Sony's Handheld Gets Best of Breed

Greater resolution and a built-in MP3 player are two things that set CLIE apart

Sony Electronics (SNE ) has a well-earned reputation for persistence. The company's first entry into a new field often isn't very good. But, as it has shown with laptops, Sony will keep trying until it gets it right.

The latest evidence is the new Sony CLIE, a handheld based on Palm software. The first CLIEs, introduced last year, were so-so Palm clones. The color version featured a dim screen that was panned so loudly by reviewers that Sony never marketed it outside of Japan. But the newest version of the CLIE, which costs $500 and is just a bit narrower, longer, and thicker than a Palm V, is a breakthrough for Sony. Despite reservations about a Memory Stick expansion slot, I think it is the best color Palm device available, superior to both the Handspring Visor Prism and the new Palm m505.

One interesting feature of the CLIE is a built-in MP3 music player, a first for any Palm device. But the real reason for my enthusiasm is that Sony has transcended the single greatest weakness of the Palm design. Going back to the original 1996 PalmPilot, every display has featured 160x160 pixels. This produces coarse, grainy screens that do a mediocre job displaying text and are pretty much hopeless for graphics. Palm promises higher-resolution displays, but not until it releases version 5.0, at some unspecified date.

Sony decided not to wait. It did some tweaking to make the Palm software work with a 320x320 pixel color display. This has two benefits. First, there are four times as many pixels, quadrupling the amount of information you can fit on a screen. Second, each pixel is one-fourth the size, yielding a much sharper-looking screen.

Since most existing Palm applications assume a 160x160 screen, they look as bad as ever on the CLIE. But Sony rewrote the system software, as well as the Address Book and Date Book applications, for the new screen. The biggest difference is the appearance of text: Characters use thinner strokes and lack the jaggedness of the Palm fonts. The result is both nicer to look at and considerably more legible.

PHOTO FRIENDLY. Sony bundles some applications that show the new screen to good advantage. PictureGear Pocket displays quite creditable photos, while gMovie will show a short video at about five frames per second. One limitation actually made worse by the higher-resolution screen is that the CLIE is short on processing power, especially compared with handhelds using Microsoft's PocketPC software. Palm is moving to support faster processors, but this is many months away.

The CLIE introduces yet another expansion method into the Palm world. Handspring's Springboard slot is proprietary, but a lineup of cameras, music players, and other devices to use it make it powerful and flexible. The SD card slot in the newest Palms is more limited, but at least it's based on an industry standard. Sony's Memory Stick is the worst of both worlds--proprietary and limited. Only storage cards are currently available for it, about $60 for 32 MB or $110 for 64 MB. Things will get more interesting later this year when Sierra Wireless brings out a wireless modem based on CLIE's memory stick.

SCROLL WHEEL. Meanwhile, the most interesting use of the Memory Stick is to store music for the CLIE's built-in MP3 player. Sony has mercifully abandoned a plan, used in some of its music players, to require that music be stored on the Memory Stick only in a special format that prevents additional copies from being made. The new version should make things easier for consumers, but unfortunately, the software was not available in time for testing. One thing is certain: To use the music player, you'll need a lot more memory than the 8 megabyte Memory Stick that comes with the CLIE. That will only give you about 15 minutes of medium-quality music, although it should allow about an hour's worth of storage using the built-in voice recorder.

Overall, the CLIE is an attractive design and well thought out. The fact that it is slightly narrower than any Palm or even the new Handspring Visor Edge should endear it to anyone with smaller hands. And a scroll wheel and a back button that takes you to the last screen you viewed encourage one-handed operation. As much as I wish that all Palm device makers could standardize on an expansion feature, the CLIE is a welcome addition to the Palm OS family.


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