News
11/16/2004
12:05 PM

For Geeks on the Go

Mobility rules, so don't leave home without these gadgets.



The downside? A proprietary operating system and quirky hardware interface. Once I became accustomed to the PMP-120, however, I quickly found myself dreaming up new and inventive uses for this capable unit.

The first thing you'll notice about the PMP-120 is its ergonomic design. Two curving bars beneath and on either end of the unit work double duty, providing a stable grip and a removable Li-Ion battery on one end and, on the other, a picture-frame stand that lets you prop up the unit on your desk for hands-free viewing. The device is easy to handle, even one-handed.

iRiver

On the other hand (as it were), the hardware navigation frustrated my early efforts to perform even the most mundane tasks. You won't be able to use the PMP-120 out of the box--expect to read and reread the user manual. For example, the four-way selector, power, record and play/pause buttons made perfect sense on initial inspection. But when I tried to select and display images or movies, I was forced to learn to click the play/pause button quickly or slowly to perform very disparate actions: short click to play or pause, long click to stop a current selection. Worse, the same button doubles as a forward and backward button for menu navigation. If you open a preference item using the play/pause button and you want to return to the previous menu, for example, you must hit and then hold the same button. Many of the buttons (select and record, for instance) require this same nuance (nuisance?) of short and long clicks. I'm waiting for Samuel Morse's estate to file a patent lawsuit.

There are also two buttons clearly labeled A and B, the meaning of which was, unfortunately, lost on me. Thankfully, there's a contextual help button to show you the way, depending on where you are in the OS. Obviously, the folks at iRiver found the hardware navigation difficult as well. (For a device with better ease of navigation, see our review of the Creative Zen Portable Media Center at ID# 1524rd1.)

I was most impressed with the PMP-120's ample ports and included cables. Out of the box, it can display movies and photos on a TV via a composite AV cable, share files with any USB-equipped machine, rip audio from any line-in stereo or record live audio through an external microphone.

I liked the simple USB 2.0 method for transferring files, for instance. Just plug the machine into your desktop, and presto, you've got a new hard drive to which you can drag your media files. I would have preferred a FireWire interface, but for most applications outside of transferring a 600-MB movie, files flew between the unit and my desktop quickly.

Read On, Geek!

Also included is a unique USB 1.1 Host cable, which lets the PMP-120 act as host machine for any USB 2.0 device, such as a digital camera or an external hard drive. That feature alone may make the 120 worth the money and learning curve. The one oddity I found with the unit's USB connectivity was that when I dragged the PMP-120's hard drive to the trash on a Mac or removed the remote USB unit on a PC, the unit didn't know it had been disconnected. To finish disconnecting, I had to live on the edge and unplug the USB cable.

Regardless of how well a device like this can interact with external hardware, the real test is its ability to support varying media formats. After all, what good is a media player that can't play media? I was pleased to discover a broad range of supported formats, including ASF, AVI, BMP, DivX, JPG, MPEG, WAV and WMA. I tried out many of these, with great success. But just as I had decided to expense the device as a remote end-user training tool, I learned I had to be careful with video: If I chose a resolution larger than 640x480, my video sometimes didn't play back properly.

All audio recorded on the PMP-120 is stored in MP3 format, which I could tailor to fit the situation and my remaining disk space through sample- and bit-rate settings. Surprisingly, the built-in mic worked very well for omnidirectional recording, so get ready to relive every sneeze and candy-wrapper crinkle during meetings.

A wider array of supported audio formats, perhaps AAC and Ogg Vorbis, would be useful. With luck, and with a fully upgradable codec (via firmware), iRiver will support these and more up-and-coming formats for recording and playback in the future. Still, even with its current list of supported formats, the PMP-120 is flexible and capable, difficult hardware navigation and all.

PMP-120, $499.99. iRiver America, (800) 399-1799. www.iriver.com

--Bradley F. Shimmin



Coolness and Value Factor No self-respecting geek leaves the house without a PDA, and because newer models are true handheld computers, you might not even need to massage your purchase order too heavily to get it approved. Check out HP's newest handheld, the iPAQ hx4700. I predict it will rival handhelds from all other vendors, who are probably already scrambling to catch up.

While I impatiently waited the recommended two hours for the hx4700's battery to charge, I read about the extensive list of new features. The device's 624-MHz Intel PXA270 is the fastest processor currently available in any PDA. The hx4700 also offers 192 MB of on-board memory, 135 MB of which is available to users for files and applications. With integrated 802.11b and Bluetooth wireless, you'll always be connected to your corporate network.

iRiver

My first impression once I got the hx4700 up and running: This device offers the best handheld display I've seen. The 4-inch VGA TFT screen is mind-blowing--it's capable of displaying 65,000 colors, and I could view the screen in portrait, landscape right-handed and landscape left-handed mode.

The hx4700 has the conventional touch-sensitive screen, but it also offers users an alternate navigation method: a Synaptics touchpad on the bottom of the device. HP's choice of Synaptics, which makes most laptop computer touchpads, was a smart move. The hx4700's Synaptics NavPoint offers two modes. In default Navigation mode, the touchpad acts like a typical navigation button found on most PDAs. However, common tasks like scrolling though menus and selecting items weren't as intuitive as they could be. In cursor mode, the NavPoint acts more like a touchpad, giving you a mouse pointer. I found the cursor mode to be a great tool, once I got the hang of it.

The hx4700 is built on Microsoft's latest incarnation of its mobile operating system, Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition. Not much is different from the first release of Mobile 2003, though the Second Edition does enable portrait and landscape screen layouts and adds support for VGA resolution. Because the OS is relatively new, almost every application I downloaded and installed prompted me with a warning that the app was designed for a previous version of the OS. In fact, HP's own mobile printing application gave me this warning! Still, every application worked, including the mobile printing app, and I expect these errors to subside as 2003 Second Edition becomes more prevalent.

Although its $649 list price is at the top end of the handheld computer market, the hx4700 does offer IT pros advantages over less expensive devices--for example, integrated Wi-Fi. Sysadmins will be glad to know that telnet, SSH, FTP and remote desktop applications let you perform common administration tasks using your handheld from any wireless hotspot. Network admins will be happy to find applications that can pinpoint rogue wireless devices and troubleshoot users' connectivity problems. VPN and network tools like ping, trace route and DNS lookups are also available.

To make sure you'll be able to justify this purchase by, say, troubleshooting your boss' PC while at Starbucks, I put the hx4700 Wi-Fi capabilities to the test at our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. Using Apani Networks' VPN client for Nortel Contivity VPN switches, I connected to the campus VPN servers with ease. I was able to control a Windows 2003 Server using a remote desktop client, as well as a router with a telnet application. With any of the numerous available Wi-Fi-sniffing applications, like WiFi Fo Fum or WiFiGraph, I could quickly zero in on access-point locations.

For tracking down a movie schedule after work, Web browsing with the hx4700 is much better than with other handhelds, but not because of some fancy new browser--Pocket Internet Explorer is still stripped down and doesn't support ActiveX or Java. Rather, browsing the Internet with a higher VGA resolution screen reveals more content with every scroll. The touchpad lets you scroll lines or pages at a time, even autoscroll. Best yet, turning the screen to landscape mode provides a monitorlike view, wider than it is tall. Landscape mode saves valuable time when looking up information because you don't have to scroll left to right as often.

iPaq hx4700, $649.99. Hewlett-Packard Co., (888) 999-4747. www.hp.com

--Christopher T. Beers



Coolness and Value Factor Sure, your company might only spring for a basic cell phone model, but it's worth a shot to try and persuade the bean counters that the IT department needs Hewlett-Packard's h6315 Pocket PC Phone Edition. HP has clearly put a lot of thought into its first "converged device," making for a dramatic entry into the mobile/wireless data market. Its partnership with T-Mobile, the only service provider to have a strong presence in both the cellular and Wi-Fi hotspot markets, coupled with the fact that HP has successfully bundled the Bluetooth, GSM/GPRS, IrDA and Wi-Fi wireless technologies into a single device, makes the versatile smart phone quite appealing. But what makes the product unique is its ability to switch among networks and virtually maintain state of the connection. Combine all this and you've got a real geek magnet.

Now, maybe you're skeptical of these claims. I know I was, so I took the h6315 for a spin and was quite impressed with the results. First, I started an FTP session with my home server through the GPRS network while the Wi-Fi radio was turned off. When I came within range of a T-Mobile hotspot and turned the radio on, the session transferred seamlessly from the GPRS network to the Wi-Fi network. And when I moved out of range of the T-Mobile hotspot, the connection switched from Wi-Fi to GPRS while maintaining the FTP transfer. To put this ability in an enterprise perspective, the need to synchronize your mobile workforce's e-mail, calendar and contact info is not limited to one access technology.

HP h6315 Pocket PC Phone Edition
HP h6315 Pocket PC Phone Edition
Click to Enlarge

As a phone, the h6315 performed well, though call quality is highly dependent on T-Mobile's coverage. The antenna is reasonably sensitive: The device could establish a GPRS session when the signal strength was more than two bars. Its internal speakers were plenty loud, and it supported conference calls well. The h6315's built-in Bluetooth adapter let me use my Bluetooth hands-free earpiece.

The h6315 runs on the Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC Phone Edition platform and features a native 802.1X supplicant that kicks in whenever a T-Mobile hotspot with the hidden SSID "tmobile1X" is discovered. If you opt not to use the 802.1X wireless network, the device gives you the option of associating with the regular "tmobile" network and authenticating through a Web portal.

In terms of hardware performance, the h6315 lags behind most handhelds. For example, its TI 200-MHz OMAP1510 processor is not the best in class, though it is sufficient to support multiple interfaces at the same time. I could simultaneously set up a cellular call, run FTP with the Wi-Fi interface, transfer files with the Bluetooth interface and take pictures. An advantage of having a slower processor is the extended battery-life--HP says the h6315 supports talk time of 4.5 hours and standby time of 210 hours in phone mode. So if you want to be on top of things, the h6315 meets the requirements, but avoid hardware-intensive applications.

T-Mobile let me set my e-mail account to send alerts via SMS every time something dropped into my mailbox. I could get e-mail from my POP3 or IMAP account pushed to the handheld's Inbox application. The h6315's inbox combines SMS, MMS, POP3 or IMAP e-mail and messages in one application, and it can synchronize contacts and calendars from Exchange 2003 servers as well.

The detachable QWERTY keyboard took some time to get used to--it's similar to a BlackBerry's--but once I got the hang of thumb-typing, I was more productive with it than with the virtual keyboard and handwriting recognizer. The detachable keyboard is hot-pluggable, and though it covers the call button, special keys on the board facilitate dialing.

The h6315 might not stand out of the crowd in terms of performance in the PDA market, but it definitely gets five stars as a truly converged device. HP has done a great job balancing phone and PDA capabilities.

h6315 Pocket PC Phone Edition, $599. Hewlett-Packard Co., (888) 999-4747. www.hp.com

--Frank Robinson



Coolness and Value Factor If you travel frequently or are as navigationally challenged as I am, a portable GPS system is for you. After all, it's hard to dazzle your boss--or your date--when you need to stop and (shudder) ask for directions.

Portable GPS options range from custom built-in navigation systems that cost thousands to dedicated after-market devices and, now, low-cost PDA accessories. At about $350, these kits transform your PDA into a navigational device that gives better directions than most gas station attendants I've encountered.

I tested systems from TeleType and Pharos. The companies offer a number of connection options, including Bluetooth, Compact Flash, Secure Digital (Pharos) and various cabled choices. This is important, as I recommend securing a memory card with at least 128 MB of storage (not included with either system) to install the massive program and maps. For Internet-connected PDAs, I was impressed that these systems even have optional traffic-density subscriptions.

Both systems performed adequately in testing. They offer turn-by-turn voice-prompted directions for the United States and international destinations. The maps are incredibly precise--the devices were so accurate that they could tell the difference between the rightmost lane of a road and the sidewalk 15 feet away. This level of detail was consistent throughout most of my tests, with only a few glitches that were corrected within seconds. My test track included multiple locations in Syracuse, N.Y., both on the highway and around the city. In addition, I tested the systems' ability to reroute when I purposely missed turns. As I suspected, the devices were confused by multiple turns within a 50-foot span and announced only the first turn, though the map maintained the correct route on the PDA screen.

The TeleType system had a few more glitches than the Pharos. At one point, it failed to announce a few consecutive turns, and once it froze completely. But despite these two bugs, the system gave accurate directions and quickly rerouted me when I went astray. The navigation screen was clear, but the zoom level was hard to manage. The navigation program includes a large feature set (even optional yellow pages); however, it was difficult to learn. Overall, the TeleType system has an outstanding feature set, but it needs some refining in the ease-of-use department.

The Pharos system has a smaller feature set than TeleType and less customization. However, it worked more consistently. I particularly liked its ability to zoom automatically as I approached a turn, making it clear exactly where the turn was. Unfortunately, to find an address I had to move through multiple steps--best to pull over when entering new data.

I would recommend either system to recreational travelers, but if you spend a lot of time in unfamiliar territory, you may want to consider a built-in GPS system, such as that offered by Hertz (see below). Although running navigation systems on PDAs is cost-effective, small screen sizes and soft voice alerts are limitations.

Bluetooth GPS Navigation Bundle, $319. TeleType Co., (800) 717-4478, (617) 542-6220. www.teletype.com

Bluetooth GPS Navigator, $349.99. Pharos, (310) 212-7088. www.pharosgps.com

--Nick Jordan



Coolness and Value Factor If you travel for work, you know how hard it is to get to your appointment, never mind finding out where the nearest Thai restaurant is. Let's face it: Paper maps are just too low-tech, and while a handheld GPS is fine for finding the occasional in-town eatery, making your way in a new city requires a more heavy-duty guide. I recommend an in-car GPS system with directory information; Hertz now offers one, known as NeverLost, with most midsize or larger car rentals for just $9 a day.

The Hertz system comes with added features on top of basic navigation, such as directory assistance and AAA TourBook destinations. I rented a four-door 2005 Ford Taurus to put the system, which is based on Magellan GPS, through our extensive Real-World testing.

The GPS unit is a small device bolted to the lower dashboard, left of the glove compartment. Unfortunately, it isn't adjustable or movable, but I found it easily readable, and I could choose between miles and kilometers, as well as seven languages. The device automatically turns on or off with the car's power.

My test track spanned approximately 120 miles, ranging across various settings. I traveled to residential suburban houses, urban areas in downtown Syracuse and rural locations, as well as industrial and commercial complexes. In all, I hit 15 distinct locations, navigating through roundabouts and some weird jug-handle turns, and I didn't get lost once. Although there were no tunnels or multilevel bridges for the system to contend with, I did drive though some wooded areas, and the sky was completely overcast. I never lost signal. Every time I started the car, the GPS pinpointed my location within seconds.

Hertz
Hertz NeverLost
Click to Enlarge

Destination entry was simple. Each time I entered a new location, I could select whether to go by fastest route, least use of highways or most use of highways. When I tried to enter a new location while the car was in motion, I was warned that doing so is unsafe if you're driving and should be done only by the passenger. Good thing the system couldn't sense the smartphone I was chatting on as I ate my tempura shrimp.

The device informed me of an upcoming turn at 2 miles out, 1 mile out, 0.5 miles out, approximately 50 feet out and then via a doorbell sound at 10 feet out. The charming female voice told me where to go, but not the name of the street onto which I was turning. This excessive chattiness got irritating fast--a way to cut the number of announcements in half would be very welcome. As it is, audio cues are an all-or-nothing proposition-- I finally turned off the sound and went by pure visual. When I was less than 0.5 miles from a turn, the display switched from an overhead map to an isometric view of the upcoming intersection, with a giant 3-D arrow pointing out the direction to turn. I could switch between map, next-turn isometric or text-only directions at will.

The system handled making wrong turns well, automatically remapping to the next closest route, including turning around if necessary. Problem is, you have to overshoot a turn by about 20 feet before the system detects the error. This is most likely because of current limitations in GPS accuracy, but it can be irritating in close urban streets. In addition, NeverLost couldn't alert me to traffic jams, construction or road closures.

Mapping to a specific street address worked well except in my rural test, when I headed 30 miles north of Syracuse. I'm talking self-contained propane tanks for heat and well water. Here the GPS got me to the road I needed, but I had to find house numbers on my own. I don't foresee attending any vendor training or trade shows up here, but it's nice to know that if I had to pass through, I wouldn't get lost and have to survive on my spare Red Bull and Twinkies.

Perhaps the system's best feature is the Yellow Pages and directory assistance. An extensive listing of hotels, restaurants, attractions, FedEx locations and businesses is installed on the GPS in advance, not downloaded from satellite. I could browse by restaurant genre, city or proximity to current location. The business directory includes repair shops, rest areas, parking, libraries, museums, gas stations and wineries. Hertz included the AAA TourBook, which lists AAA-rated accommodations, restaurants and attractions. I found the system well worth the extra $9 a day and a must-have for business travel.

NeverLost, $9 on top of car rental fee. Hertz, (800) 654-3131. www.hertzneverlost.com

--Michael J. DeMaria



Ratings (out of 5): Coolness: 4; Price: 3

Why settle for playing only music on a portable device? Creative's new Zen Portable Media Center lets you store and play back pictures, movies, recorded television shows and music. With its 3.8-inch color LCD screen, removable battery and 20 GB of storage, the Zen Media Center does a good job transporting all those important files you need while on the road.

The Zen ships with a USB transfer cable, headphones, an AC adapter, an audio/video output cable and a carrying case that also doubles as a stand. It runs Microsoft's Media Player for Mobile Devices and can auto-synchronize with Windows Media Player 10.

I hooked the Zen up to my PC for the first time and Windows automatically detected the device and installed the necessary drivers. The player then showed up in Windows Explorer as a drive, complete with a folder for data storage. I could synchronize files over Windows Explorer or use Windows Media Player 10. Both transfers are performed using the USB 2.0 interface. And while the device is connected to the USB port, the replaceable battery on the Zen charges.

Navigation on the Zen is easy and well-thought-out. Anyone who has used one of the newer handheld video games will adapt to the controls within minutes. The green Windows button in the upper left corner opens the navigation menus and four "preset" buttons let you jump directly to a specific file or play list.

The Zen supports a large range of audio and video formats, including JPG, MP3, ASF, WMA, MPEG1, MPEG2, MPG, AVI, WAV and AU--though I did miss being able to upload additional codecs to the player as they become available, as is possible with iRiver America's PMP-120 (reviewed at ID# 1524f3). Video playback on the Zen is smooth and jitter free, even when the unit's hard drive is caching information when first opening a file. You can assign a soundtrack to a group of pictures while viewing them. This would make a useful addition to a PowerPoint presentation for sales personnel. Video playback can be done on the built-in screen or by using the included audio/video cable to attach the Zen to any device that accepts RCA inputs.

The Zen Media Center does have a few flaws, however. The single built-in speaker's volume is very soft, even at full tilt. Audio was much better after switching to the included headphones, and there is also an A/V output jack for connecting to a stereo system. Other small irritations: The USB connector is not accessible when the unit is in its case, and the case doesn't have any kind of clips or loops for securing the player.

Overall, the Zen is intuitive and a solid performer. It may be a bit hard to justify to your boss, but for the frequent traveler it sure beats an in-flight movie.

Creative Zen Portable Media Center, $499.99. Creative Technology Ltd., (405) 742-6655. us.creative.com/

--Eric Fleming

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