Asus A730W Review

by Reads (65,541)

When it was first announced, the Asus A730W was the first PocketPC to feature a VGA screen, dual wireless, and dual expansion. After many delays, it’s finally out, trailing all the other contenders in the class. We find out whether it was worth the wait.

Design & Construction

Left, Dell Axim X50v. Right, Asus A730W.

The basic design of the A730W is similar to that of its closest competitors, the Axim X50v and the Loox 720, in that it’s a small form-factor design, with a flattened top, rounded bottom corners, and a standard button layout. The Asus’ front panel is a plain dark gray, while the sides, buttons, and back are all silver. It’s a bit of a color clash, but the design is reasonably nice. The power button occupies the top of the left hand side, along with the voice recorder button. On the right hand side is the locking switch for the battery cover.

Topside are the two expansion slots, piled right on top of each other, along with the headphone jack over to the right. The infrared port is also somewhere around here, but I don’t know exactly where it is.

Unlike more traditional battery covers, the entire back of the A730W slides off in a single piece to reveal the battery. I’m really not happy with the quality of the plastic cover. It feels tacky, not very strong, and it’s very finicky in the way that it slides on. Given long-term use, I feel like it could break, leaving the user in a very bad spot. Also, even when locked into place, it has a tendency to slip up and down a bit.

The dark circle on the right hand side is the lens aperture for the A730W’s integrated camera. The lens itself is recessed well into the case, making it reasonably safe from damage. The small silver blob seen here to the left of the camera lens is actually a mirror, intended for use in taking self-portraits. It’s about as useful as anything else having to do with the camera–which is to say, not very. Below these are the ‘flash’, and LED light used by the camera, and the speaker grille. The reset button is placed on the bottom next to the docking connector and the stylus.

The stylus is just a simple metal barrel with plastic ends. Which is not to say that there’s nothing unusual about it–the Asus keeps its stylus is a very strange place. Instead of the traditional silo in the top-right corner, the stylus is loaded from below, in the bottom right corner. While I haven’t had it fall out yet, it’s certainly something that should be taken into consideration. Similarly, the placement of the stylus means that it can’t be removed while the machine is in the cradle. Possibly by way of compensation, the cradle features a rather cheesy stylus holder on the right-hand side, but this isn’t much of a solution.

The Asus comes with a bit more inside the box than is usual. Besides the A730W itself, my unit came with a spare stylus, USB Host cable, cradle, USB sync cable, AC adapter, and a second standard battery.

The USB Host cable is just a short adapter, about 6-8 inches long, with the Asus’ docking connector on one end, along with a jack for the power supply, and a USB port on the other end. It isn’t necessary to have a power supply plugged into the A730W in order to use the USB Host port, but if you’re using something power-hungry like a USB-powered portable hard drive, the power jack is very welcome. Otherwise, you’d be eating your battery in an hour flat. As far as the actual USB Host functionality, we’ll cover that under Expansion.

The Asus has actually a rather novel cradle. While it lacks a second battery charging slot, and is roundly booed for that, it does have redeeming characteristics. Most cradles have a simple USB cable poking out the back for you to hook up to your PC. Instead, the Asus’ cradle has no cable sticking out the back. What it does have is an exact replica of the A730W’s sync connector, right on the back of the cradle, and a USB sync cable included in the box. Imagine the flexibility for a minute.

I personally never sync a PocketPC by USB if I can help it. The first introduction a PocketPC gets to my desktop is via Bluetooth, and that’s the way it stays. Hence, my collection of PocketPC cradles has a bunch of unused USB cables dangling off the side of the table. Now, imagine if you could replace those cables with a different kind of cable. In the case of the A730W, you could hook up the USB Host cable that comes with it, and to that connect a 40 GB USB hard drive. Then, all you have to do is cradle the machine for it to automatically connect up with the hard drive. Or connect a USB sync/charge cable, and leave the AC adapter unused. Or don’t connect any cable at all, leaving your workspace a little clearer. While far from endless, the possibilities are a lot more varied than the typical USB cradle. For that, I commend Asus heartily. It’s a good idea, and one that should be looked at by other manufacturers.

I can’t say I’m deeply impressed by the build quality of the machine. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by playing with machines built by HTC, but the A730W has a distinctly lightweight feel to it. I don’t mean light in the sense that it doesn’t weigh a lot, although it doesn’t. I mean lightweight in the sense that it doesn’t feel well built. The outer casing is a cheaper and lighter plastic than I’m used to seeing on expensive devices. The front buttons and directional pad feel fine, but the back of the case feels loose and plasticy. It feels cheap, which isn’t what you want to feel in a $500-600 device.

Hardware

Processor: 520 MHz Intel XScale PXA270 with WMMX
Operating System:

Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition

Display: 3.7 inch 480 x 640 VGA screen
Memory: 128 MB RAM (107 MB available); 64 MB flash ROM (17 MB available)
Size & Weight:

4.63 inches long x 2.87 inches wide by 0.67 inches thick, 6.0 ounces

Expansion: One CompactFlash Type 2 slot, One SDIO slot, integrated USB Host
Docking:

26-pin connector, standard cradle

Communication: Bluetooth 1.1; 802.11b WiFi wireless networking; serial IR port
Audio: Internal monaural speaker; microphone; 3.5mm headphone jack
Battery: Standard 3.7 volt, 1100 milliamp-hour Lithium-Ion battery; second 1100 mAh battery free from some retailers; optional 1800 mAh extended battery
Input: 5 remappable application buttons; 5-way directional pad; touchscreen
Other: Serial IR port, 1.2 megapixel camera

Processor

Most curiously for a high end device, the A730W eschews the top of the line 624 MHz XScale processor used in its iPaq and Axim competitors. Instead, it runs at the next speed down on the PXA270 scale–520 MHz. I can only assume that this is a power-saving measure–it’s not like there’s any additional size or complexity in using the 624 MHz XScale. They are, after all, all the same chip, just set to a different speed by the manufacturer.

On a practical level, there’s not a huge amount of difference between the 520 MHz and 624 MHz speeds. The OS doesn’t feel much much different, and most applications will run as fine on 520 MHz as they will with another 100 MHz of power. The only place where you can really feel the difference is in high end applications like video, gaming, or ultra-large files and databases.

Like the other members of its family, the PXA270 processor in the Asus supports automatically scaling back its speed to save on battery life. Asus includes an applet to let the user select the speed, but it doesn’t actually tell you the speed you’re running at–it just gives you a selection of modes such as ‘Turbo mode’ and ‘Power-saving mode’.

  Asus A730W (520 MHz) Dell Axim X50v (624 MHz) HP iPaq hx4700 (624 MHz)
SPB Benchmark Index  1510  Unavailable  1609
CPU Index  2070  2279  2335
File System Index  1244  1372  1471
Graphics Index  1093  Unavailable  878
Platform Index  1251  Unavailable  1301

The A730W’s benchmarks are quite respectable considering the fact that it runs a slower processor than the two models it’s being compared to. It’s also the only VGA PocketPC to break 1000 on the graphics benchmark without additional tweaking, though with tweaks there are others that can go much higher.

Operating System

The A730W runs Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition, the latest version of Microsoft’s mobile OS, complete with VGA and landscape screen support. The OS also controls the A730W’s network card, since Asus declined to implement their own program. In lieu of a standard WiFi sniffer program, Asus included a very friendly little WiFi control applet. Since there isn’t any button assigned to turn the wireless on and off, the icon resides in the Today screen’s bottom taskbar at all times, letting you activate the WiFi with a couple of taps. From there, Windows takes over with the standard configuration.

Another handy applet built into the OS of the A730W also resides in the Today screen’s taskbar. It’s a very simple screen orientation switcher. Tap it once, the screen instantly rotates from portrait to landscape mode. Tap it again, it rotates back. It’s convenient, but there are a couple of small problems. One is that the icon sits right up against the WiFi icon. If you’re not careful, you could be going for the WiFi icon and end up rotating the screen. The second problem is that the icon is only accessible from the Today screen, so it doesn’t do you any good if you’re in the middle of another program.

Display

The A730W features a high-resolution 480 x 640 VGA screen, the highest resolution available on a PocketPC. At 3.7 inches diagonal, the A730W’s screen isn’t the largest in the class, but I find it more than satisfactory. Screen size is always a bit of a trade-off versus overall device size, and I think that 3.7 is pretty close to the ideal balancing point for VGA.

When I compared the Asus to my Axim’s screen, I found that the Axim seemed to have a slight edge in saturation, and a slightly larger edge in brightness. It’s not that the Asus isn’t bright–it is very bright. It just can’t hold candlepower to the Axim when it comes right down to it. When comparing the quality of colors side by side, the Asus seemed to have a bluer tint in the whites, while the Axim’s screen appeared more pinkish. Realistically, I doubt that anyone will have reason to complain. Whatever small differences there are, the Asus’ screen is excellent.

Left, Dell Axim X50v. Right, Asus A730W.

Unlike the VGA iPaq and Axim models, the A730W doesn’t have any kind of specialty graphics chip. Instead, it uses the no-frills LCD controller embedded directly into the Intel XScale processor. Though it may reduce a bit of cost, this limits the future capabilities of the Asus. Even the antiquated ATI chip used in the iPaq has some 2D acceleration capabilities that can be used to boost video performance, while the Asus has nothing.

Memory

The A730W features a ‘high-end’ 128 MB of RAM as standard equipment, doubling the 64 MB used by its predecessor as well as its Axim and iPaq competitors. This means more space for synchronized files, as well as applications that need to be installed into RAM for performance reasons, like Textmaker.

Curiously, a full 21 MB of RAM is commandeered by the operating system for its own inscrutable purposes, considerably more than on other 128 MB devices. This may be because the A730W is a VGA device, and needs the extra RAM for use by the display system, but I don’t know for certain.

While most accounts list the free flash memory on the A730W as 19.2 MB, the actual available space is only 17 MB. I find this rather disappointing. I’m a big user of the internal flash memory on my PocketPCs, because it protects files and programs against a hard reset, and makes for less data that needs to be backed up for safety. On my X50v, which has 91 MB of free flash memory, I’ve used about 50 MB of it. On the A730W I would be forced to either install my programs to RAM, which gets erased in a hard-reset, or to a memory card, which could become lost.

Size & Weight

The A730W is the thickest of all user-oriented VGA PocketPCs. The Loox, iPaq, and Axim clock in at 0.6″, 0.6″, and 0.63″ respectively, with the Asus coming in a slightly beefier fourth at 0.67″. Some people base their opinion of a device’s size on thickness alone, as a measurement of pocketability. The Asus has probably lost these people. I don’t mind, but the A730W does feel a little less sleek than my X50v.

The A730W is also one of the lightest VGA PocketPCs. It weighs just 6 ounces, or 170 grams, which ties it with the Fujitsu Loox 720, and places it slightly ahead of the Axim (6.17 ounces) and the iPaq (6.6 ounces).

The dimensions of the Asus are within 0.2″ of the Loox and Axim in length, and 0.05″ in width. In other words, the differences in shape and size are so small that you could barely perceive that they’re there. All in all, despite the few differences like thickness, there’s not a lot of size difference between the A730W and the other ‘small’ VGA PocketPCs.

Expansion

The A730W features what has become the de facto standard for VGA PocketPCs: dual expansion, including one SDIO slot and one CompactFlash Type 2 slot. With this combo, it can use almost any peripheral available for PocketPCs. This includes thinner Type 1 CompactFlash cards.

The A730W also features a not-so-standard method of expansion. Using a small cable, included free with some units, the A730W has a USB Host port, identical to the kind found on a desktop or laptop PC. In theory, this would give you the ability to connect to many of the same peripherals as a desktop, such as keyboards and portable hard drives.

While the A730W’s USB Host port is fully functional and complient with USB specs, the number of things you can do with it are limited by the available drivers. USB Mass Storage devices such as hard drives and flash memory, along with USB keyboards, are supported out of the box. With additional tweaking, and drivers found online, it’s possible to use a USB to serial cable, USB gamepad, USB GPS, and USB mouse. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the beast, any peripheral that’s not completely plug-and-play is unlikely to ever work. For instance, USB video cameras, USB scanners, or other devices that require special software just don’t stand a chance.

Docking

Besides the standard cradle, the A730W can use a USB sync cable, or a serial cable for syncing or connectivity.

Communication

The A730W, improving upon its predecessor, adds 802.11b WiFi wireless networking built-in. It’s very power-hungry, as you’ll no doubt see a little later on, but it performed admirably in normal use. I’m always of the opinion that you can’t have too good a range on your WiFi, but even by my standards the A730W performed with acceptable range and signal.

Unlike most of its competitors, the A730W uses the older Bluetooth 1.1 specification. This means that it lacks the Adaptive Frequency Hopping technology, implemented in 1.2, that reduces interference with and by other 2.4 GHz devices like WiFi and cordless phones. Also missing is version 1.2’s improvements in headset audio quality, and the much sought after High Quality Audio profile for Bluetooth headphones. It does, however, support the mono Headset profile. And, unlike some other models that support this, the Asus automatically redirects headphone audio to the connected Bluetooth headset. The quality is predictably poor, since the BT 1.1 headset profile is designed for cell-phone calls, but it’s viable for certain applications like voice-guided navigation and VoIP.

Audio

The A730W has the usual set of audio equipment, including a monaural internal speaker, internal microphone, and stereo headphone jack. Volume and clarity were quite satisfactory on all counts.

Battery

The A730W has only an 1100 milliamp-hour battery, tying the Dell Axim X50v for the smallest battery in a VGA PocketPC. All the features of a VGA PocketPC add up to a very power-hungry device, and I’ve never been completely happy with the X50v’s battery life. I’m still not, but I am a little more satisfied than I was–the A730W proved that it could be so much worse.

For wireless tests, WiFi and Bluetooth were both on for the duration of the test. And, as always, our standard warning that these tests are pessimistic in nature and may not reflect normal usage. Not that that matters much, as you’ll see in a minute.

Brightness on maximum, wireless active: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Brightness on 50%, wireless active: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Brightness on maximum, processor active: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Brightness on 50%, processor active: 3 hours, 2 minutes

This is, without question, the worst result I have ever seen on a set of wireless tests. Generally, even the most intensive of tests won’t bring a units battery life below two hours, let alone close to one. That said, cranking up both the wireless radio and the backlight can be very unkind to a unit’s battery life. Unfortunately, the results don’t get much better. The results of the processor tests are closer in line with what one would expect to see, given the features and the battery capacity. It’s still not great, not even good, but it’s better.

Given the overall results of the battery testing, I can only conclude one thing–WiFi on the A730W eats batteries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s insanely power-hungry, far more so than on most other models I’ve dealt with. And the standard battery life is nothing to crow about either. With this in mind, lets see how the A730W stacks up against the two leading VGA PocketPCs in the U.S. market: the iPaq hx4700 and the Axim X50v.

  Asus A730W (520 MHz, 1100 mAh) Dell Axim X50v (624 MHz, 1100 mAh) HP iPaq hx4700 (624 MHz, 1800 mAh)
Brightness at max., wireless active  1 hour, 10 minutes  2 hours, 31 minutes  2 hours, 47 minutes

Brightness at 50%, wireless active

 1 hour, 31 minutes  3 hours, 5 minutes  3 hours, 33 minutes
Brightness at max., processor active  2 hours, 19 minutes  2 hours, 43 minutes  4 hours, 18 minutes
Brightness at 50%, processor active  3 hours, 2 minutes  3 hours, 26 minutes  6 hours, 5 minutes

In order to combat this particularly poor showing in the battery life arena, some A730W retailers are including a second standard battery in the box at no charge. Unfortunately, what this plan boasts in generosity, it makes up for in forethought. The cradle for the A730W lacks a slot to charge a second battery. So, to use both batteries, you have to charge one inside the A730W, then take it off the cradle, remove the cover, pull out the battery, swap in the other battery, replace the cover, and put it back in the cradle. Add to this the fact that you nearly have to chisel the battery out of its slot, and you’ve got a dazzlingly inconvenient routine. This pretty much eliminates the convenience of having a second battery in the first place, and just seems like a total lack of planning on the part of Asus.

Camera

Oh, what to say about the camera. I’m tempted to eulogize, but I’m more tempted to editorialize. It’s rant time, ladies and gentlemen.

The second handheld with an embedded camera that I had a chance to try out was the Sony Clie NX80. It was a nice unit, and featured an even nicer camera. It produced real live photos of credible quality. How credible? Take a look.

Sample photo from Sony Clie NX80 Sample photo from Asus A730W

The left hand link goes to a 162 KB photo taken with the Sony Clie NX80, a photo of a big fluffy white cat, lying in a moderately bright sunbeam, in the midst of a darkened room. The link on the right goes to a photo of an equally fluffy white pet, in much better and more even lighting, taken with the Asus A730W. This photo was modified only enough to compress it for upload.

Bear in mind, what I’ve just showed you is considered a pretty good photo for the A730W. If you were to try to take a photo in anything less than sunlight, you generally end up with a large blackish blob. If you stick to photos in optimal light, you get grayish blobs. Not a huge improvement, but it’s an improvement.

The A730W also features what Asus calls a ‘flash’ for use with the camera. This flash is nothing of the sort–it’s a small white LED light on the back of the machine that you can choose to have light up when you take a picture. Since its effective lighting range–at least at an intensity that the camera can notice–is about six inches, it’s pretty much totally useless in taking any kind of picture whatsoever.

I know that the standard line in defense of embedded cameras is that the camera doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to take pictures. But in this case not only is the camera far short of perfect, but it borders on unusable. For quite awhile, I’ve been saying that manufacturers need to make their cameras useful, or get them off the devices. ‘1+ megapixel or bust’ has been my slogan in more than one review. Well, talk about missing the point. The A730W manages to both have a 1.3 MP camera, and make it worthless at the same time.

The worthlessness even goes well beyond the quality of the camera itself. The camera application is a mishmash of confusing buttons, long button delays, dysfunctional features, sudden application switches, and lost files. All in all, it makes the process of taking a picture just about as hard as it possibly can be.

Conclusion

The A730W suffers from a certain amount of ‘too little, too late’ syndrome. When it was announced, no other PocketPC on the market had dual wireless radios and a VGA screen. In the time between when it was supposed to come out and now, four other PocketPCs have come out with dual slots, dual wireless radios, and VGA screens: the iPaq hx4700, Dell Axim X50v, Toshiba e830, and Fujitsu Loox 720. The A730W offers nothing that one or more of these models don’t already do, and often do better, faster, and cheaper.

Pros:

  • 128 MB of RAM
  • VGA screen
  • Dual expansion
  • Dual wireless

Cons:

  • Short battery life
  • Little available flash ROM
  • Poor quality camera
  • Dubious build quality

Bottom Line:

A delayed release, coupled with poor battery performance, make the Asus A730W unremarkable.

 


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