PalmOne's new LifeDrive packs almost everything you'd want from a laptop - document editing, e-mail access, and plenty of storage for photos and MP3s - into a package not much larger than a typical early MP3 player. I tested a preproduction model of this £329 (including VAT) device that's sure to turn some heads.

At its heart, the Life Drive is a PalmOS PDA with the same controls, expansion slots, and basic applications you've come to expect from a Tungsten (Tungsten E2 review) or Treo (Treo 650 review). The downside to the device: it's a tweener - too big to easily fit in a pocket, and too small storagewise to qualify as a substitute for a video or MP3 player.

Four Gigs of drive
The "Drive" in the LifeDrive is a built-in 4GB Microdrive, which holds a full slate of contacts, documents, and e-mails, with enough space left over to store 1000 full-resolution photos, a video or two, and a few CDs worth of music. Built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity and a beautiful 320-by-480 color display round out the package.

Software includes DocumentsToGo, which lets you view and edit most office docs you'll need, and Exchange ActiveSync, which lets you check your Outlook e-mail.

New applications written for the LifeDrive highlight its capabilities. The PC-based LifeDrive Manager lets you keep whole folders in sync, and gives you the option to resize photos and video to save space. On the device itself, a file browser lets you view files in a Windows Explorer-like fashion, and a new Drive Mode turns the LifeDrive into a USB mass storage device.

When files are transferred, you have the option of keeping the original file format or having it converted to a mobile-friendly version.

Audio, video: mixed results
With a crisp, colorful screen and a one-button landscape mode, the LifeDrive should excel as a video player. But while the clips I watched looked decent enough, playback wasn't completely smooth, even on clips that exhibited some noticeable compression artifacts.

As an MP3 player, the LifeDrive is all potential. Music sounded quite good through my Sony MDR-v900 headphones, though the headphone jack is awkwardly located on the bottom of the device. An app called PTunes lets you build playlists, play MP3s, and supports Rhapsody To Go, but it doesn't take advantage of the many ways you could organise music with a PDA's touch screen.

An app called Camera Companion is where the LifeDrive really shines. Camera Companion turns the LifeDrive into a mobile storage repository for your digital camera photos. Fill up your SD card with photos, then slot it into the LifeDrive to offload the photos and reformat the card.
A serious email effort
The device comes pre-set to accept up to eight email accounts - one of which can be an Exchange server - using Versamail. PalmOne has done a lot to make the set-up as easy as possible, rightly surmising that set-up woes are what prevent many people from accessing email on otherwise quite capable handhelds. The device opens and edits Word and Excel attachments, and opens PowerPoint files. Some other file formats will only open on it if synched through the desktop software.

Not quite a laptop replacement
It's a bit quicker and a lot lighter than carrying around a laptop or portable hard drive for the same purpose. In fact, that's probably the way the Life Drive is most useful. It's just barely capable enough to fill in for your laptop when you don't want to tote a notebook-size machine around.

Peter Judge contributed to this report.

OUR VERDICT

A Palm PDA that holds masses, and has a good screen, and lots of nice features. Worth getting if you want to avoid carrying a laptop when you mostly need storage.