iPAQ rx5900: A Worthy Travel Companion?

Traditional PDAs are on the verge of extinction. They're being phased out in favor of smart phones, which combine PDA functions with cell phones. But Hewlett-Packard is trying to give the PDA one last fighting chance with its iPAQ rx5900 Travel Companion.

The iPAQ Travel Companion combines a GPS receiver with a traditional PDA. I've been testing the iPAQ for several weeks. While I've found a great deal to admire, I've also been disappointed--if not downright confounded--by the navigation guidance I received.

The Specs

The iPAQ Travel Companion includes a built-in GPS receiver and TomTom's Navigator software, which displays your current GPS position on a map, calculates routes, and provides voice-prompted, turn-by-turn directions. The TomTom software and maps are stored in the device's 2GB of flash ROM.

The PDA uses the Windows Mobile 5 operating system and includes 64MB of SDRAM plus a Secure Digital card slot for added storage. Built-in Bluetooth lets you connect to your PC or other Bluetooth device, and you can access the Internet via 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. Like other Windows Mobile PDAs, the iPAQ comes with built-in Microsoft Office-compatible programs, such as mobile versions of Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, PowerPoint, and Windows Media Player.

The Price

The iPAQ Travel Companion lists for $499, though I've seen it online for less. While this is pricey for a PDA, it's comparable to, if not less than, some other portable GPS devices.

What I Like

The TomTom software offers lots of routing options, including fastest, shortest, avoid freeways, walking route, bicycle route, and limited speed. That's a few more than other portable GPS systems I've tested. My unit (sold in the U.S.) lets you choose to have voice prompts in English, French, or Spanish--which is fun to use when you know the route and want to brush up your French or Spanish. The software offers a ton of useful features, including an Advanced Planning mode that lets you input locations within a city you'll be traveling to.

My favorite GPS feature is the Demo mode. After you've input your destination or itinerary of multiple destinations, the software lets you preview the entire route in an animation. You can even choose the speed at which the animation is played. To see a video of the Demo mode in action, please visit my blog, Traveler 2.0.

HP has put a lot of thought into the iPAQ Travel Companion's design. For instance, there are convenient hardware buttons for changing the display's orientation from landscape to portrait, turning on the GPS receiver, launching Windows Media Player, and so on. A rocker button lets you easily adjust the volume, zoom in or out on the map, and move backwards and forwards through menu selections. The device makes a worthy music player; audio quality with headphones was clear and loud. You can also make voice recordings.

What I Dislike

And now, the heartbreak.

Simply put, the TomTom software frequently gave me truly convoluted directions--to the point where I wondered if "circuitous" was the default routing option. For example, when asked to guide me from my home in San Francisco to a movie theater across town, the shortest route consisted of no fewer than 19 streets. The fastest route had me traveling on 14 streets. I can get there on my own using just 5 streets, though a faster route has me on 6. In fairness, Yahoo Maps, MapQuest, and Google Maps didn't fare much better. Google got me to the movie theater using 9 streets; Yahoo, 11; and MapQuest, 16. Still, those Web tools are free.

A PR rep for HP said I may have been given a preproduction unit to review or one that had not had a map software upgrade. The software updates are the best way to make sure the navigation system provides the most accurate directions, she explained. HP has made a free map upgrade available on its Web site, though I didn't have the opportunity to test it.

More gripes: The GPS signal sometimes took 5 to 10 minutes to kick in. And the 3.5-inch color touch screen was difficult to read in direct sunlight, even at the screen's maximum brightness level.

Who's It For?

Honestly, I'm not sure.

The iPAQ Travel Companion has received some strong reviews. I love its many features and sensible hardware design.

If I had received good directions at least most of the time, I would have enthusiastically recommended the iPAQ Travel Companion for anyone considering a portable GPS. Based on my experiences, however, I can only recommend it as a strong (though pricey) PDA.

You know, the PDA? That device the smart phone is making extinct?

More GPS Reviews

If you're in the market for a portable GPS device, check these out:

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Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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