PalmOne makes the LifeDrive official

After weeks of leaked details popping up on Web sites, PalmOne Inc. is expected to formally announce the LifeDrive Mobile Manager handheld on Wednesday to solve what it sees as the growing storage problems of digital media users.

The announcement confirmed many of the details that had been leaked to various PalmOne enthusiast Web sites, as well as Internet retailer Amazon.com Inc. The LifeDrive Mobile Manager comes with a 4G-byte hard drive for storing photos, movies, and business data, said Stephane Maes, director of product management for handhelds at PalmOne.

Amazon inadvertantly posted details of the device on its Web page last week, including the size of the hard drive and its US$499 starting price.

The idea behind the LifeDrive Mobile Manager is to give personal digital assistant (PDA) users more storage for their personal photos and videos while still giving them business productivity applications to keep on top of their job requirements, Maes said. As more users capture digital pictures and video, they are running out of storage space on their current PDAs, he said.

PalmOne has gradually laid the groundwork for hard-drive based devices with the introduction of flash memory across its high-end Tungsten PDA category over the past few months. Flash memory protects data in the event of a battery failure, but it also requires a new file system that stores information in a different manner from PalmOne's older handhelds. That file system, first introduced last year with the Tungsten T5 PDA and the Treo 650 smart phone, also supports hard drives.

Hard-drive based music players are one of the hottest products among mobile devices, led by the runaway success of Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod device. Video players with hard drives are also available from companies such as Archos Inc. and Sony Corp., and many analysts and enthusiast sites believe Apple will eventually release its own video player.

However, it's unclear whether a market exists among PDA users for an expensive device with this much storage, said Todd Kort, principal analyst with Gartner Inc.

"I don't hear all that many people that need more than 1G byte of storage. [PalmOne is] kind of aiming for a high-end niche that might not be very large," Kort said.

PalmOne included other high-end hardware features, such as built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi chips that allow users to check their e-mail or browse the Internet when in range of a wireless network, Maes said. The LifeDrive uses a 416MHz XScale processor from Intel Corp., and features a 320 pixel by 480 pixel display.

Hitachi Ltd. provided the 4G-byte hard drive for the LifeDrive. Hitachi's mobile hard drives are a generation ahead of its competitors, and are notably resistant to falls, Kort said.

The LifeDrive will be available worldwide from select retailers and PalmOne's Web site Wednesday, Maes said. It will be widely available by early June, the company said.

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