Review – HP iPaq 5550/5555

by Reads (77,307)

Note: This is a review of both the iPaq 5550 and 5555, which are essentially the same unit, and differ only in software bundle, location of sale, internal tracking, or insert-HP-story-of-the-week-here. Truthfully, nobody is really sure what’s different about them, and that seems to include HP customer service reps. So in other words, don’t worry about about which to buy. The model number isn’t even marked on the case, so what does it matter?

Most of this review also applies to the iPaq 5150/5155. The 5150 is similar to the 5550, except that it has only 64 MB of memory and 32 MB ROM; no WiFi; no fingerprint scanner; less weight (6.6 ounces, compared to 7.2); and a slight redesign around the directional pad. Otherwise, everything still applies, including the integrated Bluetooth.

Box

Included in the iPaq’s box are the following:

One high-end-standard iPaq cradle

One AC adapter, 5 volts 2000 milliamps

One DC plug adapter

One Lithium-Ion-Polymer rechargable battery

One Software CD

One vinyl holster

One iPaq 5550

The cradle is the same exact type as has been used on the high-end iPaqs since the 3800 series. It’s construction is of light plastic, with a DC jack at the rear, and a non-removable cable that ends in both USB and serial connectors. It’s a nice touch for those still on Windows NT, or using serial for some other reason, but it does have a tendancy to create a little more clutter having the extra connector behind your PC. Inserting and removing the iPaq from the cradle is a finicky operation, requiring that you have it properly lined up to slide into the grooves. I don’t like the cradle, mostly for this reason, and I’d much rather ditch it and sync via WiFi or Bluetooth. It shouldn’t be work to put your handheld in it’s cradle.

The AC adapter is a fairly typical two-part brick design, rated at 5 volts and 2000 milliamps of current. It uses the standard size of jack for PocketPCs, and is intercompatible with power supplies from other manufacturers, including car supplies and universal adapters.

The DC plug adapter is a small metal and plastic connector which allows you attach the AC adapter directly to the iPaq without the cradle.

The Li-Ion-Poly battery is the exact same size, shape, and capacity as the kind used in the iPaq 5450, so upgraders will be able to keep their spare batteries.

The software bundle is nothing to write home about: Outlook 2002, ActiveSync 3.7 (required, you can’t use 3.6), Audible player, and a free trial of Vindigo. Bah.

Notably absent from the accessories package is the plastic sleeve that used to ship with all the iPaqs, including the 5550’s predecessor, the 5450. Probably good riddence, since it never seemed that useful. I’m all for eliminating cheap, useless bundled junk. Particularly if, such as with the iPaq 5550, you can actually get something useful instead. The iPaq comes with an actual, credible case. Would you believe it? It’s made of black vinyl, textured to resemble leather, which is actually done rather well. True, it’s obviously not leather, but it looks less like vinyl, and it feels good. It’s a holster type, with two cardboard-stiffened vinyl-covered sides held together by elastic on the sides and bottom. The iPaq sits in it horizontally, and another vinyl flap comes bown over the top, snapping on to a magnetic closure buried inside the front of the case. A little above the magnetic closure is two elastic pockets perfectly sized for SD cards. They really are perfectly sized: the cards are easy to remove but hard to lose, they’re protected by a little ridge all around them, and held very safely by the elastic. On the back side is a very durable belt clip that slides on well without being too loose. While it’s base materials may not be the greatest in the world, the case is very well designed, and provides excellent protection for the iPaq. Most users probably wouldn’t need anything else.

 

Case and hardware

The largest part of the case on the 5550 is made of silver plastic. It’s pleasently hard, but not in a style similar to metal–it just feels like hard plastic. The trim is a glossy black plastic–unlike the black plastic trim on some other PocketPCs, this is a real black, rather than a semi-translucent dark purple. The buttons and directional pad are done out in chome, lending them a flashy quality.

Front

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the screen is offset on the face of the iPaq, with the right-hand bezel being significantly wider than the left hand one. It’s a little hard to properly gauge in this photo, since the iPaq is on an angle, but it’s there. This isn’t a defect, it’s just design. I assume that this was done to accomodate the stylus silo. It contributes a bit to the iPaq’s offbalanced look–the screen, buttons, directional pad, and fingerprint scanner are all offset to the left, the same side as the antenna nub and the volume rocker. Depending on your particular aesthetics, the overall style may or may not be a problem for you. I personally considered the 5550 to be extremely ugly, but after using it for a few days, it doesn’t really bother me anymore. This iPaq is centered on features, not style.

Top

On the top, from left to right, is the stylus, IR port, SD slot, and wireless antenna.

The iPaq stylus is very well made as styli go. True, it’s 100% plastic, but the plastic is good quality, it doesn’t bend, and it feels good in the hand. Size is good, and it retains compatibility with the iPaq 3800 through 5400 series styli, so there are a host of replacement options.

Rather than a more common friction-lock system, the iPaq retains it’s predecessors’ spring loaded stylus silo. To remove the stylus, push down on the top nub, then release, and it will pop out. With a little practice, you can pop out the stylus and have it in your hand in one smooth motion. Granted, it doesn’t actually add any value or functionality to the iPaq, but it feels cool.

The infrared port has been downgraded since the 5400 iPaqs. The 5550 no longer supports the high-power IR signals that made it double as a universal remote control–the capability usually called “consumer infrared” or CIR. This of course doesn’t mean that you can’t use the iPaq as a remote control, it just means that your range will be limited.

The SD slot, seen here with a Lexar SD card in it, is a typical SDIO capable slot. It has it’s own little dimple in the casing, making it nice and easy to insert and remove cards. Further discussion of it can be found under Expansion.

The antenna is a small, rubberized bump that houses the iPaq’s wireless transmitter. If you have a sharp fingernail, you can pop off the rubber cap to reveal the actual antenna, a tiny piece of copper wire. I rather like the antenna–I think it looks good, and lends a very high-tech feel to the device. Also, it’s reception is excellent: see Communication.

On the upper left side of the iPaq, there is a rocker button. For those that don’t know, a rocker button is a single-piece button which can be ‘rocked’ in two different directions, allowing you two functions in one button. This particular rocker controls the volume of the iPaq’s audio system. The rocker is a bit loose, and rattles when you tap it, but provides a good solid click when you press it. Just as on the iPaq 5450, these buttons cannot be remapped. It’s a real pity, because despite their slight rattle, they would make a workable alternative to a jog dial. I can only speculate that the volume up/down buttons are a holdover from the time when HP thought that they would be building a GSM/GPRS iPaq phone in the 5000 series. They certainly aren’t that useful on this model, and they have a tendancy to get bumped and jostled. You can also activate the voice recorder with them, but it’s inconvenient since first you have to trigger one of the volume buttons, then hold both down.

Bezel

Pictured here are the functions on the front of the black panel. Left is the status LEDs and photosensor, right is the power button and power LED, and in the center, the speaker. The power button is a normal round bubble type, with a very good tactile response. Pressing it and holding it down for a few seconds toggles the screen’s backlight. The power LED blinks orange while charging, and is solid orange when fully charged. The speaker is of the usual low quality, but is significantly louder than other PDA speakers. The topmost status LED is for WiFi, and blinks green when it’s active. Immediately below that is the Bluetooth LED, which in turn flashes blue to signify activity. The third dot below these two is not an LED at all, but the photosensor. This measures ambient light and lets the iPaq adjust it’s backlight brightness accordingly. All you need do is set the backlight brightness to automatic, and the sensor will take care of the rest. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a very nice feature. Imagine seamlessly roaming from direct sun to deep shadow without ever having to take time out to turn your backlight on and off. Also, it makes a good battery saver, since it only keeps the backlight on as much as neccessary.

The iPaq’s screen has the soft-plastic feel expected on a handheld touchscreen. Texture aside though, the screen is rock hard, so even the pickiest of handwriters should be happy. I’ll cover the screen further under Display.

Buttons

Moving along, we come to the front panel: application buttons, directional pad, and fingerprint scanner.

The only deviation from the usual button arrangement for PocketPCs is the lower right hand button, which is mapped to a small pop up app that lets you adjust settings, switch programs, and adjust your backlight. It’s nice that it has this ability straight out of the box. The buttons feel good, and have a solid click to them. My only complaints are their arrangement, which could make playing some games difficult, and the fact that they are completely rounded, precluding you from pressing one with the stylus tip.

The directional pad is somewhat mixed, but mostly positive. While it doesn’t actually produce an audible or tactile click, it still feels firm and responsive. It’s only flaw is that it is small–very small. The actual pad is smaller than an ordinary dime (for those outside the United States, a dime is the smallest coin used in the U.S.). It only measures 7/16ths of an inch across–meaning that if you have large fingers, you can count on periodically hitting multiple directions.

I will discuss the fingerprint scanner under Other.

Bottom

Left to right: headphone jack, microphone grill, docking and expansion connectors, reset button.

Unlike most PocketPCs, which mount their headphone jacks on top of the case, the 3.5mm plug is on the bottom of the 5550. I’m not particularly fond of this design, for a number of reasons. One, the small ridges on either side of the jack make it very easy to dislodge your plug if it gets rotated to one side or the other. Two, it prevents the use of some varieties of headphones. Three, it forces you to either stow your iPaq upside down when listening to music, or to wrap it in it’s own cables. Four, no headphones while in the cradle. A top mounted jack would be much better.

The microphone performance was barely adequate–audible recording distance is limited to about 18 inches. While this works for voice notes, it renders the iPaq nearly useless as a digital audio recorder.

The sync port (at top) connects to the cradle, and handles USB and serial communication, and charging. The expansion connector attaches to the special sleeves available for the iPaq. Sleeve options include three kinds of expansions slots, in various combinations, additional battery capacity, cellular phone capability, etc..

One word of caution to new buyers. Do not buy the 5550 based primarily on it’s sleeve capability. Although it is a very flexible system, HP is phasing out the sleeves in favor of integrated solutions, meaning that it’s only a matter of time before the sleeves are The 5550’s sleeve compatibility is mainly intended for users of older iPaqs who already have a supply of sleeves, but want to upgrade their machine.

The reset button is an utterly unremarkable plastic dimple. It can be pressed with nearly any pointy object, including the stylus tip.

Conspicuously absent is a DC jack. Until I actually had one in my hands, I had never really noticed that the recent model iPaqs lack the power adapter plug standard on almost all PocketPCs–which is strange if you think about it, since the original iPaqs defined the standard size and input voltage for all newer PocketPCs’ DC jacks. In any event, you can use the DC plug adapter to connect the 5550 straight to the power supply, though it means the hassle of an extra thing to carry.

 

Hardware

 

Processor

400 MHz Intel XScale PXA255

Operating System   

Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003

Display

240 x 320 pixel transreflective TFT LCD

Memory

128 MB RAM, 48 MB Flash ROM (17 MB available)

Communication

Integrated WiFi (802.11b) and Bluetooth wireless

Size & Weight

5.43″ long (/w antenna) or 5.15″ long (w/o ant.) x 3.3″ wide x 0.63″ thick, 7.2 ounces

Expansion

SDIO-capable SD card slot, iPaq expansion jacket connector

Docking

Full-function iPaq connector, compatible with iPaq 22/38/39/51/5400 models

Audio

Monaural internal speaker, internal microphone, 3.5mm headphone jack

Battery

1250 milliamp-hour Lithium-Ion-Polymer battery, user swappable

Input

4 remappable application buttons, 5-way directional pad, touchscreen

Other

Vibrating alarm, serial infrared port, fingerprint scanner

 

Processor

The 5550 is built around the new 400 MHz Intel XScale PXA255 processor. While it has the same clock speed (400 MHz) as the older PXA250, the 255 has a number of technology upgrades that are supposed to provide significantly better performance and battery life. The user interface doesn’t feel appreciably different, nor does most software. You don’t really see the changes until you throw more taxing tasks at the processor. While opening a large book, uBook paginates a little faster, and video performance is definitely much improved. While it doesn’t benchmark as fast as the iPaq 2215, the 5550 shows marked improvements over older PocketPCs.

 

Operating System

The iPaq 5550 is based on the new Windows Mobile 2003 operating system. Since most of the changes are minor or embedded, and others have done much more complete and thorough reviews of Windows Mobile 2003 than I could, I’ll focus on the three most notable changes: the web browser, media player, and connection manager.

The new version of Pocket Internet Explorer is a major leap over the version that was used in PocketPC 2002. While the older program had been based on the desktop Internet Explorer 3 browser, the newer is based on Internet Explorer 6, and the difference is incredible. Page rendering is much more true to a website’s look, there are a horde of small user interface and bug fixes, and the speed difference must be felt to be believed.

The Media Player is now version 9, and has been rewritten to allow for, amongst other improvements, much higher bitrate (size of file divided by length) videos. Although it still only supports the Windows Media Video format, I downloaded some ordinary medium-quality desktop-formatted WMV files, and all of them played back fine, without any skipping or hitching. It’s hard to tell where the thanks for this belongs, with the new processor or with the software tweaks, but either way it’s welcome.

Despite supposed improvements to the connection management system, it’s still inconvenient to use, since now simple things like changing your IP address are buried under five different menus. What was done with it amounts to taking all the parts of the old Connection Manager, putting them in a blender, and hiding what came out deep under the Settings menu. This isn’t a huge problem for me, since I didn’t really have a problem with the old Connection Manager, but some people may feel differently.

 

Display

Screen comparison

Left to right: Sony NX80, Dell Axim X5, iPaq 5550, all at maximum brightness.

The iPaq features a 240 pixel by 320 pixel 16-bit color transreflective display. It’s brightness is good, likewise color quality, however the differences from most other transreflective displays are not that great. The 5550 sits in the middle of the pack in quality, slightly ahead of the Axim, slightly behind the Sony Clies, and farther behind Palm screens.

The iPaq’s display measures 3.8 inches, compared the the 3.5 inch LCDs used on most PocketPCs. Though the size difference is small, it is noticible. Whether the increase makes any difference to you is personal–I know that some people swear by the 3.8 inch LCDs and would never go back to a smaller one, and others don’t care in the least. The iPaq uses the same resolution as other PPCs, so the screen isn’t any sharper than the competition. Actually less so, since there is more space between the pixels.

Memory

The 5550 provides 128 MB of RAM, double the 64 MB that is the norm for high-end PocketPCs. The benefits of more memory are fairly obvious–more room for software, documents, everything. The trade off is that since RAM needs power to maintain it’s contents, the standby (off) time for the iPaq is reduced. To try and combat this, HP has included an option that lets the user select the amount of standby time that they want to reserve in the battery. The maximum time allowed from system shutdown (0% battery remaining) to the loss of memory contents is 72 hours. This can be adjusted down to as little as 12 hours. Adjusting down the reserve time will free up more battery power, allowing the iPaq to run longer, but will leave you with less of a buffer zone. The minimum setting will free up a rough average of 1 hour more battery life than the highest setting.

Also included is 48 MB of flash ROM, of which 17 MB is available to the user. Any programs or information stored in this area will survive a hard-reset, making it ideal for backups. This is slightly less than was available on previous PocketPCs that had 48 MB of ROM. Notably, the Axim and the iPaq 3900 both gave the user about 21 MB of flash memory. Presumably, the shrunken file store is a result of more ROM space being required by the new operating system.

Communication

Communication is where the 5550 excels. With built-in Bluetooth and WiFi, you can talk to nearly any wireless device, sync either way, and get internet access practically anyewhere via WiFi access point or Bluetooth cell phone.

The iPaq’s Bluetooth transciever is a standard Class 2 device, with a maximum range of approximately 32 feet. It supports all the important profiles such as serial, LAN, file transfer, etcetera.

WiFi range and connection quality was very good. The range was only slightly less–about 5 to 15 feet, depending on location–than I got using a high-gain 100 milliwatt CompactFlash WiFi card on my Axim. Speed was good–you have not lived until you’ve run ActiveSync over a WiFi connection. Compared to USB, it flies. 200 items synced in a minute.

While the WiFi performance itself is great, the utilities that are included with the 5550 fail to take advantage of it. The WiFi connection dialog offers only the most absolute bare-bones information neccessary, and the iPaq Wireless application is just a series of buttons that turn WiFi and Bluetooth on and off. There are no options to measure the signal strength of a network, show the type of network, determine connection success/failure, anything. I looked for alternate WiFi applications, but it seems that most of them aren’t yet compatible with Windows Mobile 2003.

Size & Weight

The 5550’s size is nearly typical of high-end PocketPCs. If you include the wireless antenna, the iPaq measures 5.43 inches long. Measuring just the main body, it comes to 5.15″ long by 3.3 inches wide, and 0.63 inches thick. This places it on the upper end for ‘footprint’ size, but is in the middle of the .5 to .7 range of thickness. In truth, the small margins in which the iPaq differs from other high-end PocketPCs are very minor. If you’re comfortable with one, you will probably be comfortable with any of them.

Weighing in at 7.2 ounces, the 5550 is also on the high end of the weight spectrum. The weight difference is a bit more noticible than the size difference. The iPaq definitely has a heft to it, though it isn’t uncomfortably heavy for me. Weight it a hard thing to assess, since personal preferences vary.

Expansion

The top-mounted SDIO slot of the 5550 provides for memory cards up to 512 MB, as well as SDIO peripherals–though the latter option is somewhat moot, since the two major peripherals available are Bluetooth and WiFi cards.

The expansion capabilities of the 5550 suffer slightly for the lack of a CompactFlash card slot. While every other PocketPC in it’s size class features one, the 5550 does not. This is particularly curious given that HP has just recently begun including CF slots on their new models. It’s true that the inclusion of Bluetooth and WiFi eliminate two big reasons for needing a CompactFlash slot, however there are a number of other CompactFlash options, such as storage greater than 512 MB, GPS, ethernet, landline modems, barcode readers, and others that would be desirable in the enterprise market that the 5550 primaily caters to.

The iPaq 5550 also supports the line of expansion sleeves available for previous iPaqs, which allow the user to add CompactFlash, PC Card, Dual PC Card, Dual CompactFlash, GSM/GPRS, and a number of other options to the 5550 via slide on sleeves, at the sacrifice of additional size and weight.

Docking

The 5550 features the same connector as used on the older high-end iPaq models, allowing full compatibility with the range of peripherals developed for that connector. This includes keyboards, serial cables, cradles, etcetera.

Audio

 

The audio subsystem of the iPaq has three main parts–microphone, speaker, and headphone jack. I’ve already discussed the poor microphone performance, and the good speaker quality. Audio via the headphones is great. The iPaqs have always had a reputation for volume, and the 5550 doesn’t break with tradition. Audio through headphones is very loud, loud enough that full blast would probably be uncomfortable for most people. Quality is normal for PocketPCs, which is pretty good. I think the 5550 would make a fine audio player.

 

Battery

The first two tests were conducted while playing MP3s to keep the processor active. The torture test was as follows: backlight on maximum; Bluetooth and WiFi on; downloading video clips over WiFi; and playing said video clips, all activities continuous for the duration of the test.

When I say ‘torture testing’, I mean it.

Backlight on minimum 6 hours, 17 minutes
Backlight on maximum 3 hours, 35 minutes
Torture Test 2 hours, 12 minutes

Two things are readily apparent from my experiences with the 5550 and it’s battery. The first is that the backlight is the biggest power hog in the barn, even more so than the WiFi. The second is that the WiFi is actually very reasonable in it’s power consumption. When set to half backlight, and set as the target of a continuous stream of pings over the network to keep the WiFi active, the 5550 managed almost 4 hours continuous on time, which is quite respectable, and isn’t that far off from what you would expect from those settings with the WiFi off.

There is another important issue to consider regarding the battery. Most PocketPCs use hardware-controlled battery charging, meaning that all the handling of the battery is done on a basic system level. If you plug the PocketPC into an external power supply, it will charge regardless of it’s software state: on, off, locked up, etcetera. The iPaq 5550 uses software controlled charging, which means that the control over whether the battery is given power to charge lies with the centeral processor. This is less desirable, since it mean that the iPaq will not charge if, for instance, it locks up, or if you have not turned it on since the last time you removed the main battery. Obviously, this could be a problem in some situations.

Other

The iPaq 5550 has something fairly rare in handhelds–a vibrating alarm. The last vibrating alarm I saw was in the dear old Palm m500 series. Make no mistake–the iPaq’s vibrating alarm is not for use in silent places. It’s not quiet in the least. Imagine a blender turning on inside your pocket. That’s the idea. The vibrating alarm is really intended for loud places, where an ordinary alarm wouldn’t be heard. In that, it’s very effective.

One of the big draws for the 5550 plays to the government, medical, and enterprise sectors: a built-in fingerprint scanner. It allows the user to lock the iPaq to their particular fingerprint, a nearly foolproof means of security.

I was extremely pleased by the fingerprint scanner’s accuracy. The technique was easy to pick up, and accuracy was above 90%. I don’t usually use a password or PIN on my Axim, for two reasons. One, it’s simply a bother to do when I’m just turning it on to get one thing. Second, to get my Axim you’d have to go through me first. However, I felt perfectly at ease using the fingerprint recognition system, and had no problem with setting it to require authentication every time I turned on the iPaq. It literally takes only a second or so to swipe and recognize. Usually it’s ready for my input by the time I’ve popped out the stylus.

While I wouldn’t venture to say that it can’t be beaten, it certainly wouldn’t be quick and easy. The only effective way would probably be to make a cast of your fingerprint, which is either difficult or suspicion inducing depending on how they did it. I, personally, would feel extremely safe carrying around any kind of personal or company information on the 5550. It doesn’t prevent theft of the hardware, but it does insure that anyone who steals it won’t get your data. If the user fails the fingerprint test a certain number of times (definable by the user) then the iPaq undergoes a special kind of hard-reset, wiping out not only all the data in RAM but anything stored in the user-accessible area of flash ROM as well. Users should be cautioned that this does NOT affect memory cards, so any data or backups on external memory remain insecure.

Conclusion

One thing that weighed down the previous iPaq 5450 was it’s legion of hardware and software issues. I’m pleased to report that the 5550 seems to have dramatically fewer problems than it’s predecessor. In fact, there are only three issues that I’ve encountered in using it. The first is the software-controlled battery charging, discussed above. The second is that WiFi seems to turn itself off now and then, for no discernable reason. I haven’t been able to link this to the state of the battery, range to access point, or anything. It’s not a major problem, just a minor annoyance. You simply turn the 5550 on, and it doesn’t automatically reactivate the WiFi. You need to go into the iPaq Wireless application and re-enable it.

The third problem, and probably the most obvious, is heat. PocketPCs are not supposed to heat up–operating temperature varience is a bad thing in a low-power device like the iPaq. Sometimes batteries will heat up while charging, but that is not the case here. The 5550 itself definitely has a heat problem. While operating, the top rear of the case begins to steadily heat up. If you leave it running on a table or in the cradle, it will build up the a point where, while it is not dangerously hot, it is certainly uncomfortably hot. I may have just gotten a single weird unit, but it needs to be mentioned.

Overall, the iPaq 5550 is a pretty good PocketPC. It’s intended for those who demand the most features out of their PPC, without regard to other concerns such as aesthetics or price. Usually these are enterprise users, though some home users fall into this category as well. If you’re one of these, you may have a nearly perfect handheld here. If you’re not, I suspect that you would be better off with less expensive PocketPC from Dell or Toshiba, and adding onto it as you desire.

 

Pros:

Bluetooth and WiFi

128 MB memory

Fingerprint scanner

Good battery performance with WiFi

 

Cons:

No jog dial

No CompactFlash slot

Small directional pad

Software controlled battery charging

Heat buildup and dissipation issues

 

Bottom Line

While it’s intended as an enterprise unit, the 5550 would also make a good handheld for feature-hungry gadgeteers. It lacks some of the polish and style of alternatives, but makes up for it by jam-packing it’s capabilities.

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