The most wanted?

Markets for PDAs and phones are growing all the time, but how useful really are these shiny new devices? Eliot Beer looks at some of the latest models, and is the first in the region to try out new phones from Nokia and Motorola.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  May 1, 2006

|~|nokia dans pic 200.jpg|~|The Nokia E61: A smartphone with a Blackberry-style design.|~|They're virtually ubiquitous, they're getting cleverer all the time, and many people increasingly feel naked without them. For the modern executive, a PDA or smartphone is almost - but perhaps not quite - a must-have.

"I'm not a big fan of mobile phones at all, but they've become an essential part of the modern business world," says Derek Holland, head of IT at Emirates Media in Abu Dhabi. He owns a Nokia 9500 Communicator, which he says is genuinely useful for checking emails while out of the office: "I've had Communicators in previous years, and they've been very useful for when I travel - and that’s something that happens quite a bit."

Holland's comments sum up the feelings of many when it comes to mobile devices - they have become a necessary evil, a shackle to the office but a vital link in people's lives. And as devices such as PDAs and cellular phones become more sophisticated and sleeker, some executives become enthralled by keeping up with the latest models.

This month's 'get to know' interviewee is a case in point - Raza Taqvi of Mustafa Sultan Enterprises in Oman currently owns a Sony Ericsson P910i, but "it has become too common these days, and I think it is time for me to change phones once again". It seems Taqvi is in good company - an ITP quick poll revealed that almost half of respondents change their phone or PDA once a year or more.

Mobility gadgets have been around for many years, dating from the Apple Newton and earlier Psion devices. But it has only been in the past few years that size, processing power and storage, and connectivity have converged to bring practical functionality to many devices. For a long time seen only as executive toys, PDAs and smartphones are now often regarded as essential by their users, and provide a link to not just managing their business life, but also their personal life - storing appointments, phone numbers, addresses, important documents and information, and even music and photos with the higher storage capacities now available.

Aside from PDAs, though, other gadgets are becoming increasingly important to mobile workers. Devices such as digital cameras can now give travelling executives the ability to bring back images of events or demonstrations to help with the presentation of their trip. And other gadgets, such as Belkin's USB-anywhere device, now allow the transfer of files between portable devices without the use of a laptop or PC - invaluable for transferring important data from a PDA to the more secure environment of a portable hard drive or MP3 player.||**|||~|motorola dans pic 200.jpg|~|The Motorola A1200: PDA principle shrunk down to a clamshell phone.|~|But how useful are these gadgets - are they genuine productivity tools, or just high-tech toys for executive boys (and girls)? ACN has put several of the latest devices to test, and also has an exclusive first look at two smartphones which will hit the Middle East in the next few months.

First up is the BenQ P50 smartphone. This German heavyweight comes fully loaded with a quad-band phone, Wi-Fi connectivity, Bluetooth, IrDA, a 1.3 Megapixel camera, a universal remote controller function, and a miniature QWERTY keyboard for ease of texting and typing. Unfortunately, this is more or less where the good news ends for the P50. For a product being pitched at the higher end of the PDA/smartphone market, the BenQ has some important omissions.

First is the lack of Windows Mobile 2005 - something which is currently appearing on i-mate models among others. The P50 is stuck with Windows 2003, which is starting to look a little tired. The BenQ also lacks 3G support, an important omission at this end of the market.

Looking at what it has got, the P50 still suffers. The 320x240 pixel screen is markedly inferior to some much cheaper PDAs. The keyboard suffers the usual problem for candybar-format devices, namely that the keys are only useable for the thin-fingered. ACN's advice is to avoid it.

The i-mate JASJAR is a different proposition, albeit at almost twice the price of the BenQ (US$1,200 compared to $705). Its high-resolution screen, useable but still compact keyboard and ability to operate in tablet or 'laptop-style' positions means it looks a cut above most models.

It has Windows Mobile 5.0, and i-mate has just announced an update allowing its devices to work with push email, an increasingly important feature for many executives. The larger screen and 3G mean web browsing is potentially less of a chore than on many mobile devices.

In use, the JASJAR is surprisingly comfortable to type on, either with thumbs or as if using a normal keyboard - the 640x480 pixel screen is also bright and colourful. As a phone it can be considered somewhat bulky to hold against the ear, but there's always the option to use a Bluetooth headset.
ACN's advice: pricey, but worth the extra if you use the features.

HP's iPAQ hw6515 dates from last year, but offers a fairly unique feature - built-in GPS navigation. This is useful for explorers, mobile executives, or for those who just enjoy an occasional desert drive, as it will help you pinpoint your way back to civilization via a virtual map should you get lost. (These maps must be purchased separately from a third party, both for this and other regions around the world).

Besides this, the 6515 packs in a built-in 1.3-mega pixel digital camera, Bluetooth and MP3 playback capabilities. Windows Mobile 2003 is included (reasonable for a 2005 model), and the miniature keyboard is definitely more useable than the BenQ P50.||**|||~||~||~|The screen is reasonable, if a little below par in the resolution at 240x240, especially if using the GPS maps. ACN's advice: at US$775, it's not the most expensive here, and if GPS is useful the iPAQ is definitely worth a look.

Next up is the classic Nokia Communicator, this time reincarnated as the 9300i. Though smaller and sleeker than the older models, the 9300i retains the candybar format which opens out with a wide colour screen and a QWERTY keyboard..

This is the most phone-like of any of the models tested here, and thanks to its new smaller size is easier to slip in a pocket. The internal colour screen is of high quality, and the keyboard is almost as easy to use as the JASJAR's, although not quite as big.

Despite its relatively small size, the 9300i's feature set is impressive. Along with the obligatory Bluetooth and GPRS connections, the phone features Wi-Fi access, a native email client, MS Office attachment viewer, and even mobile fax. The only major feature lacking is 3G network access.

Being a Nokia, it's pretty easy to use for anyone familiar with the brand or the Symbian OS. It's also possible to install the usual array of Java applications, but whether the unique screen shape poses problems for some applications remains to be seen. ACN's advice: still a classic, the Nokia 9300i remains a strong contender for those of us requiring mobile connectivity.

Digital cameras are increasingly common, and allow the mobile executive to bring back evidence from a trip, or easily exchange an image of a difficult practical situation to a specialist over the internet. And though the Canon Digital Ixus 55 is a relatively expensive five megapixel offering at US$410, you certainly get what you pay for.

Beneath its sleek and very solid body sits a CCD with a top photo capture resolution of 2,592 x 1,944 pixels. The camera is also capable of fluid 30fps video capture at 640 x 480 pixels. Zoom capabilities are of course present, standing at 3x for optical and 4x for digital.

The Ixus is supremely easy to work with thanks to well placed buttons and an intuitive interface. You can also personalise the camera's settings, as the interface lets you adjust the sounds that are played when switching functions or even when turning the camera on or off.

The Canon also features a viewfinder, an increasingly uncommon sight on digital cameras now. This can really make life easy when carrying out tricky shots or when working in bright light. Should you wish to review your work or use a bigger display, the 2.5-inch LCD will oblige.

Getting down to business, the Canon excellent-quality pictures. Even using the auto setting, we noticed no exposure problems at all and the 55 goes about its business without making you wait for very long between shots. As the camera lacks on-board memory, you must slot in an SD or MMC card and to get you started Canon supplies a 16MB card.||**||Nokia E61 - logically enterprise |~||~||~|Nokia's latest smartphone offering is very smart indeed - the E61 is aimed specifically at enterprise users, with an extensive feature set and a familiar Blackberry-style design.

The E61 includes, quad-band and 3G capabilities, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi access, compatibility with every major push-email server technology, web browsing and office application viewers. Its most interesting feature is the ability to integrate the handset into a Wi-Fi based PBX system - the E61 can potentially act as both a mobile and a desk phone.

It also includes VOIP integration facilities, although these are of limited use in much of the Middle East. In use, the E61 is a pleasure - its large screen and reasonably-sized QWERTY keyboard make it reasonably comfortable to operate, although as with all these devices, thumb strain may set in after prolonged usage. The size of the E61's screen and its refreshing lack of delay when performing tasks add to the user experience.

Nokia has designed the E-series of phones specifically for enterprise users, and this focus shows up in the familiar design, the attention to detail in specifications and operation, and the lack of a camera - something many large firms have now banned from their offices. The other two phones in the range cover demand from those who want a smaller, classic phone shape (the E60) and who want the best of both worlds and a fully-featured handset (the E70, complete with 2 Megapixel camera and foldout keyboard).

The E61 should be a serious contender for anyone who can make the most of its advanced feature set; it should particularly appeal to IT managers with its remote security features and strong enterprise focus.||**||Motorola A1200 - spaceship Enterprise|~||~||~|Motorola's latest high-end offering is the A1200. It is due to be released in the Middle East within the next few months. The successor to the PDA-like A1000, the new model takes the PDA principle, but cleverly shrinks it down to the size of a smallish clamshell phone.

Aesthetically, the A1200 is certainly striking, if uncannily reminiscent of an original Star Trek communicator for better or worse. The 320 x 240 pixel screen is shielded by a brown-tinted clear cover, which flips up and operates as the earpiece. The screen itself is clear and sharp, with 262,000 colours a respectable if not brilliant showing.

This is one of the first Moto phones to use Linux as its operating system, making a change from the usual Windows or Symbian offerings. In use the A1200 was reasonably fast, with the touch screen reasonably responsive. Handwriting recognition was reasonable, but as ever slightly laborious for anything longer than a short note. The on-screen keyboard was satisfactory, but inevitably shrunken on the small screen. This could cause some problems for long-sighted executives.

The A1200's specifications are rather mixed, on the one hand incorporating a two megapixel camera (which allows the very useful Business card Reader application), Bluetooth, wide email support (though not push) and an FM radio, but including only 8MB of onboard memory and leaving out 3G support. While its size makes 3G unlikely, the woeful lack of onboard memory is poor, although there is a Transflash expansion slot to add up to 1GB.

Overall the A1200 is a worthwhile offering, but may appeal to the heart rather than the mind, with only limited application for an enterprise user.||**||

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