Jack of all trades, master of none. That's a cliché, I know, but it's the perfect description of palmOne's overly featured and expensive...

Share story

Jack of all trades, master of none.

That’s a cliché, I know, but it’s the perfect description of palmOne’s overly featured and expensive LifeDrive Mobile Manager.

The $499 LifeDrive does a lot of things: It’s a personal digital assistant that keeps track of your addresses, appointments and to-do list; it’s a viewer and editor for Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. It’s also an MP3 digital music player; it displays digital photos and runs video clips; it browses the Web and retrieves e-mail via built-in WiFi and Bluetooth wireless networking; and more.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

PalmOne, based in Milpitas, Calif., grandly proclaims that the LifeDrive is a single product that “fuses business-productivity tools and entertainment applications.”

Much easier said than done. In most cases, less expensive devices easily outperform the LifeDrive, although you’d have to spend much more than $500 to duplicate every LifeDrive function.

The LifeDrive (www.palmone.com/us) does succeed in delivering two innovations: It’s the first PDA available in the United States with an internal hard drive, in this case 4 gigabytes; and it has a much improved technique for synchronizing files with a personal computer.

LifeDrive Mobile Manager


Operating system:Palm OS 5.4

Memory:4 GB hard drive; 16 MB ROM

Battery:Rechargeable Lithium Ion

Size:4.76 x 2.87 x 0.74 inches

Weight:6.8 oz.

Wireless:Wi-Fi, Bluetooth

Price:$499

PalmOne and its predecessor, Palm, almost single-handedly created the PDA category a decade ago. The company still makes some of the best models out there, including the entry-level Zire 21 at $99, the elegant Tungsten E2 at $249 and the Treo 650 smart phone that costs about $400 when purchased from a cellular carrier with a service contract.

Not that there’s much of anything wrong with the LifeDrive. There just isn’t enough that’s right.

For one thing, the LifeDrive is bulky for a handheld device, and heavy at 6.8 ounces. It’s 45 percent heavier and 25 percent bigger than the slender Tungsten E2. This may not seem like much, but I found the silvery LifeDrive just big enough to feel awkward in my hand.

Then there’s the skimpy hard drive. You can get a 4 gigabyte Apple Computer iPod mini for $199 if you want a music player, or a tiny Seagate 5 gigabyte pocket hard drive for about $150 if you just need storage on the go. The LifeDrive is bigger and heavier than a standard iPod at $299 with a 20-gigabyte drive, raising the obvious question of why the LifeDrive doesn’t offer 20 gigabytes or more of storage.

And then there’s the LCD screen. It’s big for a PDA, and there’s a button on the side to easily switch from portrait to landscape viewing. But the new Sony PlayStation Portable game and video player at $249 has a screen that’s sharper, glossier and 20 percent bigger, with enough graphics-processing power for smooth video playback. On the LifeDrive, video clips stutter slightly.

The built-in Wi-Fi does indeed make it possible to go online with the LifeDrive, which I did through my home wireless networks and a hotspot at the local public library. But Web pages load slowly and are difficult to view on the small screen. It’s possible to read e-mail, but scrawling out a response with Palm’s Graffiti simplified alphabet or by tapping a virtual on-screen keyboard is tedious.

Pros:

Internal hard drive

Large storage capacity

Simple controls

Large battery

WiFi software

Cons:

Skimpy hard drive

Expensive

Marginal battery life

Slower than other Palm models

Comparatively large size

Bottom Line:

A bulked-up high-end PDA with a lot of features, some trade-offs, and a big price tag.

The LifeDrive’s built-in Bluetooth is useful if you want to go online by making a wireless connection to a Bluetooth mobile phone, assuming the phone in turn has data service. Or you can send documents wirelessly to a Bluetooth-equipped printer. But there aren’t many Bluetooth printers out there, and mobile phones mostly deliver online access at a crawl.

It’s also important to understand what the LifeDrive is not. It doesn’t make or receive phone calls, as does the Treo 650. Nor does it have a built-in camera. It will copy photos from SD memory cards, when those cards are inserted into a slot on top of the LifeDrive. If your camera uses other types of cards, you need to buy an adapter.

The one thing that’s truly new is automatic synchronization through a feature called LifeDrive Manager. With previous Palm PDAs, a feature called Documents To Go works with a separate folder on your computer. Any files in that folder are transferred to the PDA whenever the device is synced. Any changes made to the files on the PDA are copied back to the folder on the computer at the next sync.

The LifeDrive goes a big step further by letting you select multiple folders anywhere on your computer’s hard drive.

Maybe there are a few people out there who need or want all the features of the LifeDrive and don’t mind spending $500. The rest of us will be happier with a Tungsten or Zire PDA for information, an iPod for music and a Sony PSP if we want mobile games and video.