Pocket PCs: The Wi-Fi Generation
Thinner, lighter, and as easy as possible to connect: That's the mantra Pocket PC vendors appear to be chanting--and trying to enforce--with mixed success on each new Wi-Fi-enabled handheld they produce. I looked at shipping units of three of the latest examples: two IPaqs from HP and a sturdy Dell Axim.
All three of these PDAs run Microsoft's Windows Mobile 2003 software for Pocket PC, and all three feature a 400-MHz Intel XScale CPU. Each has removable, rechargeable batteries and a charging cradle with a slot to accommodate a spare battery--a useful feature that Dell pioneered with its first Axim. All three handhelds have brilliant active-matrix touch-screen displays, as well as SD card slots for peripheral devices, memory, or data cards. Despite their similarities, however, the units differ significantly.
HP's $449 IPaq H4150 is a mere 0.5-inch thick and has the rounded bottom and general look of two other recent thin-and-light IPaq models, the H1935 and the H1940. The second IPaq I tried, the $499 H4350, is a scant 0.1 inch thicker but practically an inch taller (5.4 inches versus the H4150's 4.5 inches) due to an integrated thumb keyboard that is spacious enough to make using it fairly comfortable. Neither unit has a visible wireless antenna; both have 64MB of RAM and 32MB of flash ROM. The H4350's lithium ion battery is larger and more powerful than its sibling's, but optional extended batteries are available for both.
Dell's $379 Axim X3i, while more streamlined than its predecessors, is 0.6-inch thick and looks a bit chunky compared with the IPaqs, especially since it has a stubby radio antenna. On the other hand, the X3i carries 64MB of flash ROM to go with its 64MB RAM (flash ROM is the type of memory that holds data even if your PDA loses power). It also has a few things the IPaqs could use, such as a high-quality Wi-Fi setup utility, and an additional Wi-Fi LAN detector to monitor the strength of your signal and check for other available networks.
On the new IPaqs, a Wireless option on the Start menu turns the device's Wi-Fi radio on and off, which can help conserve battery life. But I could have used some software assistance getting my IPaqs connected to a wireless LAN in the first place. Once you do locate the setup screen, Wi-Fi runs smoothly. The new IPaqs also offer Bluetooth and software extras, including a robust backup utility and a photo/slide-show viewer.
The Axim X3i has a simpler backup utility and no Bluetooth. But its $379 price tag makes it a good deal if you want a Wi-Fi-enabled PDA and are on a budget. (Dell also offers two X3 units without Wi-Fi--a $329 version configured the same as the X3i and a $229 version with a 300-MHz XScale processor. Both have 32MB each of RAM and flash ROM, as well as a USB syncing cable instead of the charging cradle.)
The IPaqs target well-heeled users willing to pay extra for a skinny yet full-featured handheld. Buy the Dell if you want a solid Wi-Fi-enabled PDA with more memory, an easier interface, and a better price.
Dell Axim X3i
Slightly chunky but capable and
nicely priced Wi-Fi-enabled
Price when reviewed: $379 Current prices (if available)
Hewlett-Packard IPaq H4150
Smallest, thinnest Wi-Fi-enabled
handheld to date, but pricey; Wi-
Fi setup still not easy.
Price when reviewed: $449 Current prices (if available)
Hewlett-Packard IPaq H4350
Stylish, ultraslim Pocket PC with
an integrated keyboard;
expensive and suffers from
obscure Wi-Fi setup.
Price when reviewed: $499 Current prices (if available)