Finally a truly versatile digital assistant

I still remember the day back in in 1997 when I purchased my first PDA on a business trip to Mountain View, California. I got out of Fry’s and back to my hotel room, unpacked the unit (a PalmPilot Professional) and began learning Graffiti. The little beast became part of my life for good after just a few hours, and was subsequently upgraded to a Palm IIIx, then to a Sony Clié PEG-T675.

I still used to carry a mobile phone around although my use of it was typically limited to, well, making and receiving phone calls. Indeed, my camp in the whole PDA vs. mobile phone debate was always clearly with the PDA’s. They always seemed superior to mobile phones because of their versatility, large screens, stylus entry and synchronization possibilities. But they lagged in communication capabilities.

I never really considered Pocket PC’s during my loving relationship with variants of the Palm OS-based devices. They always seemed bulky and slow, plus no release of Windows Mobile ever looked like something I wanted to carry around and depend on for on-the-go organizational tasks or for having phone conversations. This changed abruptly a few weeks ago as I started reading reviews of the HTC Wizard (a.k.a. QTek 9100, Orange SPV M3000 or K-JAM). This neat little device runs Windows Mobile 5.0, has a phone built-in, and was the object of rave reviews.

Holding a QTek 9100 in my hand at the nearest reseller sealed the deal the same way playing with the PalmPilot had – 8 years earlier. Form factor, weight, shape, functionality, everything seemed to fit together so perfectly that I got myself an Orange SPV M3000 the next day (same device, cheaper price since it is partially absorbed by my mobile operator). There’s no point in writing yet another review of the Wizard, so I’ll simply share some thoughts resulting from my few weeks using it and its associated software.

Form factor

HTC managed to pack all the Wizard’s features in a really small package. The device is too thick to fit in a shirt pocket but is hardly felt when carried around with the included holster clipped to your belt. It’s also easy to carry in any other pocket but then make sure you use a screen protector. The rounded angles look nice and feel comfortable, although they can make the Wizard a little slippery when your hands are cold (I’m writing this from Switzerland in the middle of winter).

Data entry

Windows Mobile 5.0 offers a ploethora of data entry modes, notably an on-screen keyboard, a Graffiti equivalent, a phone-like pad and Transcriber (its own proprietary text recognition solution) which allows you to write anywhere on the screen and have your text recognized afterwards. The Wizard stylus is a little small but still useable for pointing and clicking and the occasional note. There’s also a slide-out keyboard which is great for the occasional email or short message.

Synchronization

Microsoft Activesync connects your PC & pocket device by creating a TCP/IP connection and doesn’t play too well with firewalls. There are extensive workarounds documented on Microsoft’s site but ultimately I switched from Sygate Personal Firewall to the XP SP2 firewall. Although my network has other layers of protection this is bad. I should probably take the time to try again with a more robust firewall than Microsoft’s, but considering the number of people apparently having such issues, I’d have expected Microsoft to deliver a smoother experience. Once these glitches were ironed out, though, syncing worked flawlessly.

I was used to Chapura PocketMirror syncing my Palm OS-based devices to Microsoft Outlook and other desktop applications upon request. Microsoft ActiveSync works differently in that it constantly monitors what has changed on one side or the other and mirrors it. You can basically plug in your device, work at your PC for an hour making many changes in Outlook or your synchronized Windows Media Player playlists, unplug and leave your desk with up-to-date appointments, tasks, contacts and mp3’s in your pocket.

Other considerations

The Wizard is fast enough to be used comfortably. However since Windows Mobile 5.0 is a multitasking OS, you’ll want to make sure you don’t keep too many applications open at once.Related or not, I’ve had to reboot this device far more often than all my prior PDAs and phones combined, which can become frustrating in the long run. Most of the problems seemed to be the consequence of installing a new piece of software, this being probably the Wizard’s weakest point. Basically I haven’t been able to upgrade a single application, resulting either in a full uninstall/reinstall cycle or even a hard reset.

Conclusion

All in all, the Wizard comes close to representing the perfect PDA/phone combination. Let’s give Microsoft and HTC another 18 months (probably a couple product gnerations?) to iron out those few remaining “hard edges” and we should have a true winner. In the meantine, I’ll still be enjoyoing every minute with my Wizard.

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