Once again palmOne, the maker of hardware for PalmSource operating system-powered personal digital assistants, has pushed the envelope of...

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Once again palmOne, the maker of hardware for PalmSource operating system-powered personal digital assistants, has pushed the envelope of design and technology.

Behold LifeDrive, a hugely enjoyable combo PDA and mobile digital music/movie player unmatched by the competition.

We have here a newly released handheld computer with a massive — for PDAs — 4 gigabytes of hard-drive space in a case about the size of Apple’s iPods, but with a really crisp color screen the size of a playing card.

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Thanks to a Hitachi hard drive about the size of a digital camera’s compact flash memory card, palmOne’s newcomer carries and plays hundreds of MP3 music tracks like iPods do with their 5-gigabyte through 60-gigabyte hard drives from Toshiba.

The bulked-up PDA for PCs and Macs displays photos on a screen twice the size of Apple Computer’s new iPod Photo and, unlike any iPod yet made, it also will display feature-length movies and home camcorder productions.

Also unlike an iPod, LifeDrive comes with a full-blown set of productivity tools, including reading and writing Microsoft Word documents and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. It sends and receives e-mail, serves as a voice memo taker, and links to Wi-Fi networks to move files back and forth with a computer. All this, too, is beyond the power of Apple’s enormously popular digital music players.

Most striking of all when compared to iPods, the new Palm device can surf the Internet and, wirelessly or through USB wires, synchronize audio, video and text files with a computer.

But once again a nagging question must rise in any reviewer’s mind: So what?

Every year the Palm OS share of the world PDA market gets smaller as digital cellphones and competing PDAs based on Microsoft and other operating systems sweep the Earth.

It would be nice but highly unlikely if this innovative, albeit expensive, newcomer named LifeDrive becomes half the household word that iPod has become. You know, like in the old days when the expression “Palm Pilot” became every bit as well known as iPod is now.

While test driving the $499 LifeDrive, this reviewer had to balance his delight at a smooth-working and beautiful new entertainment and productivity machine with the realities of the marketplace.

Word of mouth can and almost always does make a useful product not just handy but something of a status symbol. When the Palm Pilot enjoyed bull-goose status in the high-tech barnyard, subways and commuter trains were filled with folks happily tapping away at their handhelds.

Today trains, planes and automobiles are filled with people who have iPod-white earbud wires running down their necks.

On to the LifeDrive out-of-box experience: All features are accessed using the familiar PalmSource software, but the controls have become delightfully simple. A circular rocker button at the bottom of the case scrolls up and down and back and forth through menus and documents. There are three permanent icons etched into the metal case — the Palm Home space and a folder that lets one explore both the hard drive and any inserted SD or MMC memory card for files, as well as a Media icon for every photo and movie loaded onto the device.

A button on the side moves the display from portrait to landscape for media watching (spreadsheets are nice this way too). Another side button summons a voice recorder for quick verbal memos.

Songs are played using a screen icon that calls up an iPod-style song display that can be scrolled using the round rocker button.

The LifeDrive’s built-in Wi-Fi lets users with home networks or access to public hotspots call up Web sites using a superb browser called Blazer, which renders even complex displays like MapQuest well on the small screen.

A companion Bluetooth feature does things like dial compatible phones from the contacts list and access a wireless keyboard. After a decade the Graffiti handwriting system is rock solid, and a stylus is as good as a keyboard for much of the productivity applications.

Rechargeable batteries are promised to last 2.5 days, but I didn’t fully test this in the short time the product has been at my house. I can say that this sweet little machine showed well above half of its battery power remaining after eight hours of blissful use by one enraptured reviewer.