PDA Pundit: T-Mobile Catches Windows Mobile Fever

As a longtime Palm aficionado it pains me to admit this, but it must be said: Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system is gaining serious ground in the handheld wars, especially the skirmishes involving PDA/phone hybrids.

I found this conclusion inescapable as I surveyed my desk recently: Stacked up awaiting inspection were two Windows Mobile-based devices from T-Mobile (the MDA Pocket PC and the SDA Smartphone) and Sprint Nextel's Windows Mobile-based PPC-6700, a PDA/phone hybrid that was reviewed a few months back by our editor-in-chief, Harry McCracken. And those were just the ones on hand: In the same time frame a company called i-Mate stopped by just to show me preproduction versions of three Windows Mobile-based handhelds.

All this, less than a month after Palm (the company, not the OS) launched its first Windows Mobile smart phone, the Treo 700w for Verizon Wireless, which I reviewed in January.

In contrast, I haven't seen a new Palm OS device in weeks--months, even. To quote Buffalo Springfield (okay, I know I'm showing my age), somethin's happenin' here--and it isn't the Palm OS.

Not only is Windows Mobile popping up more often, but the devices based on it are offering more features while coming down in price. I base this conclusion on a test drive of the T-Mobile MDA, which looks like the PPC-6700's first cousin--not surprising since both are made by HTC, a Taiwanese firm that designs a lot of Windows Mobile devices for various companies. Both smart phones have big screens and slide-out QWERTY keyboards. With the keyboard concealed, both are designed to be used in portrait mode (the display is taller than it is wide); with the keyboard out, the display automatically shifts to landscape mode. Both have built-in 1.3-megapixel cameras, MiniSD slots, and Wi-Fi.

That's not to say the PPC-6700 and the MDA are identical. The MDA lacks the stubby antenna on the Sprint device. Its keys are discrete and somewhat elliptical in shape; the PPC-6700's square keys look like they were created by scoring a piece of metal. The MDA is slightly more svelte: It's not quite as thick as the PPC-6700, and its contours are a bit more rounded. The MDA supports T-Mobile's GSM/GPRS/EDGE network, with data speeds slightly faster than dial-up; Sprint's device works on its significantly speedier EvDO network (where available), which is a broadband-level service.

Since we've already reviewed the Sprint PPC-6700, in this column I'll focus on the MDA. MDA stands for Mobile Digital Assistant, and I have to say that T-Mobile delivers a lot of assistance for a pretty reasonable price: When it goes on sale (later this month, T-Mobile representatives say), it will cost $400. If you're either a new T-Mobile customer or an existing one who's eligible for an upgrade, you can send in for a $50 rebate.

On hardware specs alone, that's as good a deal as I've seen lately. By way of comparison, the last Windows Mobile device I looked at, the Palm Treo 700w, will set you back $550. (The Treo 700w has 128MB of flash memory; the MDA has 128MB of ROM and 64MB of RAM.)

So I very badly wanted to adore this little powerhouse, but I can't give it an unqualified rave. There are just too many little annoyances, including a number of oldie-but-goodie Windows Mobile flaws.

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