Review of Sony Clie NX-70V and NX-60V

I just picked up a very nice PDA to replace my old Palm Vx — a Sony Clie NX-70V. Here’s a detailed review for anyone that’s interested in a high-powered PalmOS unit.

The Basics
The Clie NX-70V is a modern Palm unit with a 200MHz StrongARM and a HiRes+ 320×480 screen. This ranks it with, as far as I know, the largest color screen among PalmOS units. It is not Sony’s highest-end device, but by the same token, it doesn’t cost $1000.

The device itself has a swivel LCD screen. It can be folded down to act as a hard case for the unit. When in its open position, you can use the built-in keyboard or set it on a desk. You can also twist it around and fold it down, in which case you cover up the keyboard and get a form factor virtually identical to a traditional palm. In addition to the traditional hardware buttons for datebook, phonebook, to-do list, memopad, and PageUp/PageDown, the Clie adds a jog dial, a back button (a cancel feature), a hold button (when set, you can’t turn the unit on — useful to prevent accidentally draining batteries), a capture button (to start/stop recording of voice memos, pictures, and movies). The package also includes a wired remote, which contains play/pause, volume up/down, and track next/back buttons. The device has a standard 1/8″ stereo headphone jack. When you use the remote, you plug your headphones into it rather than the device.

The unit ships with 16MB ROM and 16MB RAM, 11MB of which is available. It includes two expansion slots: one for a memory stick and one for Compact Flash (CF). The CF slot, however, can be used only for Sony’s 802.11b WiFi card. Third parties are working to write drivers so one can use the CF slot for memory as well.

External communication is done via the included USB HotSync cable or infrared port. The battery is a built-in Lithium-Ion one, with advertised life of ten hours.

The NX-70V includes a truly small built-in digital camera that can be used to take still photos at up to 640×480 as well as record digital movies. The NX-60V is the exact same unit as the NX-70V, except it omits the camera.

The Screen
The first thing that you notice about the NX-70V is the screen. This is one awesome display. It is the best I’ve seen on any Palm device so far, and the 480 pixels of height is truly excellent. At the bottom of the screen is a small “task bar” that has controls to display menus, find, go home, and adjust audio volume. It also has a button to display a Graffiti writing area, which, when shown, acts very similar to the dedicated area on traditional Palm units.

As I mentioned above, the unit can be unfolded. The keyboard then acts as a stand and the screen sits facing you. This is nice if you like to set the unit on a desk. You can also twist the screen around and fold it back on the keyboard, which is good for holding it in your hand. That configuration, though, is made less efficient because the screen covers up the hardware DateBook, Todo, PageUp, etc. buttons.

Unlike some color screens I’ve seen on other PDAs or on laptops, the Clie’s gets better when the light gets better. In bright sunlight, you can turn the backlight completely off, and the screen will look great. Indoors, you’ll usually need the backlight, but it can be turned way down.

The Keyboard
The keyboard is small but useable. I find myself slightly faster on the keyboard than with graffiti for long input. For brief input, the graffiti is faster. Many things on the keyboard require shift or Fn key combos — even the numbers 0-9. There is lots more room on the base, and I wish they would have added more keys to minimize this. The other thing is that I have to hold the stylus in my hand to hit “OK” when done supplying input, since there is no way to do that from the keyboard.

Multimedia
This is an area I was surprised by. I wanted to have a voice memo feature — something Windows handhelds have had for some time. The Clie doesn’t disappoint — you can set the Capture button to start recording, and it does instantly and reliably — no crashes like CE users are used to.

The built-in camera is OK, but at 640×480, nothing to write home about. It has no flash and so doesn’t work in low-light conditions, and the shutter speed appears slow. If you’re moving your Palm while taking a picture, the result will be blurry. That said, it’s often very nice to have a camera built right in, and one often doesn’t need high-res on photos.

The movie recorder and player require a memory stick to store the files on. The results are surprisingly good for a Palm device, and you can record up to about an hour on a single 128MB memory stick.

The unit includes a built-in Audio Player for MP3s. It does a good job of playing them, and with headphones attached, provides quite good sound. The really surprising feature is that it can play MP3s in the background, while you run other apps. This is the first time I’ve seen true multitasking on a PalmOS unit. I have noticed some slight slowdown with the high-res Acid Freecell, but other apps seem to not be slowed at all. My gripe with the audio player is that while it seems to somehow support different albums, it doesn’t seem to in practice. You just dump a bunch of MP3s into a single directory and then choose from them. It has no support for subdirectories or other organization.

Included Applications
Sony includes a number of applications; some pre-installed, and some requiring installation. Many of those requiring installation, such as Documents To Go, work only with Windows, so I will not be covering them here.

There are included applications that perform a number of different functions, but there are some downsides. One is that sometimes there are two or three apps to do the same thing. This is confusing because you’re never quite sure where to go. The included apps also tend to be poorly documented. They include a Sony Launcher, designed to take advantage of the Jog Dial. However, it doesn’t scale as well as the standard Palm launcher, so I switched to that (there’s a menu option to switch back and forth).

In addition to standard Palm apps, Sony ships a number of shareware or trial apps (such as Acid Freecell). They also include AudioPlayer, for MP3 files; CLIE Album and CLIE Camera for photos; CLIE Demo, a Flash-based demo, CLIE Files, a Memory Stick file manager; CLIE Mail, an e-mail app; CLIE Memo, an on-screen memo similar to Palm’s Notepad; CLIE RMC, an infrared remote controller for TVs and VCRs; CLIE Viewer, to play various media files; Macromedia Flash Player; Movie Player; Movie Recorder; Backup to Memory Stick; Memory Stick Import; PhotoStand; Photo Editor; Sound Util; Voice Recorder; and World Alarm Clock.

Memory Stick
The memory stick is a nice feature, though I’d rather use a CF card. One really slick program is MS Import. When you run this with the Clie in its cradle, it emulates a USB disk device. You can then mount the device on your desktop and view it like any other device. It has a VFAT filesystem, so you can mount it with any operating system. So far, I have done so in MacOS X, and it works very well. Just drag files to it like any other device. It seems to copy things in at about 500K/s and out about twice as fast.

MS Backup is nice, too. It will make a complete backup of your Palm’s RAM onto memory stick. If you later look at the memory stick on your PC or with CLIE File, you’ll see that MS Backup just creates a directory full of .prc and .pdb files representing your data, so you can selectively restore data with a myraid of conventional tools.

Compatibility
There are two different compatibility problems that may arise: 1) PalmOS 5.0 compatibility, and 2) high-res compatibility.

For applications not designed for a high-res screen, they’ll still work, but will just look bad compared to newer apps since they don’t take advantage of the nice screen. For apps designed for a traditional 160×160 Palm screen, you won’t be able to hide the Graffiti area. The Clie will simulate an old screen by just doubling the pixels to 320×320.

Some apps don’t work with PalmOS 5 on the ARM unit. Among them are Plucker and Avantgo. Most apps I’ve tried work fine, but those two happen to be ones I’d really like to use. However, there is an experimental Plucker version that works with PalmOS 5.

The bottom line: most apps work fine, but beware that a few will have to be updated before they’ll work again.

Desktop Integration
Sony only ships software for use with Windows. As I not only do not use Windows but don’t even own any modern Intel hardware, this is not useful at all to me.

On Linux, the standard pilot-link library works very well with the Clie. You may need to use a small patch to the visor.c USB driver so the kernel recognizes the Clie. Apparently it uses the same overall USB hotsync protocol as Handspring does. I have not yet been able to get Linux to mount the memory stick from the NX-70V. Apparently there is a bug in the firmware of this PDA.

On MacOS X, you’ll need The Missing Sync 3.0.5 or above. For me, their iTunes integration is broken and causes serious corruption of the memory stick. However, the hotsync and memory stick mounting features work — but only if you upgrade to the very latest version of Jaguar. They totally failed otherwise.
Hotsyncing is lightning fast and works well.

Summary
Overall, I am very pleased with this unit and would heartily recommend it to anyone. The hardware is excellent, but the included software has some rough edges in its interface. Fortunately, a myraid of third-party software is available to help out.

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