August 16, 2002, updated September 19, 2002
The face of mobile computing is shrinking. Though they're not the first of the Palm OS PDAs to get smaller than the venerable Palm V, the Sony CLIE SJ20 and SJ30 mark the beginning of a trend (the SL10 actually began this move in the Sony camp). Photographs of the new units actually look a little odd because we're so used to seeing a taller profile. They look somewhat squat, even pudgy without a frame of reference.
For comparison, I've placed the SJ20 next to its predecessor, the Sony T415 (see image at below). The SJ20 has a lot in common with the T415. The T415 broke new ground in design, with a slim, one-piece housing that evoked a Star Trek PADD. It was slim because it used a unique screen design, a high-resolution (320 x 320) monochrome LCD with a surreal green glowing backlight. Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to read in anything but direct sunlight because of the low contrast and dim backlight. This screen is still used in the CLIE SL10.
The SJ20 uses a different approach. While it's a good deal thicker than the T415, it's at least a half inch shorter. And this time they took advantage of that extra thickness and gave the screen not only a decent backlight, but a fabulously bright, almost paper white backlight. No, they didn't light up the pixels like Palm and Handspring have done to my chagrin--instead Sony lit the background, just as they did with the S300 series. The effect is reminiscent of a black and white television screen, or even a newspaper. The pixels aren't perfectly black, more of a very dark grey, but the experience is excellent. Transition to daylight is almost seamless; even the tone of the background remains the same, indoors or out.
One feature that doesn't appear improved from the T415 is the relatively slow refresh. It's unclear why, because while icons and photos in Picture Gear Pocket draw to the screen slowly, the Photostand program drops the same pictures in all at once. Because of the high resolution and white background, by the way, the SJ20 is an impressive platform for displaying black and white photographs.
Unlike traditional monochrome LED screens, the screens of the SJ20 and T415 are dark when the unit is off, just like a television set. A matching, and handsome dark mask beneath the digitizer surrounds the screen and continues down to the Graffiti area. The plastic bezel around the face wastes no space, neither top, bottom, nor sides. I'm still waiting for a near edge-to-edge screen, but at least the extraneous top and bottom are eliminated for an overall small package.
The color screen on the SJ30 appears to be the same as on the current T665C. It is bigger than the monochrome screen on the SJ20, quite a visible differerence. The screen draws faster than the SJ20's as well. It is a backlit, reflective TFT design, with 320 x 320 resolution, displaying 64K colors. Photos display very nicely on the SJ30. Except for the display, everything on the SJ30 is identical to the SJ20, save for the flip cover which is gray on the color model and dark gray on the B&W.
Across the bottom face are the usual four buttons, nicely rocker-shaped. The rocker toggle itself is more traditional than on T-series CLIEs, and it works better. Right below the rocker is the charge indicator LED. On the left are the Jog Dial and "back" button. The bottom has the standard connector used on the T and NR series CLIEs, a welcome trend that I hope continues.
The top of both units features a lanyard loop, the IrDA window, Memory Stick slot with a dust door, and the power button. I'm not excited about the power button's position on top of the unit, but it is well protected from accidental activation by the included flip cover.
The flip cover shows that Sony has learned some lessons from past models. The flexible hinge is reinforced with plastic inserts that help maintain the cover's alignment with the front face. It also helps the cover reach out over the somewhat thick top of the unit and yet still lay flush. The mechanism that holds the cover in place is also improved, requiring only a firm pull down on a large plastic slider. Previous models used two sliders that had to be moved in opposite directions. Too often one would come unhooked in general use and the other could easily break off. This new design appears more solid and friendly.
Many will be happy that the SJ20 uses the same stylus as the T-series CLIEs, and others will be disappointed that it's still the same slender design. Many readers have returned their CLIEs for no other reason than this. I'm pleased to see that it at least snicks in place more positively than the stylus of the NR70V.
16MB of RAM, a 33MHz Dragonball VZ processor, and USB connectivity round out both offerings. No cradle is included, instead a HotSync cable and charging cable are supplied, with a small plastic snap and connector to hold them together and combine them into a single HotSync and charging solution. It's a little odd to have to do so much assembly, and the assembly itself is a little confusing at first. Both SJ models are compatible with T-series cradles.
Applications are standard Sony fare, with the enhanced Address Book, gMovie, PictureGear Pocket, CLIE Paint, plus demo versions of PocketVineyard and Pocket Gourmet.
I don't really miss the MP3 player; I tend to think that HDD-based products like the Apple iPOD have that market sewn up with their greater storage capacity. I'm waiting for Sony to come out with something like that: call it the PalmMan and best both Apple and Palm with one device.
Meanwhile, the CLIE SJ20 and SJ30 are tight, low-profile PDAs with utilitarian style. They're a little on the thick side, and also somewhat weighty at 5.3 ounces for the SJ20 and 5.7 ounces for the SJ30. Nonetheless, I appreciate their solid feel, excellent screens, and diminutive profile. These stout little handhelds are packed with most of the high-end features one needs in a PDA. Students and first time purchasers will be pleased both with their great screens and relatively low US$199 and US$299 price tags.