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.

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.

A word here about a shortcoming that I've bemoaned in Windows Mobile before, and will again: It doesn't clean up after itself. You have to shut down applications, usually by tapping an OK button in the upper right of the display. Sometimes there's an icon at the bottom that allows you to exit by pushing the hardware button underneath; most phones have these left and right buttons for navigation. But otherwise you need a stylus or a fingernail.

The Treo 700w has a dedicated OK hardware button to take care of this problem; the MDA doesn't, although you can reprogram one of its function buttons to do this if you wish. Similarly, unless you slide out the keyboard, you cannot launch the Start menu without tapping the screen; the Treo 700w has a button for this, too.

Am I being too nitpicky here? Maybe. But T-Mobile has lofty ambitions for the MDA, and it fulfills them only up to a point. I'd say the MDA is worth a look if you're looking for a tiny laptop substitute and aren't planning on heavy-duty phone use.