11 October 2005

I had a rush of blood to the head on a recent trip to Boston and picked up a Palm LifeDrive on the way out at the Duty Free store. This is one of those products that looks a lot better on paper than it really works in real life. In making their machines take up more PC-like functions, Palm seems to be giving their PDAs all of the PC's niggles as well.

Hardware-wise, I don't think there is all that much wrong with the LifeDrive but this beast is seriously in need of a software update. I've never seen a PDA crash so often. Even after installing the WiFi update, the network at MIT made the thing freak out so badly that it rebooted itself when it tried to log on. And it refused to do anything useful with the WiFi at the Cambridge Galleria, although the hotel network (at the Tria near Alewife) worked just fine. OmniWeb on the Powerbook gave a clue as to why the MIT network tripped it up - a strange security certificate - but that's no excuse for the PDA equivalent of a Blue Screen of Death. And that was not the only thing to make it crash.

Speed is an unexpected issue on the LifeDrive. Things that used to be near instant on a Tungsten now take several seconds as the device seems to fetch a lot of stuff from the built-in Microdrive. I can understand the reasons for the sluggishness, but Palm seems to have forgotten why people use PDAs rather than little handheld PCs for some things.

I didn't buy the machine for its MP3 capabilities as I used an iPod Shuffle on the trip: the Shuffle is so unobtrusive that it's one of those devices you can take anywhere. But, I had a load of stuff that I could download from the Powerbook and gave the LifeDrive a whirl. Like a number of other users, I found the music playback from the bundled MP3 player to be scratchy at best. The end of each track was accompanied by a burst of crackling that suggests the decoding software is not what it could be. And certainly no reason for Apple to be concerned about converged devices eating the company's lunch just yet.

I didn't expect Palm to have improved their Mac software and I wasn't disappointed. I guess the company knows Mac users are not going to be buying Windows CE machines but I don't reckon that is a good excuse for giving them host software that makes synchronisation take about an hour to sort out (and that is for someone who had to do it before for an old Tungsten).

In short, the PDA does all the things you'd want. Unfortunately, it does them fairly badly. Hopefully, this is down to poorly debugged software and a later update will fix the issues. However, given Palm's recent track record on software updates, I won't be holding my breath.