HP’s iPAQ range used to be the doyenne of the PDA world, back when cellphones were cellphones and anything more complicated than an alarm required a standalone PocketPC (or Palm, depending on your preference). Years later, and the PDA in general is a much-diminished force; the line between smartphones and cellphones has blurred and customers expect to be able to do much of what their laptops can while they’re mobile. Into this competitive market HP have launched the iPAQ 910 Business Messenger, a Windows Mobile 6.1 Pro smartphone with full QWERTY keyboard. After our unboxing video we promised you a review; read on to see whether HP are likely to take back their top spot.
Our pre-production prototype didn’t come with everything end-users will get; aside from the 910 itself, HP will include a 1,940mAh battery, AC adapter, wired stereo headset and USB sync cable, together with the manual and a “Getting Started CD”. It’s unclear whether this will include the Windows Mobile 6.1 OS for re-imaging the device. HP also sent a leather belt-case with magnetic clasp.
Measuring 4.5 x 2.5 x 0.6-inches and weighing 5.4oz, the 910 isn’t exactly a small or even a light handset. Compared to the BlackBerry Bold that’s a little thicker and almost an ounce heavier; compared to the iPhone 3G it’s even thicker again. We’re talking small differences here, yes, but it adds up to a device that feels big in the hand. On the plus side, it also feels sturdy; no creaks or flexing, even when gripping it tightly and battering at the keyboard. HP’s use of high-gloss black and chromed plastic gives it a modern look, albeit one prone to fingerprints, and round the back soft-touch plastic means it doesn’t slip around the hand.
The keyboard itself is very gently bowed and made up of closely-packed barrel shaped hard buttons. At first we were concerned that the keys might be too close together and prone to mixed presses, but their curve allows your fingers to differentiate surprisingly well. Like with any smartphone you’re unlikely to be typing out a novel, but we were comfortable replying to emails and entering urls with little correction necessary.
Above, the shortcut cluster centers around a chromed button that at first glance could be mistaken for a RIM-style trackball, but in actual fact is merely a select key. Nonetheless it, and the D-pad that surrounds it, are tactile and responsive, leaving you in little doubt that you’ve pressed. To the left are the ‘dial’ key, a soft key, the calendar shortcut and Windows key, while to the right there’s the second soft key, ‘end’ key, ‘OK’ button and messaging shortcut.
Down the left side of the phone there’s a volume rocker control, Voice Command shortcut and, under rubber flaps, the microSDHC slot and miniUSB port; on the right side there’s a jog-wheel, ‘OK’ button and camera button. Along the top is the flush-fitted power button, the reset button and a socket for an external GPS antenna with, on our prototype at least, a rubber flap that doesn’t want to stay closed. One thing that’s missing is a ‘hold’ switch, meaning you can’t easily lock the handset; we’d have preferred to see that instead of the somewhat redundant side ‘OK’ key (the jog-wheel can be clicked in to select an option). The bottom of the handset is smooth save for the stylus, which pulls out and extends to the length of the 910.
Under the hood, a 416MHz Marvell PXA270 processor takes care of grunt, and while it’s neither the newest nor the fastest chip in Marvell’s catalog the 910 never feels strained. Memory includes 256MB ROM and 128MB SDRAM, with around 76MB available for user-installed programs (although apps such as Cyberon Voice Commander & Recorder do take up some of this). There’s also HP’s iPAQ File Store, a sectioned-off 24MB chunk of flash memory intended for backing up essential files in case of total battery failure. Back in the days when flash was expensive it may have made sense, but now we’d rather see it rolled into the standard storage.
Connectivity consists of tri-band UMTS/HSDPA that supports up to 7.2Mbps HSDPA downloads. WiFi is b/g, while there’s also Bluetooth 2.0+EDR. GPS is also included, and Google Maps is preinstalled to the 910′s ROM memory (i.e. it doesn’t take up the user-accessible space). Happily you can tether the iPAQ to a laptop for use as a WWAN modem, either via the supplied sync cable or using Bluetooth.
Whether you’re doing that, surfing on the device itself or simply making voice calls, we’d wager you’ll be pleased with the iPAQ 910′s reception. Calls are clear and the HP shows an uncanny ability to dig up an extra bar or two where other handsets on the same network stumble. We had no problems with a variety of Bluetooth headsets, but the same can’t be said for the anaemic built-in speaker. Sited on the back of the handset, next to the camera, it’s muffled when lying on the desk and frankly doesn’t improve much even if you flip the 910 over. It’s not even worth trying to listen to music through it, unless your comparative experience is a gramophone trapped in a sealed steel drum. Choose the wired set instead (which plug into the miniUSB socket) or an A2DP Bluetooth pair of your preference.
Still, it’s a rare flaw in a handset that otherwise performs particularly well. The touchscreen, measuring 2.5-inches and running at QVGA 320 x 240 resolution, could of course benefit from running at VGA as with the HTC Touch Diamond, but it’s nonetheless crisp and bright. The variety of controls HP offer mean it’s easy to find your own preferred method, and even bypass the touchscreen altogether; we found that most of the time it was quicker spinning and clicking the jog-wheel.
Windows Mobile 6.1 will never be accused of threatening, say, the iPhone’s OS in its appearance, but it’s flexible and there’s of course a wealth of established business and personal software available for it. We’d start by bypassing Internet Explorer Mobile and installing the latest build of Opera Mobile; despite the improvements to the Microsoft app, Opera’s is still better. No such complaints for the latest version of Microsoft Office Mobile, which allows you to view, edit and create Word and Excel documents (and view PowerPoint presentations). GPS works very well, despite the absence of an external aerial in our test situations, with even indoor cold fixes taking less than a minute.
Push email and wireless synchronization of contacts and calendar from Exchange worked as well as expected, with Microsoft’s usual setup wizard getting things going in no time at all. Cyberon Voice Commander & Recorder’s big claim is to allow voice dialling and dictation without any prior training, and it managed surprisingly well despite a range of American and British accents. We never had a misdialled phone number, and dictation errors were on a par with traditional trained voice software.
Unlike many business handsets, the iPAQ 910 has a 3-megapixel (rather than what seems to be the standard 2-megapixel) camera, that includes autofocus and an LED ‘flash’ (basically a flashlight). Pictures, though, were disappointing indoors; the LED is simply too weak to make much of a difference unless mere inches away. Video recording is limited to QVGA quality, although files can be as big as your microSDHC card will allow (we tested with an 8GB SDHC card and had no problems). HP preinstall Snapfish for instantly uploading shots to web galleries; there’s also a hidden app that IT managers can use to remotely disable the camera.
The 1,940mAh battery HP supply is no shrinking violet and undoubtedly contributes its fair share to the iPAQ’s weight and bulk. Nevertheless, you’ll be thankful of it when you get to the end of the day, with Exchange sync turned on, and still have power left over. In our tests it was good enough for close to ten hours continuous talktime, despite the 910 being a prototype.
Perhaps the closest recent handset to the iPAQ 910 is the Palm Treo 800w, itself running Windows Mobile 6.1, having a similar screen and featuring a full QWERTY ‘board. You can read our review of the 800w here, but as a quick summary judgement we much prefer the iPAQ 910. The Treo is, at 0.73-inches, even thicker than the HP (although it’s slightly shorter, narrower and lighter) and pales compared to the 910′s business focus.
Make no mistake, the HP iPAQ 910 is very much a business smartphone. It might not have a slick GUI or digicam-replacing camera, but if you’re looking for a single handset that can keep up with your work life and, in many instances, save you from pulling out your laptop, you’ll not be disappointed. Back at the start, we asked whether HP could reclaim the position they once held when PDAs were the exec’s right-hand device; against the odds, and to our surprise, they have.
The HP iPAQ 910 is available direct from HP, priced SIM-free and unlocked at $499.