PDA Pundit: So Long, Sony; Hello, Zire 72 and Axim X30

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This column was supposed to be primarily about the Zire 72, as I promised last month. But first, a word about Sony's departure--for now, at least--from the PDA fray in most of the world.

So Long, Clie

Those of you who've read my reviews of the Sony Clie PEG-TH55, in the April and May columns, may think I wasn't sorry to hear Sony announce that it would not be introducing any new models for the rest of the year (except in Japan). That isn't completely true. I think Sony saw, before other vendors, that multimedia matters in handhelds. The company led the way in introducing exciting features such as cameras to small devices.

But I don't care for most of Sony's customizations of the Palm OS. That, I won't miss.

Sony may yet come back to PDAs. In its statement the company insisted that mobile devices remain "a key pillar to our core business strategy." But my guess is that if Sony does return to the PDA market, it will be with a new brand name that doesn't have Clie's high-end, all-the-bells-and-whistles connotation. (I suspect Sony will channel those urges to its upcoming handheld gaming device, previewed at E3.)

Kevin Burden, a top IDC guru on handhelds, pointed out that Sony was out of step with a market that is seeing cell phones with more and more multimedia features going down, down, down in price. And PalmOne continues to pack these sorts of features into its Zire handhelds--also at attractive prices.

Recently, our editor-in-chief, Harry McCracken, suggested that Sony's exit from the PDA business in most of the world could spell real problems for Palm-based PDAs in general. I'm not sure I entirely agree.

Palm-based handhelds still lead Pocket PC-based PDAs in market share, and PalmOne can easily absorb the Clie crowd--and likely will pick up most of it, according to IDC's Burden. There are millions of Palm devices out there. And new, low-end models such as the Zire 31 (reviewed in my May column and for our "Top 10 PDAs") are bringing in new devotees in droves, so I don't think the Palm OS is going away anytime soon.

And while I do agree that eventually just about all PDAs will be able to connect wirelessly to the Internet, I also believe that there will continue to be a market for handhelds that aren't phones, that connect via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Convergence is certainly happening, but some things are tough to converge.

Zire 72: Multimedia Marvel

PalmOne Zire 72
Photograph: Rick Rizner

This came home to me as I tried out the Zire 72, carrying it around in my purse with my PalmOne Treo 600. (Hey, I still need a phone!)

The first thing I noticed was how roomy and fine the Zire 72's display looked compared to the Treo's. Well, duh--the Treo's screen measures 1.9 by 1.8 inches (2.5 inches on the diagonal) and has a resolution of 160 by 160; the Zire 72, in contrast, has a 320 by 320 screen that measures 2.4 by 2.4 inches (3 inches on the diagonal)--not including the dedicated Graffiti area. While the Treo has a relatively large display for a cell phone, the Zire 72's screen dwarfs that of just about any conventional mobile phone. Pocket PC Phone Edition users may be used to such large displays in their voice communication devices, but I believe the disparity in screen size is going to be a defining difference between a phone and a PDA for most people.

Once I got past carrying a relatively large handheld, I had a ball trying out the Zire 72's features. I took it with me to a Memorial Day weekend air show, where I used its built-in camera to shoot some 20 minutes of video, including footage of the Air Force's Thunderbirds that I'm cobbling into a little film. Its resolution is only 320 by 240, but it's still sort of cool to have. In the bright sunlight, however, I had difficulty making out what I was capturing on the Zire 72's screen; I had to guess where to aim the camera.

I was impressed that the Zire 72's battery was able to power so much audio-video recording, not to mention capturing a couple of 1.2-megapixel stills and playing a couple of games of Handmark's Scrabble.

You can read more about this feature-packed device in the review for our "Top 10 PDAs," but overall I'd agree with my colleague Michael Lasky that the Zire 72 delivers a lot for its $299 price tag.

Axim X30: Dell Strikes Again

Dell Axim X30

By now it's no secret that Dell has built an empire by selling high-quality equipment at terrific prices (achieved by eliminating intermediaries and--I suspect--squeezing suppliers mercilessly). That strategy has turned the company into a PDA powerhouse in less than two years.

For Pocket PC fans, Dell's entrance into the market has meant tough competition for the likes of Hewlett-Packard's and Toshiba's handhelds.

If money is no object, I still like HP's IPaq, which has maintained a tradition of elegant industrial design while keeping up with the latest in technology and features. For example, we gave the H4350 a World Class Award.

But I can't deny that Dell's Axim X30 is one of the best PDA values out there. (We received it too late to include in the current Top 10 chart, however.) Prices start at $199, and $349 gets you a slim, lightweight device with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the latest version of the Windows Mobile OS, a 624-MHz Bulverde processor (the successor to Intel's XScale), plus 64MB each of ROM and RAM.

The new Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition isn't vastly different from the first OS, but the browser is improved: I noticed that Web pages seemed to display better. Dell's Wi-Fi app helped make hopping aboard a wireless network fairly easy. And the new Intel CPU definitely makes for a snappy user experience.

I don't think the Axim X30 looks as nice as an IPaq; but it's not chopped liver, either. If you don't need a keyboard, it gives HP's IPaq 4150 a run for its money. Corporate PDA users will be especially interested.

Next month: Enough with the hardware already. How about some apps?

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