Sony CLIE N610C
Slimmed-down, high-color Palm has everything but digital audio
by David MacNeill
September 29, 2001
As you might expect, we receive a lot of handhelds here at PCM, mostly Palm OS devices. I look at them all, but few inspire me the way Sony's CLIE models do. When the first one came out, the poor-selling S300, I think I was perhaps the only tech journalist to like it. The dimensions were a delight after all those bulky Handspring Visors we'd been reviewing, and the display was a proper black-on-green you could actually read in dim light. It reminded me of nothing less than a mini-Newton MessagePad; it could just as easily have an Apple logo in place of the Sony--high praise coming from me.
But times change, and color displays and multimedia have since become the orders of the day in handheld land. And, of course, Sony is right there, pushing the proverbial envelope more than any other maker of Palm OS machines, including Palm itself. Media, delivered on the best technology in the most attractive packagethis is the very definition of Sony. Once they ventured into the handheld arena, they made it clear they are in for the long haul, and invested accordingly. Since that first monochrome model, they've released three models: the slightly updated S320 monochrome, the N710C with a medium-resolution color display and MP3 audio, and the N610C. (At press time, we learned about a new model, the N760C, which combined the best features of the 710 and the 610 into one very attractive package. The N760C was not yet available for review in this issue, but will be featured in the next, and with any luck it'll be me reviewing it.)
I spent a month carrying the N710C and enjoyed it as much as any other handheld I've ever carried. Combined with a zippy 128MB Memory Stick from Lexar Media (www.lexarmedia.com), I carried several dozen hi-bitrate MP3 files, dozens of digital photos, and a stack of Word and Excel documents synced with my Mac using Documents To Go (available at www.dataviz.com).
Yes, that was no typo; my Mac, a PowerBook G4. The lack of Mac support from Sony in every CLIE to date has been a thorn in the side of the Mac community from the get-go. It is particularly annoying since Mac users are historically more entranced by beautifully designed products and are willing to pay a premium price to possess them. I can't imagine why Sony decided that Mac users are not on their radar screen, but no matter: enlightened developer MarkSpace (www.markspace.com) offers the terrific MissingSync conduit specifically to correct Sony's myopia.
But enough about Macs, let's talk about Windows
Sony ships an excellent suite of Windows software with every CLIE, including PictureGear Lite for transferring photos and gMovie for making handheld version of digitized movies. The CLIE N610C also has a unique utility called MS Import that allows you to mount your CLIE's Memory Stick as a drive on Windows Explorer. (Using MissingSync, MS Import works on Macs, too.) Files can be copied directly to the appropriate folders on the Memory Stick, which is much faster than HotSyncing them over. The only catch is that you have to know which folder. The best thing is to HotSync some files directly to the Memory Stick, then mount it in Explorer to see where they went. After that, you can just copy them yourself in batches to save time.
As much as I liked the N710C, it suffered from two great flaws that are actually caused by one thing: the older 3.5 version of the Palm OS. The N610C ships with the latest from Palm, version 4.01, modified by Sony to 4.01s. What that little "s" signifies is hugely important. There are a number of little tweaks invisible to the casual eye, but the most obvious difference is support for 320x320 pixel color display with 64,000 colors. Sony has quadrupled the resolution from Palm's rather ragged old 160x160 pixel models. In fact, every other Palm OS-based device you can buy is 160x160 except for the color CLIEs. Sony created high-res system fonts to take advantage of the higher resolution, then included support for these fonts (High Resolution Assist) so that all your applications can use them. It works remarkably well in all but a couple of apps and Sony made it easy to selectively disable this feature as needed in Prefs. All my current crop of apps work fine with HRA enabled, including AvantGo (www.avantgo.com), BackupBuddyVFS (www.bluenomad.com), BugMe (www.bugme.net), City Time (www.code-city.net), Documents To Go, gMovie (www.genericmedia.com), SplashID, SplashMoney, and SplashPhoto (www.splashdata.com).
I can see clearly now
You can't appreciate just how much of a difference the higher resolution display makes until you try to actually read a few hundred words of text. My 43 year-old eyes appreciate it, let me tell you! But it's not just text that is enhanced. Photos look realistic and 3D, where before they were somewhat posterized and flat. The display technology Sony uses in noteworthy also for it's unparalleled outdoor readability. Like Compaq's iPAQ Pocket PC, it uses a Sony-developed front-lit reflective design called Hybrid LCD. There is simply no better display on the market today, though it does increase the cost of the final device a bit due to the higher cost of this part.
I sorely miss the audio capabilities of the N710C, but the much improved display resolution, along with the more subtle benefits of Palm OS 4.x, add up to a one very elegant and powerful handheld computer. It rivals Windows CE-based Pocket PCs in features, while retaining the inherent simplicity and reliability we've come to depend on from Palms. Though I look forward to the new N760C as the ideal blend, if you have no need of digital audio or already own a good MP3 player, look no further than the Sony CLIE N610C. US$399 in lavender metallic when purchased in retail stores, or matte silver exclusively from www.sony.com/clie.
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