- Thin and light
- good battery life
- the device can be recharged directly as well as via the docking station.
- CompactFlash expansion requires cumbersome add-on jacket
- no facility to backup data to ROM.
Asus is not a name you immediately associate with Microsoft’s Pocket PC platform, but that may change with the launch of the MyPal A600 in Europe. According to Asus, the MyPal A600 is the world’s smallest, lightest, thinnest and most powerful handheld. So much for manufacturers’ claims: what really matters is how the £387 (inc. VAT; £329 ex. VAT) MyPal A600 stands up against its immediate competition in terms of functionality and usability. Here's what we found in a preview of a pre-production device.
The MyPal A600 is powered by Intel’s PXA250 processor -- the so-called XScale chip. Running at 400MHz, this is the fastest CPU in the Pocket PC arena, but Asus does not have exclusive rights to it -- we have already reviewed XScale machines from Toshiba, Compaq and Fujitsu Siemens. The XScale processor is certainly fast, but for maximum performance it needs software that’s optimised for it, and as we write there is a definite lack of such software. Programs written for Intel’s older StongARM processors should run perfectly well on an XScale-based handheld, but they won’t run any faster.
Hardware manufacturers like to bandy words like 'smallest', 'lightest' and 'thinnest' about, but they don’t really mean a great deal. As I write this, I’m looking at Sony’s Palm OS-based CLIE PEG-T675C, which weighs 140g -- 2g more than its predecessor the T625C which, at 138g, weighs the same as the MyPal A600. As far as Pocket PC devices are concerned, Asus probably does have the edge on weight. However, Toshiba’s e740 -- a close rival -- weighs more at 179g but has both a Type II CompactFlash slot and an SD/MMC slot. The MyPal A600, by contrast, offers only an SD/MMC slot. If you want CompactFlash as well, you’ll need to use Asus’s optional and rather cumbersome jacket, which costs £65 (ex. VAT) and will add both weight and bulk. The point is that if small and light is what you need, the MyPal A600 fits the bill -- but don’t get too carried away with the manufacturer's claims.
Whatever your view on these matters, the MyPal A600 is a nice Pocket PC, and Asus has come up with a couple of clever features that enhance its appeal. A noteworthy one is Smart Power Saving, a battery management solution that, the company claims, provides up to 15 hours of battery life. Also, there's a power connector on the device itself, so you don’t need to resort to the docking station to recharge it. Any handheld manufacturer failing to incorporate this feature is missing a vital trick.
Our review sample was a pre-production unit, and consequently its casing was somewhat unimpressive. However, shipping units will have aluminium alloy casing, as is the fashion these days. The general hardware design offers no real surprises. The left side of the casing houses the power switch, a reasonably good jog-dial button, sound recorder shortcut and reset button. At the top you’ll find an audio jack, a microphone, an infrared port, a stylus holder and an SD card slot, while the underside houses the DC-in port and the docking station/expansion jacket connector.
On the front, below the 3.5in. reflective TFT display, there’s a combination speaker and navigation button, and four application shortcut buttons. The button carrying the ‘Home’ icon takes you to an Asus applet that allows you to adjust settings and view system information. You can, for example, invoke Smart Power Saving here -- options include clocking the processor down to 200MHz or 100MHz, or letting the system set the speed automatically depending on what you are doing (the hardware manual insists that games require faster clock speeds). There is also an option called Advanced Performance Enhancement, which allows for some data caching. The manual warns that ‘this option may sometimes cause the system to be unstable’, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Other options in this Asus utility suite include the ability to change the screen brightness on mains and battery power, alter microphone sensitivity and choose which device buttons will cause automatic switch-on. Another bundled Asus application, Backup, is designed to help you keep vital data safe from device loss or a total power failure. Unfortunately, it can only make backups to an external card, and does not offer an additional option to utilise any of the 32MB of Flash ROM. This is a pity.
What this all amounts to is a Pocket PC that offers a good range of clever, innovative ideas, but which misses one or two opportunities. Backing up to ROM is the most obvious of these, and we’d really like the CompactFlash expansion jacket to have been considerably smaller and more appealing in design.