HP iPAQ rx4540

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At HP's recent event in Beijing, the company introduced the rx4000 series Mobile Media Companion handhelds, its first non-PDA-phone device since the announcement of the rx1950 almost a year ago. Like its predecessor, the new iPAQs are targeted at the everyday user, with a smart selection of wireless options and multimedia features. This time, though, HP has incorporated 1GB of onboard memory as well as a unique new design aimed at enhancing the entertainment experience for the user.

The rx4000 series comes in two flavours. Our test unit, the rx4540, was the premium version with burgundy-red side panel and an additional 1GB flash ROM. The entry-level rx4240 features copper side panel and 128MB of ROM.

Our first impression of the rx4540 was that it's very compact. Measuring just 102 x 63.5 x 16.75mm, the iPAQ has roughly the same dimensions as the rw6828, though perhaps a tad wider but shorter, making it a form factor that's very handy for travelling. Most users will not feel bogged down by the rx4540's lightweight 118g chassis, either.

Despite its small form factor, the rx4540 sports a relatively large 2.8-inch QVGA touchscreen display which produces sharp and bright images. And we like that HP has incorporated an easy-access button on the side for users to switch between portrait and landscape modes to facilitate viewing of pictures, videos and games. However, we have mixed feelings over the handheld's plastic clip cover. On the one hand, it offers scratch and dirt protection for the screen, especially when the device is carried in a pocket or handbag. But the fact that you have to unclasp the cover from the PDA and re-clasp it behind the screen every time you use the touchscreen is not only tedious, there's also a tendency of dropping the unit while doing so.

Kudos to HP for breaking away from the typical PDA mould and coming up with a rather innovative design for its latest iPAQ. The company has also opted to take a slightly different approach to colours on its latest PDA by offering a touch of either burgundy red (rx4540) or copper (rx4520) on its side panel with a predominantly silver exterior casing. The result is a rather refreshing change from the traditional handheld look and feel which we suspect will appeal to the younger crowd. However, we did find the iPAQ somewhat plasticky, possibly due to the laminated finish on the casing, though it generally feels solidly constructed.

Based on the orientation of the HP logo, the rx4540 seems to be designed for use mainly in the landscape mode. The hidden reset button, Notes button and SD card slot can be found on the top, while the right side panel houses the close window, Outlook, media player, screen orientation toggle as well as the power button. The mini-USB port and 3.5mm earphone jack as well as an awkwardly placed stylus silo are located on the left. We like that HP has provided a real stylus rather than a retractable one which is usually less comfortable to use.

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What the rx4540 lacks in terms of a traditional four-way navigation control, it makes up for with a scroll wheel placed conveniently at the top right corner. However, depending on whether you are holding the iPaq in a portrait or landscape position, the use of the scroll wheel can be rather tricky and takes a while getting used to. For example, right-handers will find it a stretch to use the PDA in portrait position for scrolling, while left-handers will not have this problem.

Demanding PDA users planning to accessorise the iPAQ will be delighted to know that the SD expansion slot comes with SDIO support. The onboard 3.5mm audio jack also means users can plug in their high-quality earphones without the need for a converter. Sadly, the iPAQ lacks external buttons for audio playback control, a feature that would have been much appreciated by audiophiles.

Windows Mobile 5.0 implements softkeys with functionality not unlike those found on Nokia phones. Unfortunately, the rx4540 does not come with dedicated softkeys. Therefore, if you are keen to keep the plastic screen protector on when accessing various PDA functions, you will have to forego the use of two of the side buttons and reconfigure these as the left and right softkeys.

As with most Windows-based PDAs today, the rx4540 operates on Windows Mobile 5.0 software for Pocket PC and includes all of Microsoft's productivity applications, such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel as well as Outlook Mobile for email and calendar tasks. The iPAQ also offers persistent storage support so your data is retained even when the handheld runs out of battery power. This should cater to most mobile users hoping to utilise the iPAQ for more than entertainment purposes.

With Media Player 10 Mobile, the rx4540 doubles as a PMP (portable media player) for watching encoded videos and listening to MP3 songs on-the-go. We found the music playback satisfactory in quality, though the built-in loudspeakers were a tad too soft at times. The preinstalled iPAQ audio equaliser utility, which is distributed in most HP handhelds, does pack extra oomph when listening to music through the headphones.

One of the key features on the rx4540 is its additional 1GB of flash ROM. Possibly one of HP's largest onboard storage in a PDA, this iPAQ packs sufficient memory for more than 200 songs, which should suffice for most average users. The best part is that if you still find the memory insufficient for your multimedia needs, the rx4540 comes with an SD card slot. With 2GB SD cards going for as low as AU$50 these days, memory expansion should be affordable.

The rx4540 comes with the standard suite of wireless options including Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) and Bluetooth v2. There is no integrated cellular capabilities on this handheld but users can make calls via Wi-Fi by installing Skype or other VoIP software.

HP has included some useful applications such as Quick Launch which enables quick access to commonly used software via the scroll wheel. However, we found that while we could access the media player via the scroll wheel, there is still a need to use the touchscreen display to playback/stop media files or adjust the volume.

HP touts the rx4540 as a mobile entertainment device, but we were surprised it didn't come with a built-in digital camera which has become quite the norm for most PDAs these days. Some business users may, however, appreciate the lack since the use of cameras is still restricted in some sensitive industries. A built-in FM radio would have been a good addition to the overall feature lineup.

On average, the rx4540 lasted more than 1.5 days before requiring a recharge. This was a little less than we had expected, but since the 1,200mAh Lithium-ion battery is removable, heavy users have the option to purchase a spare battery for longer usage.

In terms of processor speed, we found the 400MHz Samsung processor zippy, handling multiple applications competently with hardly any lag. As Windows Mobile does not support the closing of applications, all the programs continue running in the background even though the user clicks on the close button. Therefore, a soft reset (or going into the Memory menu to stop all running applications) is recommended regularly to keep the PDA running fast.