Review: Dell's Next-Gen Windows Mobile PDA Is Persistently Better - InformationWeek

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Review: Dell's Next-Gen Windows Mobile PDA Is Persistently Better

Dell's new Axim X51v uses the newly-updated Windows Mobile 5.0 platform to create a highly usable, more convenient and more powerful PDA.

Originally published on Mobile Pipeline

Older Pocket PCs and Windows Mobile operating systems had a lot of "gotchas" that limited the attractiveness of those devices. One that easily comes to mind, for instance, was that all your data and personal settings were lost if the battery drained completely.

Dell's new Axim X51v and Windows Mobile 5.0, seeks to put an end to the Windows Mobile "gotchas" of the past and, to a large extent, they succeed. Dell considers the x51v a model refresh, but there are quite a few changes under the hood.

Most of the changes, though, support Microsoft's latest mobile platform, Windows Mobile 5.0, which is why this is a review of both. The bottom line is that Dell's and Microsoft's updates have created a more usable PDA that is easier to use than before and has more applications of interest to enterprise users.

Persistently Better
I'll more fully review the Axim X51v a bit later. For now, suffice it to say that the most significant of the improvements is the increase in ROM memory to 256 MB while keeping the RAM memory at 64 MB. Compared to previous Windows Mobile devices, this is huge.

It's huge because it takes advantage of Windows Mobile 5.0's persistent storage concept in which all user data, applications, and operating system components are stored in flash ROM rather than RAM memory. The RAM is only used as working space when running applications.

Persistent storage has several advantages. Most importantly, applications and data are retained when the power is lost. During testing, I ran the batteries completely down several times, and never lost a single piece of data or had to reinstall a single application. The x51v also no longer needs the backup battery common on the previous generation of Pocket PCs. Also, updates to the operating system and core applications can be applied without completely flashing the ROM memory so, again, no applications or data are lost in the process.

After the operating system, there is a generous 195 MB of space left for applications and data. That is a significant amount of space, almost making the Secure Digital and Compact Flash slots on the X51v irrelevant.

More, Better Software
Software-wise, the updates are almost as significant. The user interface has been refined from previous versions, as have the personal information management (PIM) applications.

There is more of a common feel among all the applications than was previously the case. The menu bar along the bottom of each screen has been replaced with a pair of context sensitive softkeys, with the icon for the on-screen keyboard residing between them. The cartoon bubble used for notifications in previous versions has been replaced with pop-up along the bottom of the screen. All of the icons and buttons have been updated for consistency and they are, to my eyes, more attractive.

Out of all of the PIM applications, the improvements in Contacts are the most striking. When looking at a contact record, phone numbers and e-mail addresses are nicely divided and easy to distinguish. If you tap on the person's e-mail address, you are immediately brought to a screen to compose a message.

On the downside, however, while most of the interface changes are an improvement, some functions, such as the delete option in Messaging, are now another menu layer deep.

Better Office And Syncing
The PDA versions of the Office applications have taken a step closer to their desktop counterparts in Windows Mobile 5.0. Excel Mobile now has the ability to create or view charts. Much like the desktop version, to create a chart, you highlight the cells, and a wizard walks you through rest. Heavy number crunchers will still be left wanting, but for a quick view or to read an attachment, it does the job just fine. Word Mobile makes it easier to work with embedded graphics, while maintaining the original formatting of the document. New to 5.0 is PowerPoint Mobile. While the app only allows you to view presentations, it is still a welcome addition.

One change is that ActiveSync 4.0 is required to sync the X51v. This desktop application has also gone somewhat of a makeover. When connecting a Windows Mobile 5.0 device, the partnership wizard walks you though each of the steps, including those to sync with an Exchange 2003 server. It also will scan the device first and use any settings that may already exist. Also new within ActiveSync is a real status of the server sync, where previously the desktop app deferred this information to the device itself.

Dell's Updated PDA
The X51v takes full advantage of the new applications with its 3.7-inch, full-VGA display and onboard 16 MB Intel graphics adapter. The result is a sharp, easy to read display. For instance, Pocket PowerPoint slides were easy to read, despite viewing them on a PDA sized screen.

Overall, this is an attractive and reasonably sleek device and, at about 6.2 ounces, its size and weight are in the middle of the PDA pack. Overall, the x51v maintains many of the other features of previous PDAs.

To get connected beyond its USB tether, the X51v has both 802.11b and Bluetooth 1.2 adapters onboard. The Bluetooth adapter is managed with Microsoft's software, which seems a bit more basic in function than the more-common Widcomm software. However, I found that the device handled every Bluetooth device I threw at it, even recognizing a wireless keyboard without separate software drivers. While criticized in the past, Microsoft's Bluetooth stack seems to be now ready for prime time.

Dell has also returned to a tradition that started with the earliest of PDA's: bundled applications. While it used to be commonplace to find a number of free or demo applications on the install CD, the bundling of apps with devices seems to have waned over the last several years. Dell includes almost 20 applications with the X51v. These applications range from utilities to finance managers to games that really push the video card and screen. While most the included apps are demos or limited trials, it makes that new device just a little more fun.

The Dell X51v is a great example of what happens when good hardware comes together with good software. Dell is, perhaps, overly modest when calling this a mere model update. On the other hand, while the new handheld and mobile platform are impressive, you have to wonder how many Dell plans to sell at jut under $500 for the fully loaded version that has no built-in telephony.

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