by Jim Courtney
Towards the end of August 2004 my three-year-old HP Jornada 768 lost its display screen -- one day there was nothing but a big blob. Once I had determined that HP wanted close to the price of a new PocketPC for a replacement display screen I started a search for a replacement PocketPC. I had noticed three trends in newly introduced PocketPC's: VGA screens, WiFi and Bluetooth compatibility and dual memory card slots - Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD). Of course they all had processors that were 2x to 3x faster than the Jornada.
My initial review of the market found that HP was about to come out with a new iPAQ hx4700 meeting these specs (the Jornada line had been killed when HP acquired Compaq) at around US$800 - when adding in a few essential accessories and a 3 year warranty this appeared a bit excessive.
About a month later Dell announced its new Axim X50 line with three models; the high end X50v, which met all my wishes, came in under $500 -- similar specs to the iPAQ but with fewer software packages included. Late in October I ordered one with a six to eight week delivery; it finally arrived in early December.
Quickly I brought it up to the level of a PDA with the standard Outlook Contacts and Calendar synchronization; installed the AvantGo news reader which I had used heavily on my Jornada and installed the Adobe Reader for PocketPC to handle some of the files I liked to carry around (for instance I "PDF" all my travel confirmations for ready access at the airport and hotel).
But then I started exploring what additional applications would be appropriate for this device. It came with Windows Media Player 10; a VGA screen and all that storage memory (I initially acquired a 512MB CF card); it would also seem appropriate to be great for storing photos. Was there some way to make mini-PowerPoint presentations? Skype had released a PocketPC version of their VoIP Internet Phone client. What else might be out there?
I found a key reference resource; the independent Aximsite containing not only user contributions and product reviews but also tutorials on all the key features such as WiFi and Bluetooth operation.
Of course the Axim has the standard Pocket Word, Pocket Excel and Internet Explorer. But with a few application software packages I have taken this device beyond a PDA and newsreader to turn it into:
- an iPod-like music player (Windows Media Player and X50Mix equalizer)
- a ClassicFM radio receiver via the web browser and WMP
- a Photo and PowerPoint Album (Resco Photo Viewer)
- an Internet Phone (Skype for PocketPC)
- an RSS Reader (PocketRSS)
- (future) a DVD Player (after [legally] converting a DVD to an appropriate viewing format via, say, Pocket-DVD Studio)
- a MSN Messenger presence client (when near a WiFi connection)
Installing and learning these programs came with the usual surprises - both positive and negative. The PocketPC is not exactly Windows XP when it comes to user interfaces and does not have the most obvious common set of menus, action buttons and other functionality normally associated with desktop/laptop Windows software. I also noticed a need to often do a soft reset of the Axim to clean up what appeared to be "congestive memory failure" problems if several programs were running, particularly if I turned on WiFi or Bluetooth.
- AvantGo, installed in Built-In Storage ROM, seemed to take an inordinately long time to both launch and execute updates (~5 min); updates would take only a minute or two on my Jornada (I had actually reduced the number of subscriptions as a couple were no longer available)
- Running Adobe Reader was such a difficult experience that it was not reinstalled due to its 7MB size when the A02 upgrade was performed (see below)
- Touching a hyperlink - or even menu command - might have to be repeated several times to actually trigger the appropriate activation
- Setting up and maintaining a WiFi conneciton involved frequent and repeated visits to the Connections and Network Cards utilities with no obvious means of maintaining these settings as one moved from network to network.
- On the other hand Resco Photo Viewer not only created customized photo albums but also handled my PowerPoint presentations with ease; all I need is a VGA interface cable (available from Dell) and I could run PowerPoints via one of those display projectors without the need lug around a laptop.
- I found a way to run my favorite ClassicFM radio station through the WMP.
- Skype recently came out with a new version of their PocketPC client that made Internet phone calls a true reality although the voice quality was not at the level experienced when using Skype from my Dell Inspiron laptop.
- Attempts to save "Main Memory" RAM by loading certain programs into the "Built-In Storage" ROM resulted in these programs taking an inordinately long time to load. Many on Aximsite attributed this to relative "speeds" of the different types of memory. (Programs normally load in the 64MB RAM memory but this can get used up fairly quickly when program such as AvantGo load news articles.)
Two key maintenance milestones:
- in late January Dell brought out a ROM upgrade which marginally improved performance and fixed a couple of annoying bugs.
- in late February, the serial connector (the one that connects the Axim to the cradle for synchronization and installing programs) quit working -- within two business days Dell had a replacement unit to me.
Even with these changes I finally came to the conclusion that the Axim had memory management (or congestive memory failure) problems causing lockups reminiscent of Windows 95/98's tendency to lock up under any severe usage stress. I had decided that soft resets were going to be part of my life using the Axim but I was still impressed due to the variety of applications and services it provided.
In the meantime I came across market surveys that showed this unit to have become the top selling PocketPC on the market. Reviews, such as this one by Palm devotee Tanker Bob and only accelerated this market acceptance.
As the final straw at last week's Voice over the Net Canada conference, with probably a dozen WiFi networks radiating, I found that I could not get logged onto the public WiFi yet could connect in areas, such as at home and in WiFi-enabled coffee shops, where there were only one or two WiFi networks detected. More symptoms of congestive memory failure?
Last Thursday Dell announced a new A03 ROM upgrade. After upgrading on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I was surprised to find that all my performance issues evaporated:
- Both AvantGo and Adobe Reader, installed in the Built-In ROM memory, launch and operate with the same speed as program operating in RAM
- AvantGo updates are completed in under a minute;
- Hyperlinks and menu commands respond immediately on touching with the stylus
- the WiFi and Bluetooth connections can be turned on at will with no visits required to the relevant setup utilities simply to get a connection (Bluetooth still requires the pre-requisite pairing to connect to other devices and computers.)
even my standard ActiveSync activities require significantly less nurturing -- place it in the cradle and a synchronization starts, Pocket Weather updates, Skype shows me who is available for a phone call and I can get back to using it to facilitate my normal business activities without having to "force" the configuration under use. No hiccups! No more congestive memory failure.
(Note that this upgrade also is supposed to optimize battery usage through better utilization of the variable speed capability of the underlying Intel ARM processor. But I have not had occasion to check this out so early after doing the upgrade.)
With this upgrade, my Dell Axim X50v has finally become a true productivity tool, keeping in my shirt pocket all the information critical to my activities on-the-go. And the RIM Blackberry 7100 becomes the ideal companion for providing traditional telephone and robust email services. A final acknowledgement: congratulations and thanks to the Dell Axim product management and engineering team for acknowleding they had a problem and successfully addressing it. This is a model for how product support should work.
(Note to Axim X50 owners: I used the Sprite Backup "ROM Upgrade" process to avoid the need to reinstall programs after the upgrade. Following the instructions closely, including making the auxiliary Device Upgrade file, meant I had completed the upgrade in under 20 minutes.)