capsule review

T-Mobile MDA

At a Glance
  • T-Mobile MDA

    PCWorld Rating

    Slick hybrid lets you easily hop on to Wi-Fi hotspots for e-mailing, Web browsing, and instant messaging.

T-Mobile MDA
Photograph: Chris Manners

T-Mobile's MDA--which stands for Mobile Digital Assistant--delivers a lot of punch at a pretty reasonable price. The $400 unit (as of April 7, 2006, with a two-year contract) is a highly functional Windows Mobile device with a big screen and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. We wanted to adore this little powerhouse, but it has too many minor annoyances for us to give it an unqualified rave.

Chief among the MDA's praiseworthy features is its super-convenient Wi-Fi. The setup screens for the wireless connections are easy to use; we encountered no difficulties, even with the 128-bit WEP encryption key that secures PC World's Wi-Fi network. The unit includes options for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as T-Mobile's GPRS/EDGE network (which offers data speeds comparable to--or slightly faster than--dial-up). And it has a dedicated icon to simplify logging into T-Mobile hotspots.

Web browsing was delightful when we used Wi-Fi, and pages didn't look half bad on the sharp 320 by 480 touchscreen display--when viewed indoors. In bright sunlight, however, the screen was more difficult to read and looked washed out.

We especially liked the MDA's roomy, slide-in keyboard: Compared to the thumb keyboard on the Palm Treo 700w, it was the height of luxury. We wouldn't mind composing e-mail or even a short article on this device. With the keyboard concealed, the unit is designed to operate in portrait mode (the display is taller than it is wide); with the keyboard out, the display automatically shifts to landscape mode.

The MDA's specs are robust: It has a built-in 1.3-megapixel camera, a MiniSD slot, 128MB of ROM, and 64MB of RAM. (By comparison, the Palm Treo 700w costs $550, despite carrying just 128MB of flash memory and no Wi-Fi.) The MDA is a quad-band (850/900/1800/1900-MHz) GSM unit made by HTC, a Taiwanese firm that designs a lot of Windows Mobile devices for various companies.

The MDA has the potential to be useful; but in its hidden-keyboard configuration, the device simply isn't optimized for single-handed use, the way the Treo 700w is. When you push the MDA's green phone button, you get an on-screen keypad. You can tap these on-screen keys, but that's not the same as physically punching a keypad (and sometimes it's annoying, as the virtual keys run right up to the edge of the screen and can be difficult to hit accurately with your fingertips in lieu of a precise stylus).

Finding and dialing an entry in the contacts list can be frustrating, too, if you have only the minimalist hardware navigation buttons for help. Again, with no real provision for single-handed operation, you have to rely on the collapsible stylus--or even the slide-out keyboard. It's not the end of the world to have to do this, but it is time-consuming and clunky. This is an area where the Treo 700w's superior ease of use justifies its steep price tag.

T-Mobile seems to have sensed the MDA's shortcomings as a phone and tried to compensate with proprietary features. For example, when you start tapping keys on the software keypad, a pop-up menu displays possible matches from your contacts, in real time. But you still have to start by tapping a touch screen with your finger or with a stylus, if one is handy. And sometimes, the unit's response time seemed sluggish, even for such simple tasks as switching to another screen.

Instant messaging addicts will appreciate the MDA's support for not just one or two, but three major IM services: AOL's AIM, ICQ, and Yahoo Messenger. You can launch any of these services from the MDA's messaging screen, but it's still one step removed from providing a universal chat client. Licensing agreements prohibit T-Mobile from merging its customers' IM buddy lists; consequently, if you want to carry on conversations with friends on two different services, you'll have to do a lot of clicking back and forth--or find a third-party application that doesn't have to deal with fussy licensing partners.

The 1.3-megapixel camera was a bit of a disappointment: Its images were generally blurry. The camera can be used in landscape mode only, with an appropriately placed shutter button. Music playback sounded good through the bundled stereo earbuds, but tinny through the handset's speaker. Voice call quality was fine, however.

The MDA fills a void in T-Mobile's phone line-up, if you're looking for a device that can do more than a Sidekick or a standard cell phone. But its quirks prevent us from heartily recommending it.

Yardena Arar and Melissa J. Perenson

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Slick hybrid lets you easily hop on to Wi-Fi hotspots for e-mailing, Web browsing, and instant messaging.

    Pros

    • Built-in Wi-Fi for easy Web access
    • Roomy, slide-out QWERTY keyboard

    Cons

    • Difficult to use with only one hand
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