Contact Info:

Sony
www.sonystyle.com

PalmInfoCenter.com Bottom Line:

The Price:
  • $500
The Pros:
  • 320 x 320 Screen
  • MP3 playback
  • Jog Dial
  • Small size

The Cons:
  • Video playback choppy
  • Flimsy flip cover attachment
  • Buttons hard to push

PalmInfoCenter.com Ratings*:
Design:
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Overall:

*Maximum Rating is FIVE (5) InfoPalms



Sony PEG-N760C Review
By Ed Hardy
10/4/2001


Overview
The PEG-N760C is the latest in the Clié line of handhelds from Sony. It offers a 16-bit 320 by 320 pixel screen, a Memory Stick slot, and a jog dial. Sony is positioning it as a multimedia device and it comes with audio and video applications and a set of headphones. It is essentially the N710C except with Palm OS 4.1 instead of OS 3.5.

Hardware
The N760C is 2.88 by 4.75 by 0.69 inches and weighs 5.7 ounces. It comes in a silver housing with chrome trim. Unlike the N610C, you don't have the option of getting a purple casing.

I'm not going to comment on the appearance of the N760C, partially because that's so subjective and partially because I don't have any strong feelings one way or the other. There are pictures of it everywhere; judge for yourself.

On the front, the silver buttons are surrounded by a chrome rectangle and its up/down buttons are combined into a single rocker switch. All these are a bit harder to push than I'm used to, which makes fast games that involve a lot of button pushing more difficult than they ought to be.

The power button is at the bottom and has a small LED in it to indicate that it is on. This is necessary because when listening to music it is possible to turn the screen off.

On the left side, from top to bottom, are the headphone jack, the Jog Dial, the Back button, and the Hold Switch. Obviously, this is most convenient for right handed people, who tend to hold the device in their left hands.

I tried to see what using the Jog Dial would be like for someone who held it in their right hand. This required me to use the Jog Dial with my index finger. There's no doubt about it, this was awkward. I could move up and down easily but when I tried to push down the Jog Dial to select something, I tended to also pull down on it so I ended up opening the next item on the list.

On the top is where the flip cover attaches, the Infrared port, the Memory Stick slot, and, on the far right, the stylus slot.

The right side is pretty much taken up with the stylus holder. Like all Sony models, all except the very top of the stylus is held inside the casing.

On the bottom is the serial port. On either side are two slots for holding clip-on peripherals. There is another slot in the middle of the back to give clip-ons some extra security. The reset button is also there.

The Screen
As great as its MP3 player is, the first thing everyone notices about the N760C is the screen. It is a 320 by 320 pixel reflective TFT LCD that can display over 65 thousand colors.

It has 16-bit color because it comes with Palm OS 4.1, which has support for that many colors. Until OS 4, the only PalmOS handheld with a 16-bit screen was the Visor Prism, and that only because Handspring wrote a special version of OS 3.5 to support it.

That's why the N710C had the same screen but could only display 8-bit color. Once Sony releases an update to bring the N710C to OS 4, it will have a screen the equal of the N760C's.

The N760C's screen is just awesome. It is the same as the one on the Sony N610C, which makes the best screen available in a Palm OS device and possibly better than that on any other handheld.

When the first Sony devices came out with 320 by 320 resolution, I'll admit I wasn't tremendously impressed mainly because there weren't very many applications available that made good use of the high-res screen. Months later, some are starting to appear that make it clear that the days of 160 by 160 resolution are numbered, at least on high-end devices.

The N760C has one feature that they really should have put in the m505: a brightness control. Tap a small icon in one corner of the silkscreen area and a slider control appears. This lets you turn the screen up to full brightness or turn it way down to save power. Even on the lowest setting it is quite readable. It also remembers whether the sidelight was on or off when the device was last turned off.

The N760C has a pixel-doubling feature built in to let any application run on its hi-res screen and I didn't run into any that didn't run fine on it.

I'm not too fond of the plastic covering over the screen because I just don't like the way it feels to write on. I fixed this really quickly by putting a piece of clear scotch tape over the Graffiti area, which gives it a better texture and protects it from scratches.

Hi-Res Fonts
This handheld does more than just pixel-double third-party applications. It has a feature called High Resolution Assist that replaces the low-res fonts in most applications with a hi-res one. This lets all applications take advantage of the N760C's excellent screen, not just specially written ones.

This works with most applications I tried and even AvantGo. I ran into a few apps that had problems but individual apps can be marked to not have their fonts changed.

The next step Sony needs to take with this is to let the user choose from a list of hi-res fonts. Frankly, I'm not fond of the font Sony chose. I understand there are some companies working on this already.

PictureGear Pocket
The N760C comes with an updated version of PictureGear Pocket, which allows you to display pictures either from RAM or the Memory Stick. This app supports the full resolution and colors of the N760C's screen and they have improved its usability a bit. The demo pictures that come with the app really show off the N760C's screen's amazing ability.

It also comes with a companion application: Photo Stand. This lets pictures in PG Pocket format be displayed as a slide show. It is intended to allow people to use their handheld in its cradle as an always-changing picture on their desk. You can select a set of pictures to cycle through and even display a digital or analog clock.

MP3 Playback
I've already mentioned it so I'll go ahead and cover the N760C's MP3 playback abilities. This function comes because it has a special Digital Signaling Processor (DSP). The Motorola chip that handles the OS and the rest of the handheld's functions isn't powerful enough to do MP3 decoding.

The only downside to having the separate DSP is it uses a lot of power. There is no doubt that a few hours of MP3s makes a major hit to the batteries. Still, Sony has done all they can to minimize this. The Hold switch on the left side turns off the screen but still leaves the device on and capable of playing music when controlled by the wand.

The AudioPlayer app does everything you would expect it to do. It pulls files directly off the Memory Stick, displays them in a list, and lets you play, fast forward, and reverse through them. It also has a spectrum analyzer.

The audio goes only to the headphones because the un-amplified speaker isn't capable of much more than beeps.

Like its predecessor, it comes with a pair of clip-on earphones that attach to your ears rather than clamp onto your head. These save on space but they cut off the blood supply to my ears after a while. If you don't like these, any standard headphones should work.

It also has a small control wand that lets you use the MP3 player with the handheld still in your pocket. In another nice touch, the wand has a small nub on it to let you use it as a stylus without scratching the screen.

As I mentioned in passing before, there is a small Hold switch on the side of the N760C that turns off the screen but leaves the handheld still running. This lets you play music with minimal power drain while using the control wand in case you want to change the volume or the track.

Video Playback
The N760C comes with the gMovie Player preinstalled. I suppose the word I'm looking for here is "adequate" but I was a bit disappointed. Movies aren't in hi-res and are choppy. Sound quality is good though. The control wand works with this app as well.

I suppose this is forced on them by the need to conserve memory space. A 32.5 second, 160 x 120 movie with audio is 1.2 MB. With that as a guide, a 90 minute movie would be roughly 200 MB. Though as it stands now, they could save space by leaving the last half of the movie off because I don't think I'd sit through the whole thing unless they could improve the picture quality.

The Memory Stick
The Memory Stick is Sony's baby so it is no surprise that the N760C has a slot for it. In yet another move that I think other device manufacturers should copy, an 8 MB one actually comes with the handheld. And even better, it's preloaded with some movie files, an MP3, some third-party apps, and a bunch of pictures for the image viewer.

The handheld comes with an application called MSGate that lets you access the contents of both RAM and the MemStick, including copying, moving, and deleting files. But be careful, rather than letting you choose which folders to look in, most applications expect their files to be in predetermined folders on the MemStick and can't find them if they are anywhere else.

It also comes with a pair of applications that make this handheld significantly easier to use than the competition. Memory Stick Import is an app that runs on the N760C while Memory Stick Export is a Windows app. Together, they allow a Memory Stick inserted in a N760C in its cradle to appear on as a removable drive on the PC.

This means that you can directly access the contents of the expansion card through the Windows Explorer. You don't need to go through the hassle of HotSyncing to load files onto the card or to copy them off.

With this you can use your Clie as a removable hard drive. Say you have a file you are working on at your office. You can copy it onto the Memory Stick and take it home. Assuming you have a cradle at home, too, you can copy it back off the handheld and continue working.

Jog Dial
This is another Sony feature that I hope eventually becomes standard on all handhelds. It is just so darn convenient. You can move through the OS and the built-in apps with just your thumb, saving a lot of time. Heck, I can look up a phone number without ever pulling out the stylus, which is handy and saves wear and tear on the screen.

Below the Jog Dial is the Back button, which does just what its name suggests. For example, if you are in an application, you can push the Back button to go back out to the app launcher.

If you enable JogAssist in the Preferences app, holding down the Back button will open the drop down menu, as if you had tapped the Menu button. Another option is to set the Back button to work as an Off switch.

Used together, the Jog Dial and the back button let you perform a lot of tasks one handed. For example, I'm in the middle of reading an ebook now with WordSmith that has each chapter as a separate file. When I finish a chapter, I hold down the Back button, which brings up the drop down menu. I use the Jog Dial to move down on the menu to Close, and push down again to select it. That puts me back out to the list of Doc files so I again use the Jog Dial to move to the next one I want to open. Pushing down one last time on the Jog Dial opens it and I can go on. I never even had to consider pulling out the stylus.

You can even add additional functions to the first drop-down menu, like Power Off or Find. These will then appear in all applications.

The Motherboard
Not surprising for a high-end handheld like this one, the N760C uses the fastest processor available for a PalmOS device, the 33 MHz Motorola Dragonball VZ. It has 8 MB of memory.

It also has 4 MB of Flash ROM, meaning its OS is upgradable. This is less of an issue that it is with the N710C because it comes pre-installed with OS 4.1.

The N760C's screen is powered by MediaQ's MQ-1100 Platform Controller Chip, which integrates a 64-bit 2D graphics engine, direct LCD display interface, and a USB device controller. It includes 256 KB of embedded SRAM. This chip gives the N760C's hi-res hi-color screen great performance when using demanding applications like games.

Palm OS 4.1
I tried very hard to find out the differences between OS 4.0 and 4.1 but I'm sorry to say I can't give you any conclusive answers. According to my contact at Sony, this is just a bug fix update with no new features. But I can't tell you what bugs were fixed, either.

After a lot of searching the only difference I was able to find is the N760C doesn't have some of the problems my m505 does with applications that use the IR port. I've never been able to get OmniRemote to work on my m505 but it works great on the N760C. And that might not even be related to the new OS version.

Because it runs OS 4, it uses Palm's method from running apps on expansion cards. When a Memory Stick is plugged in, its contents appear in a new category in the default Launcher. Tapping on an app on this list copies it to RAM and then runs it from there. When the app is exited, it is removed from RAM.

It also can run Palm Web Clipping apps right out of the box, which surprised me a bit. Just to be sure, I put the Palm Infocenter PQA on the N760C and made an Internet connection with my modem. It worked like a dream.

Of course, it also has the Attention Manager, which lists past alarms that have gone off but have not yet been acknowledged. As a person who sets a lot of alarms, I like this.

Accessories
The stylus is fairly standard, with a metal shaft and a plastic tip and topper. The top unscrews to reveal a reset pin.

As mentioned earlier, the flip cover attaches to the top. It's silver, has "Clié" written on it also in silver, and it is hinged so that it can fold around all the way to the back. It doesn't have any way to hold itself closed, like with magnets or anything. It is a bit less protective this way but I like it. As it is, I can open the cover one handed, flipping it around like Kirk opening his communicator.

In a nice touch, the cover is shaped so that pushing down on it won't push the buttons on the front of the handheld. However, it seems to be lightly attached. Over the life of the device, the flimsy plastic tabs that hold it on could easily wear out.

The cradle is silver plastic with a touch of chrome and matches the handheld nicely. It has one outstanding feature. The power adapter can plug into either the cradle or directly into the N760C. This means that no additional travel charger is necessary. The wall socket plugs even fold down to make a smaller package.

Macintosh
Update: I originally said that the N760C didn't have problems HotSyncing with a Mac as long as the latest version of the Palm Desktop was used. I tested this via infrared on my PowerBook. Unfortunately, several people have written in to point out that infrared is the only way that this will work. Some USB incompatibility has cropped up with Palm OS 4.1 that didn't appear with OS 4.0. Apparently, even the app from Mark/Space is having problems with the N760C. Sorry if I steered anyone wrong. What IS Sony's problem with the Mac OS?

Conclusion
While I've tried hard to be even-handed about the N760C, I have to say that it is an awesome handheld. It's not cheap at $500 but provides plenty of bang for the buck. If you are looking for a combination MP3 player and handheld, this is definitely the way to go.