Loose Wire: A Delight to Behold
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 19 December 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Sony's newest PDA casts a love-at-first sight spell with its stunning good looks and exciting multi-media features. But will you still love it tomorrow?
Sony has long mastered the art of ensuring you fall in love immediately with its products. I'm not sure how it does it, but when I set eyes on the very first VAIO notebook computer five years ago, I had to have it. With its smooth metallic finish and purple trimmings, it still looked good when I had to dump it years later. Since then, the love-at-first-sight syndrome is certainly true for Sony's new personal digital assistant, or PDA, the Clie PEG-NX70V [$600]. Its magnesium casing, large screen and swivelling clamshell top are awe-inspiring, and you feel yourself instinctively reaching for your wallet. But would the love affair last?
I'm still in two minds about it. This is definitely Sony's most ambitious PDA. It offers a very high-resolution screen [320 by 480 pixels, or dots, to be precise] that makes Palm's look miserly, an MP3 player, a built-in keyboard and a voice recorder, as well as a camera, a video recorder, a 200 megahertz chip, the latest [version 5.0] Palm operating system and a slot for a wireless card to hook the device up to a wireless network. Extraordinary stuff for a gadget that weighs eight ounces and measures less than 3 inches wide by 5.5 inches long. At first blush, it's the answer to all your prayers: It's a fully fledged Palm-powered PDA, with all the bells and whistles your work requires, and it doubles as a modest but usable camera, will play back music and record interviews and meetings.
Now for the cautionary tale. First, Sony has a reputation for building sturdy and beautiful products [even if the product-naming department should be forced to name its offspring the way it choose names for its products, which are invariably nonsensical combinations of letters and numbers]. But computing, in my view, is still not Sony's strong suit. The bundled programs to unlock all these features are a mixed bag and, after numerous requests to reboot my computer, I wasn't quite sure what I had installed and what I hadn't.
Another downer: In theory there's enough that comes with the Clie to get you on the road, but you won't get far without at least one widget that doesn't come with it -- a Memory Stick. These chewing-gum lookalikes are Sony's proprietary memory cards that you see happy young people in Sony ads swapping between computers, MP3 players, cameras and video recorders. That the Clie doesn't come with one [a] reflects Sony's somewhat arrogant assumption that everyone is already bursting with Memory Sticks and [b] means that unless you are already a Sony convert you can't make use of the most interesting features of the device. [The PEG-NX70V comes with 16 megabytes of memory but five megabytes of that is already taken up with Clie programs].
Bottom line: Expect to shell out $100 or so for another 128 megabytes of memory if you want to take photos, video, or use the audio features.
I encountered other snags that tested my passion for the PEG-NX70V, or Peggy V as I started calling her. Being in the entertainment business, Sony is still somewhat schizophrenic about the MP3 revolution -- where folk can convert CDs and whatnot to a very slimmed-down, portable file format called MP3 -- and it shows on the Clie.
MP3s have scared the living daylights out of the music industry because there's nothing stopping anyone swapping their CD collection over the Internet with any Tom, Dick or Harry -- for free. Not surprisingly, the bundled software for moving music onto Peggy V from your computer converts the MP3, or CD, into Sony's own format called ATRAC3, which [you guessed it] limits what you can do with the music.
The result: A silly mess that will alienate users and further muddy the waters. Solution? Buried in the manual is a workaround, which basically allows you to move MP3 files directly onto the Memory Stick, which you can then listen to on Peggy V without restrictions.
My verdict: Aesthetically delightful, Peggy V might not be the companion she promises to be. Palm would do well to copy the Clie's screen design, whereby the scribbling pane doubles as part of the screen itself, but overall the PEG-NX70V's extra features aren't quite as seductive as they first appear. It won't stop me holding onto mine as long as I possibly can, but I'm not ditching my MP3 player, my voice recorder, or even my Palm Tungsten, for the time being.