Dell Axim X30 Review

by Adama D. Brown Reads (153,475)
  • Pros

    • Exceptional pricing
    • Thin and light
    • Dual wireless
    • Newest operating system
    • Excellent battery life

  • Cons

    • Serious software issues associated with landscape
    • Intense processor usage can eat battery


The Dell Axim X30, Dell’s newest Pocket PC and successor to the X3i, packs a 624 MHz PXA270 processor, dual wireless, and Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition into a single package, priced at an incredible $349.  In all Dell has released three different cofigurations of the Axim X30:  The Axim X30 312MHz with no wireless, Axim X30 312MHz with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and the Axim X30 624MHz with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Left, Axim X3i. Right, Axim X30.

From the outside, the X30 is literally indistinguishable from the Axim X3i. It’s the same case, buttons, battery, screen, and all the rest. I assume that this is part of what makes the X30′s price so low–zero cost for hardware re-engineering, other than the motherboard. Also like the X3 series, the X30s come in three different flavors–low, middle, and high-end configurations. In Dell’s parlance, these are the 312, 312 combo, and 624 combo units.

The “312″ is priced at $199, has a 312 MHz processor (hence the name), 32 MB RAM, 32 MB ROM, and is otherwise nearly indistinguishable from the X3 series Basic unit, right down to the USB sync cable. The “312 combo” likewise runs at 312 MHz, but other than that it bears little resemblence to its cheaper sibling. Its price is set at $249, and the extra $50 buys 64 MB RAM, 64 MB ROM (30.8 MB user accessible) and dual wireless, Bluetooth and WiFi. The 312 combo also gains 5 grams in weight, and the slightly less than quarter-inch long antenna.

As if the price point of the 312 combo weren’t enough to get the blood pumping, the 624 combo gets things really interesting. It has the memory and dual wireless of the 312 combo, plus a cradle with a charging slot for a second battery, and Intel’s newest and fastest processor available: the 624 MHz XScale PXA270. The 624 combo unit is priced at $349, a unbeliveable price point for such a loaded unit.

Design

Front and rear, the casing is smooth silver plastic, seperated by matte black plastic along all the edges. It’s a standard ‘tablet’ style Pocket PC, nothing particularly unusual about it. The overall design is squared off and rather boxy, reminiscent of it’s Axim predecessor, or one of the older Toshiba Pocket PCs. Personally I like the design and feel of the X30–it rests nicely in the hand, and has a pleasently compact feel to it, even though the edges aren’t quite as comfortable for gripping as some others. It’s best to let it sit in your hand, or to hold it front and back, rather than grip it by the edges.

Bottom front are the six application buttons. By default, the first five of these are mapped to the 5 usual Pocket PC applications. The sixth, depending on whether you have a wireless model or not, either toggles wireless on and off or launches Windows Media Player. The buttons are the typical round, depressed Axim style, with a good key travel and tactile response. The two on the edges are a little more dodgy because of their design, but still quite usable for application launching and such. I quite like the design of the directional pad–it’s firm, has good tactile response, and you almost never hit the wrong direction. Also, it fares pretty well in landscape mode as well.

On top, from left to right, we see the stylus; wireless antenna, with both Bluetooth and WiFi symbols; SD card slot; and IR port.

The stylus is the same as has been used on all the Axims, the ‘skinny metal fish’. Just as that implies, it is entirely made of aluminum except for the writing tip, which is translucent white plastic. It’s a good quality stylus, however the slight flattening may not sit well depending on how you like to hold it. The antenna is a translucent grey plastic nub, about a quarter inch tall, that houses both the wireless antenna and the activity LEDs for Bluetooth and WiFi. There’s a blue LED that lights continuously as long as Bluetooth is active, and a green LED that flashes to indicate WiFi activity, each residing in the antenna under their respective symbols.

The left side of the X30 holds the jog dial and headphone jack. I love this kind of jog dial–it’s a ‘lever’ type, which means that you push it up or down rather than rotating it, and you can continue to scroll without having to readjust your fingers to keep cranking, as you would have to do on a wheel type. All three directions on the dial feel very solid, great tactile response, a real pleasure to use.

On the back is the battery pack and latch, reset button, and speaker.

 

Hardware

Processor: Intel XScale PXA270 “Bulverde” processor at 312 or 624 MHz
Operating System:  Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition
Display: 3.5 inch 240 x 320 pixel 16-bit color transreflective hybrid LCD
Memory: 64 MB RAM, 64 MB flash ROM, 30.8 MB user accessible (312 combo and 624 combo models); 32 MB RAM, 32 MB ROM (312 model)
Size & Weight 4.6 inches long (4.82 with antenna) x 3.0 inches wide x 0.55″ thick, 4.7 ounces (312 model) or 4.9 ounces (312 combo and 624 combo models)
Expansion: One SD slot with support for SDIO
Docking:

22 pin docking connector, identical to X3 series, for USB sync cable or cradle

Communication: Integrated 802.11b WiFi and Class 2 Bluetooth (312 combo and 624 combo models only)
Audio: Monaural speaker, internal microphone, stereo 3.5mm heaphone jack
Battery: 3.7 volt, 950 milliamp-hour standard battery; optional 3.7v 1800 mAh extended battery
Input: 6 remappable application buttons, 5-way directional pad, touchscreen
Software: Dell WLAN utility, Resco Picture Viewer, Outlook 2002
Other: Consumer-grade IR for universal remote control

 

Processor

The X30′s 624 MHz PXA270 is by a long ways the most powerful processor ever put in a Pocket PC. Besides the raw clock speed, the new PXA270s featured in the X30 series include better energy efficiency, Wireless MultiMedia Instructions (or ‘WMMX’) for improved multimedia performance, and a new 32 bit interface. All this adds up to a greater flexibility between low power consumption when wanted, and faster processor performance when needed.

I put the X30′s processor through two sets of tests: objective, and subjective. For objective testing and comparison to other units, I used SPB Benchmark to run the X30 through its paces, and compare it to competing Pocket PCs.

As you can see, the X30 has a substantial lead in every category. It is, quite simply, the fastest Pocket PC currently available.

My subjective testing was a little different. Just for kicks, I dropped some good-sized video onto an SD card and fired up Beta Player on the X30. The video I used was entirely desktop material–near DVD quality, 700 by 400 pixel and above DivX files encoded at 400+ kilobits per second. Stuff that would have made my antique 266 MHz laptop balk. The X30 played them. Not with total fluidity, but it played them. Noticible frame drops happened on high motion scenes, but this is to be expected with video that hasn’t been at all optimized. Frankly, the fact that it could play them at all is impressive. I can’t wait to see what the PXA270 can do when available video players have been rewritten to take full advantage of it, let alone what it’ll look like paired with Intel’s Marathon graphics chip.

Somewhere else that you can see the raw speed of the PXA270 is in ordinary operations. Compared to my X3i, the X30 is noticibly faster in listing large directory contents, opening books, and all the other little things that you don’t usually think of as processor intensive operations. In a word, this thing is fast, fast, fast.

 

Operating System

The X30 is the first handheld to come to market with Microsoft’s newest operating system update, known as ‘Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition for the Pocket PC’. Rumor has it that they had to put landscape support into the OS just to be able to display the entire name on one line. The most significant features of SE are support for 480 x 640 pixel VGA screens, ‘on the fly’ screen rotation between portrait and landscape display orientations, and enhanced wireless security in the form of WiFi Protected Access, also known as WPA.

Lacking a VGA screen, the X30 doesn’t have much use for this component. Far more useful is the ability to instantly switch between portrait and landscape. It may not sound like a big deal, but for web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets, or anything that depends on the available display width, it’s a very big deal. The rotation is done through a new version of the Screen applet in the system settings, and it provides a choice between portrait, right-handed landscape, and left-handed landscape. Left and right handed landscape mean that it rotates the screen so that you would hold the stylus with your left or right hand, and operate the buttons with the other. Also, unlike some existing third-party screen rotation programs for prior OS versions, you don’t need to soft-reset the device when changing from portrait to landscape or vice versa.

Microsoft has also done an decent job in converting over all of the built-in system software for seamless landscape use. Unfortunately, most existing third-party PocketPC software doesn’t have the advantage of being immediately compatible. Some applications seem to make the transition well, behaving the way you would expect them to. Others have problems ranging from minor to serious, many of which can prevent them from functioning properly, such as not realizing that the screen shape has changed, or not knowing how to redraw properly. And some simply refuse to run in landscape whatsoever, forcing you to soft-reset–at the least–before you can return to portrait mode. Besides that, operating in landscape mode seems to result in a very unusual number of lockups, many from things no more unusual that tapping the Start menu or opening the Settings. Sometimes I would get stuck in a loop where the device would lock up from landscape mode, I would reset it, then like that a few seconds after I had reset it. In fact, at least once while I was testing the X30, just such a problem caused by rotating the screen resulted in a spontaneous hard reset. As you might imagine, that was a very unpleasent discovery. So, my advice is this–if you plan to run existing third-party software in landscape, maintain current backups.

I hope that this is some kind of haywire result from trying to use incompatible third-party software in landscape, and most of the bugs will disappear as applications are updated to take advantage of the landscape capabilities offered in 2003SE. Unfortunately, if it isn’t, then SE’s landscape mode isn’t very useful.

WiFi Protected Access allows more secure encryption and authentication than the basic functions supported by the WiFi standard. Not content to settle with this, Dell added a client for LEAP, PEAP, and EAP security standards. Add these to the pre-existing support for 802.1x, and with all the wireless security features it supports, the X30 would make an excellent enterprise unit, able to connect to just about any kind of setup you can imagine.

The OS update also makes a lot of minor visual and aesthetic changes, as well as tweaks to the way the OS behaves. Nothing too major, but you’ll notice a new Welcome screen, new default Today theme, changed handling of the “recent programs” list, etcetera. Overall, the changes are nice, adding a little more visual style and a more XP-esque look. The one thing that I do have a complaint about is that Microsoft reshuffled the connection management system, AGAIN–not enough to be a significant change, but just enough that I can’t exactly duplicate the settings from one Axim to the other and be sure that they’ll work.

And lastly, as with Microsoft’s last new OS, you’ll need to update your copy of ActiveSync, this time to version 3.7.1. According to Microsoft, this version improves USB connection stability and recognition.

 

Display

The X30′s display is a transmissive/reflective hybrid, sometimes called transreflective or transflective. This means that it can both transmit light from an internal backlight, as well as reflect bright ambient light, to make it usable both indoors and out. It’s essentially the same screen used in the X3 series, with most of the same charateristics. Both share the same maximum brightness, 100 ‘nits’. (In case you were wondering, a ‘nit’ is defined as “A unit of illuminative brightness equal to one candle per square meter, measured perpendicular to the rays of the source.” Or the eggs of a parasitic insect, but I’m pretty sure it’s the former in this case.) The lowest settings on the X3i seem a little higher than the lowest settings on the X30, but that’s just nitpicking, no pun intended. In any event, I like having a nice, low ‘low’ setting for using in the dark, so it’s actual a plus.

Left, Dell Axim X30. Right, Dell Axim X3i.

When compared side to side, the X3i’s whites look a little bit bluer, whereas the X30′s seem more off-white. Color depth and definition is excellent, and the display itself is free of defects, streaking, and dead pixels. I would give the nod to the X30′s screen as being a little bit better, just for the whites. Overall, it is an excellent screen.

 

Memory

The middle and high-end X30s have a pretty typical amount of memory. True, it’s not over generous, but I much prefer having the additional internal flash memory over more RAM, since the flash doesn’t need power and won’t be lost in a hard-reset. The 32 MB on the 312 could definitely get cozy, however, even more so because it doesn’t have the extra amount of flash ROM. A memory card would definitely be required for most things. Fortunately, the price of flash memory has been dropping lately.

 

Size & Weight

Certainly no source of complaints. The X30 is about as tiny as you can expect, and is a featherweight to boot. It fits easily into just about any pocket, and at 4.9 ounces for the ‘combo’ units, you’ll barely even notice it’s there.

 

Expansion

Nothing remarkable here. The X30 is equipped with a single SD card slot with 4-bit interface and support for SDIO. According to Dell’s own specs, the slot will support memory cards up to and including 1 gigabyte.

 

Docking

The X30 series has retained the same 22-pin docking connector as the X3 family, so all the existing cables and cradles work perfectly. Similarly, the cradle for the X30 is exactly identical to the one for the X3, right down to the battery slot and ribbing along the sides. The connector provides a USB Device connection to a desktop or laptop PC, serial capabilities, and connection to an optional keyboard.

 

Communication

By default, when you first press the button to power on the X30′s wireless module, it switches on both the WiFi and Bluetooth transceivers. To override this, and use only one radio at once, you can use the icons in the tray of the today screen to disable one or both. The only catch is that if you toggle wireless off then on again using the wireless power button, then both wireless modules will wake up.

The X30 has a quite admirable WiFi implementation. Range was very good, even with power management enabled. Power consumption is excellent–you can easily get over 4 hours of WiFi on a single standard battery, and the 1800 mAh extended battery could last you through an entire 8 hour day of WiFi usage.

Unfortunately, Dell opted to replace the excellent WiFi scanner/analysis program built-in to the X3i in favor of a new, less capable program. It’s still fine for connecting to your network of choice, but not as good for ‘sniffing’ the area, listing nearby hotspots, and the like. That’s okay, if you really want that there are third-party alternatives, but it was just nice having a capable sniffer built-in.

The X30′s Bluetooth module is a Class 2 transceiver, meaning that it has a maximum range of about 33 feet. It’s based on the Bluetooth 1.1 specification, but Dell’s documents mention a ‘migration path’ to Bluetooth 1.2, so we may see that in a future ROM update. Bluetooth 1.2 adds “Adaptive Frequency Hopping” to reduce interference, improves voice connection quality, and improves speed. None of these are terrible urgent items for the X30, but it’s nice to that the potential is there. The X30′s Bluetooth implementation also includes WiFi coexistence support, so that you can run the Bluetooth and WiFi radios simultaneously without them interfering with each other or other wireless devices around them. All the usual profiles are supported, such as file transfer, phone link, network access, object exchange, serial port, ActiveSync, PAN, and the like. It’s a very nice implementation of Bluetooth, complete with a setup and management program that manages to be reasonably user-friendly without making it too simplistic for power users. Also, the PIM applications have Bluetooth context menu items, such as ‘Send via Bluetooth’ and ‘Dial via Bluetooth’. The only oversight is File Manager’s lack of a ‘Send via Bluetooth’ option for files, but I think that’s more Microsoft than Dell.

Audio

The X30′s audio hardware isn’t really any different than any other Pocket PC. Internal microphone for audio recording, monaural speaker for notifications and alarms, and 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. Speaker volume is the same as the X3i, which is to say that it’s good for alarms. Microphone quality depends on the settings used for recording, but if you crank the quality up to the top, it is excellent. It would make a great digital audio recorder.

 

Battery

For the battery tests, I stuck to SPB Benchmark. A little bit of explanation follows each test result, and as always, these tests are mostly pessimistic, intended to represent a minimum expectation of battery life.

Maximum brightness, “standard usage” test: 3 hours, 10 minutes

This test seems odd until you think about it. Less battery life with wireless off than with it on? Huh? Well, it actually does make sense. The SPB Benchmark definition of ‘standard usage’ is to repeatedly open a large document. Thus, the system is continually kicking in that 624 MHz of processor power to open it faster, and that takes some juice. In contrast, the wireless modules are very efficient in their use of power, even more so than the processor.

Maximum brightness, WiFi on (auto-off at 25% remaining), Bluetooth on: 3 hours, 48 minutes

Read that again and think about it. Almost four hours with wireless on, most of that with WiFi on, and the screen at maximum. It makes you wonder, how long would you get if you cranked the screen down a ways? At least, it made me wonder that, so I ran a test on that basis.

50% brightness, WiFi on, Bluetooth on: 4 hours, 31 minutes

For dual wireless, this is nothing short of an exceptional result. It’s even better if you remember that after the system forcibly deactivated WiFi at the 14% mark, the battery went for another 1 hour and 56 minutes with Bluetooth on, for a grand total of 6 hours and 27 minutes of wireless battery life at 50% brightness. In comparison, its competitor, the iPaq 4150, only managed 3 hours and 45 minutes on a similar brightness without any active wireless. Also in comparison, the original Dell Axim X5, renowned for its battery life, only lasted 7 and 1/2 hours at 50% brightness with no wireless at all. In addition, the extended battery option would offer nearly double the results shown here, easily offering 8 hours of dual wireless, 15+ hours of Bluetooth, or the ability to watch Gangs of New York on a long flight. Twice.

The X30 can certainly compete, not just handily beating its competitors in the ultralight arena but going toe to toe with the best available Pocket PCs for battery life.

 

Input

Since I’ve already addressed everything except the touchscreen, I’ll cover that by noting that it is of excellent quality, solid, with little to no undesired flexing.

 

Software

Dell has never been terribly generous with third-party software in its bundles, and this is no exception. As a matter of fact, aside from ActiveSync and Outlook 2002, the only full-version application bundled with the X30s is the rather marginal Resco Picture Viewer. Everything else is trial and demo versions, such as Scrabble, TotalRemote, HandyZip, Resco File Explorer, etcetera. No matter. I’d rather pay less for the unit and pick my own software than get lumped with something I don’t need. I realize that this sentiment isn’t universal, and that some new users might be better suited by being handed a ready-made stack of software, but I think Dell has the right strategy in keeping the price low and letting people get only the software they need with the money they saved.

 

Remote

The X30 also includes a high-power infrared port, making it suitable for use as a universal infrared remote control, in case you like to mix web browsing and home theater. I’ve never used this too much, but there’s no denying that it’s rather cool, particularly as a backup to losing a remote. To take advantage of the capability, you’ll need appropriate software that can ‘learn’ your existing remote controls and replace them. Dell ships a demo of Total Remote with the X30 for this purpose, though there are others as well. While you can make an IR remote out of any handheld, the X30′s high-power IR port makes it easier to hit your components from 15-20 feet away.

 

Conclusion

The X30 is a dazzling little piece of hardware for its mixture of capabilities and price. Aside from some non-critical software glitches that hopefully will be ironed out in time, it has just about everything that you can pack into a machine of its size. The only things that you could possibly say it lacks are a VGA screen and CompactFlash slot, neither of which would be easy to fit into such a tiny machine. I don’t feel any hesitation in saying that the X30 is the new reigning champion of ultralight Pocket PCs.

 

Pros:

  • Exceptional pricing
  • Thin and light
  • Dual wireless
  • Newest operating system
  • Excellent battery life

Cons:

  • Serious software issues associated with landscape
  • Intense processor usage can eat battery

Bottom Line:

Price, power, size, features, and longevity. In its weight class, the Axim X30 is very hard to beat.

Availability and Pricing:

The Axim X30 is available through Dell.com.  Follow these links to view the latest pricing:


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