HP iPAQ rx5915 Review

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The iPAQ rx5915, HP’s newest handheld, reaches for new markets with an integrated GPS receiver and 2 GB of flash memory.

Design & Construction

I was rather pleasantly surprised by the form-factor of the rx5915–looking at the photos, I had been expecting a larger device. In reality, though, the new iPAQ is only a bit larger than my Axim X51v, and smaller than most dedicated GPS receivers like the TomTom One.

Side controls, left to right: power, status LED, screen rotate, media player, GPS navigation, Quick Launch

The rx5915 is the first iPAQ designed specifically for a landscape orientation. By default, the system starts up with the directional pad on the right hand side of the screen. If you don’t like this orientation, however, among the application buttons along that edge of the case is a button to rotate the screen. Pressing it once switches you to a portrait orientation with the directional pad below the screen and the buttons on the bottom. Keep pressing it, and you’ll rotate through all four possible screen orientations, including 180 and 270 degree rotation.

The design itself is a little bit reminiscent of the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, with a landscape screen and squared-off directional pad above the centerline on one side of the display. The iPAQ, however, is much smaller and lighter than the Nokia, and has more features besides.

The only real ports on the iPAQ are the SD card slot and a series of three jacks tucked into one side of the device: mini-USB, headphones, and an MMCX jack for an external GPS antenna.

I could be happier with the directional pad. Instead of a more common two-piece affair, where the center action button is physically separate, the new iPAQ’s directional pad is all one piece. This, combined with the fact that it’s a little squishy, makes it difficult at times to hit the center without also pressing a direction, or vice versa.

One thing that the rx5915 is definitely not equipped for is one-handed navigation. Besides the conspicuous lack of softkeys, the buttons are arranged in such a way that, when the screen is oriented for conventional portrait use, the application buttons are on the underside of the case. Add to that the marginal directional pad, and limited one-hand functionality can be achieved, but the rx5915 is clearly a stylus-based unit.

Being also a GPS based unit, this iPAQ comes with a snap-in automotive mount. It’s a fairly simple affair, with two flexible axes controlled by screw-knobs, and a large suction-cup base. You can let the iPAQ sit in the holder like a cradle in the default orientation, or you can clamp it in and turn it any which way.

Hardware

Processor: 400 MHz Samsung CPU
Operating System: Windows Mobile 5.1 (Pocket PC) with AKU 2.6
Display: 3.5 inch, 320 x 240 transmissive/reflective LCD with anti-glare surface
Memory: 64 MB RAM; 2 GB flash memory (1.8 GB available to user)
Expansion: Single SD/SDIO/MMC slot
Docking: Single Mini-USB plug
Communication: 802.11g Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 2.0
Camera None
Audio: Internal speaker; 3.5mm headphone jack
Size: 4.75 inches long x 3.0 inches wide x 0.65 inches thick; 6.0 ounces
Battery: 3.7v, 1700 milliamp-hour rechargeable/replaceable Lithium Ion
Input: 5 re-mappable buttons; touchscreen; 5-way directional pad
Other: Built-in SiRFstar III GPS receiver with internal antenna & external jack

 

Processor

This iPAQ is one of the few devices to use Samsung’s 400 MHz processor. Previous iPAQs have used Samsung processors at and under 300 MHz, but recently the line has been almost entirely XScale based.

Using the Linpack benchmark tool for Windows Mobile, the processor in the rx5915 scored at 1.3 megaflops of pure computing power. This compares to about 2.0 mflops for my 624 MHz Axim. From this, we can reasonably deduce that the 400 MHz Samsung processor is about as fast as an equivalently clocked XScale PXA270 chip.

Operating System

Among the customizations to the OS that HP has included is a new alternative launcher, called Quick Launch. It’s a simplified launcher screen which provides access to some commonly used applications such as the GPS navigation program, Internet Explorer, games, etcetera. Other preloaded software includes the HP photo viewer, HP’s standard Today screen plug-in, and Worldmate, which is a combination of world clock, weather forecast, and currency/unit converter.

HP Quick Launch screen

Unfortunately, the pre-production iPAQ that I received seems to suffer from more than a little bit of buggy software. The system will sometimes hitch or fail to respond to input, and overall performance is slow. At a couple points, I had to soft-reset before I could connect to a Wi-Fi network. Hopefully these are problems which will be worked out in the production units.

Display

It a most unusual but highly welcome move, the iPAQ’s touchscreen comes straight from the factory with an anti-glare coating on the screen. This makes it possible to use the device comfortably even in a bright environment without needing a third-party anti-glare filter like those from PocketPCTechs or Boxwave. The iPAQ’s coating also seems to double as a screen protector, protecting the display against most scratches and scuffing. Of course, if you’re concerned about longer term wear on your screen, you should still get an additional screen protector of some kind, since the iPAQ’s screen covering doesn’t appear to be removable or replaceable.

While it’s only QVGA resolution, the screen is more than adequate to the task of GPS navigation, along with some video. Maybe I’ve simply been staring at too many 2.2 and 2.8 inch phone-device screens lately, but the 3.5 inch display in the iPAQ seems quite large and comfortable. It could be larger, of course, or have a VGA resolution, but I’m mostly just happy that HP has produced a device which has an adequate viewable area.

Memory

With the listing of 2 GB of internal flash memory in the specs, I suspect that many people are going to be disappointed to open the box and find only around 300 MB available to the user. The reason for this is that 1.5 GB is taken up straight out of the box by a set of hidden files in the "iPAQ File Store" area. These files are, of course, the preloaded TomTom Navigator maps for the United States and Canada (in the North American version of the device, at least–overseas models may vary).

Because the files are hidden, you can’t see or delete them with the standard File Explorer, leading to the belief that they’re in the device ROM. In fact, they’re not. Using a third-party tool such as Resco File Explorer you can find and manipulate them as you like. However, at least on my preproduction device, there were no included discs for the mapping software. Hence, if you ever wanted to use the included maps again, you would have to take special care to back them up, and hope that there aren’t any copy-protection mechanisms to stop you from putting them back later.

So the short version of this whole screed is that it is indeed possible to use almost the entire 2 GB of internal memory, but you need to take a few measures in order to do so. Frankly, I’d find it much simpler and more preferable to buy a 4 GB SD card and stick it in the slot if you really want that much extra storage. The risk of damaging the maps isn’t worth it.

Expansion

A single SDIO slot provides the rx5915 with memory expansion up to 4 GB, as well as SDIO peripherals. The latter is pretty much useless, though, as the three major SDIO peripherals available are Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS cards, all of which are integrated on the rx5915.

Docking

With the advent of the rx5915, HP drops the classic iPAQ connector in favor of the increasingly popular mini-USB port for both power and data. Just for good measure, rather than the typical AC adapter with a mini-USB plug, they include AC and auto power adapters–which simply provide powered USB ports–and a pair of mini-USB cables.

The good news? Well, normally it would be standardized and easily replaceable parts. You can get these sort of power adapters for dirt-cheap on eBay or most PDA accessory sites, as well as mini-USB cables. However, in testing it turns out that the iPAQ won’t charge from other brands of mini-USB power cables and power supplies, or even from a different kind of USB wall adapter. Couple that with the other bad news: With two cables and only one USB port on the device, you’re faced with a choice between charging the device quickly, and having it connected to your PC. The latter will charge it as well, but much more slowly than the wall adapter. Also, all previous iPAQ docking cradles, cables, and accessories are now solidly out the window.

Communication

No complaints here. Besides the slightly more common 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, the rx5915 is one of the first Pocket PCs to feature Bluetooth 2.0. One of the major specifications of Bluetooth 2.0 is the inclusion of Enhanced Data Rate functionality, which roughly triples Bluetooth speed. However, to take advantage of this you have to have EDR-capable devices on both ends of the connection. Bluetooth 2.0 is increasingly common on new laptops, and some high-end phones, but if you have older hardware you’ll have to content yourself with traditional Bluetooth speeds.

Wi-Fi performance was a little problematic to test. Thanks apparently to some of the preproduction software bugs I had trouble getting and staying connected to my Netgear router. For the most part, though, Wi-Fi functions were normal, with adequate speed and response. Though the iPAQ is rated at 802.11g, you probably won’t see a performance boost over devices with the older 802.11b, since the Wi-Fi standard itself isn’t the bottleneck in most mobile devices.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t test the increased Bluetooth speed that’s part of the 2.0 spec, since I don’t have any other BT2 hardware available. Otherwise, Bluetooth performed quite acceptable. The device does not, however, support the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile, or A2DP, that allows for Bluetooth headphones–when I connected to my dirt-cheap Bluetooth earbuds, the only option presented by the iPAQ was headset/handsfree.

Audio

For reasons unknown in a device designed for GPS the internal speaker faces to the back, where it will be muffled when using the enclosed vehicle mount. It’s fairly powerful alone, but once you cover it you get a significant drop-off. Fortunately, you still have the standard 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can wire the system directly to your car stereo if you have the ports and the desire.

Battery

At a whopping 1700 mAh, the iPAQ has one of the largest standard batteries for current Pocket PCs, all the better to drive its many functions. While I’ve had a limited amount of time to test the device, I’ve found its battery performance for most tasks more than adequate. Running a simulated trip in TomTom, with the GPS receiver on and locked, the iPAQ ran for just over four and a half hours before shutting down.

GPS

The GPS module in the rx5915 is a SiRFstarIII, arguably the best GPS receiver that you can get short of surveyors’ models or military hardware. It has the capacity for up to 20 channels, meaning 20 satellites tracked at one time–although until the European Union’s Galileo system is operational this capability is somewhat limited since significantly fewer than 20 satellites are visible at any given time. The SiRFstarIII also supports both the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) for the United States and its European equivalent (EGNOS). These systems provide increased accuracy by calculating and broadcasting error corrections for the standard GPS satellites.

The major feature of the SiRFstarIII, however, is its sensitivity and processing power. It’s famed for being able to track satellites better and through more obstacles, such as heavy foliage and urban canyons, than other receivers can. Lacking more than one building taller than three stories in the nearby area, I set out to stress test it in other ways. It succeeded in getting a GPS lock from the first floor, south-facing living room of my house, something which my SiRFstarII-based Bluetooth receiver couldn’t do unless placed directly in a window.

At first I thought that the receiver wasn’t as sensitive to movement as my Bluetooth receiver is. With the Bluetooth GPS, it will notice if you move it more than a couple of inches. However, after some more testing, I determined that the iPAQ GPS is actually somewhat slow to respond, causing it to be insensitive to smaller movements. I don’t know if this is the result of the system bugs which I mentioned earlier,or some other independent software flaw, but it’s definitely annoying. The system needed a good five seconds to update my position during one test, and then snapped straight from "60 yards" to "arrival" with nothing in between.

The preloaded software and maps are TomTom Navigator 6, the latest version for what is one of the major brands of navigation software. Unfortunately "major brands" aren’t aways perfect. I can’t say that I love TomTom’s interface, particularly with regard to setting a destination address. Instead of logically starting with the most local part of the address and working outward, you have to put in the city and state first, then select a road, then input a number. On top of that, the maps placed my house about 200 feet to the west of where it actually was–had I blindly followed the GPS directions, I’d have driven into the ditch on the edge of the old corn field.

Glitches aside, the amount of map data on this thing is truly stunning. 1.5 gigabytes, covering the entire United States and most of Canada. Just for the hell of it, I instructed it to plot a route from my home to Vancouver and back. After thinking about it for less than a minute, the system informed me that it would be 5,610 miles, taking 97 hours and 44 minutes. Nor is it just main roads, but almost every packed-dirt backwoods rat trap you could think of, including roads with no names. On top of all that, it will give you all the standard TomTom navigation features such as checking if the plotted route includes toll roads, with the option to bypass them; on the fly route recalculation; the ability to explicitly include or exclude roads and locations you want to be at; and a lot more.

As a side benefit to having the software and maps preloaded, you can bypass the Internet-based product activation nightmare that is the bane of all TomTom users. I really wish TomTom would get rid of this on all their products–they’re doing nothing with it but infuriating customers.

Conclusion

At a suggested retail price of $600, the iPAQ rx5915 is a fairly expensive toy, equivalent to what you’d pay for a good separate handheld, Bluetooth GPS receiver, and large memory card. I’d balk a little at this price, but once it reaches a decent street price it should be a very nice option for bringing together navigation, multimedia, and Internet access. The iPAQ 5900 may not be perfect, but it’s certainly a big step forward in the hardware department. If HP can crush the bugs which are so evident on their preproduction units then the rx5915 could very well be the first member of a new class of handhelds bringing consumer-level "killer apps" in a convenient mobile package.

Pros:

  • Built-in GPS
  • Anti-glare screen
  • Large memory

Cons:

  • Marginal directional pad
  • Charging system irregularities
  • Pre-production software bugs

Bottom Line:

A solid–if expensive–device for GPS, multimedia, and Web access, without leaning too heavily in any one direction.

 


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