Having had the Clie for a couple weeks, I thought I’d review it.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the Clie is a PDA with a form factor similar to the communicators on the old Star Trek (or a flip-top phone): it’s a two-part body with a hinge in the middle. When you open it, you get a tiny keyboard (or thumbboard, as they’re now called), and the screen. There’s no dedicated writing surface; instead, you can toggle the Graffiti field on or off.

I bought it because my old PDA, a Handspring Prism, had died, and my backup device, a Handspring Platinum, seemed hopelessly behind the times. Further, I was curious about the thumbboard, especially after reading Sadie Plant’s work on cell phone use and the rise of “thumb tribes” in Japan. I also hoped that I could find something that would really substitute for my laptop on many occasions. And it had to have wireless capability.

I looked around at a bunch of models, and finally narrowed it down to the new Palm Tungsten and the Clie. The fact that the Clie takes a Memory Stick, has a built-in MP3 player, and has a keyboard that is easier to use, decided it for me.

Generally, I love it. It’s wonderfully sleek, the new Palm OS is very quick, and I love being able to use 802.11 with it. It seems 100% self-evident to me that in the future, all devices will have WiFi, and so will all places. The screen is marvelous. I had this experience when I moved up to the Prism, so I’m not surprised to rediscover it, but: Color Is Another World. A color device isn’t just prettier: for me, irt provides a basically different user experience.

The demo/orientation program is also interesting: it’s a Flash program developed by a company called GeoPhoenix. It’s a zooming browser, basically– like Groxis, but not quite as pretty, in this iteration anyway.

The biggest complaint I have is with the thumbboard, but it’s not the one I expected to have. The physical act of typing the keys with my thumbs isn’t as difficult, nor as inaccurate, as I expected it to be. Instead, the problems are of another sort. First, there’s no top row of numbers and symbols, as there is on a coventional QWERTY keyboard. Instead there’s a function key that you press and hold down; every letter has some number or symbol associated with it. I’d guess they got rid of it to make the keyboard small enough to fit in the space; but it means that some often-used punctuation marks or symbols are hard to use. The one that gets me is that the @ sign is RIGHT ABOVE the function key, making it VERY hard to reach: both thumbs essentially need to occupy the same space at the same time. Given how many people are doing e-mail on this device, the @ sign should have a dedicated key. It certainly shouldn’t be hard to get to. At the very least, there should be shift and function keys under both thumbs.

The other problem is that the Clie doesn’t have keyboard commands: there’s no key that’s the equivalent of the forward slash that opens the command mode. As a result, you can’t create a new document, save or send, or respond to a dialog box from the keyboard. Personally, I find it very disruptive to have to stop typing, reach for the stylus, tap on the screen, then replace the stylus, to do something as simple as copy a line of text. It’s almost as if the keyboard designers didn’t want to get too far into Graffiti’s territory, or the software designers don’t want to give up the screen-and-stylus monopoly. But as Larry Tesler argued long ago, making users switch unnecessarily between modes is A Bad Thing.

Finally, the keyboard should enter and exit modes the way Graffiti does. Rather than press AND hold the shift or function keys, you should press them once, and have it operate on the next key. (Sort of like the all caps.) The hit-and-hold is an artifact of the 19th century, and way that manual typewriter carriages were designed; it needn’t survive into the 21st.

Aside from the keyboard problems, though, I think it’s a great device. Not only is it more fun than any other PDA I’ve ever used; I have the distict feeling that I’m holding an artifact that has elements of the future in it. I’d love to do a case study on it some day.