- Combines productivity, communications and PIM tools in a single device
- keyboard is good for email and short notes
- superb VGA-resolution screen
- Relatively bulky and heavy
- awkward when handling voice calls
- limited range of third-party software
Mobile professionals are forever seeking the Holy Grail of portable computing: always-on, high-speed data connection; a screen big enough and with high enough resolution to allow serious data viewing; and a keyboard capable of proper data entry. All this, crucially, needs to be packed into a pocketable device. So does Vodafone’s Power Handheld, the latest offering to target all these goals, hit the back of the net?
The Power Handheld, a Vodafone-branded device based on a BSQUARE reference design, runs Windows CE .NET 4.1 and incorporates a dual-band GSM phone with GPRS data connectivity. The visual interface is a 640-by-480-pixel display that measures 4in. diagonally from corner to corner. If you are used to any other handheld, then this device's 290g weight and 14cm by 8.7cm by 1.95cm dimensions will seem slightly excessive. However, this is the price you pay for the large screen and keyboard. The keyboard is probably the Power Handheld's star feature. It slides out from the bottom edge of the casing, and provides a QWERTY arrangement of well spaced -- if somewhat small -- keys. The idea is that you can use this to do something close to real typing. The Power Handheld is designed to be used in landscape format, so the various shortcut buttons around its edges have their icons oriented towards this view. There are five buttons on the right-hand side, four of which take you to applications -- the Today screen, the built-in Web browser, the messaging software and the voice call dialler. The fifth button ends voice calls. The left-hand side of the casing houses a joypad with the selector in the centre, a back button and a zoom button, which lets you zoom into an area of the screen. Also on the left edge is the power button and volume control buttons. On the top edge are two further buttons -- called ‘triggers’ in the manual -- that can be used to tab through selections or make menu choices. That's a lot of buttons, and we inevitably found ourselves accidentally tapping one or other during the test period. Your SIM card sits in a slot on the upper edge of the casing, where it is perhaps vulnerable to theft, but at least it can be easily removed if you want to switch to a small pocket-sized phone. Nearby sits an SD card slot. In the box, as well as the hardware itself, you get a headset for handsfree voice calls and a docking cradle. You don’t have to use the headset, but we found it preferable to holding the somewhat bulky Power Handheld to an ear. The docking cradle is pretty much a must for desktop synchronisation in the office, as the Power Handheld lacks both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (although infrared is provided). The cradle is a monster -- the largest we have ever seen. It comprises a flat panel with a slightly larger footprint than the Power Handheld itself that sits at an angle of about 45 degrees raised from desk level by a stand. At its top edge, it's 11cm above desk level. This arrangement gives you a clear view of the Power Handheld’s screen, although because the tilt angle is fixed you'll need to adjust the location of the docking station on the desk to provide the optimum viewing angle. You certainly won’t want to carry the docking cradle between locations very often, so you may need to purchase a sync/charge cable.
The Power Handheld's 400MHz PXA250 XScale processor, 128MB of RAM and 32MB of additional Flash storage seem adequate for the corporate user, who is the target for this device. Contact and diary data will inevitably be bulked out with email attachments, and the Flash area provides a safe place for storing crucial data. The SD card slot allows for external backup away from the office and access to additional data -- and maybe, in time, to SDIO hardware add-ons. The choice of CE .NET as the operating system was apparently made because of its ease of integration with existing corporate back-office systems. However this, and the 640 x 480 screen, means that third-party software is in short supply and applications written for the Pocket PC operating system are by no means guaranteed to run. The idea is that corporates will write their own software, probably based around the .NET Compact Framework, Macromedia's Flash or Java (the pJava Java Virtual Machine is built in). With this in mind, it's just as well that there is no shortage of on-board software. Core applications include Outlook-compatible Calendar and Contacts tools, a Phone Center, MSN Instant Messaging, SMS Messaging, Pocket Word, Internet Explorer 5.5, Windows Media Player, BSQUARE's (Excel-compatible) Spreadsheet, a file viewer and, of course, Solitaire plus Freecell. There are encryption services to protect data, RDP plus PPTP and IPSec VPN clients, and you can create password-protected ZIP archives, and set up strong passwords. ActiveSync handles data sharing with a desktop system. The Today screen is customisable and can show upcoming appointments, unopened messages and a range of applications for quick launch: it even has a mini-taskbar that delivers the date and time, and icons showing battery power and radio signal strength. And there is a Start Button that, when tapped, opens a menu whose look will be familiar to any Windows XP user. The screen is touch sensitive, but the stylus, for all the money spent on hardware development, is a small and lightweight affair with a flimsy feel. As a connected device, the Power Handheld can be set to poll for emails at user-defined intervals, or you can simply download them as required.
In use, the Power Handheld delivered a mixed experience. It was rather large to carry around, and we hope that the next version of the device is thinner, smaller and lighter. The keyboard worked pretty well for typing emails, although longer documents proved to be more of a struggle. An external keyboard you can touch type on would be useful. With no handwriting recognition, you need to be able to get on with the keyboard, so try before you buy. The screen is superb: clear, bright and pin-sharp. Viewing Web pages while on the move is one of the real joys of the Power Handheld, and companies that deliver information via Web interfaces or use Web-based forms for data capture may find this very appealing. We’d like to be able to rotate the device to portrait mode for a few tasks, though. Voice calls were tricky to manage, though: you either have to hold the device to your ear, which is rather ungainly, or use handsfree mode, which may not always be in position when a call comes in. Built-in Bluetooth might solve this problem, if you're prepared to wear a Bluetooth headset. The plethora of buttons around the casing makes the Power Handheld difficult to handle at times. On many occasions we accidentally pressed the wrong button -- at the very least, a Hold button might be a good idea next time around. Battery life is difficult to test adequately with this type of device, as usage patterns are likely to vary considerably. As a compromise, we turned the phone off and left the screen permanently on, looping MP3s. With this configuration, we got 3 hours and 14 minutes of life -- not a dissimilar result to many ordinary handhelds. On several occasions we managed to get a full day's use without running out of power, and would anticipate ‘average’ real-world usage to require a recharge every other day.