- Elegant, ergonomic design with built-in keypad and digital camera
- Bluetooth connectivity built in
- high-resolution screen
- dual expansion slots (Memory Stick, CompactFlash)
- generous software bundle, including handwriting recognition.
- Relatively bulky and heavy
- only 16MB of RAM provided
- poor battery life
- Audio Player doesn’t recognise CompactFlash media.
The NX73V's predecessor was the NX70V, a device with a similar hardware design and list price to this one. Things have moved on since the NX70V won our Editors' Choice award back in December 2002, though, and this device updates the earlier model.
The flip-over hardware design of the NX- and NZ-series CLIEs is now familiar, but its sheer elegance and operational utility remains striking. The process of lifting the lid and swivelling it around a hinge in the middle of its upper edge before laying it flat again to either hide or reveal the screen is impressive. It also has a practical benefit in that when the screen is hidden, it’s protected. The swivel mechanism feels robust and is certainly an improvement on some earlier incarnations. Sony has extended the notion of built-in protection to the digital stills and movie camera that’s integrated into the upper part of the NX73V. The lens swivels to give good angles for taking shots, but also disappears within the hardware, protecting it from dust and other potential lens-scratching objects. The inside of the casing houses a tiny keypad, whose keys are just about reachable with thumbnails, but which isn’t suited to fast typing. The set of application shortcut buttons which sit above the tiny keypad is replicated on the screen side so they are accessible when the keypad is covered and you are operating in ‘tablet’ mode. Existing fans of Sony hardware will be pleased to know that the left and right sides of the casing are peppered with buttons slots, switches and sliders -- of which more later. At 13.1cm tall by 7.2cm wide by 2.2cm deep the NX73V is not top-pocket fodder. Nor, at 230g, is it especially light. But this is a compromise you’ll have to make if you want the large screen, built-in keypad, camera and dual expansion slots. The cradle is also somewhat unwieldy, its front and back parts being hinged at a rather wide angle so that the NX73V can rest in it with the screen pretty much vertical to the keypad. However, in this configuration the device does take up an awful lot of desk space.
The NX73V runs Palm OS 5 on a 200MHz Intel XScale PXA263 processor. This chip is smaller than the PXA25x series, and integrates 32Mb of flash ROM. Sony has presumably chosen this chip because it provides more room within the case to pack in features. The NX73V uses the slowest variant of the PXA263, which also comes in 300MHz and 400MHz versions. During our tests we certainly didn’t notice the CPU causing any problems. What bothers us more is the relative paucity of available RAM. Although 16MB is provided, only 11MB is available to the user. Sony has included both CompactFlash and Memory Stick slots, and there’s a huge amount of extra software on the device’s ROM (see below), but it’s disappointing that the on-board quotient is only around three-quarters of its maximum potential. The 3.9in. screen has a resolution of 320 by 480 pixels. The screen’s large size is due to the fact that the Graffiti area is software driven, rather than a permanent fixture. It is transflective, and delivers Sony’s customary high image quality. The NX73V sports an array of buttons, slots, switches and sliders. On the left is Sony’s much-imitated but rarely rivalled jog-dial, which is ideal for moving within and between applications. Above it is a Back button and a Capture button for the camera, while beneath it is a slider that doubles as the power button and a Hold button. The latter prevents accidental screen presses and turns the display off when you’re listening to music, both to prolong battery life and reduce irritation of accidentally stopped playback. On the right is the Memory Stick slot, a slider that invokes Sony’s voice notes application and a headphone socket. Sony provides a set of headphones with their own controls, which are fair but not exceptional. There are four bass settings in the Audio Player shipped on ROM, and these provide a modicum of audio quality control. The top rear of the device houses the CompactFlash slot, whose cover is integral to the casing and is opened by another slider. This slot is designed primarily for use with Sony’s own Wi-Fi card (Bluetooth is already built in), although it does recognise a range of third-party cards, including our 1GB memory card from Sandisk. The camera, which is located beneath the screen hinge, captures stills at various resolutions between 160 by 120 to 640 by 480, and movies at 160 by 112. There is a 2X digital zoom to augment the camera’s native 310,000 pixels, but with no flash this isn’t ideal for use in all conditions: it requires a steady hand to hold the NX73V still while taking a picture, and images are not of a quality you’d want to turn into prints. As usual, Sony has packed the NX73V with applications, including its own proprietary application launcher. We aren’t fans of this, but it’s easy to switch back to the standard Palm launcher. Among the array of Sony programs are several for manipulating and viewing digital images and movies, a file manager, an audio player for listening to music, a memo tool for storing notes written on-screen, CLIE Remote Commander (an infrared remote control tool), an email client and the NetFront Web browser. Two applications worth a more detailed mention are Decuma Input and the Picsel Viewer. Decuma Input is a handwriting recognition tool that replaces the Graffiti area and recognises letters as you write them. You can correct any misrecognition and hit a key at the end of the line when you are ready for the text you’ve written to go into the application you’re using. There’s only room for a maximum of about nine characters at a time, so it isn’t exceptionally fast to use -- probably about the same as Graffiti. Picsel Viewer is a reader that can cope with HTML, PDF, Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and various popular image formats. It’s very impressive, although you’ll still need the Palm Reader for old-fashioned DOC files. It was happy to read documents from either CompactFlash or Memory Stick. Sadly, the same can’t be said for Audio Player, which refused to recognise CompactFlash at all. The documentation on the accompanying CD covers all of these applications well.
The CLIE PEG NX73V is very versatile handheld. With its built-in Bluetooth and the option to add Wi-Fi, it should appeal to the wireless connectivity brigade. Meanwhile, the array of extra software beyond the standard Palm OS 5 bundle should keep new users happy. The casing feels strong and robust, and the camera, even if it’s a bit of a gimmick, could prove useful on occasions. But considering this device’s cost, we’d like a little more. This includes the full quota of 16MB of RAM, playing MP3s from CompactFlash cards and delivering appropriate battery life. It’s the latter that really rankles. This handheld, like previous ones of the same design, is an open invitation to use multimedia -- Sony is streets ahead of any other manufacturer in this respect. But what you need to make this a reality is very good battery life. At the very least we’d want to get a full day’s music playing, digital image snapping and e-book reading before needing a battery charge. Sony says you should get 14 days of use based on half an hour a day with the backlight turned off. Our test, which involved playing MP3s continuously, achieved 4 hours and 18 minutes of music with the backlight turned on, as it would be if you were also reading an ebook or editing a document using an external keyboard -- which we feel are both perfectly acceptable tasks to do while listening to music. This is a robust test for a handheld of this type, but in this scenario the NX73V will only prove useful for just over four hours. And you can’t swap the Li-ion battery out for a replacement. These three drawbacks mar what is otherwise an extremely impressive device. Sony may finally have got the design of its flip-screen handhelds just about right. Now it needs to fix Audio Player, provide more RAM and improve battery life.