T-Mobile MDA Compact III

  • Editors' rating
    7.5 Very good

Pros

  • Built-in GPS receiver
  • Option to buy with CoPilot navigation software
  • Excellent mini-trackball and wheel
  • FM radio

Cons

  • Lacks Wi-Fi
  • No flash for camera
  • Awkwardly located memory expansion slot

T-Mobile’s MDA range of connected handhelds now includes the MDA Compact III, which is the first from a UK network operator with a built-in GPS receiver. Hot on its heels, O2 has announced the very similar Xda Orbit (both devices are versions of HTC's P3300). T-Mobile continues its long-standing relationship with navigation specialist ALK, and the MDA Compact III is available from free to £249.99 with ALK’s CoPilot navigation software and from free to £159.99 (inc. VAT) without it.

Design

The 160g MDA Compact III is no lightweight — it weighs more than most mobile phones, for example, which tend to hover around the 100g mark. Nevertheless, at 58mm by 108mm by 16mm, it feels more comfortable in the hand than many older handhelds. These days, large-screen handhelds are fast becoming as portable and ergonomic to use as regular mobile phones.

The screen has a conventional 240-by-320 pixel resolution, although we’d prefer something finer than that. The 2.8in. display delivers plenty of viewing area, though, and T-Mobile has put a tappable icon that flips it in and out of landscape mode on the Windows Mobile Today screen. This only flips clockwise into landscape and counter-clockwise back to portrait, so left-handers will feel short-changed.

The button area below the screen has been given a twist — quite literally. Where we would normally find a navigation pad and central select button, there is a combination of a wheel and a mini-trackball.

The latter is reminiscent of the trackball on the new BlackBerry Pearl. It's illuminated by a blue backlight when touched, and can be used to scroll through on-screen information in multiple directions.

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You can opt to use ‘mouse mode’, which puts a cursor on-screen that you can move around with the mini-trackball, pressing to ‘click’. This sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice we found it a little awkward; generally, tapping at the touch screen provides a greater degree of precision with less hassle. Nonetheless, the mini-trackball feels very comfortable to use.

The wheel is a metal circle reminiscent of the scrollers found on portable music players such as SanDisk’s Sansa e200 series. You twist it clockwise or anti-clockwise to scroll down or up. This also feels comfortable to use.

There are eight buttons surrounding this trackball/wheel combo. Call, End and two softmenu buttons are accompanied by one that activates the Windows Mobile Start menu and another that acts as an ‘OK’ or back button. The other two buttons start up the GPS software and link you directly into T-Mobile’s Web’n’Walk services.

The long edges of the device contain strips of silver metal that set off the mostly grey casing and house a few controls. On the right-hand side is the on/off button and a button that accesses the built-in camera; on the left-hand side there's a volume rocker and a button that on a short press runs the voice speed dial software, and on a longer press lets you make voice recordings.

The MDA Compact III is supplied with a belt-clip carrying case, a USB cable, a stereo headset and ActiveSync PC connectivity software.

Features

The MDA Compact III is a quad-band GSM phone with GPRS. It's powered by a 201MHz OMAP850 processor with 128MB of ROM and 64MB of RAM. Memory can be expanded using microSD cards. Our review unit came with the CoPilot navigation software on a microSD card, and with this installed we had 36MB of storage memory free.

The microSD card is not our favourite format for augmenting built-in : the cards are small and fiddly to handle, and are easily dropped. It's unlikely that you'll want to swap cards very often on the MDA Compact III, though, as you have to remove both the battery and the SIM card — the slot is under the SIM.

On the back of the device is the lens for the built-in 2-megapixel camera, which has a self-portrait mirror below it. The camera software has been intelligently implemented: press the side button to activate the camera and the screen becomes a viewfinder, with icons ranged around its top and bottom giving access to settings. It's straightforward to change image resolution, use filters for different lighting conditions, set up the self timer and so on.

The MDA Compact III has Bluetooth but not Wi-Fi, which is a major failing in our view. Wi-Fi is now a vital ingredient of handheld computing, providing internet connectivity via office networks and public hotspots. T-Mobile may be concerned about the use of Wi-Fi for voice communications, but we feel that the company has hampered the device by excluding Wi-Fi from the feature set.

On the other hand, the presence of an FM radio is something of a rarity. You have to use the provided headset as the radio antenna, which is normal for handhelds and mobile phones with integrated FM radio. The headset uses the same mini-USB connector as the mains power and PC connectivity cables. We would have liked the option to plug a headset with a 3.5mm jack, as we find in-ear buds such as those provided by T-Mobile are uncomfortable. However, this is not possible.

The MDA Compact III comes with the ClearVue reader for PDF documents and a Zip file manager preinstalled alongside the usual Windows Mobile 5.0 software bundle.

There is an option under the Settings menu to configure the Windows Mobile ‘X’ button to close applications either with a tap or a tap and hold. The Windows Mobile convention is that this button simply minimises applications, leaving the user to free up memory every so often by closing running applications in a batch. Plenty of third-party applications offer this functionality, but it's welcome that T-Mobile has chosen to offer it out of the box.

Performance & battery life

Battery life was pretty impressive: we played music through a microSD card non-stop with the screen forced to stay on and got 9 hours 25 minutes of music. This bodes quite well for anyone wanting to use the MDA Compact III for a few days away from mains power — including those looking for GPS-assisted navigation outside of a vehicle.

We are nonplussed by the absence of Wi-Fi, and feel that the MDA Compact III could have benefited from being a 3G device. Hopefully, these features will appear next time around.

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