- Runs Windows Mobile 5.0
- built-in QWERTY keyboard and Tablet PC-style swivelling screen
- 3G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity
- awkward for voice calls without a Bluetooth headset
- keyboard is not appropriate for serious typing
O2 currently lists four Xda handheld/phone devices at its Web site, all of which we have reviewed: the original Xda, Xda II, Xda IIs and Xda IIi. This range is about to be significantly boosted by the Xda Exec, which offers a number of firsts including Windows Mobile 5.0, 3G support and an ingenious hardware design that accommodates a QWERTY keyboard and a 180-degree-pivoting screen. O2 provided ZDNet UK with a pre-production unit for this review.O2 may have given us an early look at the Xda Exec, but a flurry of devices based on the same HTC Universal hardware is expected shortly from other UK operators, as well as from operator-agnostic vendors i-mate and Qtek. We will cover these variants in due course.
The Xda Exec is big, feature-packed and has an unusually flexible design that accommodates both traditional handheld and notebook-style operation. The two-tone grey and black lid lifts up, clamshell-style, to reveal a screen and a small QWERTY keyboard. However, users are unlikely to require the built-in keyboard all of the time, so the lid section swivels through 180 degrees, Tablet PC-style, and lays flat, leaving you with a more standard handheld configuration with the screen facing outwards. The screen automatically switches between landscape and portrait orientation. The trade-off for this flexibility, of course, is size and weight: the Xda Exec is a giant compared to standard Windows Mobile handhelds, measuring 7.9cm wide by 13cm deep by 2cm high and weighing 285g. To enable effective use in both handheld and notebook modes, the Xda Exec is peppered with buttons and connectors. One of the shorter edges is button-free, while the other houses the power button and an SD card slot. The long edges are more cluttered. The rear (or right-hand) edge is home to the reset button, a 3.5mm headphone connector, Call and End keys, the stylus housing and a USB connector that handles battery recharging and wired synchronisation. Thankfully, the Xda Exec abandons the proprietary connector that required you to carry a converter to charge earlier Xda models while on the move. The front (or left-hand) edge houses a pair of stereo speakers, a volume slider for both device and in-call control, a button for accessing the built-in voice dialling feature, a camera launch button and a button that turns on the screen backlight if it automatically dims. There's also a large five-way navigation lozenge sitting below the screen in standard handheld mode, and to its right in notebook (clamshell) mode. The stylus feels reasonably solid, but it's short and flattened rather than round like most styli or pens. As a result, it does not sit very comfortably in the hand. Annoyingly, the stylus only fits into its slot one way round, and invariably we found ourselves trying the wrong way first. O2 provides a spare stylus along with a USB cable for wired data synchronisation, a slip-style protective case and a stereo headset. We were not able to make voice calls to our pre-production device, so we can't comment on the quality here; both music and video sound were fine, although the maximum volume isn't all that high.
The Xda Exec is not only a tri-band GSM/GPRS phone, but -- uniquely for a handheld at the moment -- it also has 3G support. This provides wide-area wireless connectivity at up to 384Kbps downstream, allowing more sophisticated mobile applications to be deployed than with a 2.5G connection. Voice and video calling are both managed through the same dialler interface, with tappable icons for tweaking the video call windows. Software is provided that allows you to set up the Xda Exec as a 3G modem for use with a notebook PC, for example. Local- and personal-area wireless connectivity is present in the shape of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (1.2) respectively This plethora of wireless connectivity options makes the Xda Exec an ideal candidate for a Voice over IP (VoIP) handset. For obvious reasons O2 does not bundle a VoIP client, but you should have no problem downloading a client or integrating with any office systems that support VoIP on Windows Mobile handhelds. The Xda Exec runs Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5.0, and is the first handheld we've seen running this recently released OS. Among its advances are a new application, PowerPoint Mobile, for viewing presentations and enhanced versions of Word and Excel -- now called Word Mobile and Excel Mobile. For business users, the most exciting Windows Mobile 5.0 development is Direct Push Technology, which keeps your email and PIM data up to date over the air; however, for this you'll need the forthcoming Messaging and Security Feature Pack for Windows Mobile 5.0 and Service Pack 2 for Microsoft Exchange Server 2003. The user interface has been tweaked to incorporate a pair of context-sensitive menus that sit at the bottom of the screen. For example, in Word Mobile, one of the menus lets you start a new document; choose this option, or open an existing document, and the same menu then offers View options (show toolbar, wrap text to window and zoom), while the other provides access to a range of formatting, editing and file management services. The screen measures a generous 3.6 in. across the diagonal, and has full VGA (640 x 480 pixel) resolution. Even so, when used in clamshell mode the display feels a bit narrow. Although the right-hand side of the screen is occupied by the navigation button and the video call camera, there's still a fair amount of dead space that could be used to provide more screen width. The video call camera is supplemented by a standard 1.3 megapixel camera whose lens sits on the rear of the device. There is an LED flash with this, but no mirror for framing pictures of yourself. The front (video call) camera has a maximum resolution of 352 by 288 pixels, while the rear camera captures stills at resolutions up to 1,280 by 1,024 pixels (interpolation software can boost the maximum capture resolution to 1,600 by 1,200). The Xda Exec will ship with 128MB of ROM and 64MB of RAM, but because our pre-production review model did not have this memory configuration, we were not able to ascertain the exact amount of user-accessible storage. O2 suggests that there will be around 44MB of non-volatile ROM and 50MB of RAM available for storing data and programs. The processor is Intel’s XScale PXA270 running at 520MHz. The O2 Active interface -- a Today screen alternative -- has been updated for the Xda Exec, but this was not implemented on our review unit. O2 informs us that the enhancements include a battery icon in the title bar, Power Profiles for notebook-style control over battery life, a custom tab for user-definable icons and the option to install in basic mode so that third-party Today screen software can be used without fear of software incompatibilities.
The screen swivelling mechanism works very well, and the hinge -- a potential point of failure -- feels solid. The ability to close the clamshell with the screen facing inwards provides some protection for the display and the keyboard. However, the device lacks a locking mechanism, so make sure that you use O2's bundled slip case to prevent it coming open when rattling around in a briefcase or bag. O2 claims battery life of 5-8 hours' talk, 2-4 hours' 3G usage, 15 hours in handheld mode and 220-250 hours on standby. However, we did not feel it appropriate to carry out our usual battery rundown test on a pre-production model to test these claims. The QWERTY keyboard is a central part of this device but, as with all mini-keyboards, it has its drawbacks. The keys are small -- a shade under 10mm by 9mm -- and while it's possible to use them in conventional notebook mode, you won’t achieve anything like normal typing speeds this way. However, it's fine for tapping out emails and short texts, and we found it quite convenient to hold the Xda Exec in two palms and type with two thumbs.