T-Mobile MDA III
By Sandra Vogel
15 December, 2004 10:55
GPRS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
slide-out thumb keyboard
fax and Zip software included
Rather large and heavy
digital camera is only VGA resolution
Connected handhelds are increasing in numbers. As if to emphasise the point, no fewer than three operators in the UK have announced devices based around the same hardware design and Windows Mobile for Pocket PC Phone Edition software. For Orange, the product name is M2000; for O2 it's the xda IIs [ http://reviews.zdnet.co.uk/hardware/mobilephones/0,39023925,39166167,00.htm ] , while T-Mobile calls it the MDA III. We have chosen the latter for our in-depth review, but check back for summaries of the M2000 and xda IIs.
This is a large and heavy handheld weighing 210g and measuring 7cm wide by 12.5cm deep by 1.9cm high. It's rare these days to see a handheld weighing over 200g, but the reason for this weight is also the MDA III’s identifying characteristic. Although handhelds generally incorporate touch-sensitive screens, data entry at any speed really requires a physical keyboard of some sort rather than a software-based unit. The MDA III's solution is to hide a thumb keyboard beneath the fascia; when key entry is needed, you simply slide the fascia upwards, extending the depth of the device by about 4.5cm. The keyboard provides a full QWERTY layout plus functions, directional cursors and an embedded number pad. Two of the four shortcut buttons that traditionally sit beneath the screen launch Pocket Internet Explorer and Inbox -- the latter catering for email, MMS and SMS communications. The remaining buttons perform unusual but useful services: one calls up the Start menu, providing access to applications and settings; the other behaves like a 'back' button, successively moving backwards through open applications and finally returning you to the Today screen. Unfortunately this 'back' function does not actually close applications -- you need to do this via the Settings/Memory/Running Programs screen. These four shortcut buttons are very small, but they are raised and therefore easy to locate. Beneath them is a lozenge-shaped navigation button flanked left and right by call and end buttons. Two further buttons on the left edge of the casing start up the Voice Notes software and the built-in VGA-resolution camera, with a slider for volume control between them. Above the screen, either side of the speaker, there are two buttons that access the Contacts and Calendar applications.
The phone is a tri-band GSM/GPRS unit, and both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are built in. The Bluetooth and Wireless LAN Manager screens can be accessed via icons at the foot of the Today screen; there's also a Wireless Manager application that lets you select which of these connections, along with GPRS, are active. The MDA III is primarily a business tool, so it's important that plenty of memory is available. To that end, there is 128MB of RAM, of which 125.77MB is available to the user. In addition there is 43.26MB of flash ROM, and an SD card slot with SDIO can be used to expand memory further. The built-in camera can shoot both stills and video. Although many leading-edge handhelds offer cameras that can capture stills at up to 1,280 by 960 resolution, the MDA III’s is limited to 640 by 480 (VGA). The highest resolution for video is 320 by 240, and there's a special shooting mode for MMS video. As usual, there are settings for various lighting conditions and a range of image styles such as greyscale and sepia. You can manually adjust contrast, gamma, saturation and sharpness. The MDA III runs Windows Mobile for Pocket PC Phone Edition Second Edition which caters for VGA-resolution screens. However, the MDA III has a regular 320-by-240-pixel screen. In everyday use this doesn't make a great deal of difference, although some loss of sharpness is noticeable when you're reading text. The screen exhibits a feature we've seen before in some handhelds: when viewed from any angle other than straight on, its white background takes on a yellow hue. This isn't a critical flaw, but it is irritating at times. As noted above, several devices share the hardware design of the MDA III, so T-Mobile has to differentiate itself from the competition. It has done this largely through its connected offerings in the shape of t-zones and SMS services. The latter are provided in the SMS Toolkit and include information feeds, games and access to chat rooms. t-zones are accessed through Pocket Internet Explorer and also provide a range of news, information and leisure-oriented services. Both these services have some elements that will appeal to business users, but are largely consumer focused. In addition to the standard software supplied as part of Windows Mobile for Pocket PC Phone Edition, there are some extras: these include a Zip file manager, a backup utility, a fax manager and the ClearVue PowerPoint and PDF viewers. The MDA III is supplied with a printed user manual, a stiff cloth pouch, a docking cradle with a charge bay for a spare battery, handsfree earbuds and a mains power adapter.
The MDA III’s battery is removable -- a common feature of modern handhelds that allows business users to ensure longer operational times in the field if they choose to invest in a spare. Our battery rundown test involves turning the communications module off, forcing the screen to remain always on, and looping MP3 music. Under these conditions we got 5 hours and 16 minutes of music, which is very respectable. We found the keyboard surprisingly comfortable to use. Although the keys are small they are well spaced, and ridges on each one meant that we felt confident with every press. Of course, a thumb keyboard is no match for a proper add-on keyboard in terms of typing speed, but we found it an improvement over Windows Mobile's soft keyboard.