Palm LifeDrive

Posted at

On Sunday, the Palm LifeDrive that I'd ordered a week and a half ago arrived, tossing me into a tizzy of "new toy!" excitement. This tiny computer is a lot like any other Palm Pilot or similar PDA, but it's packed with high-end features like a 4 gigabyte hard drive, a (relatively) large color screen, sound recording, the ability to play music and videos, and (most importantly) wireless communication with other computers. Together with a fold-out IR keyboard accessory, this is meant to provide me with a computer to use for work when I'm away from home, since I have concluded that every affordable laptop in existence is far too heavy and fragile for me to enjoy as a travelling companion.

I've spent the past couple of days getting comfortable with it and my intended use scenario. This scenario primarily revolves around using pssh to invoke a Unix terminal to my main computer so that I can use the same exact programs that I normally use for work. The two hurdles to overcome, of course, are the reduced screen size and the fact that no keyboard can ever be expected to live up to the beloved tank of a 1980's-era IBM keyboard that I use on my desktop.

Surprisingly enough, the size of the screen doesn't present as much difficulty as you might think. If I set the font correctly, I can fit a very reasonable amount of text at a size that is just a hair above the barest threshhold of comfortable legibility. A more serious issue is the fact that when I use my preferred color scheme of white text on a black background, the screen becomes quite reflective. I'm not yet sure whether black text on a white background is a lesser evil than the leering specter of my own spectacled visage intruding upon the task at hand, but I have hope that I'll be able to get the hang of refocusing my eyes so that the reflection appears less obtrusive. A dark screen also makes it far too easy to be distracted by the air bubbles that are trapped under the inexpertly applied plastic screen shield which came with the device. I'll probably just have to bear the waste and replace it with a new shield. However, the biggest difficulty with the visibility has more to do with software than hardware. The terminal emulation of pssh is less than perfect, meaning that screen redraws don't always happen as they should and junk characters are left lying around the terminal. Tweaking my GNU screen settings might alleviate the glitches, and if not, I can always hack on pssh's source code to attempt some bugfixing.

The primary difficulty with the keyboard is not its size, as it was quite well designed to maximize key size while minimizing chassis size. I've gotten used to its general form factor after only a few days. Also, the fear that PalmOS would be difficult to use without constantly resorting to use of the stylus on the touchpad was quite unfounded. The keyboard driver features the ability to use nifty key chords to interact with the PalmOS user interface elements and quickly launch programs of my choice. Only older, crufty applications have trouble with keyboard-only usage. The annoying aspect of the keyboard's layout is its placement of the key for typing the slash (/) character. It is placed immediately to the right of the right-hand shift key instead of immediately to its left. The normal position of the slash key is occupied by the "up" arrow key. As a long-time touch typist, moving a key that's important to me is uncomfortable. But as an adaptable human being, I'm learning to live with it. At least it's not nearly as painful as the bizarre shape of the Return key on my sister's PowerBook (with its Israeli keyboard layout).

The only really serious problem with the keyboard is the fact that its "Ctrl" key is effectively useless in my primary application: a Unix terminal. Pressing Ctrl+x, for example, simply sends "x" to my terminal. I'm still not certain how much of this problem is to be blamed on the keyboard driver and how much is the fault of pssh. But in any case, it's a critical hit to me as a heavy user of GNU screen, which is controlled almost entirely through control-character sequences. Fortunately, pssh features a work-around which allows me to make a successful saving throw for half damage. It has a menu-item shortcut which sends valid control characters to the terminal, and my keyboard has a special "Cmd" button for activating an application's shortcuts very easily. The "Ctrl" shortcut was originally bound by pssh to Cmd+t, but I found the ergonomics of such a keystroke chord far too contorting for such a frequently needed function, so I tweaked the source code of pssh and recompiled it so that Cmd+z was bound to the desired shortcut. (Being a programmer is very nice at times like this.) Cmd+z is a much more comfortable combination since the keys are right next to each other. It's still not as good as having a normal Ctrl key, but it's acceptable.

One particularly nice side effect of having the LifeDrive around is that I'm no longer musically tethered to my desk. I can roam around my apartment and beyond, listening to music with my high-quality earbuds instead of my tinny-sounding speakers, and as loudly as I like without disturbing my neighbors. A good music-listening experience is actually quite important to my being able to work effectively, since my job is often too mechanical to sufficiently stimulate my brain into usability without the added spice of music. Because of this, I'm almost certainly going to have to purchase the deluxe version of Pocket Tunes. Although the basic version that was bundled with the LifeDrive is good enough for playing music that's stored locally on the device's hard drive, I have no interest in constantly schlepping large chunks of my music collection back and forth between my main computer and my handheld computer, especially since I can never predict what I'm going to want to listen to more than 10 minutes in advance. So the only reasonable solutions to my musical needs are to stream my own music via something like Icecast and to listen to Internet-based radio stations. And streaming music from the network is only supported by the deluxe version of Pocket Tunes. I've been using the 15-day trial of this deluxe edition, and despite my occasional surprise at it lacking some tiny little features that I would normally take for granted, by the end of the day it gets the job done very well.

Although the LifeDrive is primarily for work, it also promises to provide some very nice utility for me in other areas. I've already begun to enjoy the fun of playing little games, reading digitized books, and browsing the Web in a limited fashion while wandering around from room to room freely. Its ability to plug into any computer and act like a USB hard drive will make it blissfully easy to tote large amounts of data to and from other friends' and family members' computers over sneakernet. And I suspect I will also find it handy to be able to use my LifeDrive to read the memory cards from digital cameras.

While I'm generally happy with my LifeDrive, and I stand by my decision to stay away from the PocketPC platform, the weaknesses of PalmOS are not at all difficult to feel. Most prominent is its virtually complete lack of multitasking ability. Every time you switch to a different program, the previous program essentially quits. The impact of this is softened considerably by the fact that most applications are able to save and restore their state quickly and effectively, but an application like pssh maintains state information that is just too fragile to be maintained without actually running continuously. So I can't switch from pssh to another program unless I'm willing to lose my terminal session and log back in again when I want to return to it. Even within a single program, the severe inadequacy at processing information concurrently and asynchronously makes a task like Web browsing feel like an experience from ten years ago. I can only imagine the contortions that a program like Pocket Tunes must perform to continue operating in the background in a limited fashion, which is really a ridiculous fact when you consider that multitasking is a freebee for an application running under any modern OS. Listen up, Palm: you just can't deliver a Linux-based version of your OS fast enough. Don't drop the ball. In the meantime, I'll wait to see if a port of Familiar ever makes it to the LifeDrive.

All in all, I can deal with the few drawbacks to this handheld, and it fills my need for a mobile work tool effectively, while also being a fun addition around the house and beyond.


Comment from Steve Killen at

Thanks very very much for the detailed report!  Your issues with multitasking would be a showstopper for me; I'm very glad that Linux is quite up to the task on the PocketPC. 

My main concern now is finding a keyboard that actually allows me to turn the unit sideways, and still provides decent support. I hate typing in portrait mode, but the interfaces are all hard-wired and unadaptable.

I may just bite the bullet and order the XT from Fellowes, and then see if there's an extender cable.  It's week one proper of school now, so I need to be up to speed and pronto.

Comment from Steve Killen at

The Micro Innovations IR keyboard seems to be supported in Familiar and can be oriented the way I prefer.  Too bad it's $47 and not the $20 that the Fellowes jobby costs.

Comment from Daniel Pearson at

Multitasking really is more of an academic issue than a practical concern for me, since I only really care about SSH and playing music. All the rest is negotiable.

My showstopper would have been hardware compatibility. My choices for (locally purchased) Palm-supported hardware were limited enough as it was. If I'd held out for a Linux handheld, I'd be spending all my time hunting and hacking instead of just using.

And I don't wanna hear you complain about a $47 keyboard. :) You're living in the land of cheap electronics. The only keyboard I could find that was worth buying cost over $100. (But at least it's better than some laptop keyboards I've met in my day.)