PDA group test: it's not pocket science!

CHARGED throws together four of the regions finest in a bid to discover which of these brand spanking new offerings puts most in the pocket without emptying the wallet.

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By  Kate Concannon Published  October 3, 2002

Introduction|~||~||~|For such a tech-loving bunch, Middle East consumers are yet to go really wild about the PDA. Perhaps this is because their functionality has not generally been perceived as sufficiently convincing to date. But it’s well and truly time to start exploring the pocket-options out there, as the capabilities strapped into these little handhelds is more impressive than you’d expect. The recent uptake of Intel’s XScale PXA250 processor by wireless handheld manufacturers certainly had industry and consumers excited about the power possibilities. Unfortunately, the processor’s potential has been let down by sluggish development of optimized software applications — time and patience should see this fairly promptly remedied, however. Aside from the spate of high-specification units equipped with the XScale PXA250 that have emerged — with key players Compaq, Toshiba and Fujitsu Siemens at the forefront — there is, of course, also Palm’s Windows-alternative handheld series causing a stir. This month, we’ve thrown four of the leading PDAs currently available in the local market onto the CHARGED hibachi for a grilling, in order to ascertain the very tastiest and juiciest among them.

||**||Toshiba e740|~||~||~|TOSHIBA e740

Just as Toshiba has ambushed the notebook market with Satellite after top-specced Satellite, so too has it raised the bar of the pocket PC with the e740. Weighing in at only 170g, the e740 packs in immense functionality and is the first PDA to feature an XScale processor and built-in wireless LAN capability. Powered by Intel’s XScale PXA250 processor, the e740 should clock speeds of 400MHz, though, according to Microsoft, “Fundamentally, devices [using this XScale] don’t seem to be demonstrating the performance improvement that many were expecting. They’re performing on par with existing StrongARM devices.” This seems to be related to a gap between potential processor performance and that afforded by the other (hard and soft) band members. Nonetheless, CHARGED found the speed to be very fair for the category. Built-in WiFi is the real jewel in Toshiba’s magic bag. (Be sure to switch it off when not in use, or watch as your battery juice is sucked into the electrical ether.) 802.11b integrated wireless networking is a dream and a great way to synchronise data. Infrared is also supported, but transfer is notably slower (6.5 minutes transfer time for a 2MB audio file, for example.) Connectivity is pretty faultless overall (though networking teething problems can stump even the savviest among us on occasion) and integrated slots accommodating both CompactFlash and SD memory cards will prove very handy, offsetting the not puny, but neither too generous, 64MB RAM internal memory. Aesthetically, the e740 is very neat. Clean and slim, if rather angular. For connecting with the cradle, the unit’s flanks are lined with a plastic ridge that also provides better grip in the hand. All the better to avoid accidentally testing its ruggedness with. A very competent, well rounded piece that holds its own — and them some — the Toshiba e740 has one more trick up its sleeve to make the PDA more appealing than ever: removable, rechargeable battery packs, dramatically improving run time and flexibility on the move.

VERDICT: ****
Dressed to kill in the latest trappings of wireless handheld technology, it is the e740’s removable (replacable) battery that gives it a practical edge over market rivals. Movers, take note.

PRICE: $600 (approx)
CONTACT: www.toshiba.com
PROS: Integrated 802.11b and generous specifications
CONS: Screen illumination is not even

||**||Fujitsu Siemens LOOX 600|~||~||~|FUJITSU SIEMENS LOOX 600

Developed as the natural evolutionary update of the Siemens SX45 phone/PDA combo unit, the LOOX 600 is immediately striking for its aesthetic improvement over its predecessor — loaded with all the cool-blue styling that Lifebooks carelessly flaunt, this is a gorgeous looking piece with unique curves in all the right places. It’s also exceptionally ergonomic (at least for the right-handed), and, at only 175g, it’s a whole lot lighter than its 295g forebear. But this isn’t explained simply by construction with parts technological advancement has made smaller and lighter. Curiously, unlike the SX45, the LOOX 600 is not phone-ready out of the box, but rather requires an additional module for GSM/GPRS connectivity. A large portion of the bulk discrepancy is thus explained away. Very appealingly though, the LOOX 600 is shipping with Pocket PC 2002 Phone Edition. This version of the operating system has a separate dialling application and a host of other features that integrate PDA and communication applications. Consumers looking to purchase a unit that performs both sets of tasks diligently (and stylishly) would be mad not to give this unit a serious look in. Additionally, the device has integrated Bluetooth, which allows you to connect with an enabled phone for wide-area connectivity without the add-on module mentioned. WiFi can also be added (using the CompactFlash Type II slot — which also supports the hugely capacious IBM Microdrive), and the provision of an additional SD/MMC slot means that the LOOX 600’s 64MB RAM can be augmented without sacrificing a WiFi connection (or other connected module). A built-in light sensor alters the backlight’s intensity accordingly, and the overall effect of the screen is lovely. Perfectly clear and sufficiently bright, without burning the retina like certain other units tend to after prolonged use, the LOOX is easy on the eye. While the limitations of the PXA250 XScale processor have been discussed, with time (and applications development) this will be one hot, speedy PDA to wrap a hand around.

VERDICT: ****
A funky, smooth design sits sublimely in the hand with an exceptionally thoughtful control/
functionality system. A shame that, unlike its predecessor, it’s not phone-ready out of the box.

PRICE: $620 (approx)
CONTACT: www.fujitsu-siemens.com
PROS: Great design (aesthetic and functional); integrated Bluetooth
CONS: Phone connectivity via a separate add-on module

||**||Compaq iPAQ 3950/3970|~||~||~|COMPAQ iPAQ H3950/3970

The iPAQ 3900 series are the first handhelds out the door since the merger of HP and Compaq. And until the machine is switched on, no difference between the 3950 and its predecessor is apparent. Once the classic Compaq designed PDA springs to life, however, the improvements are profound. Clearly, HP and Compaq have poured (some of) the best of both worlds into this new collaborative product, and come up trumps. Some, but not all. It’s something of a shame that HP styling figures not at all, simply because the Jornada handhelds look so darn good. But inside is where it really counts, and there are several improvements here that deserve special note. Firstly, the issue of the over-bright, side-lit display (that had some users crying tears of retinal over-stimulation) has been well corrected with a back-lit, transflective version that is as huge as ever and delivers great quality imaging. The 3800 series’ SD slot that only worked at MMC speeds has also been upgraded to a fully functional SDIO slot (for current cards and for future SDIO options). Very neat. The next major step-up achieved with the iPAQ 3950 is its battery life — something HP held over the iPAQs with its Jornada series. Battery performance is now possibly the best in the Pocket PC category, although, unfortunately, the 3900 does not have the removable battery option the Toshiba e740 offers. The unit received by CHARGED for review features integrated Bluetooth (model 3970), which will be very useful to anyone who has the good fortune of access to ‘hot spots’ or wishes to communicate better with a (Bluetooth enabled) phone. Interestingly, using the infrared hardware, the 3950 also functions very accurately as a remote control. Software dubbed Nevo is on board to facilitate this. It includes codes for a number of electronic devices (such as audio receivers), and a heap more are downloadable from the Nevo website. The overall result is a universal remote control that works notably better than rival remote-ready PDAs. A trusty, proven buy — but a little overpriced.

VERDICT: ***1/2
A brilliant performer with all the 3800 bugs ironed out (and a great display). For the price conscious, this unit is as costly as a laptop, but, with cash to burn, it’s certainly worth contemplating.

PRICE: $655/$765
CONTACT: www.hp.com
PROS: Big, great quality display; great battery performance
CONS: Expensive; no CompactFlash slot

||**||Palm m515|~||~||~|PALM M515

Palm pulled the m505 to launch this new, improved incarnation of that PDA, the m515. And debuting at an even lower price, despite its very significant improvements, this Palm is offering very persuasive pocket-sized bang for the buck. The most compact in this group, the m515 carries the trademark Palm curves, but has reworked them into a more sophisticated, sleek body. Version 4.1 of Palm OS is on board here, and an extra 4MB ROM to accommodate OS upgrades down the road. A further 8MB RAM has also been added (to make a total of 16MB — remember that Palm OS and applications require far, far less memory than others and so this figure cannot be compared directly with that of units running, say Pocket PC 2002). This add-on will go a long way in terms of Palm applications. Perhaps one of the most unique, endearing features of the Palm is the ‘graffiti’ touch pad. Divided into two sections (one for writing numbers, one for writing text), Graffiti takes a much less complicated approach to handwriting recognition, and the result is a system that is both speedier and more accurate. Instead of sophisticated algorithms that try, not always so successfully, to ‘learn’ a user’s individual handwriting style and convert it accordingly, the Palm approach is to teach users a very natural, easy to learn shorthand of sorts for letters, which dramatically cuts down ‘training’ and input time. There are a couple of limitations that multimedia buffs will notice here. Firstly, the m515 doesn’t play sound. Secondly, the display is not of the high resolution manufacturers such as Sony are providing in the same price bracket. Nonetheless, the m515’s 10x160 pixel, 65K colour screen is a big improvement over the m505. At the final weigh up, the slick-lined Palm m515 offers more serious users a whole lot of applications in an ultra-compact form for an exceptionally reasonable price. Those looking for a multimedia machine that glides through MP3 and MPEG playback and gives great imaging will have to go elsewhere.

VERDICT: ****1/2
Sleekly packed into an impressively slight body, the Palm m515 offers a whole lot of very useful and user-friendly applications at a fantastically reasonable price. But no sound or top-quality imaging .

PRICE: $380
CONTACT: www.palm.com
PROS: Ultra-compact; lots of memory-light applications
CONS: No sound and no high-resolution imaging quality

||**||Conclusion|~||~||~|WHICH ONE IS FOR ME?

With three out of four of these PDAs sharing very similar (and very comprehensive) specifications, something of a photo finish emerged on the performance front. The Toshiba distinguished itself with built-in 802.11b connectivity, which will certainly grab the attention of those who work in WiFi environments. The LOOX 600, on the other hand, showed potential as a successor to the Siemens SX45 PDA/phone combo, but its (surprising) lack of out-of-the-box phone connectivity renders it no more phone-ready than the Toshiba or Compaq. All sharing Intel’s latest handheld processor, the XScale PXA250, and equivalent memory, a choice between the three really comes down to design preference, both in terms of ergonomics and functionality, and of aesthetics. But then Palm comes along, throwing a spanner in the works with its neatly persuasive alternative to the Windows operating system and memory-heavy applications: the Palm m515 with Palm OS version 4.1. The Palm puts a new spin on the decision making process, introducing an entirely different approach to pocket computing into the equation. Whilst bonus software allows the Palm user to view Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, it provides OS-native applications that are speedy and highly effective, while only requiring little memory. Connectivity, however, is not so comprehensive. And it isn’t equipped to deal with multimedia tasks, as it has no sound and only a relatively low resolution display. If cutting edge networking technology (like Bluetooth and 802.11b) are high on the priority list, or if MP3 and movie playback are basic requirements, the Palm is not really an option. (There are, however, several very multimedia-minded units built upon the Palm platform, which are worth consideration by anyone sold on the Palm system, but with entertainment ambitions.) Business users will certainly be satisfied with the m515, but so too will they be with the higher priced and multimedia capable e740, iPAQ 3950 (or 3970 with integrated Bluetooth), or funky LOOX 600.
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