Is the new PalmOne LifeDrive just another good-looking PDA or is it the handheld to take mobile computing to new levels of power and convenience?

We’ve already given the LifeDrivethe once over, but decided to take a more detailed look at the new features that mark it out from its predecessors to see whether they manage to enhance it in everyday use.

It’s got a faster processor in it – an Intel XScale running at 416 MHz - and the inclusion of a 4GB Hitachi Microdrive sets new standards for data capacity that no other PDA can currently match out of the box. The most impressive feature, though, is the 320 x 480 high-resolution display, which can be rotated to letterbox format by pressing a button on the unit’s side. Attaching a Bluetooth keyboard and composing emails, SMS messages (it has a built in utility) and even longer documents is not something that’s difficult to imagine doing. It could still do with a better native word processer, however.

Storage
The 4GB hard drive is used both for storage and in place of RAM. Consequently, some of the memory is reserved for applications, leaving 3.85GB available for keeping data. Because of the unusual paging-style memory architecture, it’s hard to see how this could be upgraded without causing problems, though that won’t stop some people trying. There is a single flash memory slot, however, which takes SD, SDIO or MMC cards, and this is how most people will probably add extra storage as the device ages.

One convenient advance: the hard disk design means that data can’t be lost if you forget to charge the PDA. Even if it sits in a drawer for months, the data is safe on the drive.

Integration
Palm has greatly enhanced the way the LifeDrive integrates with a Windows PC, a feature that has been lacking in older models that treated the idea of the PC and PDA as two separate software realms. Now the experience is pretty seamless using the LifeDrive Manager application. When moving a file, you are automatically given the choice of leaving in its native PC format, changing it into one that can be accessed when on the LifeDrive (Microsoft Office and PDFs are supported), or simply synchronising the files on the two devices so they stay the same.

You can now also drag and drop files in to and out of directories you’ve created on the LifeDrive, much as you would on a PC. The ability to create a directory tree that looks the same as it would on a PC is something that Windows Mobile users will already be familiar with.

It is possible to put the LifeDrive into “drive mode”, whereby it will appear as another USB-attached volume to the PC/Mac. The point of this feature is to let you attach to PCs that don’t have any Palm drivers on them, and the feature worked well as long as you didn’t try to use it on a machine that already LifeDrive drivers running.

Communications
Setting up WiFi took about 10 seconds, and involved selecting a local router from a list of detected devices. Likewise, there is a utility that will quickly let you connect to shared folders on another PC using Windows peering. Impressive.

So, you can carry make the LifeDrive work with the PC world, can move around files in various formats – including images and videos – and successfully work with them if they are Microsoft Office Word or Excel files. Wireless and Bluetooth networking is also pretty straightforward. Battery life from the rechargeable 1660 mAh Lithium Ion cell seemed OK – it’s certainly no worse than that of rival Windows Mobile handhelds. Two issues; at this price there should have been a charging and data transfer cradle as standard. There is also no way to replace the battery when it dies, as one day it surely will.

The device has other features, such as email synchronisation, a built-in MP3 player (there is a headphone jack to complement the modest speaker) and a host of minor applications that have been around for a while. It’s also a great conventional PDA for those who worry about suck old-fashioned features.

There is sometimes a slight delay when using applications that is surprising on such a well-specified device, and must have something to do with its hard disk-memory architecture. This is only a slight delay, mind, and not something that stands out as an issue. Overall, performance is acceptable.

Conclusion
The LifeDrive looks like a significant return to form for Palm, after some years spent producing PDAs that were always nice-to-look-at but were starting to advance at a snail’s pace. This is just as well as the whole Palm platform is certain to come under sustained attack from the growing ranks of Windows-based PDAs. It’s not a gadget and won’t necessarily please those looking for one. If you want a portable filestore or a music player, you’d be better buying something else. Its best fit is with people who want a handheld oriented towards business tasks that can also be used for leisure. Although Windows Mobile handhelds do many of the same things as the LifeDrive, they lack its hard disk capacity, which has until now been a major drawback of using a PDA.

Would this reviewer buy one? On balance, yes. Notwithstanding that its 4GB internal disk and SD card memory expansion will likely look rather insignificant in a couple of years, the LifeDrive would still make a decent long-term investment. The most important thing to think about is not just the out-of-the-box features, but the sort of software that is available for such a machine; on that score PalmOne is still a strong contender.

OUR VERDICT

Assuming you don't want a smartphone - there are some very good ones out there - then it comes down to a PalmOne or a Windows Mobile device. There's not much to choose between them really though Palm has extensive third-party software which might make the difference. It also uses memory better and is said to be more economical in terms of battery life though we?ve never tested this claim.