Road Trip with a T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone

by Reads (23,011)

Believe it or not, mobile telephones date all the way back to the 1940s, as do, coincidentally, paper-based organizers. But it’s taken another half-century for cellphones and organizers — actually, their electronic equivalents, personal digital assistants, or PDAs — to find their way into the hands of millions of people around the world, hundreds of millions in the case of cellphones. Now these two devices are coming together in a digital marriage that some say is inevitable, others say ill-advised. One of these so-called convergent devices is the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone, a combination PDA and cellphone from T-Mobile, the Deutsche Telecom wireless carrier formerly known as VoiceStream.

If the device looks familiar, it should. It’s the same O2 XDA device that Brighthand arranged for deVBuzz’s Derek Mitchell to take for a spin back in May while he attended the Microsoft Mobility Developers Conference in London. Derek enjoyed the O2 XDA then so we decided to test out the T-Mobile version now that it’s hit the States.

As Derek discovered, nothing works better for testing a mobile, wireless device than a road trip, and fortunately for me the timing was perfect. My daughter, Gabrielle, and I were scheduled to go to Charleston, South Caroline for a father-daughter vacation, as well as to attend the wedding of a friend. Rather than lug a laptop computer (and hope for a high-speed hotel connection) I decided to bring along the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone. And, rather than fly from Atlanta to Charleston or drive a car, we opted to take a bus, which offered us the opportunity to read, play cards, nap, and, of course, test out the coverage and battery life of the T-Mobile device.
 

The Device

Before delving into the details of my digital experience, let’s take a look at the device itself. If you’ve been following handhelds for the past few years (and I expect that you have since you’re here at Brighthand) it’s safe to say that you’ll find the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone to be one of the most attractive devices to date. It’s sleek and modern — encased in a metallic shell, yet simple and understated. It’s turned more heads — with the exception of the Sony Clie PEG-NR70V — than any other PDA I’ve owned. And, as Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing.

Sizewise, it’s comparable to the Compaq iPAQ 3600 series Pocket PC: 5" tall, 2.8" wide, 0.7" thick, and weighs 7.1 ounces, according to our scale. It also looks suspiciously similar to the iPAQ, and for good reason. Both devices were designed and manufactured by the same Taiwanese company, High-Tech Computer, or HTC. More about that in a minute.

The display’s a tad smaller than the iPAQ’s (in order to make the unit narrower) and it’s only capable of 4,096 colors, as opposed to the iPAQ’s 64K color screen. Still, one glance at the screen and you won’t be disappointed. It has excellent color saturation and trueness, and even backlighting — a nice display indeed. It also has a couple of features not found on the original iPAQ, namely a MultiMediaCard/Secure Digital slot (although it can’t handle SDIO cards) and built-in wireless voice (5 hours talk time, 180 hours standby and most standard features including Caller ID, conference calling, call waiting and voice mail) and data capabilities (using T-Mobile’s iStream GPRS network). Overall, the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone is a solid, attractive device.

The Trip

With a fully-charged T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone in hand, we boarded the bus in Atlanta for the seven-hour trip to Charleston. As expected, the cellphone features of the device worked perfectly for the entire length of the trip, through Athens, Georgia, where REM and the B-52s got their starts, to Augusta, home of the Masters golf tournament, and on up to Columbia, South Carolina, where we switched buses for the final two-hour leg of the trip.

It worked continuously for voice calls primarily because we took interstate highways most of the route, highways that coincided with T-Mobile’s coverage area. However, if we had gone from Augusta to Savannah rather than up to South Carolina, we would have likely had no phone service for close to an hour. In other words, T-Mobile’s GSM network is fine if you’re traveling on interstate highways between one of the 6,000 cities in the coverage area, but wander off the beaten path into more rural areas and it’s a gamble. Still, for our journey it got a perfect score, maintaining a strong, persistant signal and delivering clear voice communications.

On a personal note, I’m still not sold on the whole headset experience. For one thing, there’s the inevitable tangle of wires. Of course a wireless headset would solve that, however, HTC did not see fit to incorporate Bluetooth in this device — a mistake, if you ask me, and rumored to be the reason that Compaq decided not to brand this device as its own. Secondly, there’s the "he’s talking to himself" syndrome — something I can live without. Finally, if you forgo the headset by using the unit hand-to-ear style, as you would a typical cellphone, you risk smudging the screen with your facial oils since the device lays flat, rather than contoured to your face.

The other major difference between the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone and a typical cellphone is the lack of a physical keypad. To see how this impacts usability I put it through a few quick tests. First, I tried one-hand dialing of a phone number. With my current cellphone — a Motorola StarTac V-phone, I was able to flip up the lid, dial a number (using the pushbuttons), and place a call, all one-handed using my thumb. I was also able to do the same with the T-Mobile device, the only difference being the use of on-screen buttons rather than hardware buttons.

Next, I placed a call to someone in my personal phone book. Again, this was relatively painless with the V-phone, flipping open the lid, pushing the Action button on the side of the device twice to access the Phone Book, and using the Down button on the side of the device to scroll to the name of the person, then pressing the Action button once more to place the call. On the T-Mobile it involves pressing the Contacts button located at the top front of the device, using the navigation pad at the bottom to scroll through the names, pressing it to go to the contact information, then using your thumb to press the phone number listed on the screen, which dials the number. Not bad. However, the problem is that you’ve now got a screen littered with fingerprints. The solution, of course, is to use the stylus, which is cleverly incorporated into the antenna. Still, that would take two hands and what we’re after in a phone is a one-handed approach, or at least I am.

Bottom line is that getting people to change the manner in which they use a device — a device they’ve been using for decades — is a dicey proposition. Only time will tell if I’m wrong on this one, but I don’t forsee the majority of people switching to headsets and virtual keypads from the current hand-to-ear, button pushing method.

As a PDA, the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone isn’t much different from the current lot of Pocket PCs, which again is a good thing. It operates on Microsoft’s Pocket PC 2002 Phone Edition platform (see Pocket PC, Phone Home), running on an Intel StrongARM processor cruising at 206 MHz, with 32 MB of RAM and 32 MB of ROM. As mentioned earlier, it’s also equipped with a MultiMediaCard/Secure Digital slot, standard fare on today’s handhelds.

We didn’t encounter a single problem related to the generic Pocket PC platform (in other words, everything except the wireless features), although I didn’t get to test everything as extensively as I would have liked since most of the time I couldn’t get the device out of my daughter’s hands — she’s addicted to Solitaire. Still, based on this road trip, I’d have to give the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone a thumbs up as a solid handheld computer.

Now, the real advantage of the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone is its Wireless Data capabilities. Unfortunately, I believe Microsoft made a slight faux pas in naming the platform Pocket PC Phone Edition. A more appropriate name would have been Pocket PC Wireless Data Edition. Why? Because wirelessly accessing your email and other Internet accessible data is the key to this device, while using it as a cellphone to place voice calls is simply an extra.

So, how well did that feature work on my road trip? Well, let’s just say that when it worked it was nice. It was a pleasure being able to access my spam, err, I mean email, on the bus, in the taxicab and at the beach. (For dozens of screenshots, see Derek Mitchell’s review of the O2 XDA device.) However, during the five-day trip I had success doing this (over a virtual private network, or VPN) less than 50% of the time. T-Mobile appears to be still working out the kinks in its GPRS network, as it was down sporadically — and completely for a couple of days — during my test period. Also, I found the speed to be good but not great. Definitely not what I’d call high-speed. Still, in all fairness, this is a new network with new technology and within 2-3 months I’m sure T-Mobile will have it stabilized and then can begin pumping up the data rate.

Now, how about accessing the World Wide Web through Pocket Internet Explorer? Well, again, speed is an issue. I achieved speeds in the 20-40 Kbps range (at best), so browsing with images turned on was obviously sloooow. Even turning off images does not yield a satisfactory experience on sites not tuned for mobile devices. It works, but for anyone except the most patient enthusiast I’d have to say that its time has not yet arrived. And if you’re thinking how cool it would be to talk to someone on your Pocket PC Phone while referencing a website, don’t hold your breath. You cannot use the device as a phone while using it as a Wireless Data device. (But you can play MP3’s in the background while browsing the Web.)

I did not try synchronizing wirelessly while on the road but that’s something I did while in Redmond last year visiting Microsoft. It’s an incredible feature for any mobile warrior.

What about battery life? The T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone is powered by a rechargeable (but not user replaceable) 1500 mAH lithium polymer battery. (There’s also an attachable extendable battery available to increase battery life.) We used the T-Mobile device for several hours during and after the bus trip, both coming and going, and all during our stay in Charleston (a beautiful, historic southern city that I highly recommend for a visit). The T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone never got below 30% power at any time (although I must state that I kept the phone off most of the time and did not make any lengthy calls).

Back at home in Atlanta I connected the device to my laptop computer and synchronized with Outlook. The cradle (see picture above) holds the unit snuggly and rests on four cushioned, non-skid pads. It’s just as eye-catching on your desk as it is in your hand.

The Bottom Line

The T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone is a good-looking, solid handheld computer, and a decent cellphone as well. Accessing your email anytime, anywhere (well, almost) is certainly a liberating experience, provided you are willing to pay the price (the unit runs $549.99 and wireless data service ranges from $20 to $40 a month). Still, it’s difficult to imagine giving up my current cellphone for the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone, and therein lies the problem: carrying two cellular plans is out of the question. Besides, I’m just not ready to change how I use a phone.

Web browsing? Well, as they say in Charleston, that dog don’t hunt, at least not yet. It’s slow — painfully so — and will require faster wireless networks to make it acceptable to most folks.

So, overall, it’s an excellent device that’s sure to get better — and smaller, lighter and faster. And once companies such as T-Mobile shake out the problems with their new "high-speed" data networks (and create a single low-priced plan to cover all of your devices — cellphone, Pocket PC Phone, smartphone), that will help too.

The future may not be now, but it’s certainly in sight.

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