A Handheld That Focuses on Fun

Sony's Clié comes with the best screen on the market--and an optional camera

The makers of handheld computers have decided that the way to make money is to avoid the brutally competitive consumer markets and concentrate on the less-price-conscious mobile executive. This has led Palm (PALM ), Handspring (HAND ), Compaq (CPQ ), and others to develop productivity tools with an emphasis on wireless communications.

Then there is Sony Electronics (SNE ). The big Japanese consumer-electronics company has always marched to the beat of its own drummer. And in the case of its Palm-based Clié handhelds, this means a focus on fun rather than work.

The newest pair of models, the $499 PEG-NR70 and the $599 PEG-NR70V, are definitely a departure from the Palm-powered norm. Size is the first thing you notice about the new Cliés, which are identical but for the built-in camera in the more expensive version. At 5 1/2 by 2 7/8 by 1 1/16 in., they are about an inch longer than a Palm m515 and, at 7 oz., more than 40% heavier. Equally odd, at first glance there doesn't seem to be a display.

Lift the top, though, and the Clié opens up like a miniature laptop to reveal why, in this case, bigger may be better. The bottom half holds the familiar Palm buttons and, as is becoming common on handhelds, a miniature keyboard. The keyboard is not as good as those on the BlackBerry pagers or the Handspring Treo. It's a bit difficult to hit the flat-topped keys precisely, and the design is top-heavy, so it doesn't balance well when you hold it with both hands and type with your thumbs. But the key layout is good, and the keyboard is usable.

Above the hinge you'll find the best color display that I have seen in a handheld device. It's big--about 3 in. high. and a little over 2 in. wide--bright, and offers several different modes. For most applications, the screen is divided into a 320-by-320-pixel display area at the top, with a region on the bottom that corresponds to the Graffiti shorthand entry area on standard Palms. The main display area is about the same size as on a Palm m515, but packs in four times as many pixels. This makes it possible to provide more readable type and much more attractive graphics and photos. When applications can't handle the high-resolution screen, the Clié automatically drops back to standard Palm 160x160 resolution. Some programs, such as photo viewers and certain games, don't need data entry. For them, the Graffiti area disappears, and the application can use the full 320x480 screen.

Those aren't quite all of the display's tricks. By twisting the screen, it rotates 180 degrees clockwise--and the contents of the display flip vertically. You can then close the unit and use it as a flat tablet, although the standard Palm buttons will then be hidden inside. Or you can stand it on a flat surface like a tent card to display a slide show of photos. The arrangement looks fragile, but the same swivel design has been used for LCD displays on millions of Sony camcorders.

On the V model, the camera is contained in the hinge and can be used in either clamshell or tablet mode. The lens revolves 180 degrees, and a button on the end of the hinge serves as a shutter control, automatically launching the photo capture program. The maximum photo resolution is 320x240, fine for e-mailing or display on the Clié, but too low for printing.

The new Clié features some typical Sony touches. A jog wheel on the left side lets you scroll through lists and operate many functions one-handed. There's a built-in MP3 music player, and the Clié doubles as a remote control for a variety of TVs, VCRs, and DVD players.

A less positive Sony exclusive is that the only expansion is through a proprietary Memory Stick slot. This works fine for storage, but it rules out the programs and content, such as city guides, available for Palms in the SD card format. The Memory Stick is also incompatible with new communications add-ons, such as a Bluetooth short-range wireless adapter, that are being developed for SD and Palm.

At a time when the rest of the industry has decided that the key to making money in handhelds is the business market, Sony thinks it has another path to success. I hope they are right, because the new Clié is a lot of fun.


    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.