Friday, April 25, 2008

The LifeDrive, Palm's Missed Opportunity

Ever since my iPod broke I've been thinking a lot about what will replace it. For now it's my Palm TX PDA but I feel that it's a stopgap because it simply doesn't have have the battery life to do what I want to do while I'm commuting—because of the TX's big screen, I find myself watching a lot of video on it. Music, video, wifi and bluetooth internet access all take their toll and the TX has no automatic way of importing podcasts. That got me thinking of another Palm device which was everything the Palm TX isn't—big, heavy, slow, and unstable. But also had options for synching data and a storage capacity which the TX lacks.

I'm referring to the Palm LifeDrive which was my main source of mobile entertainment for two years until I got an iPod and later a TX. The LifeDrive was a very slick device for its time but it was also very flawed. It had all of the features that you'd typically want in a PDA: wifi, bluetooth, and a wide variety of easy to use applications. It also had a lot of things you'd want in a media player: a good MP3 player, file manager, a 4GB hard drive, and an easy way to synch information between it and a host PC. These are features which the Palm TX lacks and this makes it a poorer media player.

The LifeDrive was Palm's attempt to create a new class of devices which it called "Mobile Managers." The idea was that with its big hard drive and versatile file handling options and some unique software, a Mobile Manager would allow you "store your life" on one device. So a photographer could store all his pictures on the LifeDrive. Or a slacker could store a lot of music and video on it. The point was that you could do a lot with this device compared to what you could do with a PDA. And you could do it in a lot of different ways. The LifeDrive could be put into "Drive Mode" which allowed it to look like just another hard drive on your computer. (If you had an SD card in the LifeDrive's SD slot, would also show up on your computer while the LifeDrive was in Drive Mode.) You could also drag and drop files from your computer to the LifeDrive Manager application and do the same thing without putting the LifeDrive into Drive Mode. This was useful because the LifeDrive Manager could convert files (such as videos) into a format that the LifeDrive could use.

Handling podcasts was a snap with the LifeDrive. I created a folder called "Podcasts" on my PC and used a podcatching application called "Juicer" to download podcasts every night. In the morning I'd synch my LifeDrive with that folder and it would download all my podcasts onto its hard drive. It was all very easy and while using an iPod to synch to iTunes is easier still, the LifeDrive had the advantage of supporting a wider variety of formats when it was kitted out with the right software. I could also use the same feature to synch my documents folder with my LifeDrive and do actual, work on it.

The LifeDrive actually had a pretty crappy video player but at the time, it was easy to find a very good video player called "TCPMP" which played video in just about any format. (The successor to TCPMP is an application called "Coreplayer" which costs $29 but works very well on my Palm TX.) Video is a problem for the Palm TX because it is limited by its storage capacity. While its 128MG of memory is plenty for storing PDA data and applications, it needs to have an SD card installed for music and video. The LifeDrive already has a 4GB hard drive as well an SD card slot, so it can potentially hold much more data. With their big screens, the LifeDrive and Palm TX practically beg you to watch video.

Ultimately however the LifeDrive was too little too late for Palm. It had come out at a time when Apple was starting to take over the MP3 player market with the iPod and had a much smaller storage capacity than the best iPods which came with 30GB hard drives at the time. It was also buggy and slow. This made the LifeDrive's wifi and huge battery a lot less useful. Ultimately, I think that the LifeDrive's shortcomings could have been overcome but Palm never created a followup device and its attempt to create a new product category fell flat.

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