A full five months after it was originally announced, HP has finally managed to ship production units of the iPAQ 210 Enterprise handheld, a very high-end device loaded with features, like a VGA screen and dual memory card slots.
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Before I begin the review in earnest though, a few notes. The first is practically boilerplate by now: The device reviewed here is the iPAQ 210. The exact same device is sold through other retail channels as the iPAQ 211, and internationally as the iPAQ 212 in Asia/Pacific, and as the iPAQ 214 in Europe. All these models are physically the same, though international versions may vary in languages and other regional settings.
Second note: You'll see a few comparisons in this review to the older Dell Axim X51v and Palm TX models. These have been the two reigning champions of the high-end handheld space, and many of the people contemplating the iPAQ 210 own one or another of them. Or in my case, both.
Now, on to the good parts.
Table of Contents
Though it shares a resemblance to both the smaller iPAQ 110 and the Axim X51v, the iPAQ 210 isn't as close to those two devices in design as you might initially think. Rather than their rounded edges and very organic design, the 210 has a more typical boxy and squared-off styling.
This isn't to say that the 210 is uncomfortable to hold, but it doesn't just snug itself into your hand the way the other units do. By the same virtue, though, it doesn't resemble at all its nominal predecessor, the iPAQ hx4700, HP's last device with a VGA screen.
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The front of the casing is high-gloss black plastic, which is pretty to look at, but is also fairly easy to smudge up with fingerprint oils and the like. Fortunately, the smudges don't show too well under average light, so you shouldn't be consigned to perpetually wiping the thing down. I'd have preferred a flat black, but this works.
The back of the casing is flat black, a material identical to that on the back of the smaller iPAQ 110: slightly smudgy, but more resistant to both taking and letting go of smudges than the glossy front. It has an ever-so-faint rubbery texture about it.
For being such a feature-packed device, the external design of the iPAQ is pretty simple. Below the screen are four front buttons plus the directional pad, the inner two buttons being dedicated to the Start menu and OK/close buttons. These aren't remappable; the calendar and messaging buttons are. You can also assign a second function to each of the programmable buttons, which is triggered by pressing and holding them. Personally, I assigned the left and right softkeys as the main functions of these two buttons, giving reasonably full one-handed use of the device.
Left and right, we find the voice recorder button -- also remappable -- and the tiny reset button. As I said, simple.
The upper right corner of the facing side houses the power button, power and wireless LEDs, and the light sensor--more on that later. The power button is flush to the edge of the front bezel: easy to hit on purpose, almost impossible to hit by accident.
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The stylus is pretty nice. I was afraid HP was going to stick us with a twig, but it wasn't that foolish. It's a nice solid metal-barrel affair that fits snugly into its silo without being too hard to get out.
The battery cover is a simple snap-on plate; no latch, no spring-loaded sensor, etcetera. It's a little difficult to pry off, but I found that the best method is to get your fingernails (or a suitable instrument) into the crack at the top and just gently pry down. Pops off every time. On the bright side, this means that there's no battery latch to malfunction later on. The battery is a broad, flat affair, adding very little thickness when you consider its whopping capacity. More on that later. HP also offers an extended battery with greater capacity. I didn't get one of these to test, but I'd anticipate it adding about another 0.2 of an inch to the thickness of the device.
Despite weighing a hefty 6.8 ounces, this iPAQ doesn't actually feel that heavy in the hand. Maybe it's the fact that the weight is spread out over a slightly larger device, or the way that it's evenly balanced, but holding it in one hand and my Axim in the other, they feel like they weigh the same, despite the iPAQ's 0.8 ounce premium.
Overall I feel good about the build quality. While it's true that HP has ditched the iPAQ hx4700's magnesium casing in favor of basic plastic, I don't consider this a major flaw. The plastic doesn't flex or bend, and it doesn't feel like it's about to give way any time soon.
Truthfully, the main thing that I'd change about the design isn't the casing itself, but I'd love to add a jog dial of some kind, or even a simple rocker button, to the side of the thing to make reading easier on the user. While the directional pad isn't bad, it would be nice to have the option of a side control for holding it in different grips.
By far, one of the biggest features of the 210 is its large screen, no pun intended. With the recent rise of Internet tablets, big screens have made somewhat of a comeback, and the iPAQ is a good example thereof.
Working from memory, the 210's screen seems to be exactly identical to that of the older iPAQ hx4700, right down to the vibrant colors and slightly off-whites. Nothing too noticeable, mind you, except when compared to a laptop LCD. In short, it's a really excellent LCD. The size also gives the VGA resolution plenty of room to show off, rather than feeling cramped. The difference between a 4 inch screen and one measuring 3.5 or 3.7 inches doesn't sound like a lot, but it is. Even just the added 0.3 inches over my Axim makes the difference of turning the Windows Mobile interface suddenly finger-friendly, or at any rate far more so than before.
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Some people wish that Windows Mobile had a zooming web browser the way the iPhone does. I tell you this: with a 4" VGA screen, and Opera Mobile, you don't need it. Witness what the Brighthand home page--a very complex site--looks like in full VGA glory. Not only can you render complicated sites in something pretty close to their original form, but you can still read the text when you're done.
One of the first things to be noticed when you turn the device on is that the touchscreen doesn't react quite like most others. It requires a little more force to register your taps, particularly in the center of the screen. I found this annoying at first, but as I've gotten more used to the device I don't notice it as much anymore. It's basically the difference between having to exert pressure on the screen to register, and it simply responding to contact. After about ten days of use, there are still sometimes points when I have to repeat a tap or the like, but for the most part I've gotten used to it. Either that or it's gotten better with use.
Like many previous iPAQs, the 210 comes with a light sensor that allows the device to automatically adjust its own backlight settings to the ambient brightness. In practice, I found this to work quite well: even though the auto setting has a tendency to be on the low-end of the scale as far as the screen's potential brightness is concerned, it's more than enough for easy visibility, and if you get into a bright environment it'll track up with you. It's a great way to maximize user comfort and convenience, while also saving battery power whenever possible.
Performance is quite satisfactory: a little lower than a non-VGA device running at the same processor speed, but that's to be expected. In general, though, speeds and response are every bit as good as its 624 MHz of processor speed would indicate. I'm a little surprised that with such a high-end device HP didn't opt to use the 806 MHz PXA320 processor, but I suppose what we don't know we're missing won't hurt us.
What is rather lacking is speaker volume. Even at maximum, it's weaker than I'd like, and combined with the rear-facing location it might require an amplified output if you intend to use it for anything like voice-directed GPS navigation.
The iPAQ 210 runs Windows Mobile 6 Classic -- despite the name, still the most current version of the Windows Mobile operating system. The device doesn't include the as-yet-unreleased Windows Mobile 6.1, but with HP's commitment to a three-year support cycle for the 210, I would be very shocked if we don't see an update that includes 6.1 some time after its release.
And it's not like this handheld needs a new version of the operating system to be useful. The standard suite of Windows Mobile software provides the tools you need to do a wide variety of tasks: access the Web, work with Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint), exchange email messages, watch movies, listen to music, and on and on.
Besides a few of HP's standard options like the iPAQ Today Screen plug-ins, along with Quick Start and Tips guides, the only real non-standard software on the iPAQ is a copy of ClearVue PDF, a ZIP utility (not seen on the program launcher, but there nonetheless) and a printing utility called HP PrintSmart Mobile. While it's nice of HP to include a way to print straight from a file on the device to a Bluetooth or network printer, it would be even nicer if they included one which worked with brands of printers besides HP's own. Even with tweaking, I was unable to get it to play nice with my Lexmark z1420 wireless printer. A real pity, since it seems designed to let you print directly from a variety of common file types.
Like most new devices these days, the 210 ships without the once-traditional copy of Microsoft Outlook on the enclosed CD. If you want to sync to Outlook, you need to provide your own copy. Just to be clear, since there's been some confusion about this: the iPAQ 210 doesn't lack an on-device personal information management suite, nor is Outlook required on the PC to use the device. The standard applications sometimes referred to as "Outlook Mobile" are still on the device, and you can either choose not to synchronize PIM data to the desktop, or sync it to an Outlook alternative using one of the freeware or commercial third-party applications like BirdieSync. All that's missing is a copy of Microsoft Outlook for the desktop.
The biggest software disappointment was with regards to the device's wireless module. If you turn the device off while Wi-Fi is still active, then when you turn it back on it takes a full two to four seconds for the device to wake up again. This is a lot longer than other devices take to start up. The lag is mostly gone if Wi-Fi isn't running, but still, you shouldn't have to manage the wireless radio for the device. Hopefully this will be something that HP addresses in a future ROM update.
Here's where the iPAQ 210 really excels. Let's start with expansion first. Having both a CompactFlash and a separate SDHC card slot allows to this device to use a 32 GB memory card in each slot for a maximum total of 64 GB of storage. Solid state, no hard drive to break, no moving parts. That's so impressive, it almost makes you forget that a 32 GB SDHC card costs nearly as much as the iPAQ itself. If you'll settle for a slightly more mortal amount of memory, though, you can pack in "mere" 32 GB for a much more reasonable $100 pricetag. This is one of those times I feel old, having paid almost $50 for my first 128 MB memory card.
SD and CompactFlash Card Slots
The point, though, is that you do not lack for expansion here. The iPAQ can take more memory than any other handheld device on the market, short of harddrive-based MP3 players.
On to the subject of connectivity. This handheld has the standard 802.11G Wi-Fi, along with Bluetooth 2.0, giving you full access to all the hotspots and headphones your heart could desire. There's only two things lacking from the iPAQ's wireless repertoire: infrared, and wide-area wireless. And to be honest, infrared is a dead standard today.
Somewhat more notable is the lack of a wide-area wireless connection. While not being tied to a cellular carrier means that the iPAQ has that much more freedom with its hardware, it also means that you're limited to Wi-Fi areas for Internet access, or tethering to a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. Personally, this doesn't worry me, but having enjoyed the temptation that is wide-area wireless broadband, I can understand why some people drool over it. Someday I anticipate models like the iPAQ getting their own wireless connection, ala Sprint Xohm, but that day is not today.
The mini-USB plug makes it possible to charge the 210 directly from various cell phone chargers, and from a PC's USB port, but I wouldn't recommend it most of the time. Not because of any danger involved in using a different charger, but because it's slow. Many of these chargers provide under 1000 milliamps of current. The iPAQ's battery has a capacity of 2200 milliamp-hours, meaning to charge it from zero to full with, say, a 500 mA charger would take at least six hours, probably longer. It's better to use a high-capacity option such as the one that HP ships with the device, which provides 2000 mA of output. The mini-USB is best left for emergency charges, or for syncing.
24-Pin Connector and mini-USB Port
Unlike many new devices, though, the mini-USB plug is not the iPAQ's only connective port. Next to it sits a proprietary 24-pin connector. This too allows the user to both sync and charge the device -- in fact, the standard charger and USB sync cable both hook up to the 24-pin rather than the mini-USB. I know some people think this is redundant, but to my mind, the dual-plug setup provides an almost ideal balance: you have the universality of mini-USB, which allows you to find a charger or sync cable almost anywhere if you should need one. At the same time, the 24-pin connector allows for compactly offering other capabilities though add-on cables or cradles.
Now here's the catch, and it's two-fold. First, the connector on the iPAQ 210 is not the same as that on older iPAQs. Scratch all plans you had about being able to re-use existing cables and adapters. This is a whole new beast.
The second catch is a little more nebulous: we don't exactly know what features the 24-pin connector offers other than USB and power input. Serial port? Maybe. Audio out? Perhaps. Unfortunately, without official information from HP, and without having time for the gear-heads among us to disassemble the thing and map it out, a full discussion of the possibilities would be entirely speculative. We just don't know what advantages it offers.
In an attempt to answer this question and more, I turned to what can be considered the only really definitive source: HP's product manager for the iPAQ 210. The communication, relayed through HP's PR firm, was short and only mildly informative. The company was unwilling to part with much in the way of specifications on the connector; no confirmation or denial of serial port capabilities, etcetera. They also noted that since HP is still in the process of developing a cradle for the device, any feature-set for such a cradle hadn't yet been finalized.
Some insight may be found in the documentation on the iPAQ, though. In a file listing tips for the HP "Smart Connector," it's described as being compatible with a number of "docks," including an "Entertainment Dock," "Desk Phone Dock," "Barcode Scanning Dock," and "RFID Tag Reader/Programmer Dock." If HP actually comes out with all the things it's described there, the iPAQ 210 is going to make one hell of an enterprise-level device.
One piece of feature speculation that I must address actually comes directly from HP. At one point, on its web site, and apparently also in the PR materials provided to CNET, HP talked about the iPAQ 210 being able to connect to USB printers and keyboards. This would mean that it had the capability to act as a USB Host (as opposed to a USB device like a hard drive or camera, which needs to be connected to a PC). If this were so, it would open up a wide range of peripherals, both officially supported by HP and not.
If the iPAQ 210 has USB Host or USB On-The-Go (a lightweight version of USB Host for mobile devices), it's not obvious from any of the current marketing materials. It's possible that this capability is in there, and we just don't know how to get at it yet. Or, it may be that the listing of USB OTG was one of several major slip-ups in the marketing and specification data for the 210. This has not been a smooth launch.
To answer this, I once again turned to the iPAQ 210's Product Manager. When asked whether the iPAQ 210 had either USB Host or USB On The Go, the response was as follows: "The iPAQ 210 includes USB host only." Jackpot. Presumably, we'll need to wait for cables to become available that will make it accessible, but the existence of USB is a huge plus for the iPAQ, opening up the ability to connect a wide variety of peripherals.
The 2200 milliamp-hour cell in the iPAQ 210 is, not to put too fine a point on it, the largest standard battery available on any handheld device on the market today. Period. Even the biggest smartphone batteries don't rival this. So naturally, I abused the hell out of it. Hey, why not? And I can tell you this: the average battery life on the 210 is superb. More than once I inadvertently left Wi-Fi running in the background without noticing, and one charge of the battery will last you through days of average use.
High Drain Test
Hey, everybody wants to know how the thing performs under pressure, right? So I cooked up just about the meanest battery test I could imagine: streaming high-quality video from my Slingbox over Wi-Fi, taxing both the processor and the wireless module constantly for the duration. Brightness was set at 50%. Under these conditions, the iPAQ lasted for 3 hours and 28 minutes before dropping. Doesn't sound like a lot, until you realize that this sort of double-drain testing has felled other devices in well under 2 hours.
Casual Use Test
To test a more realistic level of usage for most people, I again stuck the brightness at 50%, and went about somewhat less demanding tasks, reflective of the level of use you'd see in reading, basic organization, use of Office documents, and generally most activities not Wi-Fi intensive. Bluetooth was left on for the duration, just for good measure. Here's where the battery capacity starts to show off: the device ran for 7 hours and 57 minutes. That's pretty much a workday using the 210 continuously. And I suspect that if you tweaked down the brightness, you could hit ten hours here without too much difficulty.
So how does it perform on wireless when you're not out specifically to kill the battery with constant activity? Say, when you're using it for moderate web browsing, or checking of email, or transmission of some other kind of data? That's what I wanted to find out too. To do this I cranked Wi-Fi on and started motoring. Nothing too massive, just some average browsing, Google Maps usage, etcetera, simulating "real world" Wi-Fi use. Under these conditions, the iPAQ lasts about 5 hours of continuous use. This is a little bit of a projection, since I didn't want to spend the full 5 hours web browsing on the thing, but it's pretty reliable.
I also considered doing a music test, measuring how long the iPAQ would play MP3s with the screen off. I decided not to do it, since it would probably take a full 18 to 24 hours out of my review period. I, personally, wouldn't worry about the jukebox performance.
It's not perfect, but for those who are looking for either a solid device that combines Internet mini-tablet, video player, and mobile office, or who seek a high-end enterprise device, the iPAQ 210 is hard to beat. It's got great specifications, a beautiful screen, and the biggest standard battery you can find anywhere, giving you a lot of options for whatever you want to do with it. A few of the design choices leave me vexed, but none of these are what I would call a deal killer.
With a suggested retail price of $450, and street price currently around $390, this device isn't cheap. There are even sub-notebooks like the Asus Eee available for under its price. But what you can't do with those is slip them in your pocket. The iPAQ 210 provides more power and flexibility than pretty much anything else its size, and it does so with style.
A very solid new owner of the high-end handheld space, and a worthy contender for those seeking either entertainment or business use.
|Processor:||624 MHz Marvell XScale PXA310 with hardware video decoding|
|Operating System:||Windows Mobile 6 Classic (Pocket PC)|
|Display:||4.0 inch, 640 x 480 touchscreen LCD|
|Memory:||128 MB RAM; 256 MB flash (185 MB available)|
|Size and Weight:||5.0 inches long x 3.0 inches wide x 0.63 inches wide; 6.8 ounces|
|Expansion:||CompactFlash slot; SD slot with SDHC and SDIO support|
|Docking:||24-pin iPAQ connector; Mini-USB connector|
|Communication:||802.11b/g Wi-Fi (supports WPA2); Bluetooth 2.0/EDR|
|Audio:||Internal microphone and speaker; secondary VoIP speaker; 3.5mm headphone jack|
|Battery:||2200 mAh replaceable Lithium Ion; optional 4400 mAh extended battery|
|Input:||Touchscreen; 5-way directional pad; 3 remappable application buttons|
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