competitive with processors used in Pocket PCs and other PDAs. Though you'll find faster CPUs on the high end Pocket PCs, Palm OS requires less processing power so that 416 MHz is plenty enough to run games, multimedia apps and Documents To Go.
As you know by now, the LifeDrive has an internal 4 gig hard drive called a MicroDrive with 3.85 gigs available to the user. It's whisper quiet and you won't feel the machine vibrating when the drive is accessed. For those of you who are into the nitty gritty: the Hitachi MicroDrive weighs only 16 grams ( .56 ounces), measures roughly 1.5" x 1.5", has a 128k buffer and spins at 3,600 RPM. It has an average seek time of 12ms and uses just over 300 mA current when active and 16 mA when in standby. The LifeDrive partition is formatted in FAT32.
RAM is used to cache running applications and data, and there's rarely a significant lag when accessing data on the hard drive. Files opened reasonably quickly, though not as fast as if they were stored in RAM which is much faster than any hard drive. MP3s occasionally stuttered for one second when switching to another app using the background playback feature. They didn't stutter at all when the device was used a portable MP3 player with screen turned off and no PDA use. Movies rarely stuttered due to disk access times.
How long is the delay when launching apps? We soft reset our unit to make sure no applications where cached in RAM, the launched a few test apps, including that old standby, Calendar. It took 2 seconds according to our stopwatch to launch Calendar. There was NO delay when switching between calendar views. The LifeDrive was set up as a "real world" unit, with 1.5 gigs of data on the LifeDrive partition, 20 megs of apps and data on program memory, 350 contacts, several hundred calendar items, 60 Memos and 15 Tasks.
In addition to the drive, the LifeDrive has 64 megs of "program memory" which functions just as RAM does on other PDAs: you can store programs and data in this area, and applications which only support syncing to main memory should be stored in this area. Unlike the 4 gig hard drive, you can't view and work with files on program memory usiing LifeDrive Manager on the desktop. Program memory is actually a partition on the hard drive, so it's persistent and will survive compete battery run downs with no data loss. The LifeDrive has 32 megs of RAM which works similarly to RAM on your computer: programs execute in RAM, and RAM can be used to cache multimedia files for improved playback performance. The LifeDrive also has 16 megs of ROM where the OS lives.
The LifeDrive's SD slot supports SD cards, MMC cards and SDIO cards. I tested a variety of cards, up to 1 gig capacity and all went well. I tried a 1 gig Lexar SD card formatted as FAT32 and after formatting it in the LifeDrive then formatting it as FAT32 using a card reader on my PC it worked fine.
Display and Multimedia
The Life Drive has the same 320 x 480 transflective color display capable of displaying 65,000 colors found on the recent Palm Tungsten T5. It's bright, sharp and supports rotation on the fly using a handy hardware button on the unit's left side. The display is reasonably color accurate, though it does have a faint cool color cast and it's middle-of-the-road in terms of brightness. That said, it's plenty bright enough even for viewing dark videos, and likely battery life would have suffered greatly if Palm had gone for an extremely bright LCD. The screen looks great when viewing digital camera images and it's sharp enough to work with documents using small fonts. Rotation on the fly is instantaneous and reliable: we didn't experience any screen glitches or bugs when rotating a variety of applications several times. The Handedness prefs item allows you to specify whether you're left or right handed, which changes the landscape orientation (buttons on the left for righties, buttons on the right for lefties).
To watch videos, slide shows and view images, you'll use the Media application. Media is covered in greater detail below, but suffice to say it's central to the LifeDrive multimedia experience. The LifeDrive Manager desktop software helps you transfer these multimedia files, convert movies as needed and can keep them all in sync. And you can of course use the 3rd party image viewer or video player of your choice, though we think that Media is hard to beat as an image viewer and slide show app.
Pocket Tunes, likely the most popular MP3 player for Palm is included rather than the less full-featured Real Player for Palm bundled with other Palm handhelds. You get the bundle version of Pocket Tunes 3.09 which supports all the MP3 playback features and skinning of the Deluxe version but doesn't handle Internet radio broadcast streaming playback. You can upgrade to the Deluxe version if you're into web-based radio broadcasts. The included version will suit most users and it has a great set of features, including background playback, automatic screen shut off (to conserve battery when using the LifeDrive as a portable MP3 player), playlist creation and syncing to Windows Media player using a plugin.
Software, Syncing and Compatibility
Software on the LifeDrive
Palm includes a note inside the box warning you to make sure your software is compatible with the LifeDrive. We keep our 3rd party Palm software current, and encountered no problems. We tested MMPlayer, TCPMP, eReader, several games, Acrobat Reader and all software included on the CD. In 5 days the LifeDrive froze once during a WiFile transfer of several large MPEG video files from a networked PC over WiFi, and once when the unit turned off when left in the Palm Wireless Keyboard settings application. I did notice that after a soft reset (reboot), the LifeDrive had set my handedness preference back to the default right handed— not sure why that preference isn't saved after a soft reset. If the unit does crash, when it reboots it tells you that it crashed and what the error was (generally one of the usual Memory Manager line C errors). It also automatically runs a chkdsk (like Check Disk on a Windows machine) on the hard disk.
You get a good 3rd party software bundle with the LifeDrive, as you should for a high end unit. Documents To Go 7 supports viewing, editing and creating native MS Word and Excel documents, viewing of native PowerPoint files and editing converted PowerPoint files. The excellent Pocket Tunes is included for MP3 playback along with the Pocket Tunes plugin for Windows Media Player on the desktop. This is the standard version of Pocket Tunes, and you'll need to upgrade to Deluxe if you want to play WMA and Internet radio broadcasts. You also get WiFile (light not pro version) for accessing computer network shares, Handmark Solitaire, eReader, Audible Player and Acrobat Reader for Palm OS.
The LifeDrive includes Palm's enhanced PIM applications: Calendar (with Agenda view similar to the Pocket PC's Today Screen), Contacts, Memos, Notes (for handwritten notes) and Tasks. And you'll get the usual host of standard Palm apps such as Calculator, Card Info, Expense, Dialer (the Palm can dial your cell phone for you over IR or Bluetooth), Voice Memo (for recording voice notes), SMS and World Clock.
Palm developed a few in-house applications which add a great deal of functionality to the LifeDrive. These include:
Camera Companion: Have a digital camera that uses SD or MMC cards? You can use the LifeDrive as a photo viewer. Insert the camera's card into the LifeDrive's SD slot and you can use the Camera Companion application to copy all files from the card to the LifeDrive (it copies all images in the DCIM folder), or you can use the LifeDrive and an external removable hard drive to copy images from the device to your PC, or you can simply view the images without copying them. We love the copy to LifeDrive feature: no need to bring a notebook on a vacation outing simply to transfer files from the camera card: use the LifeDrive instead! And it makes a great portable photo viewer too.
The Files application is a true file manager which allows you to browse, move, delete, open, beam and send files on the LifeDrive (but not on internal program memory). It works like and resembles the file managers on Windows and Mac PCs rather than the more arcane interface found on handy utilities like Filez. You'll see all folders on the LifeDrive and navigate and manage them easily— and we thought we'd have to wait for Palm OS 6 to get a true file manager!
Media allows you to view photos, create sideshows with sound easily and watch videos. It supports JPEG, BMP, TIFF and GIF image formats. The application is fast even when loading thumbnails and viewing images from an SD card that had fifty five 2.5 meg JPEG images taken with our Pentax *ist DS 6.1 MP digital SLR camera. Given that my iPAQ hx4700 with 624 MHz Intel XScale processor is slow to view and rotate the same images, I'm impressed with Palm's work here. Want to show a slide show of your vacation to friends and family? Use the hold switch to pass the device around in slide show mode without worrying that someone will hit a button and stop the show.
Media can play videos in ASF, MPEG1, MPEG4 and MJPEG formats. If your video format isn't supported by Media, you can use the LifeDrive Manager desktop application to automatically convert the video to ASF format while copying it to the LifeDrive's internal disk. Be warned that like many video conversion processes, this isn't fast and is slower than some standalone converters. We converted a 30 meg 320 x 240 WMV to ASF format using LifeDrive Manager and it took 30 minutes, creating a 130 meg file! How about 3rd party video players? We tested both MMPlayer and TCPMP and both worked well on the LifeDrive. Using these apps and Media, we tested movies up to 300kbps and both TCPMP and Media handled them well, playing smoothly with good audio sync. MMPlayer occasionally showed artifacts or stuttered a bit. Given that the device is buffering media from the hard disk during playback, we were pleased with the LifeDrive's overall performance as a portable video player. Sound quality, as with the included Pocket Tunes MP3 player is very good as well.
Addit is an application you can use to download demo versions of Palm OS software or even purchase software titles. In addition, it's a portal of sorts that offers top news and tips on using the device. It updates automatically using your computer's Internet connection each time you HotSync.
Favorites, first found on Tungsten T5, functions as a launcher with shortcuts to your favorite applications such as Documents To Go, music, photos and VersaMail. It also has room for additional individual applications which you can launch with one tap. The Favorites app has three additional pages where you can add more shortcuts to the files, folders or apps of your choice. Of course, you can use the traditional Palm OS home screen if you wish or your favorite 3rd party launcher.
You can use the LifeDrive as if it were a USB flash drive with any USB-equiped computer. Run the Drive Mode application on the LifeDrive, connect its USB cable to any USB computer regardless of platform and the device's 4 gig hard drive will mount as a removable drive so you can copy, move, reorganize and delete files. And of course, you get the usual Palm Desktop software for both Windows and Mac which allows to you keep your PIM information in sync and backup the PDA automatically each time you sync. Windows users have the choice of syncing PIM data (calendar, contacts, tasks and memos) to either Palm Desktop or Microsoft Outlook.
On Windows, several of us had problems upgrading from recent older versions of Palm Desktop software to the version included with the LifeDrive. If you have a previous Palm Desktop installation and are getting errors during the installation and upgrade process, it's likely due to a Microsoft Windows MSI installer bug. You can download a small free utility from Microsoft's web site here to fix the problem. Download and install the app, then run it from the Start Menu. Select the Palm desktop software from the list and remove the problematic old installer data (it will not remove the actual software, don't worry).
In addition, you get LifeDrive Manager for Windows (sorry, no Mac version). This excellent application is an important part of the LifeDrive experience, making it extremely easy to view and manipulate files on the MicroDrive and convert media files. When you plug your LifeDrive into your Windows PC, the LifeDrive is ready for file transfers (the screen won't turn on but you'll hear the familiar hardware recognized sound on your PC). You can use the LifeDrive while transferring files to and from it using the desktop LifeDrive Manager app, and if you initiate a HotSync from the PDA, LifeDrive Manager will automatically disconnect during the syncing process and reconnect once HotSync is finished (a popup window near the taskbar on your Windows machine tells you LifeDrive Manager is ready to go). LifeDrive Manager puts files where they belong, unlike prior Palm models, there's no obscure special folders to figure out and no card reader needed.
LifeDrive Manager adds a new kind of syncing: File Sync. You can use LifeDrive Manager to keep files and folders of you choice synced with the mobile device. Drag files and/or folders to the LifeDrive using LifeDrive Manager and specify that you wish to keep them in sync. When you do a file sync, the selected files will be synchronized (they'll also be synced when you do a full regular HotSync).