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Just a Peek - Life With The LifeDrive

by

- August 30th, 2005

I'll Always Have Tai Chi

I take a Tai Chi class twice a week. My instructor, Master Cheng, is a 72 year old Chinese immigrant who loves Tai Chi, and has an affinity for the camera. At one earlier session he had me take some photos of the class with his dated film camera. A week later he showed me the results and was upset because a pole blocked one of my classmates out of the photo.

I recently purchased a camera -- a Canon SD 400 -- and I offered to take some shots of one of our sessions. Master Cheng was happy about the prospect because I told him he could see the results of my photographic abilities almost immediately; instead of waiting until our next session to review prints.

On the day of the shoot I arrived with camera  and tripod in tow, but I immediately realized that I would only be able to take about 200 shots and no video, (like most consumer cameras today, my Canon can take a decent movie), I failed to bring an extra Secure Digital (SD) memory card. I tend to take a lot of photos, and I wanted to wow Master Cheng with some good video of the class going through our exercises. I knew 512MB would not be enough


Master Cheng and I on my LifeDrive

As I stood there pondering excuses, I remembered that the nice folks at Palm had recently sent me a review unit of their new LifeDrive; the PDA with a 4 GB hard drive built in. I happened have the unit in my car and remembered it included a feature that is sure to get many of you digital photographers salivating; the LifeDrive has a SD Card slot and can transfer photos and movies from your card, thus freeing it to be used for still more photos and movies.

Even better, the LifeDrive will let you review your shots and lets you dump the ones you don't want.

I wound up taking more than 300 5MP shots and 10 minutes of VGA quality video thanks to the LifeDrive. And Master Cheng was tickled pink to see a miniature version of himself smoothly going through Tai Chi sword forms with the grace and agility of a man at least 30 years his junior on the LifeDrive's screen.

When my SD card ran out of space I simply plugged it into the LifeDrive and selected the included application called Media Companion. In almost no time I was downloading the contents of my SD card onto the LifeDrive, though it did take about 5 minutes to complete the transaction.

(Note to self: Buy another 512 MB SD card ASAP 512MB is a good size; I can get almost 200 high rez photos, or a tad over 4 minutes of VGA video at 30fps.)

When I got home I plugged the LifeDrive into my Mac, put the LifeDrive into 'Drive' mode, and uploaded the photos and movies to iPhoto. This time the process of moving photo was a wee bit faster; my 2 year old G4 iMac does not have a USB 2.0 port, the LifeDrive is forced to push out data at the slower USB 1.1 rate. Still, I was done in just a few minutes.

Sip-n-Surf

The next day I had to return some books to the library. Like many public libraries around the country, my local library system offers free WiFi connectivity to its members. They are also installing cafes where readers can get a cappuccino while browsing magazines or the latest from Dean Koontz. I took along the LifeDrive thinking that after I paid my late fee I could sit, surf, and sip.

When I arrived at my local library branch, however, I was disappointed on 2 counts: The branch nearest me hadn't opened its cafe yet, and WiFi on the LifeDrive was not everything I'd hoped it would be.

The LifeDrive found and connected to the library's network easy enough; using the little signal meter I determined that the best signal was near the cafe; cool.

I then fired up Blazer, the included web browser. The LifeDrive tries but it just does not have the horsepower to render a webpage anywhere near the speed one might be use to on a laptop. I typed in The Mac Observer's site and watched as the hard drive light on the LifeDrive flashed furiously as data trickled in at about 20kps. I had a strong signal, so I had to assume that the LifeDrive was doing the best it could to grab the data. About 20 seconds later the site finished rendering. I tried several other sites; Apple, Wired, Odd Todd, and all of them took 20 to 30 seconds to load. CNet News took a whopping 53 seconds to load on the LifeDrive, it usually takes about 3 seconds to load on my Mac.

Blazer also puts in a valiant effort, but, even in its 'Optimized' mode, web pages can take a while to render completely, and the result is often less than desirable.  When I visited my .Mac account to check my email the page I got was a mishmash of graphics and text that was nearly impossible to sort out. I chose the 'Wide Page' mode, and I was able to read the site's portal page OK, but once I got into the email page the same jumble appeared, but with missing icons added to the mess. My homepage rendered well enough for me to browse photos, however. Your mileage will definitely vary, but I won't be surfing the web on a LifeDrive unless I have a lot of idle time to kill, or unless there is an emergency. (Emergency web-surfing? Sounds strange, but it could happen.)

Homework

I was working on a report at work when my wife called to tell me that the cable guy  would be by to repair our cable "sometime between 2 and 4 PM", and that I would have to wait for him.  Normally, in situations such as that, I'd either send myself the report to my private email address so that I can complete it at home, or log in to my work computer remotely. The LifeDrive gave me another option: I could load up the report on my LifeDrive and work on it directly.

Loading up the document was a breeze; the LifeDrive includes Documents to Go, which does an admirable  job of shrinking and converting Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel files into formats that are readable, and more importantly, editable.


LifeDrive

Baby Boomers feeling their age may need glasses to effectively review and edit Excel files, even with the LifeDrive's  humongous screen, but I was able to work on Word docs with only the effort it takes to enter in text via Graffiti®, which is not a chore at all; even so, I thought the LifeDrive was begging for a usable keyboard.   

One negative, however; documents saved in RTF format are not editable or readable on the LifeDrive, which is a shame as I do much of my brainstorming in applications outside of formal word processors, such as TextEdit and WordPad; I like not having the overhead full featured word processors force on you.

Moving files back to the PC at work or to my Mac at home was as simple as putting the LifeDrive into drive mode and grabbing files. I could edit files directly from the LifeDrive also.

I should explain that the LifeDrive has two file modes; LifeDrive Manager Mode and the aforementioned Drive Mode, Mac users cannot use the LifeDrive Manager Mode as it only supports Windows, but we're not missing much. LifeDrive Manager provides some file syncing, the ability to continue working of files on your LifeDrive while file transfers are in progress, and a few other minor conveniences that I, frankly, don't miss or feel I need, and I'd venture a guess that most Windows users won't bother with LifeDrive Manager either, especially since using it makes the files it manages unreadable by other computers, even Windows PCs that don't have LifeDrive Manager installed. I wonder why Palm thought it was necessary to include LifeDrive Manager? Oh well: Moving files and being able to work on them are the key features here, and they works.

pTunes?

Another nicety included with the LifeDrive is its ability to play MP3s. The pTunes MP3 player application does a nice job of controlling your music; I can create  playlists on the LifeDrive and organize my tunes like I would in iTunes. Moving music to and from the LifeDrive is, once again, as simple as moving files from one place to another; simply select your MP3 files directly from your iTunes window and drag them over to the 'Music' folder on the LifeDrive, and there ya go! The only thing easier is seamless syncing between iPod and iTunes.

Plug in some headsets and you've got music. Unfortunately, you can't use many of the peripherals that are available for iPod, but that's OK because the LifeDrive can already do something that current iPods can't, like play music videos. Now there's a cool waste of time for ya.

Downside

As you may have surmised, I like living with the LifeDrive, but there are some blemishes on all of this digital goodness; the most prominent of which is the price. Expect to shell out between $400 to $500 bucks for this jewel. When you compare it to the competition, some may find that they can live without the LifeDrive. But to truly appreciate where Palm has placed the LifeDrive in the market, you have to think about what you want to do with it.

If your primary reason for wanted a LifeDrive is to have a mobile file repository then compare it to a 4G color iPod, which offers 15GB of hard drive space and can be had for as little as $300, a full $100 less the lowest LifeDrive street price. The iPod gives you more room to store files, but won't let you access or modify them, and the LifeDrive's screen makes the iPod's window look like a postage stamp.

If you want to be able to modify files, access web-based email, and connect wirelessly then compare the LifeDrive to PocketPC devices like HP's iPAQ hx2700, which also goes for around $300 and offers more built-in RAM and a heftier processor, but no 4GB hard drive. The iPAQ will be more compatible with Microsoft application files, and syncing email may be easier, but you have to keep a watchful eye on memory usage, even if you invest in memory cards to supplement the iPAQ RAM.

Another problem is the size: At about 3" by 5 " by 3/4" thick, and weighing a hefty 6.8 ounces, the LifeDrive is barely pocketable. The included case has no belt clip, so many will find it, at the very least, odd to carry.

Review Item LifeDrive
Manufacturer Palm
Price

Street Price

US$499

US$459.99 (Amazon.com)

Minimum

Requirements

Windows 2000 or XP
or Mac OS 10.2.6 or 10.3
(Windows systems sync with MS Outlook 2000, 2002, 2003)
Lowdown

Even with these 2 fairly significant dings against it, the LifeDrive is a huge step in the right direction for Palm, and it wouldn't hurt other handheld makers, including Apple, to take a cue or two from this super PDA.

Battery life was stellar. The screen is huge, bright and colorful, and the controls are Palm easy. If Palm can figure a way to add a nice little keyboard on this puppy there would be no need for anyone to lug a laptop anywhere.

Also, if Palm can figure out a way to make the LifeDrive thinner, lighter, about $50 cheaper, and give it more horsepower, millions of folks will wonder how they ever lived life without a LifeDrive.

As it is,  the LifeDrive has proven itself to be so useful in my day to day goings on that I'm going to miss it when I have to send it back to Palm.

The PDA is dead: Long live the LifeDrive.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

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