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Dell Axim X3i
802.11b wireless, colour Windows Mobile 2003 multimedia handheld.

By Jon Deragon, Visca Consulting
Monday, April 5, 2004; 3:00pm EST


Mobile computing has certainly come a long way in such a short period of time. Who would have thought five years ago, we would be surfing the web wirelessly, listening to MP3's, watching videos and writing documents on our pint sized handheld companions? Handhelds are no longer limited to storing contacts, calendar scheduling and your to-do list. Today they are literally a scaled down version of all the things your desktop can do.

A smart example of today's combination of affordable and feature rich handheld technology comes in the small form factor of the new Dell Axim X3i. Dell is new to the handheld market, with the X3 series being only its second model since its entry in the market. The Axim X3i includes the handheld, a stylish cradle, cables, Li-Ion battery, case, software and manual. The Axim is based on the Microsoft Pocket PC 2003 operating system, which immediately gives you most of the software you will need, right out of the box. The Pocket PC platform is well supported and has thousands of Microsoft and 3rd party based applications available, ranging from games to accounting software.

Getting the Axim up and running the first time was a simple process, which you are guided through using an easy to follow fold out sheet. A guide book is included for more specific instructions if needed. Synchronizing the data between your desktop and Axim is easy, and completely automated. Setup of the Axim is only a couple minutes and involves the usual clock setting and screen alignment routine found on every other handheld.

The Axim its self has a thin sleek design that is comfortable to hold. The front features a vibrant 3.5" 240x320 64k colour TFT screen, well placed power button (with integrated charge status light), microphone, a central navigation pad, 4 "task" buttons and 2 side buttons for dictation and enabling Wi-Fi. The side of the unit includes a headphone jack and navigation dial. The top has an SD based memory card slot, infrared port, and a Wi-Fi antenna, and the removable stylus. The bottom is the data port for battery charging and data synchronizing using the cradle or included cable. The back of the Axim features a built-in speaker and the battery compartment which allows for swapping of the included 950mAh battery, and accommodates larger capacity 1800mAh batteries. The Axim has a quality feel, buttons give solid feedback and the outer shell is constructed with quality plastics. It is surprisingly light weight, making it truly pocket-able. We were very pleased with the inclusion of both a built in microphone and speaker. The speaker is about what you would expect, tinny and quiet, but adequate for anything you wouldn't be bothered plugging headphones in for. The microphone was shockingly good. Even when the user was not physically close to the Axim's microphone, our dictation audio files had excellent vocal range and clarity. The quality of the audio files is customizable up to full 16-bit 44.1KHz sampling.

The included cradle is well designed and attractively finished with a mirror like polished look. The blue glowing Dell logo compliments other Dell branded equipment you may have on your desktop nicely. It is also functionally attractive, with its ability to synchronize and charge your Axim and an additional battery. The cradle uses USB connectivity with the computer and features a low profile inline power adaptor instead of those cumbersome brick adaptors.

When using the Axim, it will immediately remind you of its bigger brother, the desktop. The Pocket PC operating system has done a tremendous job of miniaturizing all the (Microsoft) applications you commonly use on your computer. All the familiar tools and applications like Word, Excel, Outlook, Explorer, MSN Messenger, Windows Media Player and even Terminal Services are all there in a "mobile version". This is great for document and services compatibility, as you won't have to convert documents, or sign up for services you are already part of on your desktop. When your word processing, spreadsheet, instant messaging, web browser, email client and multi-format media player are all included as part of the package, pretty much everything is taken care of. The basic utilities that are included also have attention to detail such as the notepad employing hand writing recognition that actually works well; and clock utility with multi-region display.

The Pocket PC operating system is laid out similarly to the Windows XP environment, with changes to improve its "on the road" usability. The familiar Start button, menu options and other Windows XP similarities keep things consistent between your home and mobile systems. The unfamiliar aspects of the operating system are quick to learn and do not hinder usability. Just about every aspect of the interface and operation of the unit is customizable through the familiar "Settings" folder. The combination of Intel XScale 400MHz processor, 64MB RAM and 64MB ROM offered snappy response times across the board. Loading applications such as the browser or media player were literally instantaneous, the Axim always felt responsive and well specified to do what you asked of it. Start up time is almost instantaneous, important for needing to grab quick details such as phone numbers, scheduled event details and addresses in a hurry. Wi-Fi support is well implemented, with a designated button for turning the functionality on or off to conserve battery life. The operating system does an excellent job of automatically searching for wireless networks and connecting to them. The site survey and wealth of other wireless utilities and features make mobile network access an absolute breeze.

Above all else we were particularly impressed with how all of its features come together to meet the demands of so many different scenarios. Commuting on the train, bus or plane? Download an episode or two of your favorite shows onto a 256MB or 512MB SD card. Then when traveling you plug in your headphones, run the shows in the media player in the superb full screen playback mode and all of a sudden its luxury travel time! The media play back has great picture quality, smooth frame rates and the privacy of headphones. Another scenario, you are making a presentation at a client site and need to confirm with a co-worker specific details of a project. Using the built in Wi-Fi and the MSN Messenger you can chat in real time with that person to get the answers. In addition, if you also required remote connectivity to your server back at the office for whatever reason, you can use the VPN or Terminal Services features of the Axim.

It's difficult to fault the Axim X3i when you look at the relatively inexpensive price, and the laundry list of included features. The lack of Bluetooth was the one major feature missing from the Axim. With more devices taking advantage of Bluetooth such as the latest GPS receivers, printers and cell phones; it is becoming a more desirable feature. The included carrying case was the only other sticking point. Its leather sleeve design is a tight fit that doesn't protection the top of the unit, and has a non-detachable belt clip. A more conventional case, in our view, would have been preferable.

When comparing the Dell Axim X3i with its direct competitor, the Palm Tungsten C, the Axim had a clear advantage in many aspects. The Tungsten lagged behind primarily because of the dated Palm operating system. It is basically the same Palm OS from the models of years ago, but with a patchwork of revisions and add-ons attempting to bring it up to speed with today's demands. The lack-luster interface, limited web browser, hokey included media player, and virtually unchanged core applications are prime examples of this. Its truly dated desktop software that hasn't been revised in years, also misses when compared with how the Axim so seamlessly interacts with your desktop computer and its applications. Hardware wise the Tungsten C had comparable processing, batteries, memory and sharp screen quality - but things like a non-swappable battery, terrible keyboard, slippery metal stylus, the necessity of a plug in adaptor to dictate notes, heavier weight, really let it down. The final stake in the heart of the Tungsten C, was the Axim's lower price tag.

Overall we were again and again impressed with just how much a person can could do with this "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" device. It clearly does everything you could possibly need to do on the road, and executes it all with precision in a feature rich and attractive package. As the number of available wireless hotspots continue to increase world wide at a rapid rate, this is definitely the time to consider a wireless handheld that can fully utilize the potential of mobile networking. And the Axim offers exactly that - flawlessly.

The Dell Axim X3i retails for $349USD / $449CND; comes with a base 1 year warranty which is expandable to 3 years; has a complete range of accessories from additional batteries, screen protectors, styluses, cases, foldable keyboards and memory cards; and is available immediately. Dell also offers a lower cost version called the Axim X3, which excludes Wi-Fi support and cradle. For the minimal additional cost, we would strongly recommend the X3i over the lower cost X3 model.

PROS - Excellent value; built-in microphone, speaker and headphone jack; user swappable battery; attractive cradle charges both Axim and extra battery; clear and easy to view screen; excellent assortment of software included; well executed Wi-Fi implementation; well rounded processor and memory specifications; excellent interoperability with your desktop applications and services (Office documents, MSN messenger, terminal services); build quality.

CONS - Lack of Bluetooth; included carrying case.

About The Author
Jon Deragon is president and founder of Visca Consulting, a firm specializing in web site design, development and usability for businesses of all sizes. His many years in the technology industry has enabled him to write quality, in-depth product reviews to assist businesses make more informed technology purchases. He welcomes any questions or comments you may have regarding his company's services, this review or interest in having your company's products reviewed.
info@viscaconsulting.com
http://www.viscaconsulting.com/

 

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