T-Mobile MDA Pocket PC Phone Review

by Reads (97,792)

T-Mobile finally brings the famous MDA series to American shores with the latest installment, based on the HTC Wizard design.

The T-Mobile MDA is already being sold in Europe under the name MDA Vario. Both devices are re-branded versions of the HTC Wizard. The Wizard is also available under a variety of brands and names from resellers such as i-mate, O2, and even the recently reviewed Cingular 8125.

Design & Construction

Unlike the squarish design of most of its relatives, the MDA has a more rounded organic styling, complete with a raised diamond pattern covering the back. This pattern doesn’t actually do anything, but it does serve the important purpose of making the device feel good to hold. The more curvy styling also helps in this regard, making the MDA a slightly more hand-friendly device than the others.

The build quality on the MDA is excellent, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from an HTC device. You can rely on these things to stand up to the normal rigors of wear and tear without too much difficulty.

A key flaw of the Wizard’s design is the button configuration. The bottom front panel only contains four buttons: two softkeys and two phone keys. Absent are two buttons you need for proper one-handed navigation: the Start and OK/Close buttons. Without these, you can’t drive the device with one hand. This, however, can be remedied with a piece of freeware whipped up by some dedicated coders from the enthusiast website XDA-Developers.com, which allows you to use the phone keys for double duty by pressing and holding them. A pity that this wasn’t included with the device out of the box.

The keyboard and screen are mounted on separate parts of the device, allowing you to simply slide the display to one side and reveal the keyboard. Doing this automatically switches the system to landscape mode. The keyboard is back-lit for use in low light. Perhaps because the MDA uses blue back-lighting instead of white, the light seems much brighter than the Cingular version of the Wizard. The keyboard works quite well for text input — you can simply pick it up and go without much of a lag or learning curve in how to use it, and for the most part it’s very comfortable.

Unlike most of HTC’s other designs, the MDA has round keys rather than square. This allows for some space in between the buttons, making them a little smaller, but at the same time decreasing your chances of hitting more than one button. There are some arguments that the shape of the keys makes the MDA’s keyboard worse than its competitors, but this isn’t my experience. I had no more difficulty using the MDA than the 8125 or the Sprint 6700.

One thing I don’t understand is why softkeys are such a hard thing on these sliding keyboards. The Apache had them poorly illuminated and stuck in the top corners of the key board. The Wizard has them poorly sized and sandwiched between the top row of keys and the screen. Are we just cursed to have bad softkeys when in landscape mode?

As an added refinement for landscape mode, the Wizard design has two buttons placed on the “top” of the device, where they can be activated by the left hand when in landscape.

Overall, the MDA’s design is unremarkable, but mostly solid in its execution, and the main deficiencies can be remedied in software. I particularly enjoyed the curving of the case, which makes it a pleasure to hold.

 

Processor: 200 MHz TI OMAP850
Operating System: Windows Mobile 5.0
Display: 2.8 inch, 240 x 320 transmissive/reflective LCD
Memory: 64 MB RAM; 128 MB flash ROM (36 MB available)
Size & Weight: 4.25″ long x 2.28″ wide x 0.93″ thick; 5.64 ounces
Expansion: Single miniSD slot
Docking: Mini-USB port
Communication: Bluetooth 1.2; 802.11b/g Wi-Fi; Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE (Class 10)
Audio: 2.5 mm headphone/headset jack; speakerphone
Battery: 1250 milliamp-hour Lithium Ion replaceable battery
Input: QWERTY thumb keyboard; X recappable application buttons; touchscreen
Other: 1.3 megapixel digital camera with light

 

Processor

Despite its relatively slow clock speed, the 200 MHz OMAP processor in the MDA does a very good job of keeping things on the tracks. I experienced very little in terms of noticeable performance difference between the 200 MHz Wizard and the 416 MHz Apache. Some of this is due to the fact that the OMAP has additional signal processors which can be used for phone functions, thus keeping the main CPU free to handle the rest of the system.

 

Operating System

Unfortunately, the MDA doesn’t come out of the box with the new Messaging and Security Features Pack (MSFP) from Microsoft. This is the long-awaited Windows Mobile 5.0 upgrade that will enable true push email from an Exchange server. The pack was delivered to licensees late last year, but many are still “testing” it. T-Mobile is among the companies that have committed to delivering the upgrade, but they haven’t said when.

If you’re daring enough to re-flash your device with a ROM meant for one of the other Wizard variants, you can add the MSFP yourself, but this is considered an advanced technique and could result in turning your Pocket PC phone into a paperweight if not performed correctly. Most users are advised to wait for the official update.

Like many GSM Pocket PC phones, the MDA comes with a Java environment for running simple “midlet” applications made for conventional phones. Examples include Google Local, Opera Mini, and many other Java-based applets.

 

Display

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about it, but the 2.8-inch LCD provides good quality brightness and coloration and is more than suitable for most things. Being only QVGA, it’s not great for web browsing, but mobile pages are more than adequately rendered.

 

Memory

The 64 MB of RAM and 128 MB of flash memory in the Wizard is becoming drearily standard for Pocket PC phones. As much as I wish that we could get something slightly more interesting in terms of memory, the currently commoditized quantities have the small virtue of being cheap.

Out of that 128 MB of flash, the MDA gives the user just 36 MB straight out of the box. That’s beyond ridiculous. The Cingular 8125 and Sprint/Verizon 6700 both had over 40 MB of memory easily. The MDA’s 36 MB is sufficient if you only intend to be handling a few documents, email, and maybe some photos, but any real heavy lifting in terms of databases, music, reference material, etcetera, will end up requiring a memory card.

 

Size & Weight

It’s not entirely tiny, but the MDA is a definite improvement over some of its predecessors, such as the older devices in T-Mobile Europe’s MDA family. The new MDA is comparable in size to similarly specified devices like the Treos and the HTC Apache. You can, in fact, actually hold it up against your head without feeling like a moron, but most people will still prefer to use a Bluetooth headset or hands-free system.

 

Expansion

With a miniSD slot and internal Wi-Fi, the MDA is pretty much limited to additional memory as the only add-on of any real worth that’s available.

 

Docking

Mini-USB plugs, such as the one found on the MDA, are increasingly standard for HTC’s Windows phones. While they bring the advantage of cross-compatibility, they also rule out additional cable-driven features like VGA out or serial ports.

 

Communication

Like most other versions of the Wizard, the MDA has 802.11g Wi-Fi as standard. Even though this is the case, don’t expect an enormous speed increase over 802.11b. The main limiting factor is the speed of the device, not of the wireless network. With limited mobile hardware to work with, it’s doubtful that you’ll see much of a bump in throughput.

For dialing, the MDA uses a “soft” keypad and dialer, displaying a numeric keypad on the screen for you to tap with a finger or stylus. I’ve never been crazy about this method, as I much prefer having real buttons–when you need to make a call fast, you don’t want to be screwing around with touchscreen. However, for moderate calling, it works out fairly well. You can also dial using the numbers on the keyboard, but this takes more effort without really reducing the time needed to dial. As with other side-sliding devices, one-handed dialing is nonexistent.

The EDGE data service for the device performs almost identically to its cousin, the Cingular 8125. Average speeds range from 100 to 130 Kbits, with highs around 160 and lows of 40. Individual results may vary according to network, location, and many other factors.

While not the greatest in holding a signal, the Wizard more than adequately acquits itself, maintaining a solid connection even in less than optimal conditions. It didn’t perform quite as well as other devices I’ve tested, but still more than sufficient for all but the worst signal areas.

 

Audio

Audio clarity and call volume is quite good. You can certainly get away with using the device in a noisy environment without too much difficulty. Headphone quality is typically good.

 

Battery

The MDA’s battery life varies heavily depending on how you use it. You can get as little as three or four hours running on Wi-Fi, to around five hours of surfing and communication via EDGE, to as much as twelve hours of talk-time when used as a phone. The essential variable in this last scenario, of course, is the fact that the screen turns off for extended phone calls.

I found the battery life to be reasonably satisfactory, particularly for voice or modem use where the screen shut down. Long periods of using the Internet connection directly from the device will drain the battery considerably faster, though, so if you intend to use it for prolonged periods you may want to consider a secondary battery.

 

Camera

Camera. Present? Yes. Useful? Not so much. Like so many other devices, the MDA’s camera is mainly a novelty, producing marginal quality photos despite its 1.3 megapixel rating. Photos tend towards being blurry in good light, and almost totally black in low light. I wouldn’t suggest you bother thinking of the camera as a useful feature.

 

Conclusion

I actually prefer the T-Mobile MDA a bit over the Cingular 8125, despite the fact that they have identical internal hardware. The design of the MDA is more rounded, and fits more comfortably into the hand, than does the more squared-off 8125. That said, the devices are almost exactly alike: solidly designed and built, data oriented, GSM handheld with very few frills.

 

Pros:

  • Quad-band GSM/EDGE
  • Bluetooth/Wi-Fi
  • Good keyboard
  • Comfortable feel
  • Dialup-networking

Cons:

  • Button arrangement
  • Lacks 3G
  • Bad stylus
  • Abysmally small memory

Bottom Line:

Well designed, no-frills workhorse.


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