Even though it was tailor-made to slip into a shirt or pants pocket, the handheld organizer is having a hard time fitting in these days. Should it be the smallest possible container for your calendar, address book, to-do list and notes? Should it fuse with your phone? What about a music player?
Faced with so many choices, PalmOne Inc., the company that popularized the entire category a decade ago with its Pilots and PalmPilots, has been stuck in neutral. Until 21/2 weeks ago, it had not introduced a substantially new model since the Treo 600 smartphone's debut in fall 2003. Its basic system software has barely budged since Palm OS 5 shipped in late 2002 -- even Windows XP has seen more significant updates in that time.
Now this company (which will soon rename itself back to just "Palm") is taking two steps forward. One, its new LifeDrive, tries to combine the virtues of traditional organizers and newer portable multimedia players. The other, its Tungsten E2, adds some higher-end features to PalmOne's popular Tungsten E.
Neither model seems likely to break the market for handhelds wide open again. But while the LifeDrive shows more ambition, the Tungsten E2 actually delivers on its humbler, less exciting goals.
Storage, wireless capability and multimedia support are supposed to justify the LifeDrive's $499 price -- more than the combined price of an iPod Mini and a WiFi-enabled, Windows Mobile-based handheld. But while some individual functions work well here, they're not knitted into an effective whole.
For starters, at roughly 43/4 inches long by 27/8 inches wide by 3/4 inches thick, the LifeDrive fits poorly or not at all in many pockets -- you can't carry this anywhere, defeating the point of having a handheld organizer.
Those bulky contours are filled by an internal hard drive as well as the flash memory traditionally used by Palm handhelds. But despite a cost and size exceeding that of a high-end iPod, the LifeDrive holds less than four gigabytes of data.
Better news comes on the communications front: For the first time since the two-year-old Tungsten C, PalmOne remembered to build WiFi into a handheld. The test LifeDrive connected to both a secured home network and a coffee shop's free access -- but its software did nothing to ease the job of entering a lengthy WiFi encryption key, and it sometimes had trouble staying on these networks.
The included Web and e-mail software does a fine job of displaying Web and e-mail content on a screen far smaller than any computer's. A button on the LifeDrive's flank rotates the screen from a tall portrait orientation to a wide, landscape orientation that should work better with most Web pages.
The Palm operating system shows its age when browsing the Web, though. You can't switch to another program while the browser downloads things -- doing that shuts down the entire browser, so you must sit and watch things download, just like in 1995.
The LifeDrive also includes Bluetooth wireless to transfer data to and from the relatively few computers, cell phones and handhelds that support this technology.
Like other Palm models, the LifeDrive tracks your appointments, addresses, to-do list and notes, keeping them in sync with either the included Palm Desktop software or Microsoft Outlook; bundled third-party software reads and edits Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents with better fidelity than the programs Microsoft includes in its own Windows Mobile software.
The LifeDrive adds other software for digital photos, video clips and MP3 digital-music files and can even copy files off a digital camera's memory card, provided the camera uses the same SD Cards as the LifeDrive.
But getting all of these different types of data on and off a LifeDrive requires switching among at least two and as many as four programs on a Windows PC (PalmOne doesn't include Mac software for all of the LifeDrive's functions).
Battery life falls short of other Palm handhelds -- just under eight hours of continuous music playback, or four days of light everyday use -- although the LifeDrive's flash memory preserves your data if the battery runs dry.
The worst-designed part of the LifeDrive is its Graffiti 2 handwriting-recognition software. Not only is this slower and hardly easier to learn than the older Graffiti system, the LifeDrive's screen doesn't leave enough room for you to draw Graffiti 2 characters, compared with the layout of other Palm screens. The exasperating result: Every other errant stroke flips you into the mail or calendar programs.
Compared with that mishmash of technology, the fundamentally less exciting Tungsten E2, $249, seems a clear winner. It's basically the Tungsten E -- still sold by PalmOne -- with Bluetooth wireless, better battery life and the same non-volatile memory as the LifeDrive and last year's Tungsten T5.
The battery life is a big deal to anybody who's taken a Tungsten E on a trip and worried about it running down over a long weekend. A year-old Tungsten E left sitting on a shelf was exhausted after six days, while the E2 unit reviewed showed a full battery charge after the same treatment. After nine hours of near-continuous music playback, its battery still read about two-thirds full.
Bluetooth wireless makes a pleasant bonus as well, although it contends with the same relevancy problem as the LifeDrive. WiFi would be more useful, but it can only be added by filling the one SD Card expansion slot with a WiFi adapter.
If you travel frequently or own a Bluetooth-enabled computer or phone -- that inventory includes most newer Macs, certain high-end PC laptops and some cell phones -- the E2 is worth buying instead of the E. Otherwise, though, it's a hard sell.
Neither handheld is quite the stuff of covetousness, and neither is ready to take the place of any of the other gadgets people feel compelled to carry around.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.