HTC 'Blue Angel' Wi-Fi PocketPC phone - review
by Tony Smith | posted on 18 November 2004
No company has done as much to advance Microsoft Windows Mobile telephony hardware than Taiwan's HTC. The company's smart phones have been offered by numerous vendors and networks, as have its phone-equipped PocketPCs, most notably as the O2 XDA family. And not content to find one good design and stick with it, over the last few years HTC has continued to evolve each line.
HTC's latest PocketPC design is codenamed 'Blue Angel'. It may sound like an escort agency, but that hasn't prevented it being picked up by Europe's key networks and plenty of others around the world. I looked at i-mate's PDA 2k, courtesy of Expansys, but the same hardware also appears as the O2 XDA IIs, Vodafone VPA III, T-Mobile MDA III, Orange SPV M2000 and other labels besides.
Out of the box, Blue Angel looks like a standard PocketPC running Windows Mobile 2003 Phone Edition - it's actually packing Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition Phone Edition, if you like long operating system names. There's the usual 320 x 240 3.5in transflective LCD, with a speaker/earpiece above it and five-way navigation control underneath. There are call-make and -break keys alongside the navigator - just above it are four slimline buttons each invoking the Start menu, email, Internet Explorer, and any dialog's OK or application's quit button, respectively. Either side of the speaker are the typical Contacts and Calendar application launch buttons, brought up to the top of the device, and network activity LEDs.
On top of the unit are the SD IO slot, power key and headphone socket. The latter is covered with a rubber bung that's nice and snug out of the box, but becomes too loose to be of use once you've uncorked it. The SD slot is equally poorly executed, with inserted cards flush to the surface of the PDA making it very hard to push the card in to release it - or to lock it during insertion - unless you have particularly thin fingers. Fortunately, there's plenty of on-board memory: 128MB of RAM, of which 125.8MB are available to the user. There's 46.3MB of built-in Flash storage, too.
Fortunately, the SD slot and the earphone socket are the limit of Blue Angel's duff design - the rest is much smarter. On the left-hand side panel, you'll find the usual voice recorder button along with a second control to activate the unit's adequate 640 x 480 digicam. Between the two buttons lies Blue Angel's volume control, a springloaded slider-switch that controls both the system sound-level and the ring volume through a pop-up menu. Below these controls you'll find Blue Angel's infrared port, the first of the unit's four wireless connectivity options.
The camera is on the back of the device, above the battery. A catch on the base releases the power pack, a 1490mAh job, which you have to remove to insert your SIM card.
SIM card? Yes, wireless connection number two is a quad-band GSM/GPRS radio, switchable between Class 8 and Class 10, providing voice communication and data networking. In addition to that, Blue Angel offers 802.11b WiFi and Bluetooth. The latter's handy not only for hooking the unit wirelessly to a notebook, but to allow you to use a Bluetooth headset - essential, since PocketPC phones aren't exactly convenient for up-to-your-ear usage. I tried the unit with Motorola's new HS820 and it generally worked fine, though its range appeared limited compared to my standard Nokia 6600/Motorola HS850 set-up. The audio began to break up if I moved more than a metre from the PDA. Worse, there's no voice-tag support, so you have to get your PDA out of your bag whenever you want to make a call.
Blue Angel's preferred wireless connection mode is 802.11b - though it doesn't appear to have WiFi Alliance certification. It's got an up-to-date adaptor on-board, supporting not only the older WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) encryption scheme plus the newer, more secure WPA (WiFi Protected Access). Clicking the WiFi button in Windows Mobile 2003's menu bar calls up the WLAN Manager app. Checking the Wireless LAN on check-box works, but not until you also click on OK, at which point Blue Angel goes off and sniffs the air for access points - select one and enter, if necessary, the appropriate passwords for access and authentication using 802.1x and various incarnations of EAP.
A list of local access points pops up in one of Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition's XP-style speech bubbles. Choose one and you're away. My hotspot-simulating open test access point appeared as expected, and I connected to it with a tap of the stylus. A 'W' appears in the Task bar to show you what your connection method is.
Move out of range of the base-station and Blue Angel will fall back on GPRS, but I found it takes a while for it to realise the WLAN's not there before scanning for alternative access points. The system doesn't activate GPRS automatically, rather it waits until you actually request data - you click on a link in Internet Explorer, for example - before connecting. Activating GPRS disables the WLAN, so if you happened to stroll back into an hotspot, you won't suddenly find yourself automatically switched to the new, faster connection.
On the i-mate there's a handy utility, Wireless Manager, that makes it easy to switch between wireless systems, swapping from one to the other with a single click. Alas, it simply says, 'WiFi connection in use' when the 802.11b radio is switched on, whether you're connected to an access point or not. You only discover you don't when you call up a web page and the machine suddenly initiates a GPRS link. Wireless Manager is tucked away in the Programs folder rather than the Start menu, so it's not immediately obvious that it's there. Another utility, WModem, allows a notebook connected via a Bluetooth, USB, serial or infrared link to use Blue Angel as a modem.
Since WiFi is known to be something of a battery hog, HTC has incorporated a couple of handy power conservation tricks. For starters, you can set the device to disable WiFi if the connection remains inactive for a certain time (2-5 minutes). You can also choose one of three radio signal strength settings under Power Save Mode. It's not scientific, but I wandered down a couple of floors from my access point and didn't see any appreciable difference in signal strength on any of the settings. Your mileage will vary according to your location, but it's probably a safe say that you can leave the PDA on the minimum setting and still get a decent signal.
GPRS and GSM signals also proved sufficiently strong to enable connections wherever I tried Blue Angel, enough to pull down web pages and email using Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition's unified MMS/SMS/email app, Messaging. As per previous versions of the OS, there's MSN Messenger, too, plus the usual Pocket Word and Pocket Excel. HTC has chucked in a fax application, a multimedia playback app, and a handful of other utilities.
I've saved the best feature until last. I said earlier that out of box, Blue Angel looks like a typical PocketPC phone, perhaps a little thicker - it's 1.9cm - than previous models. The extra depth arises from the slider mechanism that splits the device into two halves, front and back, to reveal a full QWERTY micro keyboard, taking its length from 12.5cm to 17cm. Unlike the various Blackberries and PalmOne's Treo, Blue Angel uses an almost flat pad rather than calculator-style keys, though there's still sufficient movement to generate a click - it's not touch-sensitive. Press any key and the board's blue backlight kicks in. Each key decal has a tiny bump moulded onto it to make them easier to hit, whether you're holding the device on one hand and typing with the index finger of the other, or typing with two thumbs, mobile phone-fashion.
Either way, it doesn't take long to accustom yourself to the keyboard, and I found myself entering GPRS connection information, passwords, URLs, emails and even a chunk of this very review all with ease. It's a nice keyboard to use. Of course, there's the usual character/handwriting recognition facility if you just want to enter something without opening the device's slider.
Blue Angel's 1490mAh provides plenty of power to run the handheld's wireless connections. I was able to get several days usage out of a single charge, with Bluetooth turned on permanently and connected to a headset for most phone calls. I also checked my email regularly and browsed the web occasionally, both using GPRS. I used WiFi a little less frequently. HTC's official spec. puts the device's standby time at 168 hours.
An afternoon's more intensive use of WiFi had a bigger impact on battery life, but not enough, I'd say, to limit Blue Angel's usability. By its nature, it's not a device most users will want to keep associated with and connected to an access point for long periods of time. The WiFi sub-systems power conservation settings will, in any case, help reduce wireless' ability to drain the battery.
i-mate's PDA 2k is essentially the standard Blue Angel. The networks' versions, such as the XDA IIs, will be more closely tailored to their own brands and undoubtedly offer alternative software components. But beneath them the hardware should be uniform across the line-up. However it's labelled, then, Blue Angel represents probably the best-designed PocketPC phone around. The Register's chums at TrustedReviews recently gave the iPaq 6340 the thumb's up, but with the same connectivity, no annoying antenna stub and an integrated keyboard, I reckon Blue Angel in any of its guises has the HP machine licked.
That said, the HP wins on price, coming in around £110 less (£570 to £460) than an unlocked i-mate, even when bought with an airtime contract (£335 to £225). However, the price differential almost disappears when you look at the networks' own-brand models, such as the XDA IIs (£250). The Orange, Vodafone and T-Mobile Blue Angels have yet to ship in the UK.
But even at over £300 (with airtime), Blue Angel is a cracking machine if it's complete connectivity you're after.
Summary: HTC 'Blue Angel'
aka i-mate PDA 2000, Orange M2000, O2 XDA IIs, Vodafone VPA III, T-Mobile MDA III
Pros - Nifty stowable QWERTY keyboard; four wireless connectivity modes; solid build quality
Cons - No voice recognition for dialling; it's not cheap; WLAN software could be better
Price £570 (i-mate PDA 2k, sim-free)
More info on the Expansys web site.
This story copyright The Register.
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HTC 'Blue Angel' Wi-Fi PocketPC phone - review