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HANDS ON: Axim X30 624Mhz Review
    
  
July 16, 2004 - An upgrade to last year's Axim X3 Series, Dell's Axim X30 Pocket PCs feature a new generation of Intel XScale processors, the latest Windows Mobile 2003 SE operating system, and, for the first time, available Bluetooth. Although the Axim X30 is externally identical to its X3 predecessor, sharing some of its ergonomic shortcomings, there are more than enough improvements under the hood to make X30 the superior choice.

When Dell released its first Pocket PC, the Axim X5, in 2002, its only remarkable feature was its unexpectedly low price; the same cannot be said of the Axim X30. As the first Pocket PC released with a processor running at 624MHz, it is the fastest Pocket PC on the market today and ushers in a new era of PDAs approaching 1GHz. While the X30 lacks a VGA display, the latest boast of top-of-the-line Pocket PCs, its other features are top notch. Even with some general design missteps, the Axim X30 is Dell’s best handheld yet.

   
The Review Unit

The Axim, like most Dell products, can be configured at the time of purchase. The unit Dell provided for this review is equipped with the maximum customizable features: the aforementioned 624MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, a 64MB Intel Flash ROM chip, and both 802.11b Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless radios.

Included in the box were the following items: Axim X30 Handheld, USB Sync Cradle, AC Adapter, Standard 950mAh Li-Ion Battery, Extended 1800mAh Li-Ion battery (optional accessory), black Dell-branded X30 slip case, silver-metal stylus, manuals and software CD-ROM.

More information on the various configurations of the X30 Series Pocket PCs can be viewed here.

   
   
Look and Feel

The Axim X30 has two primary flaws, one of which is its uncomfortable design. The X30 is identical to the Axim X3i, the wireless incarnation of the X3 Series. While the first Axim X5 was rounded and rubberized, the X3 and X30 have a straight-edged design that falls short of the same comfortable feel. The front and back plates of the X30 are held apart by a black spacer that forms the depth of the unit. This spacer isn’t as wide as the face and rear plates, so they protrude along the edges (shown right, above), slightly digging into your fingers as you hold the unit.

The back of the X30 further contributes to its uncomfortable feel. Most Pocket PCs have a flat backpiece, but the X30’s backing has two asymmetrical bulges on either side (shown right, below). These bulges don’t particularly get in the way, but they do add to the unit’s overall lack of ergonomics.

    
X30 is an attractive Pocket PC with a utilitarian-chic quality about it, but it’s not the best looking PDA available; this seems in keeping with Dell's recent laptop designs, which have been relatively lackluster.  Measuring 4.82" x 3.0" x 0.59" and weighing 4.9oz, the X30 has an average size, though it is lighter than many Pocket PCs.

Pocket PC layout designs have always been variations on a theme, and the X30 is no exception:

        

X30 Front Angle (left) and Side (right) Views

 

Below the screen you’ll find the customary hardware buttons and navpad. The power button, as is the case with all Dell Pocket PCs, is situated at the top of the display and glows green or orange, depending on the status of the battery. The left side of the unit provides access to the scroll wheel and headphone jack, while the infrared and Secure Digital ports are on top.

The top of the device is also marked by a transparent plastic nub, which houses antennas for both wireless radios as well as their respective indicator lights. The internal lights are an interesting feature, but one which would be much less distracting if the lights were simply on or off; the Wi-Fi LED is often flashing next to the always-on blue Bluetooth LED. As they are, these lights pull attention away from what’s on the screen more than they inform.

While we had to deduct points because of the design complaints we noted above, our qualms generally concerned comfort, not aesthetics, so the addition of a simple case, like JavoSkin’s Axim Skin, made the X30 much more comfortable to hold.

   
   
Fastest Pocket PC Yet

The performance category is where the Axim X30 shines. The new 624MHz PXA270 XScale processor garners the most attention in this regard as it makes the X30 the fastest Pocket PC on the market today. While the speed of the X30 doesn’t represent the 50% boost some users might anticipate when compared to 400MHz Pocket PCs, the new Axim is certainly speedy, and in some cases very much so.

General Speed - Famously slow programs like Microsoft Reader zipped along faster than ever, and graphics intensive games were more fluid and playable than we’ve seen. General menu functionality was on par with slower Pocket PCs, but other general functions were highly improved.

   
CPU Management - The X30 has a CPU management utility built into the Windows Mobile Power software. This utility allows you to either manually set the speed of the processor or allow the speed to be set automatically based on the tasks you’re performing at any given time. Particularly with the Extended Battery in use, we kept the X30 set to 624MHz, and on this setting the unit consistently outperformed all other Pocket PCs in side-by-side tests. Set to automatic, the X30 reliably shifted to a higher clock speed (624Mhz) when we were more demanding of it, and to a slower speed (208MHx) when demand was light.
   
Web Browsing - The X30 is the first Pocket PC we’ve ever used that made surfing the web over Wi-Fi comfortable and productive. Not only does the Windows Mobile 2003 SE operating system allow for viewing web pages in landscape mode, but the X30’s fast CPU helps keep the processing power of the handheld in step with the flow of incoming data. With a Broadband Internet connection over Wi-Fi, the X30 loaded pages surprisingly fast when checking webmail, reading news, Google searching, and even shopping at Amazon.com. We’d still recommend a laptop for extended surfing, but for casual Internet use like checking email or reading a movie review, the X30 is convenient and does the job very well. As we see it, this is one of the greatest benefits of the faster processor.

Sound – Like all Pocket PCs, the Axim X30 won’t be replacing your home stereo system, but as handhelds go, the speaker on the X30 is above average. System sounds are loud and clear, and even music can be enjoyed if the ambient noise isn’t too high. Headphones or earbuds are still the best way to enjoy audio from a Pocket PC, but it’s great to have a speaker that offers at least passing sound quality.

Battery Life – With the standard battery, we were able to get about 3 hours out of the Axim with Wi-Fi switched on, and just over five hours with it switched off. The extended battery nearly doubled both of these numbers, though useable time per charge depends on many factors such as CPU speed, screen brightness, etc.

   
   
Here’s Lookin’ at You, Sweetheart

The X30’s 3.5” QVGA transflective display is average among Pocket PCs. While it features the same 65,000+ colors as other PDA screens, images don’t look quite as sharp as they do on other Pocket PCs. On a scale of display quality, iPAQ displays being a 10 and Viewsonic’s being a 1, we’d give the X30 an 8. That isn’t to say that the iPAQ is perfect or the Viewsonic terrible, but using these as the quality extremes, Dell’s displays are closer to those of the iPAQ than of those of Viewsonic’s PPCs.

    
   
Going Postal, Wireless Style

As you’ve read, the X30 is the first Dell Pocket PC to feature both Bluetooth and 802.11b Wi-Fi wireless standards; herein lies the X30’s second flaw. While having both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi offers wonderful flexibility, and although each works well alone, when the wireless radios are active simultaneously, neither wireless radio was exactly user-friendly.

When both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are active on the X30 - a condition announced by blue and green lights glowing and flashing in the X30’s transparent antenna nub - Bluetooth partnerships drop or never finalize and connections with Wi-Fi Access Points are established at a pace that provides more than enough time to work on that novel you’ve been thinking of writing. Bottom line, on the X30: Bluetooth + Wi-Fi = Very Bad Things.

So, why not just activate Wi-Fi or simply turn on Bluetooth? Well, you certainly can, but it’s not as easy as it should be.

On the bottom right-hand side of the X30 is a hardware button that toggles wireless functions on and off. The problem is that the button turns off both Bluetooth and Wi-fi or powers on both radios at the same time; there is no way to quickly select what you want on and what you want off. That means, for example, when you just want Wi-Fi, you press the wireless button, wait for the Axim to activate both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, then go into the Bluetooth software and power down the Bluetooth radio.

When judging this problem, it’s important to keep in mind that many dual-wireless devices have similar issues, and it’s possible that Dell will resolve this problem with a patch. Our suggestion to Dell: provide the option for separate buttons controlling each radio, or upgrade the software so that the existing button launches an onscreen menu with which you can select to turn each radio on or off, or both off together.

   
   
Software

The Axim X30 runs the latest Pocket PC operating system, Windows Mobile 2003 SE. Among noteworthy improvements over previous versions is WM2003SE’s support for both portrait and landscape viewing (meaning that you can view the display the traditional way, or turn the Pocket PC on its side and have a wide-screen view) and its enhancements making wireless connectivity a bit more user-friendly.

The only real drawback to Windows Mobile 2003 SE concerns the installation of software; though almost all software titles designed for Pocket PC 2002 and Windows Mobile 2003 run on WM2003SE, practically every program you install generates a warning about compatibility. This is almost always meaningless and, as a general rule, can be ignored. If you have any concerns about software compatibility, always check with the author of the software.

   
Aside from the programs included in the OS, like Word, Excel, Windows Media Player, etc., there aren’t many software bells and whistles on the X30, which is understandable given the unit’s very competitive price. Dell does include one extra application that saves a lot of problems, however: Data Backup.

Data Backup is a small utility that allows you to backup the Axim’s data to an SD card or to the unit’s built-in storage area in the flash ROM. You can choose to backup all data, all PIM data, or even individual PIM categories like calendar entries, contacts, notes, and more. In the event of a hard reset or a total loss of power, the backup file can be restored in a few taps of the stylus.

   
   
Accessories

Dell’s Axim accessories are widely thought to be top notch, and the X30’s accessory kit keeps this tradition well. The USB cradle that ships with the X30 is our favorite Pocket PC cradle. Marked by the customary glowing Dell logo, the cradle is solid and heavy enough not to scoot around your desktop every time you sync. Aside from the sync dock, the cradle also features a charging slot that keeps an extra battery charged when it’s not in use. An indicator light is embedded in the cradle to show charging status for the extra battery, if one is present.

   

The Axim stylus has remained unchanged since the X5 and, other than the stylus from the discontinued Jornada, is the only one that’s flattened rather than rounded. Believe it or not, this makes using the stylus more comfortable and easy to hold, at least in our opinion. It’s also metal rather than plastic, which gives it a weightier, more solid feel.

The included slip case is black pleather and will provide basic protection for your Axim, but frequent users will want to invest in a case that provides a more secure hold and better guard against damage.

   
   
Conclusion

The Axim X30, despite its flaws, is Dell’s best handheld yet, and a good Pocket PC all around. If you’re looking for a Pocket PC that’s as fast as they come, and affordable to boot, the X30 should be at the top of your list. However, if you’re planning on frequently using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth at the same time (á la surfing the ‘Net over the office network while transferring phone numbers to your Bluetooth cell phone), you might take a look at some of the late-model iPAQ Pocket PCs, which manage wireless usage a bit better.

   
 
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