PDA Pundit: T-Mobile Catches Windows Mobile Fever

Let's talk about the praiseworthy stuff first. I love, love, love the Wi-Fi option. The setup screens for all the wireless connections are easy to use: I had no difficulty even with the 128-bit WEP encryption key that secures PC World's Wi-Fi network. The screens include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a dedicated screen just for T-Mobile hotspots.

Web browsing was delightful when using Wi-Fi, and pages didn't look half bad on the sharp 320-by-480 display--when viewed indoors. In bright sunlight the screen looks washed out.

I especially liked the MDA's roomy keyboard: Compared to the thumb keyboard on the Treo 700w, it was the height of luxury. I wouldn't mind composing e-mail or even a short article on this device.

T-Mobile, which hopes this product can help Windows Mobile go mainstream, has provided several wizards to guide the newbie. I tried out one for setting up personal e-mail, but received several vague error messages. A T-Mobile representative later told me this was because of problems plaguing a server that processes requests such as mine.

Anyone can have a bad e-mail server day, or three, so I turned to the MDA's capabilities as a phone. But here again, I was disappointed. The main problem is that the MDA in its hidden-keyboard configuration simply isn't optimized for single-handed use, the way the Treo 700w is. When you push the MDA's green phone button, you get an on-screen keypad. You can tap the software keys, but I've never found that approach to be particularly satisfying: I invariably miss a key, tap the screen too gently, or otherwise fail to quickly compose the number I wish to call.

Finding and dialing an entry in the contacts list can also be frustrating if you have only the minimalist hardware navigation buttons to help. Again, with no real provision for single-handed operation, you pretty much have to pull out the collapsible stylus, or even the slide-out keyboard. It's not the end of the world to have to do this, but it is time-consuming and clunky. This is an area where the Treo 700w justifies its steep price tag: Starting a voice call is a snap.

T-Mobile seems to have sensed the MDA's shortcomings as a phone and tried to compensate with proprietary features. For example, when you start tapping keys on the software keypad, a pop-up menu displays possible matches from your contacts, in real time. But you still have to start by tapping a touch screen with your finger or a stylus, if one is handy.

Instant messaging addicts will appreciate the MDA's support for not just one or two, but three major IM services: AOL's AIM, ICQ, and Yahoo Messenger. You can launch any or all of these services from the MDA's messaging screen, but it's still one step removed from providing a universal chat client. Licensing agreements prohibit T-Mobile from merging its customers' IM buddy lists, so if you want to carry on conversations with friends on two different services, you'll have to do a lot of clicking back and forth--or find a third-party application that doesn't have to deal with fussy licensing partners.

The 1.3-megapixel camera was a bit of a disappointment: Its images were generally blurry. The camera, by the way, can be used in landscape mode only, with an appropriately placed shutter button.

Music playback sounded good through the provided stereo earbuds, but tinny through the handset's speaker. Voice call quality was fine, however.

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