The wait is over. PalmOne's golden egg has finally hatched, and the LifeDrive is here. The firstborn in the company's new Mobile Manager line, the LifeDrive is the first handheld to have an integrated hard drive--4GB, to be exact--for all your storage needs, and lo and behold, this baby finally has built-in Wi-Fi. Like the HP iPaq rx3715, the LifeDrive aims to converge productivity and digital entertainment into one slick device, and overall, it does it well. It lets you store and work on your Microsoft Office files, check e-mail, surf the Web, listen to music, and organize your photos, to name just a few capabilities. While these features are impressive, at a costly $500, the LifeDrive isn't necessarily ready for prime time. The idea of PDAs as portable media devices is just starting to take off, and though the PalmOne LifeDrive is sure to garner lots of interest, only hard-core gadget hounds or early adopters may be willing to part with that kind of cash. Chock-full of features, it's no surprise that the PalmOne LifeDrive is larger and noticeably heavier (4.7 by 2.8 by 0.8 inches; 6.8 ounces) than the company's earlier endeavors. Still, it won't take up too much room in your bag; plus, it feels solid in your hands and has a stylish silver casing to boot. The LifeDrive's 3.7-inch-diagonal screen grabs your attention with sharp, crisp text and images, thanks to its 320x480-pixel resolution. Plus, colors jump, as it display 65,000 hues. Unfortunately, as with many PDAs, the screen looks washed out in direct sunlight.
Below the LCD, you'll find four ample shortcut keys to Home, Files, Media, and one unassigned application. They can be customized to open different applications, and they surround a five-way navigation toggle with a center Select button. All the controls are easy to manipulate, but you have to firmly press the OK key square in the middle; otherwise, it acts like one of the directional keys. On the left spine, you'll find a voice recorder button and a very handy key that lets you switch between Portrait and Landscape modes. The top of the LifeDrive is home to the SDIO/MMC expansion slot, the power/hold switch, and the infrared port, while the 3.5mm audio jack (which accepts Walkman-style headphones), the multiconnector, and the power adapter connection sit at the bottom. We found the headphone jack's placement to be odd, but when we asked PalmOne about this, the company said it simply ran out of room. It's definitely not a deal breaker, just a minor design quirk.
Extra goodies packaged with the PalmOne LifeDrive are kept to a minimum. You get a protective sleeve, an AC adapter, user guides and installation CDs, and a USB sync cable with PalmOne's multiconnector, which allows for one-touch HotSync operations. The LifeDrive is also PalmOne's first device to support USB 2.0. You can also purchase optional accessories from PalmOne, including a desktop cradle ($50), a travel charger ($30), and the company's Universal Wireless keyboard ($70).The PalmOne LifeDrive is filled to the brim with features, and topping the list, of course, is the integrated 4GB Hitachi hard drive. It's the same microdrive as those found in today's MP3 players and digital cameras. While this all sounds impressive, what does it actually mean for you? In short, there's ample room for all your data storage needs. Of the 4GB of available memory, 3.85GB is user accessible. This allows you to carry approximately 1,200 Office documents, 6,000 e-mails, 10,000 appointments, and 10,000 contacts, and on the multimedia side, 300 songs (1,000 songs if used solely as a music device), 1,000 photos, and 2.5 hours of video. Not too shabby, right? But wait, there's more. As with the Tungsten T5, you can use the LifeDrive as a USB drive. Just switch to Drive mode and connect the PDA to your PC via the USB cable. All of this functionality is nicely complemented by the device's easy drag-and-drop transfer method and the LifeDrive's Smart File Management, which lets you keep an entire folder's organization and structure, convert photos and videos to formats best suited for the LifeDrive, and select files that you want automatically updated whenever you sync with your computer. In our tests, we moved documents, music, and whole folders between our PC and the device with no problem.
The hard drive is certainly big news, but we're equally as thrilled to see that PalmOne finally got the message and integrated Wi-Fi into the LifeDrive, in addition to Bluetooth. Even better, both features are easy to use (you can instantly access either via the taskbar at the bottom of the screen) and can be operated simultaneously. Under Wi-Fi Preferences, you can set the time for clocking out, check signal strength, and add VPN clients and WEP encryption for added security. Meanwhile, the Bluetooth utility lets you set up Bluetooth-enabled devices, from phones to PCs to LANs, for all your wireless connectivity needs.
One of the main focuses of the company's Mobile Manager line is the customer who craves "digital everything," including music, photos, and videos; the LifeDrive should satiate their needs. The LifeDrive comes with a new application called Camera Companion that allows you to copy photos directly from your camera's memory card or your computer. It also lets you simply view the images on the SD/MMC card without copying files onto your device. While that's all well and good, we're more excited about the LifeDrive's ability to create slide shows with background music--we had a blast with this feature. The slide shows are simple to create and customizable, as you can choose the photos and videos to display, set the transition time and effects, add background music and voice memos, and more. And music lovers, the LifeDrive now comes with PocketTunes with support for MP3s, and it allows you to create and manage playlists. Also, beginning in June, you'll be able to use the LifeDrive with the Real Rhapsody subscription and get a full version of PocketTunes with support for DRM-protected WMA files. The LifeDrive also plays MPEG-4 videos. That said, the LifeDrive's form factor and the power drain of these advanced multimedia features would prevent us from using it as our primary MP3 player or PMP (see Performance).
Last but not least, the PalmOne LifeDrive runs Palm OS 5.4 and features Documents To Go 7.0 for viewing, creating, and editing Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files and for opening Adobe Acrobat files. Software goodies include VersaMail 3.1, Expense, World Clock, Handmark Solitaire, and Memos, among others.Powering the PalmOne LifeDrive is a 416MHz Intel XScale processor that provides good performance overall but not the best numbers. Like the Tungsten T5 and the Tungsten E2, the LifeDrive shows a noticeable lag in response time when switching between applications and loading any multimedia files.
Videos were watchable, but the quality suffered some during action sequences, when images became pixelated and somewhat blurry. Viewing photographs, however, was a treat, with sharp and bright images. Audio playback was relatively clear and quite loud, even in noisy environments, but we asked CNET senior editor and portable audio expert James Kim to lend us his expert opinion. Compared to today's MP3 players, the LifeDrive was one of the best handhelds to emulate a standalone MP3 player in terms of interface and features such as playlists, but the sound was thin. There was audible hiss at loud volumes, and bass was weak.
The LifeDrive's wireless functions were admirable. In our tests, the LifeDrive immediately found our test access point, and we connected to the Web in no time, although viewing graphics-intensive pages will test your patience as they upload at a poky rate. We also had no problems connecting to a Bluetooth-enabled Pocket PC and transferring contacts wirelessly.
Battery life was decent. In CNET Labs' tests, playing a looped MP3 playlist, the device petered out after 6 hours, 40 minutes--not bad as far as PDAs goes but below par compared to today's microdrive MP3 players, which average about 15 hours of battery life. We repeated the same test with a video using Kinoma Player and the LifeDrive lasted for 5 hours, 15 minutes.