Any personal digital assistant that hopes to compete with the popular Palm hand-held computers can't merely aim to be as good as the standard-setters from Palm Inc.
They must be significantly better -- which so far hasn't happened -- or else they must be significantly different.
The Visor line from Handspring accomplishes this by allowing its PDAs to morph into digital cameras, MP3 players or even cordless phones by snapping on additional modules. The Pocket PC devices differentiate themselves by using Microsoft's Windows CE operating system and running Outlook, Internet Explorer, Word, Excel and other Microsoft desktop PC programs.
The new hand-held computer from Sony tries to break new ground by being a "personal entertainment organizer" instead of a personal digital assistant. The device lets users view pictures and videos in addition to offering traditional features like an address book, date book, memo pad and to-do list.
But the offering from Sony falls far short of its potential. And in the process of trying to be more than a Palm, it degrades the usability of some standard features and ends up being a little less.
Sony's lofty name for its new $399 hand-held is CLIE, which sort of rhymes with "relay" and stands for "communication, link, information, entertainment." A Palm m100 or IIIe can offer those same four things for $149, less than half the price. But CLIE's $399 price tag buys a slender, lightweight package that weighs slightly more than Palm's Vx but is more comfortable to grip because of its narrow design.
Sony's CLIE runs on Palm's operating system, so it is familiar in many ways. Buttons along the bottom link to the date book, address book, to-do list and memo pad, while icons below the screen offer shortcuts to the home page, menu items, a calculator and a search tool. Users can tap the stylus on the touch-sensitive screen to open programs or use it to enter text using Palm's Graffiti alphabet.
Files can be transferred between a CLIE and a PC by plugging a cradle into the computer, placing the PDA in the cradle and pressing the HotSync button. (The cradle also serves as a battery-charging station.) Files can be beamed between a CLIE and other Palm-compatible PDAs using the infrared port at the top of the device.
Sony has embellished a few of Palm's standard features, though it has not necessarily improved them. For instance, entries in the address book leave room for a 1/2-inch-by- 1/2-inch photo. One frustrating consequence is that 10-digit phone numbers (including area code) don't always fit on one line. Worse, the phone number splits after the seventh digit, an extremely awkward place that makes it difficult to read. Address book entries that don't include photos still suffer from the same problem because CLIE leaves room for the words "No Image" instead of an actual picture.
Jog dial is useful innovation
One innovation that works is the jog dial, which Sony initially introduced on its wireless phones. This little dial obviates the need for a good deal of stylus-tapping and allows the CLIE to be used with one hand. From a home page, turn the jog dial once and get a list of applications. Turn the dial again to move up and down that list. When the desired application is highlighted, simply squeeze the dial to open it.
The jog dial is handy for maneuvering within an application as well. When the date book is open, the jog dial flips the schedule from one day to the next. When the address book is open, the jog dial scrolls through the entries and will open one up with a gentle squeeze. The jog dial works the same with notes stored on the memo pad.
The most dramatic difference between CLIE and other PDAs is the memory stick slot. What makes this interesting, of course, is the memory stick that can be inserted there. These periwinkle sticks--about half as long as a piece of chewing gum--contain extra megabytes of memory that can be used to store city maps, games or databases.
But this doesn't strike me as the best way to use the memory sticks. My Palm IIIe has only 2mb of memory, but even with more than 150 entries in my address book, more than half a dozen games and several memory-hogging programs like Vindigo's interactive city guide, I have used only 75% of my available memory.
Instead, I'd like to use the memory stick to transfer files from other Sony devices--digital cameras, camcorders, portable music players, voice recorders, laptop computers--to CLIE. This is a tantalizing possibility that would make the PDA infinitely more useful. What if I could pop a memory stick out of a Sony Cyber-Shot digital camera and slap it into the memory stick slot on a CLIE, then open up pictures on the hand-held? When I tried that, the CLIE didn't recognize any of the photo files stored on the memory stick.
But I still wanted to personalize the CLIE with pictures of my choosing, so off I went to the Web to search for digitized photos suitable for downloading. Some friends of mine have their wedding pictures online, so I went to their site. To copy the photos I wanted, I right-clicked with the mouse and selected "Save Image As" from the menu. Sony's PictureGear software--which comes on the same CD as the Palm desktop software--can recognize images saved in several formats, including JPEG, GIF and Bitmap.
Once the photos were saved to my PC desktop, I opened the PictureGear software and clicked on "Desktop" to see the saved photos displayed in the Viewer window. One of them needed some cropping, but it was easy to enlarge the image and then select just the part I wanted. When they were ready to transfer, I clicked once to highlight them, then went to the File menu and selected "Output services" and "Install image during next HotSync." Sure enough, after the next HotSync the images were saved on the CLIE in the PG Pocket application.
To import the photos into the address book, I opened up my friends' entries and tapped the "Edit" button and then the words "No Image." That automatically launched PG Pocket, which let me select the pictures I wanted by tapping on the thumbnail images. Now, when I call up their entries, there are tiny photos to go along with their names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Once I figured it out, the entire process took less than five minutes.
Sony may add sound to CLIE