eWEEK Labs tested two of the latest business-oriented handheld computers based on Microsoft Corp.s Pocket PC mobile operating system—Dell Inc.s Axim x50 and Hewlett-Packard Co.s iPaq hx2700—and we were pleased with the flexibility and connectivity options that each product offers.
Both devices run Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition, which offers improved display options, support for WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) security and an invaluable Web browser tweak that finally makes viewing standard-size Web pages on Pocket Internet Explorer a viable proposition.
The $339 Axim x50 began shipping in October, and the $549 iPaq hx2700 began shipping this month. Because they run the same operating system and are physically similar, its the additional applications that Dell and HP bundle with their devices that differentiate these units—particularly the tools for configuring each devices Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios.
We preferred the iPaqs wireless connections manager, which provides a single location from which to manage Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections, to the wireless setup tools included with the Axim.
Another thing we preferred about the iPaq was its flip-down display protector, a design that makes it simpler to keep your screen safe without having to tote around a separate sleeve-type case, as with the Axim we tested.
Neither the iPaq nor the Axim sports an interface quite as clean and pleasant to use as that of PalmOne Inc.s Tungsten T5. However, with superior network connectivity options in the form of built-in Bluetooth and 802.11b radios, along with SD (Secure Digital) and CF (CompactFlash) slots for peripheral expansion, the Axim and the iPaq will each serve very well in data collection reference roles, as well as in the desktop PC supplement role that has been the traditional stronghold of handheld computers.
The iPaq is powered by an Intel Corp. 624MHz PXA270 processor and packs 128MB of ROM and 128MB of SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM). More than half of the ROM is available for storing files. Data stored in handheld device ROM—as opposed to RAM—will survive in case of a total power loss, which is a common occurrence in handheld devices.
The x50 comes with a slower Intel 520MHz XScale PXA270. However, we didnt notice a performance gap between the two devices. Frankly, although chip speeds in the mobile device world consistently climb, we have yet to see the mobile applications appear that can take advantage of these faster speeds.
The hx2700 measures 4.7 inches tall by 3 inches wide by 0.65 inches thick and weighs 5.8 ounces. The Axim x50 is about the same size and heft, measuring 4.7 inches tall by 2.9 inches wide by 0.7 inches thick and weighing 5.9 ounces.
Both devices share the standard assortment of Pocket PC buttons—four application launcher buttons and a directional control button on the bottom front of each device. However, the Axim also includes a control weve not seen before on any Pocket PC weve tested—a switch for locking the buttons and display, which is great for preventing unintended power-ons.
With both devices, we were able to reassign each button to launch the applications of our choosing. Only on the iPaq, however, could we also assign a secondary function to the buttons, triggered by holding the button down.
As with most Pocket PCs, both devices ship with color, quarter-VGA displays. Now, courtesy of Windows Mobile 2003 SE, these and other Pocket PCs ship with support for switching between landscape and portrait modes.
Unlike Palm OS devices, which place the landscape-portrait toggle in an ever-present task bar, the display-orientation control is buried a few clicks down in the Axim and iPaq. We suggest reassigning a button to control this function.
Both devices are powered by removable, lithium-ion batteries, which, based on our experiences during testing, will power the devices for about a day and a half of moderate use, including frequent use of the devices radios.
The Axim includes a tab in the power configuration tool for scaling back the units processor speed or for allowing it to scale automatically.
The iPaq we tested hangs its hat, in part, on security; the unit ships with a built-in biometric fingerprint reader and a set of device security applications called HP ProtectTools, which provides for bolstered password options and data encryption. We could set up HP ProtectTools to accept anything from a simple four-digit PIN to a fingerprint plus strong password—a wide range within which to choose a protection scheme appropriate for the data the device will carry.
Part of the promise of biometrics is that it could make security simpler for the user, but this wasnt the case for us during our tests of the iPaqs fingerprint reader. We typically had to reswipe a finger four or more times before achieving a scan good enough to satisfy the device.
Of the improvements Microsoft made in this latest Pocket PC version, the one we found most welcome is Pocket IEs new One Column layout setting. As its name suggests, this setting squashes everything on a Web page into a single column, so no horizontal scrolling is required.
This feature, which has been standard on PalmOnes Blazer browser for a while, mangles the intended structure of Web pages heavily but renders text very well.
However, theres a lot more wed like to see from Pocket IE, starting with tabbed browsing or other multiple-Web-session capability, the current lack of which seriously limits the usefulness of Pocket IE. In addition, wed like to see a better bookmarking tool in Pocket IE, one that makes it simpler to create and possible to manage bookmarks from the device.
The Axim and the iPaq now include WPA support for the units 802.11b connections. We tested this WPA support with both devices on our test network without a hitch.
While Microsoft has added handy improvements to its Pocket PC, large parts of the platform, such as Pocket Word and Excel applications, appear to have been abandoned, as theyve seen little change in the last few years.
Along with more attention to its Pocket Office applications, wed like to see Microsoft overhaul the Pocket PC interface, which has remained the same since the first Pocket PC.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected].