Review – Dell Axim X3

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When the original Dell Axim X5 debuted about 11 months ago, it stuck new price points and won supporters and detractors the world over. Love it or hate it, Dell’s PocketPC made a tremendous splash, capturing a third of the PocketPC market in ten months. Since then, Dell has been curiously silent, not following up on their success for almost a year. Now their newest PocketPC the Dell Axim X3 is here, and it’s living up to expectations.

X3 compare

Left: Axim X5. Right, Axim X3

The Axim X3 comes in three different configurations.  The first configuration, selling for $229, has a 300 MHz processor, 32 MB of RAM, and 32 MB of ROM. This model has 2.8 MB of free flash memory, and comes with a USB sync cable.

The second configuration has a 400 MHz processor, 64 MB RAM, 64 MB ROM, and retails for $329. It has 34.8 MB of the ROM available to the user, and it comes with a USB cradle.

The third configuration has a 400 MHz processor, 64 MB RAM, 64 MB ROM, and built in 802.11b WiFi wireless networking. This one retails for $379. Like the other 400, the wireless X3i (as Dell calls it) has 34.8 MB free flash and a sync cradle. For ease of reference, I am going to designate these as the X3 Basic, Advanced, and Elite configurations.

The X3 is styled quite differently from the X5, and looks something like a cross-breeding of an Axim and a Toshiba. The buttons are the same, but otherwise the X3 is almost unrecognizible as an Axim. Take this as a good thing or a bad thing as you will, depending on whether or not you liked the original Axim’s style.

The largest portion of the case is silver plastic, highly reminiscent in texture and quality of the plastic casing of the X5. The black trim around the edges is not rubberized, unlike the X5–instead, it’s lightweight black plastic with a very slight non-slip texturing. Personally I prefer the rubber sides of the X5, but as it goes the compromise isn’t bad.

Under stress testing, the X3’s case did show noticible flexing. It wasn’t severe, and no damage resulted, but the thin casing may be a little more suceptible to damage than the older Axim. I personally wouldn’t feel as comfortable abusing the X3 as I do my X5. Granted, the original Axim has an excellent reputation for surviving beatings, and hopefully that will hold up with its progeny, but the X3 still feels more delicate.

X3 Top

From the top of the X3 you see, left to right: stylus, wireless antenna, SD slot, and infrared port. The X3’s stylus is exactly identical to that of the X5. I’ve heard the Axim’s stylus referred to unfavorably as a ‘skinny metal fish’. Personally, I prefer the Axim’s slightly flattened aluminum stylus to a thicker one of plastic, but some people are simple not comfortable with a non-round stylus.

The wireless antenna is present only on the Elite version of the Axim X3. It’s made of mildly transparent grey plastic, and it flashes blue to indicate wireless activity. The light is pretty inoffensive, except maybe to the most conservative business users. The SD slot is pretty typical.

The IR port, in addition to standard Serial InfraRed communication, or SIR, is also equipped with a high-power infrared transmitter, allowing it to function as a universal remote control. More on that under Remote.

X3 left

The headphone jack has been relocated to the left hand side of the X3, which it shares with the jog dial. I’ve always been fond of the lever-type jog dial on the Axim X5, because you can hold it down and continue to scroll without readjusting your fingers. I’ve also used the wheel-types, and I’ve never been comfortable with continually cranking the wheel. So it was to my great pleasure that the X3 uses a lever-type control, and my even greater pleasure to see what Dell has done to it. They’ve thickened the lever portion by a factor of two, eliminating the problem that the X5 has with the dial wobbling back and forth. The overall motion feels firmer than the X5, and the ‘action’ button is smoother to press. The action button has also lost its click, which is not entirely a bad thing–the X5’s jog dial can click so loud you swear you’ve broken something.

X3 back

My one gripe about the jog dial actually relates not to the dial but to the case around it. On the back of the X3 there is a ridge along the spot where the jog dial resides. Because of this, it’s harder to arrange my fingers to be comfortable using the jog dial with a finger on my right hand. After reading on the X3 for awhile, I tend to end up missing the curvy, easy to hold sides of my X5.

X3 buttons

The directional pad has always been one of the most common failings of the X5. Many didn’t work right, and even those that did were lackluster in their feel. Fortunately, the X3’s d-pad has been completely redesigned. The pad is now elliptical, and the center-press button is seperate from the directional ring. And the new design feels great. Paging, scrolling through icons, even games feel great with the new pad. The only way I could be happier with it is if the pad were round, rather than oblong.

Rather than the four standard application buttons, the X3 actually sports six. Three buttons sit on either side of the directional pad, two of standard Axim type and one of a new curved edge style. The rightmost is by default set to toggle wireless on and off on the Elite, or to launch Media Player on the Basic and Advanced.

Hardware

Processor: 300 MHz or 400 MHz Intel XScale PXA263

Operating System:

Windows Mobile 2003
Display: 3.5″ 240 x 320 pixel 16-bit color transreflective LCD
Memory: 32 or 64 MB RAM, 32 or 64 MB flash ROM
Size & Weight:

4.6″ long x 0.55″ thick x 3″ wide, 142 grams (5 ounces)

Expansion: SD card slot supporting SDIO
Docking: 22-pin docking connector for USB sync cable or optional cradle
Communication: Integrated 802.11b WiFi wireless networking
Audio: 3.5mm headphone jack, monaural internal speaker
Battery:

950 mAh Lithium-Ion battery, optional 1800 mAh extended battery

Input:

6 remappable application buttons, 5-way d-pad, jog dial, touchscreen

Software: IA Presenter, Acrobat Reader for PocketPC, Resco Picture Viewer, Self-Diagnostic Utility

Processor

The X3 uses an Intel XScale PXA263 processor. The PXA263 is basically a PXA255 with onboard flash memory. Performance on everything was very snappy. Even better are the benchmarks. Using SPB Benchmark, the Axim X3 got an index score of 1177. In comparison, SPB’s stock index score for the famously speedy iPaq 2215 is 1146. Compared against existing results, the only PocketPC that beat the X3 was the current champion Asus A620.

X3 index graph

Axim X3 CPU graph

X3 file system graph

X3 graphics comparison

 

Operating System

There’s nothing particulaly remarkable about the X3’s copy of Windows Mobile 2003. The applet that allows you to select processor speed is the same. The Dell SwitcherBar application has changed a little. Instead of three icons in a row in the title bar, it now places only one there. To access the battery and backlight screens, you need to tap the icon then select them from a menu. Personally, I preferred the old style Switcher Bar with seperate icons, but that’s a nitpick.

 

Display

X3 screen

Left, Dell Axim X3. Right, Dell Axim X5.

The X3’s display is quite nice. It may not be in the most extreme upper eschelon of displays, but it is definitely bright, clear, white, and vivid.

Memory

The X3 Basic features 32 MB of RAM, 32 MB of ROM. Almost none of the Basic’s ROM is available, but what is there is user accessible. The Advanced and Elite Axims have a full 64 MB of RAM, 64 MB flash ROM, of which almost 35 MB is available. I say the more flash memory the better–it is a simple and efficient way to increase internal Storage without the decreased standby life caused by increased RAM. RAM quantities are fairly standard.

Size & Weight

For having built-in WiFi, the X3 really is remarkably strong and light. It is 4.6″ long x 0.53″ thick x 3″ wide, and weighs 142 grams, or 5 ounces. While it technically measures 0.55 inches thick, this is at one particularly thick part of the case–overall, the X3 is closer to 0.52 thick. The length increases a little if you include the wireless antenna on the Elite, which adds 0.2″ to the length, making it 4.8 inches long. Adding the high-capacity battery increases the thickness to about .7″ in certain areas. Any way you measure it, it’s still a tiny wonder.

Expansion

For expansion, the X3 features one SDIO-enabled SD card slot, the standard on thin-and-light PocketPCs. No CompactFlash this time, but with WiFi most people have one less reason to need it.

Docking

The X3 uses a 22-pin docking connector for its USB sync cable/cradle, a deviation from the X5’s 40-pin connector. Obviously, due to the changed size and pin count, peripherals and cables for the X5 will not be compatible with the X3. Fortunately, unlike many of its competitors in the thin-and-light segment, the X3 retains the ability to use a keyboard, and one will be available from Dell. Serial port capabilities of the X3 are unknown. Also noteworthy, the new connector is designed for use with locking cables–that is to say, if you connect the Dell sync cable to the X3, you have to press two buttons on the sides of the cable before removing it. This is very welcome, as the X5 tended to let cables simply fall off.

The X3 lacks a DC power jack, instead connecting the power adapter into the sync cable. Also included is a small cable that connects a barrel-tpye DC power jack directly to the X3’s sync port, so that you can still use chargers without hauling around the sync cable.

Communication

To compare wireless performance, I carried around the X3 Elite and my X5, which uses a high-power 100 milliWatt CompactFlash WiFi card. The Elite’s antenna did not perform quite as well as the card, but this is hardly surprising given that the 100 mW card is as powerful as you can get on a PocketPC. Range and signal strength were both lower, and the Elite was more easily disconnected by ‘noise’ signals, such as microwave ovens, than my X5 with card. Still, overall range was quite adequate, and speed was great.

Gold star bonus for Dell: They included a really wonderful WiFi sniffer/network analysis program with the X3. Signal strength, signal quality, networks available, ESSIDs, everything a dedicated WiFi user could want for looking at the wireless area.

Audio

The X3 has the usual complement of audio hardware, with about the usual quality. The speaker is a little bit louder–the headphone volume is a lot louder, significantly above the X5. Very nice. Otherwise, nothing remarkable.

Battery

Frankly, I’m not sure how much value battery tests will have on the X3. It has such a dizzying array of power saving options, including WiFi performance, brightness, processor speed, etcetera that to run down and test all the combinations would take weeks. So, these tests are less of an actual standard and more minimal guidelines. Also, when Dell sent me the X3, they were also nice enough to include one of the 1800 milliamp-hour extended batteries, so I’ve included tests on that.

X3 high-capacity battery

References to WiFi don’t apply to the X3 Basic and Advanced editions.

High drain WiFi test: WiFi enabled, maximum performance, brightness on maximum, processor on auto, periodically loading web pages via WiFi.

Standard battery: Approx. 3.5 hours

Extended battery: Approx. 6.5 hours

Medium drain test: Brightness on medium, processor on auto, playing MP3s

Standard battery: 4 hours, 10 minutes

High-drain test: Brightness on maximum, processor on auto, playing MP3s

Standard battery: 3 hours, 17 minutes

Extended battery: 6 hours, 38 minutes

All in all I found the X3’s battery life to be quite reasonable for a thin-and-light PocketPC with WiFi. In ordinary use, with the backlight at a reasonable setting, I don’t see any problem with getting 5 hours out of the X3 easily. Surely, even the extended battery won’t entirely sate the power-hungry, but for most it seems acceptable.

 

Input

Not much to say here. I’ve already raved about the new jog lever and directional pad. The buttons are all satisfactory, and the Touchscreen is excellent.

Software

At first glance Dell’s software bundle for the X3 seemed very impressive. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, almost all the software in it is trial versions. The only non-trial software included with the X3 is IA Presenter, Acrobat Reader for PocketPC, Resco Picture Viewer, and a Dell self-diagnostic utility for the X3. Trials include Agenda Fusion, ListPro, TinyStocks, McAfee VirusScan, Jeode JVM, Resco File Explorer, HandyZIP, WordLogic Keyboard, TotalRemote, Handmark Monopoly, Handmark Scrabble, ZIOGolf 2, Full Hand Casino, Tennis Addict, eWallet, CityTime, and TripTracker.

It is a little bit of a shame that Dell didn’t include more full software than they did. Some of the things they offered trials for would be perfect for the X3–obviously, TotalRemote is practically a neccessity for the infrared remote functions, and Resco Explorer, with its network browsing and ZIP decompression, would be an ideal complement to the Elite’s WiFi.

Remote

The X3 features a high-power infrared port, designed for use as a programmable, learning universal remote control. I find this to be marginally useful, since I prefer tactile feedback for my remote control commands, but it is an interesting plaything and potentially useful for when you’ve lost your remotes. Range is at least 15 feet–beyond that point I couldn’t tell if the signal was not hitting the target or if I was out of range.

 

Conclusion

The Axim X3 is perfectly typical Dell strategy: one shot straight through the underserved market segment. Thin-and-light models have been without good WiFi options for a long time, and it’s good to see Dell offering an affordable option there. Even if the X3 doesn’t fill your particular requirements, it does show that Dell is on the move again, which can only be good for everyone–even diehard iPaq fans should welcome the competition. For what it is, the X3 is also very nice in both design and execution: a lightweight nano-laptop for the home user who wants email and websurfing, or for the size-conscious mobile worker.

 

Pros:

  • Thin and light
  • Great directional pad and jog dial
  • Built-in WiFi
  • Optional extended battery
  • Excellent software package

Cons:

  • Heavy WiFi use eats battery
  • Sync port not compatible with X5

Bottom Line:

Dell’s reentry into the market can only bring good things, even if you’re not interested in their thin-and-light wireless wonder. The X3 fills a niche that was empty before, and it does it superbly.

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