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Sony Clie TH55 review
Posted on 1-Jun-2004 17:30 by James Shiell | Filed under: Reviews

Sony Clie TH55 review
I've been looking forward to reviewing this device for a wee while now – ever since I played with one in the local Sony Style shop I've been beset with gadget lust. And so the good people at Sony sent us one to play with for a fortnight. And I'm glad to say that the gadget lust I suffered was well deserved. But will I be trading in my trusty T3? Not just yet…

First things first – let's start with the unit itself. Sony has a reputation for fantastic consumer devices, their only flaw being the insistence on using memory sticks. And this does not let their reputation down. This is by far one of the most polished units I have ever used. It's slim, slightly longer than my T3 but with a larger screen. The buttons so prominent on the Tungsten are hidden away on the TH55 – the four application buttons lie across the bottom (unfortunately, only 3 can be reassigned), and on the back are Sony's trademark jog-dial and left/right/back buttons. This isn't as foolish as it sounds – when holding the device they lie quite nicely at the point your fingers end up. The downside is the device is somewhat vexatious to use when lying against a table. I also found the jog-dial a bit annoying in any case – the slow scroll just meant I had to keep the thing spinning all the time, and I just gave up and used left/right. It would be nice if they had included a 4 way direction pad, but it's not a great flaw. The buttons on the side (power, voice recorder, camera) are all slide buttons – this was unusual at first, but becomes second nature very quickly, and accidentally hitting these buttons (as I do on my T3, especially the voice recorder) was never an issue.

For those who haven't seen it in person, it's a lovely looking PDA. It's sleek and black with a Perspex cover. The cover doesn't open all the way and does look somewhat precariously mounted – it's not one for the kids. It also picks up fingerprints with great ease. Otherwise though, it's superb.

As for the camera, while the pictures aren't anything to write home about they're made one lovely addition which I hope PalmOne will include in the future – a lens cover for the camera. The slide button on the side opens it and activates the camera application, or seals it nicely with a simple flick. Finally I can put a camera-PDA in my pocket without fear.

Sample picture indoors
Sample picture outdoors #1
Sample picture outdoors #2

Sony has, of course, its own connector. As with PalmOne, they've taken the option of supplying cables, not cradles. Unlike PalmOne, they've accomplished this by providing a connector adaptor, thus providing backwards compatibility. This also wraps the power and USB cables into one connector to the device, making ‘docking' the unit very easy and pain free. On the downside, the USB cable doesn't charge the device. But they do get extra brownie points for having the transformed on a small lead, instead of as part of the plug unit. Am I the only person who has huge problems with power sockets teeming with huge transformers? In any case, you won't be adding to them with this unit.

And now to the specifications! I was thrilled with the idea of getting one of the few Palm devices with WiFi. Unfortunately, we poor colonials appear to get the US model, not the European model. This means you only get WiFi, not Bluetooth as well. Nevertheless, the included instruction manual contained instructions on setting up Bluetooth and almost drove me witless unless I realised the lack of hardware support. Nevertheless, the WiFi support is easy to use, if a little slow to connect, and more than fast enough for web browsing (NetFront is included) or email (Sony supply ClieMail, which remained untried as it doesn't support IMAP. Versamail doesn't work too badly however). On the downside, the option of using an IrDA phone was not apparent, and I did not manage to get my T300 connected.

On the memory side, it has a reasonable 32Mb. It's a shame they didn't go higher, but at least with the Clies you actually get 32Mb of usable storage (unlike PalmOne who take the heap memory out of the quoted amount). The processor is also kind of neat. It uses Sony's Handheld Engine, which scales from ~8–126MHz as required. It's great for the most part and makes the battery last forever, but it lacks the power for some applications (emulators, for a start). Also, given the layout of the buttons on this device I can't see it being hugely popular for gaming.

The camera is the standard 0.3mp variety. While a bit better in low light than the Zire 72, it won't be taking home awards for quality. For quick shots, however, it's more than adequate. The voice recorder is excellent, as is the sound playback quality – still noticeably nicer than PalmOne's efforts. It's just a shame they don't seem to have standardised on the PalmSource API as yet.

Syncing proved to be a bit of a pain, due the requirement that Sony Palm Desktop replace my normal Palm Desktop. Luckily, with a little tweaking of conduits I managed to get it working without replacement, after which it worked perfectly. Unfortunately for those who sync to Outlook, the supplied IntelliSync software insists on asking every time data has changed on either side. This is really, really annoying after a couple of days.

Otherwise the software is, in general, excellent. Sony has once again proved their consumer heritage by presenting a beautifully polished interface and application set. They are far stronger on the media side, providing Flash and their own video solution which looks much nicer than Kinoma. The voice recorder and camera applications look gorgeous and have a nice brushed metal finished, rather than the sparse look of standard Palm interfaces. Picsel Viewer is a great toy and a much better solution than Adobe Acrobat Reader. However, Documents to Go will be sorely missed by most. But what really stands out is the Clie Organiser.

The Organiser is Sony's new showpiece – integrated PIM software with a twist. At last you can whip out a pen and scribble all over your calendar, as well as dragging in photos, notes and voice recordings. This gives it some of the freeform nature of a paper diary, while retaining the advantages of a PDA. And it's great. But, unlike the rest of the software, it lacks polish. For instance, clicking on the calendar doesn't seem to create an appointment – you have to select the ‘new' button. The notepad feature is great, but starts to get slow if you're sketching or just writing a lot. Admittedly it does appear to be vector based, making deletion easy (just rub out part of the line and the whole line vanishes) and it looks fantastic (anti-aliasing is applied on-the-fly).

But the most annoying part is the launcher – not only have they gone for the dropdown categories of the standard Palm launcher, but they've also neglected to give you the option to edit categories, move applications and even drag-and-drop assign the favourites! To edit your categories you need to exit Clie Organiser and go back to the Palm launcher. And while they retain the old Clie Launcher, it uses different categories to the Organiser and standard Palm launcher. To sum up, this software has great promise but needs tidying and tightening up.

One other application I was looking forward to trying was 94313 Decuma, a Latin alphabet recogniser for the Palm. On the Clie this replaces the virtual graffiti area and works quite nicely. However it doesn't show the application launch buttons and is inconvenient if you're entering a mix of alpha and numeric characters, due to the fact it separates number and text entry onto separate tabs. Also, the status bar did not seem as nicely laid out as on the T3 and lacked some handy functionality, such as the ability to activate on-screen graffiti and wireless support. But the worst lack – you cannot rotate the screen. Its portrait or nothing I'm afraid.

In conclusion, it's a great device, for the most part, and I was sorry to see it go. If you need raw power, decent game support or enjoy screen rotation, give it a miss. But if you're after a fantastic organiser with great media support, a lovely profile and WiFi built-in, it's an option you should look seriously at. And given that Sony Style stores have them out for demonstration you can and should have a play first. As for me, I'm back with my T3 and hoping desperately that the rumours of a PalmOne WiFi card are more than just flotsam.

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