Brighthand Reviews the Dell Axim X30

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One of Dell’s new Axim X30 Models is an updated version of one of its earlier handhelds, the Axim X3i. Like its predecessor, the new device offers Wi-Fi and a good amount of memory in a relatively small Pocket PC. To this, Dell has added a 624 MHz processor and Bluetooth wireless networking.

Perhaps the most significant change in this model it the move to the latest version of the Pocket PC operating system, Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition. This allows the X30 screen to support both portrait and landscape modes.

Look and Feel

Dell didn’t change the look of this model at all as part of this update. The X30 looks exactly like the X3i; the screen is the same, the size and shape are the same, the buttons are the same, and so on.

The body is 3.0 inches wide, 4.6 inches long (not counting the 0.2 inch antenna on top), and 0.6 inches thick. This makes it a medium-size device. It rides fine in a pants pocket, though it isn’t unnoticeable, and the included case adds quite a bit to its size when you are carrying it around.

Screen The X30 has a 3.5 inch, 16-bit color screen at 240 by 320 pixels (QVGA). These days, this is near the bottom in screen resolution for a handheld. Several companies are expected to release Pocket PCs with 640-by-480-pixel screens in the coming months, and there’s already one on the market that uses this resolution. However, as I mentioned earlier, it is the first Pocket PC to support both portrait and landscape modes.

It’s a transflective screen so it looks best indoors, but it’s still quite usable outdoors too. In fact, I found it readable even in direct sunlight.

Buttons The X30 has no less than seven different buttons.

The first one you are likely to see is the Power Button. Aside from its obvious use, it also glows orange when the unit is being recharged, glows green when fully charged, and it blinks green to indicate an alarm has gone off.

Just below the screen are four buttons that are designed to launch the most frequently used applications: Calendar, Contacts, Inbox, and Today.

Just to the left of these, almost unlabeled, is the button that launches the voice recorder. The microphone is just above the screen.

On the opposite side from the Voice recorder button is one that allows you to enable or disable the built-in wireless networking. As Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are battery hogs, you don’t want to leave them on if you aren’t using them and having a button to quickly turn them on and off is very convenient. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to set this button to just turn on or off one of them, and its pretty rare when I need both of them simultaneously. So I ended up using software to turn these on and off most of the time.

What I’ve described here are the default settings for these buttons. These can be re-programmed to launch any application on the device. For example, I quickly changed one to open Pocket Internet Explorer, which I used a lot on this model, and another to switch the screen from portrait to landscape.

Navigation Aids Although you can always select things by tapping on them with the stylus, it’s nice to be able to perform many tasks with one hand. To help with this, the X30 offers both a jog wheel and a D-pad. The jog wheel, which is on the left side, is handy for scrolling within pages and long lists. You can select things by pushing in on the wheel. Between the buttons on the front is a five-way D-Pad. I mostly used this when playing games.

Card Slot On the top you’ll find a slot for Secure Digital (SD) and Multimedia Cards (MMC). These are small memory cards that are about the size of a postage stamp but can hold surprising amounts of information. You can pick up a 512 MB SD card for as low as $100, on which you can store a tremendous number of additional applications, music, pictures, and lots of other types of files. Of course, you can find lower capacity ones for less money, but I recommend you go for a bigger one. You’ll find you can fill up a small card surprisingly quickly.

But this slot can be used for more than just memory cards. It supports SDIO, which means it can use peripherals that plug into the SD slot. I tested this with an SDIO peripheral I had on hand, and it worked just fine. Because it includes Windows Mobile SE, it you can use some of the dual function cards that are expected to hit the market. However, the only one of these I know about now is an upcoming card from SanDisk that offers both Wi-Fi and some Storage space, and this isn’t something you need with this model.

Infrared Port The forgotten stepchild of the wireless world is infrared. Every handheld worth its salt has an IR port, which can be used to exchange files and business cards with other handheld users. You can also use it to communicate with one of the infrared keyboards that are available. The X30’s IR port can be found on its top.

On the Inside

Read the Review of Windows Mobile SE Operating System The X30 is the very first model to hit the market running Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition for Pocket PC. Because of this, Brighthand is doing a review of its operating system as a separate article.

Processor The Axim X30 uses a 624 MHz Intel XScale processor. This is the first handheld to come out with a chip this fast.

I ran Spb Benchmark and got an overall score of 1764, significantly higher than the 1240 the X3i received. In fact, this is the highest score I’ve ever seen for any Pocket PC, which isn’t surprising considering how fast the processor is.

Memory RAM is used to store applications and files and also to run the applications. This model has 64 MB of RAM, almost all of which is available to the user.

In addition, the X30 includes a 31 MB file store, which is about 4 MB smaller than the one in the X3i. This acts like a built-in memory card where you can store applications and files. Between the file store and RAM, the X30 has 95 MB of storage. There are only a few handhelds on the market with more built-in memory.

Software

Switcher Bar Although Microsoft has ironed a lot of the minor inconveniences out of Windows Mobile 2003, there are still a few that continue to irritate users. The most notable of these is the fact that tapping on the X in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen doesn’t actually close an application, as it does in Windows. Instead, it is minimized and continues to run in the background, using up system resources. You can manually close apps, but it is way more complicated than it ought to be.

Therefore Dell has been kind enough to include on the X30 a handy application called Switcher Bar. This puts a small icon at the top of the screen that, when tapped on, displays a list of all running applications. This allows you to switch between them or, even better, quickly shut them down.

Of course, Switcher Bar isn’t the only application that does this but it’s nice that Dell went ahead and bundled it with this Pocket PC.

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 a X30 as their 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 X30 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.

Pocket Word in Landscape The X30 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 X30 comes with Windows Media Player for Pocket PC, which allows you to play MP3 files and video in the Windows Media format.

A standard-sized headphone jack can be found on its left side and you’ll probably want to listen to music through a pair of headphones, though a pair isn’t included.

A monophonic speaker is located on the back. This is loud enough that you probably won’t miss your alarms.

In addition, it includes an image viewer, which not only displays pictures, but also puts them together in a slide show.

Wireless Networking

For all its other excellent features, probably one of the main reasons you are considering getting this model, instead of another, is it offers both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless networking. Together, these can help you keep connected no matter where you go.

Wi-Fi Wi-Fi is great when you are in range of an access point. You can get one of these for your home for a fairly low cost and there might also be one at your office. In addition, numerous hotels, coffee shops, and bookstores have them. Wi-Fi offers a data transfer speed comparable to what you are used to on your PC, especially as you will probably mostly be using it to access the Web.

The X30’s Wi-Fi range is quite good. It can connect to my cheapie access point from anywhere in my house and only peters out at the end of my driveway. I’ve reviewed a couple of of other handhelds with built-in Wi-Fi, neither of which had an external antenna and neither of which had very good Wi-Fi range. That’s why I applaud Dell’s decision to include an antenna on this model.

With the latest version of Windows Mobile, Microsoft did an excellent job of simplifying the process of getting connected to a Wi-Fi access point. The first time I activated the wireless transceiver in the X30, it found my access point and asked me if I wanted to connect to it. A few seconds later I was surfing the Web. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Bluetooth Because the Axim X30 also includes Bluetooth, you don’t have to be out of touch when you can no longer connect to a Wi-Fi access point. You can use a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone as a modem to connect to the Internet from almost anywhere. This isn’t as fast as Wi-Fi but it’s acceptable for getting your email and surfing pages that have been designed for mobile devices.

The X30 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. Be sure to tell them what you are trying to accomplish.

Dell left Bluetooth out of the X3i, which limited its usefulness as a mobile communications tool. I’m glad to see it in the updated version.

Thankfully, you can have both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on at the same time. This means you can download your email via Wi-Fi while you’re typing a new message on one of the Bluetooth keyboards that are expected to hit the market soon.

So you don’t forget you have them on, a green light inside the X30’s antenna blinks when Wi-Fi is active, and a blue one blinks to indicate Bluetooth is on.

Internet Applications

Of course, just making an Internet connection is only the beginning. The X3O comes with a web browser and email application that let you do something with it.

Pocket IE in Landscape Web Browser Pocket Internet Explorer is like a miniature version of the desktop app. It allows you to visit almost any web site and supports important web standards like JavaScript, CSS, SSL, and more.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, the X30 is the first Pocket PC to allow you to easily switch between portrait and landscape support. This significantly improves the web surfing experience. It isn’t as good as it is on your desktop PC, but it’s better than with previous Pocket PCs.

Although most web sites are designed for larger screens, Pocket Internet Explorer gives you the option of reformatting sites down to the size of the X30’s screen. With landscape support, pages have to be shrunk to only 320 pixels wide. On older models, they had to be reduced to 240 pixels, which can be much too cramped.

You also have the option of making every page into one long column. Many pages break their content up into multiple columns. Pocket IE can display these pages so that all of the first column is displayed, then all of the second, then all of the third, and so on.

Email The X30 can handle more than web surfing. Email is also a requirement for any mobile communications tool. It comes with an application called Inbox, which can directly download and send email from a POP3 or IMAP4 account.

I do a lot of email reading and writing on my handhelds, and the X30’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 handheld.

Even if you don’t wirelessly access it, email on your handheld can also be synchronized with Microsoft Outlook on your desktop whenever you ActiveSync.

Battery Life

Wireless networking has significantly improved the usefulness of handhelds, but it has also significantly reduced their battery life. In my real world testing, I found that the Axim X30 can only go about 3.5 hours on a single battery charge.

I came up with this figure by using this Pocket PC as my primary handheld for several days. This means there were times when either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth were active, but they weren’t constantly on. After a total of 2.5 hours of use, I reached the point where Wi-Fi wouldn’t activate any more. This is something Windows Mobile does in an attempt to keep you from draining your battery too quickly. At 3 hours I got the first warning that my battery was low. Anything after that and you are living on borrowed time. I stretched the battery out another half hour, but eventually decided I wasn’t in the mood for a hard reset and plugged the X30 in.

Fortunately, Dell put some forethought into this model and gave it a swappable battery. The one it comes with is 950 mAh. You can get a second one of these for $49 and double your battery life.

Or you can invest in an 1800 mAh battery that should really allow you to go a long time without charges. Dell was kind enough to loan me one of these, and I’ll be doing a review of it in the near future.

Accessories

Stylus I know the stylus doesn’t seem like as important a part of a handheld as, say, the processor, but remember that almost every time you use the handheld you’ll be making use of the stylus. If you’ve ever had a model with a poorly-designed one, you’ll really come to understand how important this can be.

The X3 series uses one of the better styli I’ve used in a while. It is a good length and has been flattened, which means that though it takes up little room inside the handheld, it fits comfortably in my hand.

Cradle Although I’m not overly fond of the looks of the X30 itself, I love the cradle, which somehow manages to be both professional looking and really cool. It sports a metallic-chrome skin and a glowing Dell logo.

On the practical side, in addition to allowing the X30 to recharge and connect to your PC, it has a separate slot that can recharge either of the swappable batteries.

Case The bad news is this model, like far too many handhelds, doesn’t come with a flip cover. The good news is the case it does come with is nice looking and made of leather, not some cheap plastic. But I guess this is what I should expect from a company based in Texas.

The case comes with a loop that allows you to keep it on your belt. This is nice… if you actually want to keep it on your belt. Otherwise, it makes the case thicker than it really needs to be. After extended use, I found myself wishing for a case that wasn’t so bulky. I suspect a lot of X30 users will find themselves researching third-party case alternatives.

Conclusion

Dell has taken everything that was good about the Axim X3i and added some nice additional features, like Bluetooth. The X30 isn’t as pretty as the HP iPAQ h4155, but it costs considerably less.

The Axim X30’s combination of a fast processor, lots of memory, and built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for less than $350 makes it an amazingly good deal.

If you can live with this same setup but with a processor that is only 312MHz, you can get a version of the X30 that is only $279. Dell is currently offering a $30 instant rebate for this model, reducing the price to just $249.

If you don’t want wireless at all, you can get a “bare-bones” Axim X30 for $199.


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