palmOne LifeDrive review

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PalmOne has had quite a shake up in recent months. Along with the costly reacquisition of the Palm name and a planned re-branding, the company has also made efforts to establish itself more firmly in the smartphone market, with the Treo 650. But whereas that fits into an already existing market, the 4GB hard-disk-based LifeDrive is trying to create a whole new genre, which palmOne is calling the Mobile Manager. It’s being billed as a PDA, media player, storage device and all-round portable My Documents folder.

palmOne LifeDrive review

The LifeDrive doesn’t just rely on HotSync to transfer data. It also includes the LifeDrive Manager software, letting you transfer folders directly to the internal hard disk. It’s easy enough to use, allowing you to move entire folders or just a couple of files, and you can set folders to stay synchronised so that the Manager will search for changes every time your LifeDrive is connected. You have the choice when initiating a transfer between a direct copy or formatting files for the device. The ‘format for device’ option checks the file types and, where possible, converts the data accordingly, so pictures and movie files will be resized to the optimum viewing size for the Palm. Any unrecognised data can still be copied and stored, but you won’t be able to use it on the device. You can also transfer direct from an SD/MMC card.

That’s all great in theory, but transferring data from a computer is a slow-going process. It took us more than 12 minutes to transfer and format a 356MB photo folder, so copying large amounts of data will be a time-consuming process. Still, once you’ve got it out of the way the first time round, you shouldn’t have to do it again unless you erase everything by performing a hard reset.

Unfortunately, once you’ve got all your data copied onto your LifeDrive, the experience is somewhat disappointing. Listening to music on the new Pocket Tunes software (a replacement for the RealPlayer application used on previous Palms) is nowhere near the standard of a dedicated hard-disk-based music player – just playing all your albums in order is unusually difficult.

And the system didn’t cope well with playing music in the background while we did other things either. Only too regularly the music would stutter when we opened a new application, and we also got buzzing feedback sounds when we tapped the screen and in between tracks, making it a less-than-smooth listening experience.

The principle problem, though, is that it lacks the basics, such as dedicated volume or transport controls, making the LifeDrive a poor alternative to a portable media player. You can use the shortcut buttons to replicate some commands, and we like the hold switch on the top, but their positioning makes them very tricky to use from a pocket.

Movie playback was reasonably good though. There was occasional blurring and halting, but a clear, bright picture proved ample compensation. In common with the Tungsten E2, the screen itself lacks the impact of recent Pocket PC devices, but it has a pleasing softness and clarity, which makes using it less of a strain on the eyes over long periods of use.

As a PDA, the LifeDrive works as any standard Palm-based device. All the usual PIM-synching facilities are present, and we’re pleased to see Documents To Go included for viewing Office documents. There’s also support for Microsoft Exchange and room for up to eight email accounts. Sadly, although the LifeDrive’s hard disk may leave more room for all your contacts and emails, you’ll find that accessing data is a substantially slower process than on flash-based devices. And while the Intel XScale 416MHz ARM processor may be good enough for a Tungsten T5, the LifeDrive feels a lot more sluggish by comparison.

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