palmOne LifeDrive

by PocketGoddess on June 7, 2005

Introduction

The palmOne LifeDrive (long rumored as the “Tungsten X” handheld) looks very impressive on paper. Aside from the standard bits like an IR port, headphone jack, SD expansion card slot and 64MB of RAM, it features Bluetooth and WiFi wireless networking, a voice recorder, a 416 MHz processor, and a 4GB microdrive. In many ways, the LifeDrive is a “kitchen sink” device that diligently strives to be all things to all people, as evidenced by palmOne’s advertising campaign for this model. By asking the question “What Drives You?” and highlighting the various features of the LifeDrive, palmOne shows that no matter whether you’re a road warrior or a soccer mom, the LifeDrive fits your needs. And in large part, it succeeds.

Hardware

When you first open the box, you’ll find the usual handheld goodness, such as the software installation CD, sync cable, AC adapter, a Graffiti 2 instruction sticker, and catalogs/promotional material. What you won’t find is an instruction manual of any kind, though the small fold-out pamphlet explained the initial setup process adequately. I was very pleasantly surprised though to find a real case for my new handheld– the black leatherette cover is very nice for a “throw in” that I wasn’t expecting. It has stiff front and back panels and elasticized sides, and there’s a cutout on the bottom for the headphone jack. The interior is lined with nice fuzzy stuff to protect the handheld. The top is left exposed, as are a portion of each side of the case, but it works quite well to protect the LifeDrive; many people may not spring for a better case since this one does such a good job. You’ll also find a freebie screen protector from palmOne, which is a nice touch. You’ll likely want to purchase a better one, as the included screen protector is rather disposable. You have to trim it to fit the LifeDrive, and it very quickly shows signs of wear in the Graffiti area– but for free, it does a nice job of protecting the screen until you can get something better.
The LifeDrive measures 4.75 inches high, 2.9 inches wide, and 0.75 inches thick, and weighs 6.9 ounces. I found the LifeDrive to be more comfortable in the hand than my Tapwave Zodiac, even though the LifeDrive is significantly thicker than my old handheld. This is due in large part to the fact that the LifeDrive is significantly “shorter” than the Zodiac (which is over 5.5 inches long), even though the screens are the same size. Since the LifeDrive doesn’t have a joystick and buttons oriented for gameplay, it’s much more compact. And even though the LifeDrive is thicker than the Zodiac, the rounded edges on the back make it so comfortable to grip that I don’t really notice the extra thickness. For that matter, the LifeDrive seems to be more “pocketable” than the Zodiac, at least for me– I don’t mind the thickness, but the Zodiac often felt like it was ready to fall out of my pocket.
The LifeDrive has a metal case, and all of the controls are laid out logically, for the most part. Starting at the top of the device, you’ll find the SD expansion card slot, IR port, on/off/hold switch, and the stylus silo. The included stylus isn’t a cheap piece of crud, either– it’s metal, and it telescopes from 3.75 inches long to 4.25 inches in length. The left side of the device has the voice recorder button and a special button that switches the display from portrait to landscape mode, which is great for viewing spreadsheets and movies. The bottom of the device has the multi-connector and AC adapter port. On the front you’ll find the now-familiar 5 way navigator with a center button, as well as the four traditional buttons. By default, they’re mapped to Home/Favorites, Files, Media, and Favorite Application. The back of the LifeDrive is perforated; it looks pretty cool and makes the LifeDrive easier to grip, though I suspect the purpose is to dissipate heat from the internal hard drive and to increase the speaker volume.

The Screen

Of course the real test for any handheld device is the quality of the screen. In this case, the LifeDrive passes the test with flying colors. The screen is absolutely gorgeous, with rich, vibrant colors. It’s also very bright– even at the lowest backlight setting the screen is still easily bright enough to read in an office setting. In a darkened environment, such as when reading a ebook in bed, it’s very clear and I don’t notice any pixelation in the text in either iSilo or eReader. Outside, you’ll need to turn the brightness up to see the screen, but I had no problem seeing my LifeDrive’s screen outside on a sunny day. Photos look superb, of course.
Based on the hardware alone, from fit and finish, design, and the screen, the LifeDrive is a real winner. But with a handheld device, the software is almost as (if not more important than) the hardware.

Battery Life (updated)

One thing I couldn’t originally comment on is the battery life for this device. I’ve been using it heavily now for a few weeks now, and I’m truly impressed. In some ways it reminds me of those annoying Energizer Bunny commercials, because the LifeDrive just keeps going and going and going and . . . you get the idea.
I’m not sure exactly why, but I treat the LifeDrive different than any other handheld I’ve ever owned. I’m not worried about rushing straight to the charging cable as soon as I get to work in the morning anymore, and I sometimes go a couple of days before I think to plug it in for a “drink” of power. The lowest I’ve been able to get the charge is 67%, and even that was after several hours of playing games & reading ebooks when I was on a plane. You should know that I have the screen brightness on a very low setting, but that’s due to my preference, not a desire to save every little bit of battery that I can– the LifeDrive screen is very bright.
I’m sure most of my lack of power consciousness is due to the fact that the LifeDrive is a hard drive-based device, and there are no worries about data loss, even if the battery runs down completely and I don’t charge it up for a month. But I also think that palmOne did an excellent job of optimizing the LifeDrive and using current technology to the farthest extent. Ironic, isn’t it, considering that in the “old days” of the Palm III a couple of alkaline batteries would last well over a month and people started complaining when more modern handhelds required charging almost every day. The LifeDrive has come full circle in that respect– you obviously can’t use it for a month without a charge, but you don’t have to worry about losing your data either. And you just may be surprised with how long the battery lasts, especially if you aren’t trying to watch full length movies twice a day.

Software

One thing I can give a lot credit to palmOne for is software integration and design. We’ve all heard the horror stories about the new memory model in the Treo 650 and the Tungsten T5, but they’ve fixed a lot of the kinks on the LifeDrive and it really shows. Overall my impression is one of polish and thoughtful design, where careful consideration is given to making things work together seamlessly (like the subtle blue highlight that shows exactly what onscreen button will be “tapped” if I press the center button on the 5 way navigator). I also really like the “quick” preferences menu that pops up when I tap on the current time in the status bar. It provides information on the battery and memory status as well as a quick way to switch between the three sound profiles (custom, silent, and all of). In that respect the LifeDrive is an almost complete success. From the desktop software to the applications on the handheld, it all just works, and wonderfully. In many cases I’ve found that I don’t really need all of the third party applications that I had loaded onto my Tapwave Zodiac. I feel closer to the old “Zen of Palm” and I really like the simpler, more integrated handheld experience as well.

LifeDrive Manager/Drive Mode

This is where the innovative features of the LifeDrive really shine. Remember that 4GB hard drive? These are the applications you need to take full advantage of that feature. LifeDrive Manager is a desktop application that allows you to quickly and easily transfer files to your handheld. There aren’t any restrictions here– you can transfer Word/Excel files, photos, videos, zip files, whatever you want to take with you. There are a few predefined folders already set up for you, but you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to organize your files that way. All you have to do is drag and drop files to the LifeDrive Manager icon and then choose whether you want to simply copy the file over, format it for viewing on your device (photos), or synchronize it with your computer. Synchronization is mainly for Office files like Microsoft Word and Excel, so that any changes made on your handheld will be automatically reflected on your computer the next time you connect the LifeDrive.
Drive Mode is a feature on the LifeDrive itself that allows you to connect to any desktop computer to copy or transfer files. No software at all is required on the host computer; think of the LifeDrive in this case as one of those near-ubiquitous USB flash drives and you’ll understand what this means. You don’t need to lug that laptop anymore just to make sure you have access to all of your files, and you don’t have to have a handheld for organization and a flash drive for large amounts of file storage– with the LifeDrive you can do it all. This feature will be particularly helpful for mobile professionals who often work out of different offices around the country but who will have computer access in each office, for example. Or for people like me who are truly paranoid about losing data, the LifeDrive is another backup option that allows you to keep your most important files with you at all times.

QuickInstall

This isn’t a new innovation, but it is handy. You can drag and drop files to the QuickInstall icon for installation on the next HotSync. It works well with Zip files too, which is rather handy; I sometimes download several programs at once when I’m looking for the best application for a particular purpose. I can highlight them all and drag them over, and QuickInstall does the rest, automatically putting the prc and pdb files into the handheld queue and any documentation on the expansion card. QuickInstall also keeps track of how much space you have left on your handheld and the memory expansion card.

QuickTour

This application runs when you first turn on your LifeDrive, after you calibrate the digitizer. I didn’t need much training, since I’ve been using Palm OS handhelds for over six years now. But I went through it anyway and was pleasantly impressed. It does a great job of introducing the new user to the things they can do with a Palm Powered handheld, and even more experienced users might learn a few tricks. I wish that other technology companies would take a cue from palmOne and make their documentation and product introductions a little easier to understand from the “normal” person instead of the gadget geek.

AddIt/Knowledge Tree

Amy's Knowledge Tree
These two applications reside on the LifeDrive and provide updated content at every HotSync. AddIt offers three services denoted by the tabs on the top of the window: MyPortal, MyLifeDrive, and Shopping. MyPortal offers news from Reuters, including top headlines, Oddly Enough, Sports, Entertainment, Business, Politics, and Science. It won’t serve all of your news needs, but it’s certainly good enough to give you a basic overview if you read while waiting in line, etc. MyLifeDrive provides hints and tips that help you to get the most of your handheld device; at the moment it offers information about how to add music to photo slide shows, determine free memory, and save changes made to Office documents. The Shopping tab offers a free copy of PrintBoy for LifeDrive owners as well as the opportunity to try and buy more applications for your handheld. When you find one you like, tap “Try” and the application will be downloaded and installed during your next HotSync, or you can press the small blue icon in the top left corner for a wireless update if you have WiFi access.
Amy’s Knowledge Tree provides a new article from the Wikipedia every day, as well as a quote of the day. As in life defined by Forrest Gump, you never know what you’re going to get. Recent articles have ranged from Dr. Who’s Daleks to Welding, from Dawson’s Creek to the use of poison gas in World War I. I’ve learned quite a few interesting tidbits over the last couple of weeks, as each article includes a brief summary overview as well as links to additional topics.

Camera Companion

Camera Companion
Here’s one of the really cool new features on the LifeDrive. One of the problems with going on vacation with your digital camera is what to do with all the photos you take while you’re on the road. If you can afford a huge 1GB memory card, great–but what if you can’t? Some folk end up taking their laptop with them so they can offload photos, but that isn’t exactly traveling light, now is it? With Camera Companion on the LifeDrive, you can quickly and easily transfer all of your photos from your digital camera to the LifeDrive, and then easily transfer them to your desktop computer, with one button simplicity.
Obviously this will work best if you have a camera that uses Secure Digital memory cards, but if you don’t you’re not out of luck. An optional accessory is coming soon that allows you to transfer photos using the USB cable for your camera and still get the same benefit of freeing up space on your camera for more photos. It isn’t quite as clutter-free as the direct option of plugging your camera’s SD card into the LifeDrive’s card slot, but for those who already have a good camera that happens to use CF cards, Memory Sticks, or the like won’t be left out in the cold. They’ll just need to purchase an extra accessory and be sure to pack their camera’s USB cable, but that’s still lighter than a laptop.

Favorites

LifeDrive Favorites
Treo users will be familiar with this one; it provides four “pages” of eight slots each for frequently-used applications. If you want to select your own favorites, all you have to do is tap and hold on a particular item and an edit box will pop up. You can select an application, a file or folder, or a web link, and you can name it whatever you like. The background is completely skinnable to give your device more personality. But the best part is that you can launch up to 32 different applications, files, or web links using the up and down, left and right keys on the navigator and never have to pull out the stylus. It’s a great timesaver that helps to make up for some of the deficiencies of the built-in launcher.

Files

LifeDrive Files
This is a new application from palmOne that allows you to browse the contents of the hard drive and memory expansion card. It isn’t as advanced as applications like Filez or FileMan, but it covers the basics and will likely be all that most users need. You can launch files, rename them, see details, copy or move, delete, beam, or send using Bluetooth. The small diamond to the left of each file or folder indicates which files have been selected if you want to do a mass operation, such as moving several photos to another directory or transferring files to a memory card.

Media/Pocket Tunes

This application allows you to view photos and movies, and has replaced AcidImage, at least for the short term. It offers some cool features such as slideshows and the ability to pan photos using the stylus, but it doesn’t have the sheer power of AcidImage. I also miss the almost infinite zoom capability of AcidImage as well, which is great for use with maps during travel when you need a bus route or train map, for example. Most users will find it perfectly adequate for their needs, though if you want more advanced photo viewing abilities I still suggest AcidImage, and MMPlayer for video files.
Pocket Tunes is also included with the LifeDrive for MP3 playback. If you want some of the more advanced capabilities, like streaming music over a wireless Internet connection, you’ll need to upgrade to the Deluxe version of Pocket Tunes. But for basic playback with playlists and such, Pocket Tunes does the job quite well, and for “free” since it comes with the LifeDrive.

Enhanced PIMs

This is my first palmOne device since the enhanced PIM apps came onto the scene, and I must say that I’m rather impressed. If only I could sort contacts by first name/last name I might have been tempted not to load Agendus Pro onto this device, but I just couldn’t resist. What I like most is the Calendar application– the subtle use of color, the much improved Today view, and the fact that tapping on the to do listing in that view takes me straight to the Tasks application. You can jump back to the Calendar application by pressing and holding the Home button to pop up a list of the five most recently used applications. I still think there’s a lot more that should be improved in the basic applications, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Documents To Go Office Suite

I hadn’t used Documents To Go in quite a while, since I don’t have much need to edit Microsoft Office documents on the go. I was pleasantly surprised by the overall polish of the application, though slightly disappointed at the speed with which documents open and close. The excellent screen on the LifeDrive makes viewing spreadsheets and word processing files an absolute joy, and it’s nice to know that I can carry everything with me and still have plenty of room left for photos, movies, and other entertainment files, thanks to the 4GB hard drive. The sync function used in conjunction with LifeDrive Manager on the desktop, ensures that any changes I make on the handheld are automatically sent to the desktop and vice versa.

Versamail/Blazer

I don’t have regular WiFi access so I wasn’t able to fully test this part of the package, but I was able to play with Blazer briefly. I was impressed with the page rendering and flow; virtually every web site I visited loaded quickly and was easy ro read.

Annoyances/Drawbacks

While I’m very pleased with the LifeDrive, it isn’t perfect. Many reviewers have mentioned the “lag” associated with reading files from the hard drive and switching applications. While there is a small delay, I don’t find it to be that annoying; my laptop doesn’t respond instantaneously, and neither does my Tapwave Zodiac. I think this due mostly to the fact that as processors get faster and faster, applications get more and more complex, using all of the extra resources and then some. Only a hands on test will determine if the “lag” is a problem for you or not, but I suspect that most users will quickly get used to it or not notice much of a difference at all. The LifeDrive does cache the last few applications used, so if you often use the same two or three programs you won’t notice any delay at all.
I have noticed that soft resets take significantly longer on the LifeDrive than on any other Palm OS device I’ve used. That’s a minor annoyance to be sure, but also quite understandable since there’s a lot more memory to clear out and reinitialize. One particular sore point is the fact that hard resets take even longer, though obviously the hope is that you’ll never have to deal with that problem. If you haven’t set a security password, you can do a hard reset in about 5 minutes that wipes out all the pointers to the files on the hard drive, but doesn’t securely wipe all the data. A secure hard reset takes about 30 minutes and is intended for use if you sell the device to someone else for example, and you want to make sure that all of your personal data is completely wiped out. If you set a security password, a secure hard reset is your only option. I wish that there were some way to reset just the RAM on the device, but that isn’t possible due to the memory architecture on the LifeDrive– the “RAM” is actually a portion of the hard drive set aside for use to run applications.
Backups are more of an issue as well– HotSync only backs up the RAM of the device, but not the hard drive. In order to ensure that your data is completely backed up, you have to connect to your computer using Drive Mode on the device and copy everything over. There are very clear directions on exactly what to do on the palmOne web site, but that won’t help the average user who will go looking for support only after something awful has happened to their device. Also, some applications such as BackupBuddy VFS may be confused by the LifeDrive and backup the system RAM to the hard drive instead of to a memory expansion card. I’m currently testing a new version that seems to fix that problem; hopefully it will be available to the general public soon.
Finally, I must say that I really hate the power switch. The switch offers some extra functionality, since you can slide it to the left to “lock” the device so it won’t be turned on accidentally, or if you let your kid watch a movie they can’t mess with any of the other applications. But I find the switch rather difficult to use, so I avoid it as much as possible. You can turn on the LifeDrive by pressing the Home button, but you can’t turn it off that way, I’ve resigned myself to hating it. If there were only one thing I could change about this device, that would be it–give me an old fashioned button, with a separate hold switch.

Conclusion

Overall I’m quite pleased with the palmOne LifeDrive, and it has replaced my Tapwave Zodiac, at least for the foreseeable future. It offers a lot of pluses, and in many ways fulfills my idea of the “kitchen sink” device. In fact, if it had a camera, it would fulfill just about all of my needs; I’m sure I’m not the only only one who prefers to have a fantastic handheld and a separate cell phone. Sometimes though I feel like I’ve been left behind since I haven’t jumped onto the Treo 650 bandwagon, but the LifeDrive gives me plenty of options. I can do everything from play my favorite games from Astraware, be productive with Agendus and Documents to Go, listen to music, and watch movies. When I first heard the rumors about a palmOne handheld with a 4GB hard drive, I wasn’t all that interested. But now that I have one and realize the freedom it offers, I can’t imagine not having one. You can learn more, take a product tour, or purchase one online from the palmOne online store.
4 out of 5

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