By: Ryan Kairer, Editor in Chief
March 4, 2003
Sony has stunned the handheld world once again with the feature-packed NZ90. The NZ90 continues Sony's mission to create the ultimate multimedia entertainment organizer. It improves on the NX-series with even more features and integrates the most advanced and useful digital camera ever found on a handheld.
The PEG NZ90 sports the same clamshell, swivel-screen design that first debuted on the NR-series and continued with the NX-series. Like the NX, it runs Palm OS 5.0 and is powered by the same Intel PXA-250 XScale chip running at 200mhz. Sony also included its signature 320x480 pixel, vibrant 16bit screen first introduced with the NR-series.
While the new NZ shares many similarities with the previous Clie clamshell incarnations, there are a host of new features built in and Sony had to make room. The NZ90 is slightly taller and thicker than the previous NR and NX Clies. The dimensions are 3 x 5 5/8 x 29/32 inches (or 7.6 x 14.3 x 2.3 cm). It weighs in at a pocket heavy 10.3 oz (or 292g).
There is no getting around that this is a large device. It is the thickest and heaviest Clie to date. You are definitely going to notice it in your pocket. However if you consider all of the features it combines into one device, it's a reasonable size/weight tradeoff. It's much easier to carrying this in a pocket than both a handheld and camera.
Materials and build quality are befitting a top-of-any-line device. What really makes this device stand out is the black magnesium casing. The exterior has a smooth, but not slippery feel and the finish has an attractive, yet very subtle, sparkle to it.
Sony has added a dedicated LED indicator area above the top of the screen with small icons that illuminate to show power, Memory Stick and Bluetooth activity. The LED array is visible in both the tablet and keyboard positions. The indicators on the top of the screen side are set into a small chrome surround that tends to easily pick up fingerprints.
The stylus is now stored on the left side of the screen in a recessed half-rail. The included stylus is the same size as the small T-series stylus. It has a metal shaft and is completely black. The top has been modified to hold it in place on the NZ, so any fancy T-series stylus will not hold in the rail.
Sony has given the small keyboard, or thumb-board, a revision on the NZ. The keys are now a rounded rectangle shape as opposed to the circular keys on the NR/NX. They have a softer, more pleasant feel; pressing the keys almost feels like popping the air pockets of bubble wrap.
I've personally never been a fan of smaller sized keyboards and found myself sticking to Graffiti for most data input. It's was also hard to get accustomed to the keyboard because you have to use a finger or stylus to activate most Palm OS dialogue boxes and menu items. Sony needs to spruce up the keyboard drivers to allow for more control of screen events from the keyboard area. I often found myself repositioning my fingers off the keyboard area to tap something on the screen. An extra function shift or a few keys would greatly reduce the inconvenience of having to juggle between screen taps and the keyboard area.
Now keep in mind, if you use the device for heavy writing, email or SMS, then you'll probably take quite well to the thumb-board. I have tested a large array of different mini-keyboards and feel that Sony's latest design is the most comfortable I've ever tried. For an idea of how the speed compares with regular Graffiti check out our input showdown.
Above the keyboard reside the standard Palm OS application buttons. The buttons are set apart from the black casing, surrounded by a glossy brushed silver area. The buttons are circular and slightly recessed. Overall they are a decent size and have a good solid feel; gamers should be happy with the layout and response.
Edge Hard Buttons
An interesting new design feature is an additional row of the four application buttons on the top edge of the screen. This allows access to the buttons when in tablet mode, and are only active when the device is in this position.
South of the keyboard there is a darker, recessed rectangular area with a Clie logo that does not have an immediately clear purpose other than to look pretty. In fact it does have a purpose, however only in certain markets. It is a (Felicia) wireless smart card reader, specifically for the Japanese market. Since this system is not available or marketed in the U.S., it was disabled.
From top to bottom on the left side of the handheld are the enhanced IR port, Jog Dial and back button, voice recorder button and the reset pinhole. The right side has the camera capture button, headphone jack, removable battery compartment, the hold switch and power button and finally the Memory Stick slot.
The WiFi/CF card slot is on the bottom of the handheld. Sony sells the WiFi card separately for $149. While I applaud the fact that the model has dual wireless options, using WiFi is a major battery drain. It's no secret that WiFi radios can be very power hungry. For Internet access on a PDA I prefer to use Bluetooth which is much less demanding of the battery.
However, WiFi offers much faster speeds and is more widely deployed. It may be a more convenient option if you can deal with substantially decreased battery life or already have a WiFi Access Point. I had no problems signing on or with reception, and the card supports the current 128 and 64bit WEP security encryption standards. When inserted, the card protrudes out of the bottom by almost an inch and there is a LED on the card to indicate activity.
The wireless communications slot is basically a standard Compact Flash slot. The only accessory that can officially use the slot is the wireless networking card. There are plenty of rumors that third party developers are attempting to make drivers to enable the slot to use standard CF memory cards, but for now you have to use Memory Sticks or the new Memory Stick PRO format.
The HotSync port has been moved to the back of the handheld, hidden underneath the camera. There is a flexible, yet sturdy plastic door that covers the port when not in use. This is the same connector interface used since the T-series. The NZ should be compatible with accessories that use the T-series port such as charging cables.
Also on the rear of the device is the internal speaker. It is quite loud and plays mp3's with reasonable clarity and volume, though any serious music listening necessitates the headphones. Alarms can be quite loud and Sony has provided software to create your own and also converts wav files into alarm sounds. Because of its position on the back of the device, I often found myself slightly muffling the sound unintentionally.
Sony has come up with an interesting new cradle solution. The new cradle has a lightweight portable foldable design, which can be flipped open to rest on a desk or folded flat to be carried with the handheld. There are 3 ports on the side of the cradle: Power, a USB "B" port and an A/V out plug. The HotSync button is located on the right support leg of the cradle.
The USB port not only connects the handheld to your PC, but also can connect directly to compatible printers. This function allows you to link up to a printer, say a photo printer, without a PC as an intermediary.
The A/V out port allows you to connect to any TV or VCR with standard RCA A/V inputs using the included cable. This allows you to turn the NZ into a glorified slideshow machine, as you can display photos on a television. I wish Sony put a little more utility into the AV function, as the only application that can use it is Clie Album program for displaying photos.
The cradle itself takes a little getting used to. First you have to lift up the cover that hides the connector below the camera to attach the handheld to the cradle. Then you have to line up two grooves on the bottom of the handheld that keep it in place. When I tried to use and hold the Clie while attached to the cradle, I found that it tends to slide out of position quite easily so you have to apply pressure to it to keep it in place.
Because it has separate power and USB cables, it creates a bit of cable clutter around the cradle. Because of that and the issue I had holding the cradle folded around the device, it would be much nicer to be able to plug the power cable into the unit itself.
The NZ90 uses the same 200mhz Intel XScale PXA-250 processor as the NX70 and runs Palm OS 5.0.
The NZ90 has 16MB of RAM, and this is a major limitation. The RAM of the NZ is further cramped by the fact that only 11 MB is actually available to the user. 1 MB is reserved for the system and Sony has set aside an additional 4 MB for a dynamic memory heap, which was reserved for developers to allow extra room for complex applications.
A device with as many capabilities as the NZ90 really deserves much more internal memory. It does not make much sense for a high-end handheld to have anything less than 32 MB any more. Other licensees have found a way around the 16 MB limit, and this should be a top priority for Sony's engineers. Fortunately, the NZ90 supports the higher capacity Memory Stick PRO format.
The display of the NZ is arguably one of the best available on any handheld and is the crown jewel of the NZ90. It resolution, brightness and color accuracy combine for a stunningly beautiful display. At full brightness the NZ screen is easily brighter than the LCD on my Apple iBook.
One slight peculiarity is that the screen is slightly sensitive to pressure. Like pushing your fingers against a laptop LCD, the screen on the NZ will bend and distort when slight pressure is applied. This characteristic does not take away from the screen, but is worth noting nonetheless.
The majority of Sony's applications and the standard Palm OS apps now make use of the extra screen real estate and can hide and raise the virtual Graffiti area for added display space. The nice thing about having a virtual Graffiti area is that all your strokes are mirrored as you enter them. The instant feedback helps improve your data entry accuracy. You can also opt to replace the Graffiti area with an on screen keyboard.
The digital camera and software portion include all the features and controls you would expect in a high-end digital camera. It is a 2-megapixel CCD camera with a Sony lens. It has a flash and 2x digital zoom. Pictures can be taken in a wide variety of resolutions from 1600x1200 to 320x240. Photos can be stored in internal memory or directly to a memory stick. You can adjust the picture quality, white balance, exposure setting, add red eye reduction, do a timed shot and even apply of number of filters, such as Black and White or sepia.
The lens has a focus range of 0.1 meter to infinity and is protected by a manual lens cover; there is also a macro mode for close up shots. The flash has three modes (Auto, Forced Off and Forced On) for varying lighting conditions. The addition of a flash enables you to take shots in a variety of low light and dark conditions.
Your viewfinder is the handhelds display and Sony has added some nice touches that just aren't possible on a standard digital camera. You can modify any of the camera settings on the fly and get an idea of how the shot will turn out on the viewfinder. The last 3 photos taken are displayed as thumbnails across the bottom and you can easily delete previous shots when trying to find the best angle. Pictures can be taken with the hardware capture button or with the on-screen control.
One peculiarity of the camera is that each time you run the included camera software there is a roughly 10 second wait time while the camera initializes. I had a number of issues with the camera and battery, which I touch on later in the battery section. Another small issue I had was in some conditions there would be a 2-3 second pause before the Clie would record the picture after hitting the capture button. It's not a huge deal but keep that in mind if you need to capture something in a pinch or are trying to time an action shot.
Sony includes a free membership to it's online photo website, ImageStation. With Internet access you can upload your photos directly to your ImageStation account right from the device. If you prefer paper, most film processing stores accept digital media and you can bring your Memory Stick in and have shots printed. The print quality of high-res shots is just as good as many 35mm film cameras.
Overall, I was very impressed with the image quality of the camera. The auto focus does a great job outdoors, and inside and in low light the flash provides good results as well. Here are a few unedited pictures taken with the NZ90: Pic 1 Pic 2 Pic 3
The camera is not just limited to still pictures, you can also record movie clips with audio. A movie's length is only limited by how much available space you have on your memory stick. However, the movie recorder will only capture clips in the small and grainy 160x112 resolution; so don't throw away your camcorder just yet. It's great to be able to capture movie clips and this really adds to the utility and coolness factor of the device.
The mp3 audio quality of the NZ90 through the included headphones is outstanding. The included headphones are Sony ear-buds and are attached to a convenient control wand. The control wand allows you to play and pause tunes and switch tracks on the fly. It is very useful if you intend to use the device often for music. Sony has included three levels of Bass Boost and the AVLS audio function; the audio player can play mp3 files and Sony's ATRAC3 format.
Along with mp3 playback, the NZ includes a voice recorder as well. You can capture up to 535 minutes (just under 9 hours) of audio on a 128MB memory stick at the 8KHz sampling frequency. Voice recorder clips can even be used as alarms, a very cool touch.
Sony has included a user removable 1200mAh capacity lithium-ion battery. The battery features Sony's "InfoLithium" technology, which reports on the device the estimated usage time remaining in minutes and the estimated charging time needed to bring the battery back to a full charge. It's much better to have an idea of how many actual minutes you may have remaining that trying to judge yourself by looking the standard Palm OS battery bar. The InfoLithium feature also keeps track of the number of charge cycles the battery has been though and reports any battery degradation.
With all of the high-end, multimedia features packed into the NZ90, battery life is without a doubt the Achilles heel of this handheld. If you're the type of person that charges your handheld multiple times a day or are often in reach of a power outlet, it may not be as much of an issue for you. If you plan on heavy use or using this as your main digital camera you'll definitely want to invest in a spare battery, which will set you back $80.
The battery life you get out of the NZ90 will depend greatly on how you use it, specifically how often you use the camera. If you snap a couple of photos a day and lightly use it for less than an hour a day you'll likely get around 4-6 hours of typical real world use out of it with the backlight set around 40%. With heavy use of the camera and flash, and or WiFi access your battery time will greatly decrease.
Another aspect of power management is that certain features will become unavailable as the battery is depleted. For instance at 35% you can't continue to use the flash, at 30% the camera function stops, and at 20% Bluetooth is turned off to conserve power.
When using the camera, there are often sporadic issues with the power management of the device. For example, when I took 10 pictures in quick succession with the flash, the remaining battery percentage would drop to below 35% in some cases, at which point the Clie would shut down the camera and prevent me from taking any more pictures. If I turned the unit off and let it rest for 5 minutes, the power level would climb back to 75% and I could go back to using the camera functions. This was not just a one-time experience and others have also been reporting this behavior. This quirk can really get in the way of using the camera.
The NZ also includes an enhanced IR port. The port has an excellent (15-30 foot) range. With the Clie RMC software you can control TV's, DVD/VCR players and stereo receivers from multiple vendors. Most popular models are built in and there is an easy configuration process. This feature alone can provide hours of entertainment in any pub or restaurant with TV's ;)
This is the first Clie with integrated Bluetooth connectivity. While Bluetooth ("Bt") has many potential uses, its initial primary uses include the ability to HotSync wirelessly to Bt-enabled PC; wireless Internet access with a Bt-equipped mobile phone and sharing services and features with other Bluetooth devices. The included Clie Files program allows you to send photos wirelessly to another Clie or a Bluetooth-enabled printer.
I was also able to set up a connection with my Sony Ericsson t68i to use the phone's GPRS mobile Internet connection. With a wireless connection on my phone, I had the ability to take a picture of something wherever I am and send it anywhere in the world, all from the Clie! I also enjoyed many rounds of wireless, 2-player Scrabble and Monopoly with a friend using my Tungsten T. For some reason I could not get Palm Inc's Bluechat and Blueboard to work on the NZ.
|Size & Weight:||5.4" x 2.8" x 0.6-0.9"; 10.3 oz oz.|
|Processor:||Intel XScale PXA-250 (200 MHz); OS 5.0|
|Memory:||16MB RAM (11MB avail.); 16MB flash ROM|
|Expansion:||Memory Stick (MS PRO compatible)|
|Screen:||320x480 pixel; 65k color; transflective back-lit|
|Audio:||rear speaker; stereo headset jack, mono mic|
|Power:||LiIon Poly (1200 mAh)|
|Connectivity:||CF II slot*, USB, MSIO, Enhanced IrDA
*compatible with Sony's PEGA-WL100 Wireless LAN card only
Sony has done an brilliant job of tying together all of the multimedia and wireless features of the NZ90 through it's new suite of OS 5 software. The Clie Viewer program handles your entire image organizing tasks and from within the program you can send, delete, move, edit with Clie Paint or email a photo. Clie Files is a file manager based on the popular McFile program. A new Movie Player plays MPEG movies in full screen mode from a Memory Stick with excellent speed. Clie Mail is a solid email application that can be used to mail your pictures.
Sony has also included the new all in one document viewing application called Picsel viewer. The app can display, but not edit, a variety of document formats including MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF, HTML and various standard image formats. Another Clie exclusive bundled app is Macromedia's Flash player. The player works great and had no problem running a wide assortment flash games designed for Pocket PC's and desktops.
No doubt the NZ90 will turn heads and draw plenty of ooh and ahh's, but it's not without its weaknesses. Heavy use of the camera and multimedia features can really deplete the battery. If you're the type that frequently charges your handheld, you won't have a much of an issue. However if you intend to use the camera heavily or you're a wireless road warrior, a spare battery is a must. The other major hindrance is the limited amount of internal RAM.
The Sony Clie NZ90 is an amazing, remarkable device. Never before have so many multimedia and wireless features come together in a Palm OS handheld. Sony has done a great job integrating everything together through the software to complete the package. If size and battery life are your deterring factors, you may want to consider something else; however, if you're looking for the most feature rich, multimedia handheld look no further.
RATING: 7.6 / 10
|Design:||attractive, yet large and heavy|
|Features:||loaded; limited RAM; WiFi not integrated|
|Screen:||big and gorgeous|
|Battery:||swappable, but multimedia consumes it quick|
|Value:||you get a lot, you pay a lot|
The Sony Clie NZ90 is now available from SonyStyle for $800.
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