Palm computing has risen over the past half decade into one of the most talked about platforms on the market today, rising from obscurity from the Apple Newton, into the much hyped Palm Pilot, to the much publicized Palm's, and now to the much marketed Pocket PC's. Although Palm commands most of the share of the market, don't count out Microsoft's platform yet, thanks to ingenious hardware and features, the Pocket PC is rising through the ranks of PDA's and is/will be the major competitor to the Palm OS. Who uses PDA's? Everyone you can think of probably has a use for a PDA...from your local college professor organizing his lecture notes, to the student who is organizing homework assignments, to the pimp down the corner organizing his portfolio and address book. Seemingly, everyone has a use for a PDA and that's why it is in the top 10 of almost every gift list I have come across thus far. Like I mentioned before, a big reason for the big takeoff of the Pocket PC OS (formerly Windows CE) is hardware. Pocket PC devices tend to be more stylish than their Palm counterparts and in addition, they offer better feature sets such as standard color, voice recording, audio, etc...all in an OS that supports from media playback to internet browsing with a full featured browser. Today we will be looking at a unit from Compaq, the Ipaq H3635 Pocket PC. This is a review of the hardware part of the device and I really won't talk much about the OS because that's the thing every device has in common, the hardware isn't. If you would like to read more on the OS or just Pocket PC's in general, PocketPCPassion.com is a great website and resource.
The 3635 has quite a bit of notable features that consumers might be interested in. The most obvious is the color display. The display is a 4-bit color LCD which is brighter than almost every other Pocket PC because it is illuminated from the side, not the top or the bottom; this makes it very readable and visible, especially at night and even in the daylight. The 4-bit display is capable of showing 256 colors which is enough for almost every application. Of course the display can be adjusted for brightness to save battery power or you can set it to do it automatically through its ambient light sensor. I found that if you don't adjust the LCD while reading something in the dark, it will strain your eyes since it is so bright. The second feature that is notable is the fast processor. This unit is powered by the Intel StrongARM 206MHz RISC based microprocessor. When Windows CE 2.0 came out, it supported whatever processor manufacturers decided to put into their handhelds. HP used a Hitachi chip, Compaq used the Intel chip, etc...but it has been proven over and over again that the Intel processor is superior and that every other PDA always lagged behind the Ipaq in both response time and processing time. So for Pocket PC 2002, Microsoft made it a requirement that only Pocket PC's with the Intel StrongARM processors can be using the new OS. Others would just lag behind.
Other features are an expansion sleeve for CompactFlash Type I and Type II cards, this is usually not included with Ipaq handhelds (the 3650 and the 3630 are identical to this one but don't come standard with the sleeve) but come standard with this model. This sleeve allows extra capabilities and expandability with CompactFlash media, I like this sleeve but it does have its disadvantages. I noticed that with the sleeve on, the battery life would go down a bit (to be expected) and also it makes the Ipaq considerably more bulky in terms of thickness and width. But it does fit well and also gives the Ipaq some protection over normal day to day wear and tear.
Back to the display, the display quality was very crisp, more than any other handheld I've used, its very readable and doesn't strain the eyes as much as the Palm or Handspring color PDA's. Although the shortcoming of only having 4096 colors is apparent when viewing images, it is sufficient to enjoy color programs and images to an extent. Graininess and discoloration were very visible when looking at images, just like when you go from 8bit to 16bit, the 16bit Ipaqs are much more suited for images and media than this one. There is a problem with all Ipaqs, except the new 3800 series in which the holder for the stylus has an opening in which you can see the back of the screen of the Ipaq; this means that the back of the screen is exposed to possible dust or dirt because of this hole. If any dirt gets into there, it will definitely show up because it will appear to be a black spot on the screen thanks to the backlighting. This is a common issue and most Ipaq users have dirt behind their screens but there are ways to fix this, or as usual, you can contact Compaq and they will repair or give you a new Ipaq.
The audio quality of the built in speaker isn't the best but it is better than what I've expected. The headphone jack provides a much cleaner and enjoyable listening experience, the best use for a PDA in my opinion is as an mp3 player, pop in 1GB of CompactFlash, move in your songs, and enjoy hours of music while doing whatever you do on a PDA. There is a problem with the headphone jack that readers need to be informed of, however. This is a problem which covers the entire 3635 line. When you plug in headphones to the jack, it pushes a connector on the mainboard so it shuts off the speaker and sound only comes out of the headphones. This is normal, but when you take out the headphones, the connector remains pushed down so you cannot hear anything out of your speakers even when there's nothing plugged into the jack, this is because of cheap materials used to build the Ipaq and Compaq is offering to repair all units that have this problem, although the problem will come back the next time you use headphones. I recommend that you not use headphones if at all possible. A notable thing regarding headphones is that the volume gets VERY loud.
Handwriting recognition did a fine job reading my proper handwriting but when I handed the unit over to my friend, the PocketPC OS didn't like him or his handwriting. Like all recognition systems, it all depends on how closely you write to resemble the templates in the database. If you know how to write like the PocketPC expects you to, you will get 100% recognition; I found that if you just write normally, you'll achieve 60-80% recognition, not bad but not as good as the Palm OS. The good thing about this as compared to the Palm OS is that you do not need to learn how to write in the Palm handwriting system, you can just write how you will normally write for most characters and PocketPC will try it's best to recognize it. There is also an "inking" feature which lets you write everything you want on the screen and then it translates all of the writing into letters, all at once.
The Ipaqs Navigator button, which is a 4 way directional button including a middle pushing button is also a great navigational feature and it also doubles as a speaker. It lets you easily scroll through documents that are the best feature in the Ipaq in my opinion. Pushing the center on the navigation key is just like hitting "enter" on a computer keyboard.