Originally created 03/03/03

Newest Sony Clie may be a bit ahead of its time

NEW YORK -- Sony's latest Clie digital assistant is an ambitious all-in-one device that includes a digital camera, an MP3 player and Bluetooth and WiFi wireless capabilities in a slick all-metal clamshell design.

Is this James Bond's PDA? Maybe not. At more than 5 inches long, nearly an inch thick and 10 ounces, it's enormous compared to lesser handhelds.

But the PEG-NZ90, as it is officially known, is surprisingly user-friendly despite the overwhelming set of features.

Within minutes I was snapping digital photos, much to my co-workers' alarm - our office lighting isn't that flattering.

You can edit photos on the screen and even e-mail them because this Clie connects to the Internet wherever WiFi networks are available, You can also connect the Clie to your printer using a provided USB cable or via a wireless Bluetooth link.

This multi-capable handheld is so sturdy that if I shut the sliding lens cap I might be comfortable just tossing it into my bag - except for the $800 price tag.

The NZ90 runs Palm's newest operating system, version 5. But this is much more than an organizer for addresses and appointments. Sony wants to entertain you. The idea is to replace your digital camera, your portable compact disc or MP3 player - perhaps even the laptop you take on the road.

If you're already familiar with using WiFi and you want to travel light, this might be a good investment. Especially if you rely on a digital camera.

The two-megapixel camera - capable of recording still and video images with flash and a 2X zoom - is the Clie's coolest feature. It's wedged in the hinge between a swiveling high-resolution color screen and a full QWERTY keyboard, which is great if you have nimble thumbs but is not as finger-friendly as the keypad on Handspring Treo models. The pictures from the camera appeared as clear as any digital images I've seen.

The edges of the NZ90 are jammed with functions, including a slot for a wireless communications card, an Infrared port, connectors for a voice recorder, headphones and a remote control, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and Sony's optional Memory Stick.

Be prepared to buy an additional Memory Stick; the 16 megabytes of memory that are standard on the machine is just enough for the programs it comes with. Sony makes Memory Sticks in several sizes, up to 128 megabytes, but even that may not be sufficient for some audiophiles. More advanced memory sticks with up to 256 megabytes are expected to be released next month.

Sony says the battery life is 10 days, but if you're a music-loving shutterbug, you might be out of power in less than half that time. The included cradle lets you recharge and Hotsync with your computer via USB, but if you're on the road, a spare battery might be a good purchase. In theory, you could also use Bluetooth to Hotsync with a compatible computer.

Right now, getting online with the NZ90 requires purchasing a WiFi card for the communications slot, possibly establishing an account with a local WiFi provider and cozying up near an access point - more are popping up at airports, coffee shops and universities every day.

A promised software upgrade expected this spring will allow Clie users to connect to the Internet via a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, Sony says.

Some patience is required to transfer large files - such as MP3s - onto the unit from a computer. But when you're finally ready to go, the included remote control headset is pretty cool.

If you've come to rely on Documents to Go - the program from Data Viz that lets you view and edit Microsoft Office documents - you're going to miss it. Sony has included this on earlier Clie models, but the program on this machine only lets you see documents, not edit them. A shame, since there are at least three different ways to write here - the integrated keyboard, the on-screen keyboard or the Graffiti shorthand screen.

Even if you're not a gadget-lover, this device is astonishing, but it's obviously not for everyone. If you're making your first foray into the PDA market, you'll probably want to start a bit smaller. If you already own a digital camera, you may not be able to rationalize the price with the convenience of having it integrated with your PDA.

What this device does, however, is offer a glimpse into the future, and that's always worth a look: Sony's vision is fun.


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