Brighthand Reviews the Dell Axim X3i

by Ed Hardy Reads (0)

Dell recently broadened its handheld offerings by releasing the Axim X3 series. This series has several models with various processor speeds and amounts of memory, but all of them have the same look and feel. One of these devices is called the Axim X3i, and it’s the first Pocket PC under $400 that comes with built-in Wi-Fi.

On the Outside

The appearance of this model is long on practicality, short on style. It’s very rectangular, with hardly a curve to be found.

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.

Screen The X3i has a 3.5 inch,16-bit color screen at the Pocket PC-standard resolution of 240 by 320 pixels. These days, this is near the bottom in screen resolution for a handheld. There are quite a few Palm OS models with twice this number of pixels, and Toshiba just announced 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 useable outdoors too. In fact, I found it readable even in direct sunlight. There are some additional pictures comparing the screen brightness of the X3i with other handhelds on this page.

Buttons The X3i 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. These can also 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.

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 Wi-Fi transceiver. As Wi-Fi is a major battery hog, you don’t want to leave it on if you aren’t using it and having a button to quickly turn it on and off is very convenient.

Navigation Aids Though 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 X3i 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.

Speaking of playing games, while this isn’t the X3i’s primary focus, it handled the job fairly well. I didn’t notice a delay when pushing the buttons or anything like that.

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 about $150, 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 card 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.

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. The X3i’s IR port can be found on its top.

On the Inside

Windows Mobile Operating System The X3i runs Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC. This latest version includes an improved system for wireless networking, which comes in handy with the X3i’s built-in Wi-Fi.

Processor The Axim X3i uses a 400 MHz Intel XScale processor. This is the same speed as the processor in last year’s Axim X5 Advance but the newer model offers much better performance. I ran Spb Benchmark and got an overall score of 1240, significantly higher than the 752 the X5 Advance running Pocket PC 2002 received.

The X3i scored higher than the iPAQ h2215, which also has a 400 MHz processor. The iPAQ’s overall score was 1146.

Memory RAM is used to store applications and files and to run the applications. This model has 64 MB of RAM, all of which is available to the user. In addition, the X3i includes a 35 MB file store. This acts like a built-in memory card where you can store applications and files. Together, they give you 99 MB of Storage on the device. There are only a few Pocket PCs with more memory, and no Palm OS ones.

Software

Switcher Bar Though 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 X3i 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 X3i 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 X3i 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.

The email application can be synchronized with Outlook. I do a lot of email reading and writing on my handhelds, and the X3i’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.

The X3i 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 X3i 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 left side of the X3i and you’ll probably want to listen to music through a pair of headphones, though a pair isn’t included with the X3i.

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 built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking.

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 X3i’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 X3i, 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 It doesn’t take a detective to deduce that the original design of the X3i sported Bluetooth as well as Wi-Fi. When Dell submitted the Axim X3i to the FCC for approval, the device had Bluetooth. In fact, the units that are in consumers’ hands now have a Bluetooth logo on their antenna.

When I asked a Dell spokesperson about this, she said her company decided to cut Bluetooth out of this design during user testing, as people felt the integrated Wi-Fi was good enough. The cost of adding both wireless networking standards was also a factor.

I strongly disagree with this decision. Wi-Fi is great for use around the home or office, but once you are more than 300 feet from an access point, the party is over. That’s where Bluetooth steps in. In partnership with a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone, you can access the Internet from almost anywhere, though not as fast as with Wi-Fi.

Fortunately, this isn’t the end of the story. Dell intends to release a model with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth by the middle of next year.

Internet Applications Of course, just making an Internet connection is only the beginning. The X3i comes with a web browser and email application that let you do something with it.

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. While it is doable, surfing the web on the X3i isn’t one of its strong points. Sadly, it is somewhat limited by the handheld’s 240-by-320 pixel screen. The problem is, most web sites are formatted for desktop or laptop screens that are at least 600 pixels wide, and looking at them on a screen that is just 240 pixels wide makes for a lot of scrolling. Pocket Internet Explorer gives you the option of reformatting sites down to the size of a handheld’s screen but this gives mixed results. It would be better if this application supported landscape mode, so you could use the widest part of the screen, but it doesn’t.

In addition to being able to synchronize with Outlook on your desktop, Inbox can directly download email from a POP3 or IMAP4 account.

Battery Life

Unfortunately, like a lot of wireless-enabled handhelds, the length of time the X3i will run on a single charge isn’t its strong point. In fact, it is actually pretty short. I’ve found that I get about three hours of use out of each charge. That’s enough for one day’s use for me, but I have to remember to recharge it every night.

This isn’t a torture test where I keep the device on until the battery is dead. I’m using the X3i normally and tracking the amount of time it takes to drain the battery with an excellent application called BatMemTime. This includes some Wi-Fi use but I’m careful to not leave the transceiver on unless I’m actually using it. The backlight is on at half strength.

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. I wasn’t able to review this extended battery but I know, unlike the lower capacity ones, that it doesn’t fit entirely inside the handheld, adding to its bulk.

Accessories

Stylus I know the stylus doesn’t seem like as important a part of the handhelds 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 part 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 Though I’m not overly fond of the looks of the X3i 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 X3i 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.

Value

The Axim X3i’s list price is $380, which makes it one of the lowest-priced Wi-Fi enabled handhelds on the market. However, you can frequently find its competitors for about the same price this handheld goes for. Still, its combination of a fast processor, lots of memory, and built-in Wi-Fi for less than $400 makes this a good deal.

Conclusion

I wish the Axim X3i offered a flip cover and Bluetooth, but I think most users will be happy with this model. Plus, built-in Wi-Fi adds so much to the usability of a handheld that I think Dell has another winner on its hands.


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