People who are considering a high-end handheld are generally the type who want it all. Basically, if they are going to put $400 or more down on a new device, they expect it to have every feature possible.
The new MyPal A716 from ASUS does just about everything it can to deliver the features these people want, including a fast processor, a good amount of memory, dual forms of wireless networking, and two different types of memory card slot.
PROPortable was kind enough to loan me one of these devices so I could bring you this review.
I don’t generally start reviews off by talking about a device’s CompactFlash slot, but this is what really separates the A716 from the rest of the crowd.
Over the past year or so, Pocket PCs have become increasingly small. In most cases this is a positive trend, but it has meant that built-in CompactFlash slots have become rare, with most devices depending on an SD slot. And this isn’t like the old days, when you can add a CF slot with some kind of expansion pack.
This means HP now gives those considering an iPAQ a choice: you can either get a device with Wi-Fi or one with a CF slot. You can’t have both.
Sure, you can get a model with a CF slot and add a Wi-Fi card, but then you’ve given up most of the advantage of having a CF slot, as it will generally be occupied with this card.
Of course, the Toshiba e805 has Wi-Fi and a CF slot, but you have to pay $600 to get it.
With the MyPal A716, you can get Wi-Fi and a CompactFlash slot for just $450.
There are still plenty of people to whom having a CompactFlash slot is important. Me, for example. I don’t travel without a Symbol CompactFlash Ethernet card, which allows me to use the high-speed data ports in many hotels. And CF is definitely the cheapest Storage format in dollars per megabyte. If you like to watch movies on your handheld, you really need a Microdrive, and for that you need a CompactFlash slot.
As handy as the A716’s CF slot is, it isn’t perfect. Instead of having a small door to prevent unwanted stuff entering the slot, it uses a small plastic piece that you have to take out in order to insert a card. This gives you something else to carry around with you and, eventually, lose.
SD Slot Of course, you aren’t forced to use CF memory cards. The A716 also has an SD slot, so you have your choice of the two most popular memory card formats. This flexibility has obvious advantages. You can, for example, put a CompactFlash GPS card in one slot, while storing all the maps you need on an SD card.
However, you should be aware that the A716 doesn’t support SDIO, which means that the SD slot can only be used for SD and MMC cards. I don’t think this is a big deal. There are only a few SDIO cards available, and there are CF equivalents for all of them that cost the same or less.
Of course, the A716 is more than just a couple of memory card slots with Wi-Fi. This is a highly capable handheld.
It runs the Premium edition of Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC on a 400 MHz Intel XScale processor.
I tested it with Spb Software’s benchmarking application, and the A716 got an overall score of 1370, not as high as the MyPal A620’s score, but higher than the iPAQ h2215’s.
Memory The MyPal A716 has 64 MB of RAM, of which 55.8 MB is available to the user. This would be a fairly average amount, but this model doesn’t stop there. It also includes 25.2 MB of additional storage in what is essentially a built-in memory card. This gives you a total of 81 MB for storing and running applications, and also holding your files.
Even better, the contents of this internal Storage card aren’t erased if you do a hard reset. This makes it an ideal place for keeping your more important files.
As I’ve already mentioned, the A716 offers both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which means you can use it to connect to the Internet from almost anywhere.
Wi-Fi A growing number of handhelds are offering Wi-Fi, a medium-range wireless networking standard. This doesn’t work like a mobile phone; you have to be fairly close to an access point. You can buy your own access point and connect it to your modem at your house. Or you can subscribe to one of the services that will let you connect in a coffee shop or bookstore.
Wi-Fi offers a speed fairly comparable to what you’re used to on your desktop. In general, it can usually transfer data at least as fast as what is coming down from the Internet.
Of course, because it’s wireless, how fast you can transfer this data depends on how far you are from an access point. I’ve found, not surprisingly, that handhelds with external antennas have a longer range than ones without them. The A716 has such an antenna, and in my experiments can reach to the end of my driveway, through several walls, one of which is brick. Handhelds without an external antenna, like the HP iPAQ H4355, tend to lose a useful connection about halfway across the yard.
Bluetooth When you get too far from your Wi-Fi access point, you can switch over to Bluetooth. This allows you to use a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone as a wireless modem. Of course, you have to have such a phone and a wireless plan with data access.
Accessing the Internet through a phone is pretty slow. It reminds me of my old dial-up modem days. But it’s a very convenient way to send and receive email anywhere you go.
The A716 walks you through the process of setting up a Bluetooth connection with your mobile phone. Before you do this, though, you’re going to need some connection information from your wireless service provider.
Wireless networking draws a lot of power so you don’t want to leave it on if you aren’t using it. If you have either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth activated, a bright blue light glows on the front of this handheld. You can also set Wi-Fi to turn itself off if you don’t use it for a set amount of time.
Incidentally, you can’t have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth activated at the same time.
Internet Applications Like all Pocket PCs, the A716 comes with Pocket Internet Explorer. This is a decent Web browser, but the word “limited” comes to mind. If you are going to frequently be surfing the Web on your handheld, I’d suggest you look into one of the third-party applications that either shore up the deficiencies in PIE or replace it entirely.
This handheld also comes with Inbox, an email client for the Pocket PC. This can directly download your email or synchronize with what’s on your PC. Again, this is a decent enough app, in its limited way. I do a lot of email reading and writing on my handhelds, and the A716’s spell checker comes in very handy. Of course, this application supports attachments. Most of these can be opened with apps that come on this Pocket PC.
Wireless networking takes a lot of power, and so does a 400 MHz processor. Most of the recent Pocket PCs that offer these features have poor battery lives, but the A716’s is actually pretty good.
I used this Pocket PC as my primary handheld for a couple weeks while keeping track of how long it was on with BatMemTime. This wasn’t a torture test. I used Bluetooth or Wi-Fi occasionally, but I turned them off when I didn’t need them. The backlight was on at half strength.
I found that, on average, the A716 gets about six hours of life on a single charge. This is on par with the iPAQ h4355, which also has an extra-large battery, and twice as good as smaller devices with built-in Wi-Fi, like the Dell Axim X3i and the iPAQ h4155.
Of course, the battery life is significantly longer if you never use any of its wireless networking functions.
In addition, the A716 uses a swappable battery. This means you can buy a second one and quickly switch to a new battery when the current one runs out. Even better, ASUS offers a high-capacity battery that is supposed to double the device’s battery life. This means that, in conjunction with the standard battery that the A716 comes with, you get three times the battery life.
The MyPal A716 has a lot to offer, but you don’t pack a CompactFlash slot, a big battery, and two kinds of wireless networking into something the size of the h4155.
The A716 is 5.4 inches long, 3.1 inches wide, and 0.7 inches thick. It weighs 6.5 ounces. It’s actually pretty close to the size of Sony’s NX80V, another device that offers dual slots and a large battery.
Screen This model has what’s pretty much become the standard Pocket PC screen. I don’t mean to dismiss the screen by saying that. It’s actually quite nice. But, lately, all Pocket PC screens have been pretty nice, so it doesn’t stand out.
The A716’s screen resolution is 240 by 320 pixels. These days, this is near the bottom in screen resolution for a handheld, especially in this price range. There are quite a few Palm OS models with twice this number of pixels, and Toshiba makes a Pocket PC with a VGA screen, which means it has four times as many pixels.
It’s a transflective screen so it looks best indoors, but it’s still quite usable outdoors, too.
Buttons The A716 has quite a collection of buttons. There are the four standard ones on the front for launching applications. You can also choose a second set of applications to launch if you hold any of these buttons down.
These buttons surround a good-sized D-pad, which comes in handy when you’re playing games.
On the left side, where a lot of devices would have a jog wheel, are three buttons that perform the same function. Two scroll up or down, and the third allows you to select items.
ASUS Launcher Bundled with the A716 is the ASUS Launcher, which is a way of organizing your applications into various categories. I actually found this somewhat similar to the way the Palm OS application launcher works.
Standard Software This isn’t going to be a complete review of all the applications that are part of Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC. However, I’m sure some of the people who are reading this are considering buying an A716 as your first handheld so I’ll go over some of what it can do.
The two biggest uses for handhelds are as an address book and calendar. Of course, the A716 comes with very good applications to handle these jobs. In addition, these can be synchronized with Outlook on your PC so you don’t have to maintain two separate lists. The device comes with a copy of the latest version of Outlook, by the way. Your email can be synchronized with Outlook, too.
The A716 comes with Pocket Word and Pocket Excel, which can open and modify files from their desktop equivalents. These apps are probably best described as “acceptable.” They don’t support all the features the desktop ones do, and they have the bad habit of whacking out things they don’t support. For example, say someone wants you to look over a Word document and emails it to you. When you open it in Pocket Word, any images embedded in it won’t appear. If you find an error in the document, make a change, and then email it back, when the document arrives it won’t have the embedded images any more. Still, it is nice to be able to read the files you get as attachments, even if modifying them sometimes causes problems.
Multimedia The A716 comes with Windows Media Player for Pocket PC, which allows it to play MP3 files and video in the Windows Media format.
A standard-sized headphone jack can be found on the top of the A716 and you’ll probably want to listen to music through a pair of headphones, though a pair isn’t included with this device.
A monophonic speaker is located on the front. This is loud enough that you aren’t going to miss your alarms.
In addition, it includes an image viewer, which not only displays pictures, but also puts them together in a slide show.
Case The A716 comes with a protective case but I haven’t had a chance to check it out. One of the disadvantages of being a reviewer is you sometimes get handhelds before they are ready for the public. The A716 I was loaned didn’t come with the case that will be bundled with devices people buy. Still, it’s nice to know people will have some protection for their handhelds.
Cradle Unlike a lot of handhelds these days, the A716 comes with a cradle. Of course, this takes care of both recharging the device and giving the handheld a place to sit while it is synchronizing with your desktop computer.
This cradle is flexible enough to be used with both the standard battery and the extra-large, high-capacity one. However, it doesn’t offer a second port to allow you to charge two batteries at the same time.
Stylus The A716’s stylus is kind of thin, but not as thin as some styli are these days. Lately, many companies have seized on the idea of reducing the stylus as a way to save space in their handhelds. The A716’s stylus is about the size of the one HP uses with its current handhelds, so it isn’t particularly small. Still, those who used a handheld from a few years ago will notice how small it is.
Thgough it isn’t available at your local electronics store, there are a few places in the U.S. to get an A716. This includes PROPortable, MobilePlanet, and some other web stores. The usual price is $450, though MobilePlanet is offering a $50 instant rebate through the end of March.
The best way to determine if a product is a good value is to compare it to the competition. The iPAQ h2215 is one of the few Pocket PCs these days with a CompactFlash slot, and it offers Bluetooth, too. It sells for $399. Plus, to equal the functionality of the A716, you’d have to get a CF Wi-Fi card, which costs another $120. Using this as a comparison, I’d say the A716 is a good deal.
There are quite a few people who have a big investment in CompactFlash cards of various types and don’t want to give them up, even to get a smaller handheld. The MyPal A716 is a good device for this group, as it offers a fast processor, dual forms of wireless networking, and a long battery life, in addition to its CompactFlash and SD card slots.