First, a short history of the PDA

The PDA market these days is often overlooked and labeled as stagnant, with handhelds often seen as unproductive novelties instead of the highly efficient organizers they were originally intended to be. However, while the goal of a multifunctional organizer might have been in the minds of the concept artists who designed the first PDA models, handhelds have evolved drastically, largely surpassing what they were first intended for.

Indeed, the competition for handhelds has undergone several major developments since Casio introduced the first Palm powered PDA in 1993, a half-functional unit called the “Zoomer” with basic Graffiti, address book, and alert functions. Immediately afterwards, the big boys (HP, Apple, and Sharp) rolled out their own electronic organizers and operating systems. However, within the course of a few years, Palm’s efficient and powerful software boosted it to the front of the pack, causing major computer hardware companies to either fund more lucrative models or (as in Apple’s case) drop out of the market altogether.

Six years later, Palm founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky left to create Handspring. The move allowed them to develop something that astounded industry analysts at the time, a color PDA. As mentioned before, the PDA was originally intended for strictly organizational use. Well, Hawkins and Dubinsky had a greater vision for their new line of Visor handhelds. They sought to improve graphics capabilities, and as such, prompted Palm and HP to continue to add features to their competing models. Increasingly, the PDA was no longer an object of organization, but seen as a potential media device as well.

Introduction

A few years and a host of new technologies later, Hawkins and Dubinsky’s vision was in full bloom (though by then both Palm and Handspring had been ousted from the leading PDA competitors) as relative newcomer Dell introduced their top-of-the-line 624 MHz X30. The lighting-fast XScale processor, sizable internal memory, and integrated Wi-Fi helped it become one of the most capable competitors in the industry. Now, with the next generation of PDA's again rolling out, Dell has redesigned its flagship PDA to include a slew of new features. Notable among these features are a brilliant VGA display, integrated Bluetooth capability, and a completely revamped design element. Certainly, the PDA has undergone major developments since its original inception. But how does Dell’s new PDA stack up against similar VGA-toting, Wi-Fi-bustling handhelds of its competitors? Read on to find out.

 

Official Specifications

 

-Intel® XScaleTM PXA270 624MHz

-Microsoft® Windows MobileTM 2003 Second Edition with Windows Media Player 10 Mobile

-RAM: 64MB SDRAM

-ROM: 128MB Intel StrataFlash® memory

-TFT Color 16-bit, Touch Sensitive, Transflective LCD

-3.7 inches

-480 x 640 resolution at 65,536 colors (VGA)

-Intel® 2700G multimedia accelerator with 16MB video memory

-5-way Navigation button

-Wireless On/Off Button

-Lock Switch

-4 Program Buttons: Calendar, Contacts, Inbox, Home

-Voice Record Button

-Reset Button

-Backlit Power Button

-Event Notification

-Charge Status

-Wireless Status

- CompactFlash Type II Card Slot (3.3v)

- Secure Digital / SDIO Now / MMC Memory Card Slot (3.3v)

-Standard v1.2 (115 kbps) Infrared Port

-36-pin Cradle/Sync Connector

-3.5mm Headphone/Headset Jack

-Length 119 mm (4.7 inches)

-Width 73 mm (2.9 inches)

-Height 16.9 mm (0.7 inches)

-Weight 175 grams (6.2 oz)

-Audio Controller I2S Codec, WM8750 sound chip

-Stereo Conversion 16-bit stereo; 8.0, 11.025, 22.05 and 44.1KHz sample rate

-Full Duplex Record and Playback

-Integrated Microphone and Speaker

-AC Adapter

- Battery Type

-1100 mAh Lithium-Ion Removable, Rechargeable (standard)

-2200 mAh Lithium-Ion Removable, Rechargeable (optional)

First Impressions  

Because Dell is one of those companies that is unusually picky when choosing distributors, I purchased the Dell X50v from their web site. Note that there are two other models in the X50 series, the X50 412 MHz and the X50 512 Mhz, which are considerably cheaper but lack a VGA screen and other advanced capabilities.

The price for the X50v, $424, included accessories like a cradle, a generic case, and a software bundle with two free games. After slipping the X50v out of its plastic covering, the first thing I noticed was its new, sleeker body. Whereas the X30 resembled a rectangle, the X50 series handhelds sport a sleeker, more rounded design. Also, the glitzy white finish of the X30 has been replaced with a more professional looking black gloss color. The picture below shows a side-by-side comparison of the two.

But it is only after powering up the X50v did I realize its biggest improvement from the X30. The brilliant VGA screen easily surpasses the “QVGA” screen of the X30. The 16-bit 3.5” screen that the X30 utilizes pales in comparison to the 3.7” 480x640 pixel transflective display the X50v boasts. Only three other PDAs released within two months of the X50v carry the new VGA displays: The HP iPAQ hx4705 ($600 street), the Fujitsu-Siemens Pocket LOOX 720 ($610 via Expansys), and the Asus MyPal A730 ($489 street). (Note: all prices are relative to time of review) Below is a side-by-side comparison of the Dell X50v to these three similar VGA-toting handhelds.

From left to right: The X50v, hx4705, LOOX 720, and the A730

In comparison, the Dell X50v is the most inexpensive of the bunch, at $424 retail. However, it does lack some features of its competitors, including SMS capabilities of the hx4700, and the integrated 1.3 megapixel cameras of the LOOX 720 and the A730. But at $100 less than its nearest competitor, the X50v provides arguably the best value of them all. And if you must have a low-res, half-baked camera on your PDA, third party ones are available from $50.


Software  

The X50v runs on the Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition OS and comes bundled with the latest build of Microsoft Activesync software. The latest version at time of review, 3.7.1, fixes a few stability issues and includes a number of enhancements. According to Microsoft, it:

Enigmo, Aspyr's puzzle game, and Fathammer's Stuntcar Extreme take advantage of the X50v's VGA display

The PDA also comes packaged with a CD of two free games, Fathammer’s Stuntcar Extreme and Aspyr’s Enigmo. Both games take advantage of the X50v’s high quality screen and speedy processor, though you will have to purchase a good sized memory card to avoid running out of space after installing these high-res, resource-hogging games.

Besides the standard Microsoft software bundle, the X50v also comes with the new Windows Media Player 10 Mobile. Also included are pocket versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, and an Odyssey client that takes advantage of the PDA’s wireless capabilities.


Design

The first thing that sets the X50v apart from its predecessors is its new design. Ditching the shiny rectangular block characteristic of the X30 series models, Dell opted for a rounder design with more contrast when designing the X50 series. The result is an easier to grip, more professional looking PDA. The X50v measures at 4.7 inches long, 2.9 inches wide, and 0.7 inches high. At about 3 inches wide, the X50v is easy to cradle in your hand. And at 6.2 ounces in weight, it weighs just a little more than your average cell phone.

Below we take a look at several views of the X50v.

The front of the PDA features a glossy black finish with a silver border. The directional pad and quick-start buttons are also styled in silver, and are found towards the bottom of the handheld. Above the VGA display is the power button/charging indicator, as well as a flashing wireless and Bluetooth indicator at the top left of the PDA. The back of the PDA is styled in a black matte finish with the Dell logo engraved in the top half. The battery hatch and soft reset buttons are located here.

The top of the PDA contains the stylus, expansion slot, SD card slot, infrared port, and the headphone jack.

The left side of the X50v contains the buttons for wireless enable, voice record, and input lock. It is also where the lanyard eyelet is found. The right side does not have any buttons.

 

The uniform black finish coupled with a silver border make the X50v a stylish, but not overtly attention-drawing, PDA perfect for businesspeople on the go. And with a matching dock (shown above), the design element of the X50v is solid without a doubt.

 

Functionality

The X50v's on-screen interface is much like any other PDA running its OS, except for one obvious difference: The VGA screen. This is no QVGA or other attempted knock off, this is true high-resolution VGA in all its glory. The distinction between a QVGA and a VGA handheld such as the X50v is more than a more vivid screen and the ability to read smaller text, it is a completely new experience. Games that you play are graphically superior, web sites are rendered more correctly, and movies attain a new level of realism.

Besides the VGA screen, the X50v has several other useful features. A handy voice record button captures audio at a custom quality level, and a wireless enable button allows you to easily make use of the integrated WiFi and Bluetooth. Be warned that wireless functions drain battery life (which is not very long in the first place) like crazy, so it is best to enable wireless only when necessary, and to disable it immediately afterwards. Oh, and I do miss the jog dial that I had become accustomed to on other PDA's.

Another annoyance is the circular directional pad. This thing has been characteristic to the Axim line since their original inception, but it seems that with every generation, it gets smaller and smaller. My thumb is bigger than the X50v's directional pad, and consequently, navigating with it is often a pain. Also, the X50v suffers from intermittent stability issues; at times, the screen will freeze up for around 20 seconds or so. Bearable? Yes. Convenient? Not exactly.

My last complaint lies with opening and closing programs. Basically, if you open a program it remains open, meaning, if you tap the "X" in the top right had corner, the program does not actually close, it is just sent to the background. This makes it easy to call back up a program instantaneously, but hogs memory space like none other. So after enough programs are open, the X50v simply will not let you open any more. To close any program, you have to, believe it or not, go into the settings screen, navigate to the memory page, and manually "End Task" each program.

But the X50v does have some redeeming features. Video and audio playback are excellent, though again the weak batter somewhat compromises this. Cross-platform compatibility of Microsoft Office files is very convenient, but it is standard nowadays. And the new mobile Outlook is impressive; I even managed to configure it with gmail so that it would download my email every time I am near a WiFi hotspot.

Conclusion

If not for such companies as Dell propping up the handheld industry with new designs and abilities, PDA's would have died out long ago. But Dell (and indeed, other companies like HP and Palm) has remained faithful to this sector of technology. Their latest generation of handhelds, the X50 series, is headed by their flagship X50v, a powerful mobile device with a brilliant VGA screen. And though it is plagued by some performance issues, anyone still in the market for a handheld should strongly consider the X50v.

Pros:

- 480 x 640 VGA screen

- New design

- Integrated Bluetooth and Wifi

Cons:

- Stability issues

- Strange program managing system

- Relatively poor battery life

- Even tinier directional pad

SLCentral Verdict: 7.9/10



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