A New Lifeline For Palms?

It's the best screen yet -- but a keyboard would help

Sales of Palms and other personal digital assistants (PDAS) that do not double as phones have been on the decline for several years amid stiffening competition from versatile cell phones, BlackBerrys, and palmOne's (PLMO ) own Treo. Now, palmOne is taking advantage of new storage technologies and software in an effort to breathe fresh life into the stagnant category.

The goal is to get the handheld out of its contacts-and-calendar rut and emphasize media capabilities that today's phones can't touch. The $499 LifeDrive is the first Palm to incorporate a hard drive, boosting storage capacity to 4 gigabytes. That's a huge leap up from the 256 megabytes in palmOne's Tungsten T5 -- even if you account for insertable memory cards that hold as much 2 GB. At least as important, new software on the LifeDrive lets you manage files efficiently and move data easily between the Palm and a PC.

The LifeDrive uses HotSync, part of every Palm ever made, to keep info such as contacts and calendar synchronized with Microsoft (MSFT ) Outlook or the Palm Desktop software. But other files can be moved between the Palm and a Windows PC just by dragging them to the LifeDrive Manager folder on either the handheld or the computer. The next time the LifeDrive is connected, the files are automatically transferred. (On Macs, you must use a cruder method that treats the Palm as an external hard drive.) You can connect to a computer using a USB cable, Bluetooth wireless, or Wi-Fi -- if you don't mind setting up network sync.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO with all that storage? Of course, you can use it to carry critical files from your computer, but a USB memory key is a lot handier and, at about $100 for a 1-GB model, a lot cheaper. LifeDrive is a better choice if you need to transport massive amounts of data. And the bright 2 1/4-by-3 1/4-inch screen makes it a good way to carry and display your photos. If your camera, like most others, uses SD memory, you can transfer pictures just by inserting the card into the LifeDrive's slot. The LifeDrive also is good at showing videos, especially those formatted to fill its 320-by-480-pixel display.

The LifeDrive can hold as much music as an iPod Mini, but unfortunately it falls short as a music player. It doesn't provide iPod-like automatic music sync between device and desktop. Despite all that screen space, it doesn't display album covers. Out of the box, it handles only the MP3 format and cannot play songs purchased or rented through subscription. But an upgrade to handle protected Windows Media music is due soon.

The LifeDrive has considerable capabilities in the business arena. The included Documents to Go from DataViz lets you read and edit Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint slides. But it's hard to do a lot more than make minor edits using a stylus and handwriting recognition. Any serious work is going to require an external keyboard ($70) and a flat surface to set it up on.

The lack of a keyboard also limits the usefulness of the LifeDrive for e-mail. With Wi-Fi and the built-in VersaMail program, you can connect to standard Internet mail services. But corporate mail is a challenge. If you buy third-party virtual private network software, you might be able to connect to an inside-the-firewall mail system, but you have nowhere near as many options as you do with a BlackBerry, Treo, or Pocket PC Phone Edition handheld. If you can get past the mail hurdles, though, the LifeDrive could make a good alternative to a laptop on some business trips.

Whether the LifeDrive can revive the PDA business is an open question. Storage is likely to get bigger and cheaper, but the same Hitachi Microdrives used by palmOne are already heading into cell phones. With its big display, LifeDrive has the potential to combine work with fun as a media player, but the field is likely to get increasingly crowded.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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