A Handheld That Wants to Have Fun

The Clie NZ90 marks the evolution of these gizmos into versatile entertainment devices

At first glance, the latest Clie seems like another Palm-based product from Sony (SNE ) that adds some pizzazz to the otherwise prosaic functions of a personal digital assistant. But a closer look at the Clie NZ90 reveals it to be the first in a new class of personal-entertainment devices that not only handle your scheduling but also take pictures, play music, and even let you watch previews of upcoming movies. While far from perfect, this Clie could be the start of something good.

The NZ90 is big, more than 5 1/2 in. long and an inch thick, and weighs 10.3 oz. At $800, it costs more than two Tungsten Ts from Palm Solutions (PALM ). But then, the fact that the Clie keeps track of your contacts and calendar like any Palm-based handheld seems incidental to its more interesting uses.

The general form of the NZ90 makes it a somewhat bigger version of Sony's recent handhelds. It's a clamshell design. The screen fills the upper half, with the bottom inch or so used for entering Graffiti shorthand (applications that don't need data entry can make use of the full 320-by-480 pixel display). The lower half of the clamshell contains the standard Palm buttons and a small keyboard. But the flat keys and odd keyboard design make it hard to use. I found I mostly used the Clie in its alternative configuration, with the screen flipped over to make a flat tablet.

The most distinctive feature of the NZ90 is the camera in the clamshell hinge. Previous Clies have had cameras, and they have been available as add-ons for other Palms. But those were novelties. The new Clie offers a 2-megapixel sensor, autofocus lens, a full set of camera controls, and a built-in flash. There's a photo-editing program, software to display a slide show on the very good 2 1/4-in. by 3 1/4-in. screen, and a cable that lets you send pictures to an Epson printer.

Many handhelds can double as music players, but the Clie comes with a remote-control earbud headset. Taking advantage of a fast Intel XScale processor and PalmSource's new operating software, the NZ90 has much broader multimedia capabilities. It's a video player. It can play movies in several formats, including the new, supercompressed MPEG-4. The images are small but surprisingly smooth, although the audio isn't always perfectly synchronized with the picture. And it can play flicks created using the built-in camera.

The Clie also includes a Macromedia Flash player. Flash is used mostly to create animations on Web pages, but it is ideally suited to create entertainment and games for handheld devices because it requires much less storage than other video formats. To satisfy the power hunger of the camera and multimedia programs, the Clie comes with a removable battery so you can keep a spare on hand.

Clies have never been particularly business-oriented, and the NZ90 is less so than its predecessors. It comes with a program called Picsel Viewer from Picsel Technologies that does a fine job of displaying documents in a wide variety of formats--including Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Adobe Acrobat--but you cannot edit them. Documents to Go from DataViz ($69.95 for the premium version), which does an excellent job of letting you both view and edit Microsoft Office documents, came on most earlier Clies but not the NZ90.

A more serious flaw of the new Clie is storage. The 16 megabytes of built-in memory--the maximum that the Palm operating system can handle--is barely enough for the programs that come with it, and those multimedia applications have a voracious appetite for storage. The NZ90 includes a CompactFlash slot, but it only can be used for a Wi-Fi wireless-networking card ($149), not for flash memory (up to 1 gigabyte available) or a Hitachi MicroDrive (up to 4 GB). The only choice is Sony's own Memory Stick, which currently maxes out at 128 megabytes--barely enough for high-quality copies of a couple of CDs.

In addition to the Wi-Fi option, the Clie has Bluetooth short-range wireless. It will be mostly useless, however, until Sony comes up with the software needed to let the Clie talk to wireless phones and other Bluetooth-equipped gear.

The first handhelds were utilitarian address books and content managers. Later versions became more versatile business tools. Sony wants to make them personal-entertainment devices. The Clie NZ90, despite its flaws, is a promising move in that direction.


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