Pros: WMP Mobile 10; WiFi connectivity; Pocket IE works great
Cons: Like Docs-To-Go better than Pocket versions of Excel, Word; Microsoft OS
My employer's computer I/T department exhibits great follow-through. After over a year of waiting for them to support my Palm Tungsten C that I brought over from another employer, they finally decided to let me in on a secret; Ain't gonna happen! After exhaling (yes, I actually was holding my breath waiting) I quickly decided to dump the Palm and pick up a Pocket PC that they would indeed support via a conduit from the PDA to Novell Groupwise, the PIM software of choice at my place of employment.
Purchase/In the box
If you have purchased anything from Dell online, you already know that you can get killer deals on their merchandise if you watch and wait. Unfortunately, I didn't know that. I went to the Dell Home site and found the Dell Axim X50 520MHz version for $434 with a coupon for 15% off. Additionally, I would get the Rhinoskin Axim X50 Aluminum hard case thrown in for free, a $35 value. Not being one to wait, I bought the package for $368.90. With 2% cash back through Ebates.com I will get $7.38 back as well, leaving the total price for $361.52, a pretty good deal in my mind.
Two days after I placed the order the box arrived at my office, pleasing me to no end. Opening the box revealed the Dell Axim X50 with the 520MHz processor, the Rhinoskin hard case, the USB cradle/battery charger for synchronizing your data and a power cable and adapter to use with or without the USB cradle. The Rhinoskin case comes with a screw-in stud and plastic belt clip in case you want to look like a real geek with your Axim hanging from your belt; this won't get much use from me The Owner's Manual and Software CD rounds out the material shipped with the Dell Axim X50.
Specifications are what make a PDA. Without the specifications, you wouldn't know if you were getting a very nice looking yet extremely slow PDA or a lightning fast, state of the art piece of equipment. For that reason I tend to write in the specifications that were important to me at the time of purchase, as they had a significant sway on my decision. To that end, the Dell Axim X50 that I am reviewing comes packed with the following, in order of importance to me:
Processor: Intel XScale 520MHz processor
Screen: 320 X 240 QVGA Hi-Resolution screen
Connectivity: Built-in 802.11b WiFi and Bluetooth
OS: Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition
Media Player: Windows Media Player 10 Mobile included!
Expandability: 1-CF Type II slot and 1-SD or MMC slot
Onboard RAM: 64MB (55MB available)
Onboard ROM: 128MB StrataFlash ROM (90MB available)
Power: Supplied via replaceable, rechargeable battery
My main point of comparison for this unit is the Tungsten C, and in almost all respects I like the Dell Axim X50 better. The Axim X50 weighs in at 5.9 ounces and has dimensions of 4.7 inches high by 2.8 inches wide by 0.7 inches thick. Overall this is not too big of a unit as it still fits in my back jeans pocket comfortably.
Dell has parted ways with the older designs of the Axims such as the X30 and X5's. The X50's have a black matte finished plastic on the back and sides with a glossy metallic silver finish along the front edges. The sides are all rounded, including the bottom two corners which make this more user friendly as the sharp corners of other PDA's tended to dig into the hands while in use.
The front of the Axim X50 is surrounded by the metallic silver framing and within this are the screen and two areas of glossy black plastic above and below the screen. The bottom section of black contains the four hot buttons and the navigator button. The navigator button is not your typical circular rocker pad, but rather oval in shape being wider than it is higher. The select button resides within the navigator button, and the single monaural speaker for the unit is somewhere below it. The four hot buttons are programmable, but out of the box they will pull up Calendar, Contacts, and Inbox and Home screens. The top section contains the power button in the center, a radio indicator light on the right and the microphone on the left. The power button will light up when the Axim is placed in the cradle and a backlight on the power button will glow amber if the unit is charging and green when fully charged. The radio button will flash green periodically if the WiFi is active or blue if the Bluetooth is active. This does help you to know if the WiFi or Bluetooth has been activated accidentally, which can happen often.
The screen has 320 X 240 resolution spread out over a 3.5 inch QVGA touch-sensitive LCD. While the resolution for this screen is less than the Tungsten C, I can't really see any visible differences. However, you should keep in mind that I didn't have both units in my hand performing the same function at the same time as I sold the Tungsten before the Axim arrived. In any case, the picture quality of the Axim while playing videos, viewing pictures and surfing the web is more than sufficient for me.
The left side of the unit houses the lanyard hook, lock button, power for WiFi and Bluetooth and the Record button for voice recordings. The lock button slides up on the unit revealing a small area of bright red when in the locked position. It is relatively easy to tell if the unit is locked by looking at the side and it doesn't take intense scrutiny thanks to the red coloring. The WiFi/Bluetooth button is something that I wish Dell would have left off of the unit, as it causes more problems than help. If you are going to use the Bluetooth or WiFi, I personally think that you will have the unit on and functioning. If that is the case, make an easily accessible software button that will activate it as opposed to the hardware button on the side. The reason for this is that almost every time that I try to open my Rhinoskin case, take the unit out of the case or pull the unit off of the charging unit I end up inadvertently turning the WiFi/BT on. Granted, I can and do lock the unit when I expect it to be idle for a long period of time, but I just dont see the need for the hardware switch. The same could be said for the Record button, but in this case you actually need to hold down the button to record anything, so more often than not it just brings up the recording screen and doesn't actually waste any memory.
The top of the unit contains the 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, the two slots for Compact Flash Type II and SDIO cards, the IR transceiver and the built-in stylus sleeve. The unit did not come with any headphones, but any set with a 3.5mm jack will work. The CF and SDIO slots come with a blank in place to keep the leads protected while not in use, and any cards will slide in easily. With a CF card, the card pushes down on some pins sticking up and therefore the user must pull the card out by a lip which is hanging over the slot. In the case of the SD card, simply pushing down on the card will engage an ejection from the unit, making it easier to remove the card. The stylus is much more like the typical palm stylus than the earlier Axim stylus's as it is very, very skinny. It has a soft black tip and a silver shaft with a hard black plastic top. The stylus is small, but not so small that it is difficult to use. Coming from a Tungsten C I noticed almost no difference in the use of the stylus.
The right side of the unit contains nothing of consequence while the bottom houses the sync/charging connector. The connector is a recessed male connection which slides inside of a female connection on the cradle or charging cable. You may want to be careful to pull the unit straight up when coming out of the cradle, as rocking forward/backward or side to side may damage the male connector and render the unit unusable. I have not heard of this happening yet, but I can see it as a possibility.
The back of the unit contains the reset button and the battery compartment. The reset button is used for the case of either a hard- or soft-reset. To perform a soft reset, simply stick the business end of the stylus in the hole until you feel the reset switch move. This will lose all temporary data on the unit, but nothing permanent. A hard reset is performed by holding the power button in and inserting the stylus into the reset hole for over two seconds. Be warned that this resets the unit back to factory release status, meaning that any programs, data, pictures, etc. that you have loaded will be gone!
The standard battery is an 1100mAh rechargeable battery. There is a battery lock on the bottom of the unit to keep the cover from popping open, but the user can replace the battery if needed. Be aware that this is similar to performing a soft reset as you will lose your temporary data that has not been saved. There are replacement batteries at 1100 and 2200 mAh available on Dell.com, and the cradle has an area for charging just the battery as well.
The cradle comes with two connections, as alluded to above. You can charge the battery while still in the Axim by connecting the unit to the cradle itself. The unit will be a few degrees off from vertical, making it easy to view and work on while charging. Behind this connector is an area for laying a secondary battery for charging. If the secondary battery is charging, there is an LED on the front of the cradle that will show amber while charging and green when complete. The USB cable is hard wired to the cradle while the power connection is removable. This allows the user to take the power cable, syncing cradle or both with them when they leave. If using the power cable by itself, there is a plug that must be connected that adapts the straight power cable to the connection type of the unit itself. If the cradle is used without the power cable, the unit will be recharged via power supplied from the USB header. While this does work, it takes much longer than when plugged into a 120V connection. If after seven hours of USB charging time the battery is not completely charged, you will have to disconnect and reconnect the cradle to the computer as the charging sequence will time out.
When you first get the unit, you are going to need to load the syncing software and drivers onto the host PC that you want to sync with. This is easily accomplished by inserting the CD into the CD-ROM unit and allowing Windows to autorun the program. Once the software is added and drivers queued, plug in the USB connection from the cradle and place the unit in the cradle. (This assumes you have already let the battery charge for a sufficient amount of time) The operating systems will then plug-n-play the drivers as well as perform the initial sync of the unit for you. The first time this is done the PC will ask if you want to sync as a visitor or create a partnership. If this PC is one that will be used for syncing quite often, go ahead and create the partnership. This will allow you to sync via a wireless network in the future. No partnership, no wireless syncing!
The controls for the Axim X50 are relatively intuitive. This is the first Pocket PC I have used, being a long time fan of the Palm computing OS. I still prefer the Palm OS from a software standpoint, but my I/T department forced me to make the move to the Pocket PC. My only other experience with the Pocket PC platform was a brief sting with an HP Jornada three or four years ago, and this Axim is leaps and bounds ahead of it.
The screen can rotate from Portrait to Landscape, changing from the orientation of a sheet of paper to a widescreen television orientation. You can move the screen to either orient either to the left or the right, and in my case I leave it oriented with the bottom of the screen being the left side of the unit. This makes for easy viewing of videos in full screen and also allows me to see more of my excel spreadsheets (left to right) when manipulating data via the Axim.
The processor speed is important for a PDA as this can make the multimedia portion of the unit sing or die. In the case of the X50, there are only two differentiators between the unit I bought and then next unit down; the speed of the processor (520MHz vs. 416MHz) and the amount of onboard ROM (128MB vs. 64MB). This was enough to get me to pony up an additional $80 for the higher model. The next step up, the X50v, comes with a 624MHz processor, a true VGA screen running 640 X 480 resolution and an Intel 2700G Multimedia Accelerator with 16MB of dedicated RAM. This unit cost an additional $70-80 over the X50 and I just couldn't justify it. If I had waited a week, I would have been able to get the X50v without the Rhinoskin case for $369, but hindsight is always 20/20.
The fact that this unit has two slots for expandability is great, as it means that the user can load several gigs of external memory if needed. The SDIO card slot also means that several aftermarket card systems such as GPS, connectivity, etc. can be used with the SD slot rather than strictly data storage. I personally have a 256MB Edge Performance SD card installed in the SD slot and a 1GB Lexar 4X CF card for storage of data, Multimedia files and photos. Both are recognized instantly with no formatting issues or loading required. The expandability of the unit goes a long way to making it future-proof.
Windows Media Player Mobile 10 comes standard on the Axim X50 line. This application goes a long way towards enhancing the integration and performance of multimedia on the unit. Syncing music and video files with the unit is simple. The user simply goes into Windows Media Player on the Host PC and chooses files from the library to sync. Once you have a list of files to sync, click on the sync button. WMP will encode the video files to QVGA format and sync the files, usually choosing the memory module that has the most space remaining. The user can change the destination if they so desire, but in my case I want them stored to the CF card which is the default. Once the files are in the memory of the unit in one fashion or another, simply open the Mobile Windows Media Player Mobile 10 application, choose your file and press play.
As stated above, the screen does a wonderful job at rendering QVGA quality video in full-screen mode, which is something I was concerned about as the X50v comes with its own multimedia chip and RAM. I have encoded and watched several half-hour and hour long television shows onto the Axim X50 via Snapstream's Beyond TV3 including The Simpsons, CSI and Law and Order. This comes in very handy on plane trips, as I can watch a show without pulling out the unwieldy laptop and waiting forever for it to power on and off. We have used this on trips across the state as well so that my eldest son can watch an episode of his favorite show while the two younger boys sleep. He just needs to remember that when he talks with the headphones in, it is louder than he thinks! The video quality is very good with few if any skips during playback. Overall, this is a very plausible video viewer.
Audio files such as WMA, MP3 and the like are synced in the same fashion as the video files minus the encoding process. The Dell Axim X50 works as an above average MP3 player, although the sound reproduction is not as good as that presented with my Sandisk MP3 player, mainly because there is no equalizer available to customize the sound. The monaural speaker is actually quite good for listening to music, all things considered. With a good set of headphones the MP3 quality is pretty good with some missing high notes and low bass notes, but nothing that makes it less than acceptable. Since I left my SanDisk MP3 player on an airplane recently, I have used this for my exercise needs. It works well, although I do wish that I had the FM tuner from the MP3 player so I could listen to the closed-circuit audio for the TV channels
The Axim X50 comes with the expected software and very little extra. For your Personal Information Management software, Pocket Outlook is included. This includes Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, Messaging and Notes. All of these items will sync up with your desktop so long as you use a form of Outlook. In my case I use Thunderbird at home and Novell Groupwise at work. Groupwise requires a separate program/conduit to sync up, and I don't have it on my PC yet. (Gotta love that I/T bureaucracy, eh?)
In addition to the Pocket Outlook programs, there are several Lite versions of Microsoft's Office software included for use on the Axim. Pocket Word, Pocket Excel and Pocket MSN Messaging are included as well as Pocket Internet Explorer. The mobile favorites will show up in your IE favorites section of the Desktop IE if you use the browser. Since I do not, this particular syncing method doesn't work.
I actually prefer Documents-to-go for the Palm OS as opposed to the Lite versions produced by Microsoft, as the interface seemed to be cleaner and easier to work with. I do use the Excel and Word programs to move and manipulate my files. It works, but like I said I preferred the Docs To Go program. The mobile internet explorer works very well, actually better than anything I used on the Palm OS. It seems that so many web pages are programmed with IE in mind that it only makes sense that the pocket version of IE would work better. Based on my experience, this holds true. Pocket MSN Messenger works just as you would expect, and I use this quite often when on a WiFi connection such as in an airport en route.
The fact that the X50 has both 802.11b and Bluetooth makes this a very versatile PDA for the business user. I happen to use the WiFi ability quite often while the BT functionality hasn't even been tested. I have no other hardware that uses BT, not even a phone at this time. However, my home network, the network at my place of employment, the network at the corporate office and the networks at most airports and hotels all work on WiFi standards. Many are still 802.11b while some have upgraded to 802.11g with backwards compatibility. I have used the WiFi functionality in all of the above situations, and in my experience the antenna in the Axim X50 is very good. At work I can get about 150-200 feet away from the Linksys router and still receive a signal, while at home I can be anywhere in the house and connect at reasonable speeds.
Setting up the Axim X50 for wireless connectivity is nowhere near as easy as it was on my Palm Tungsten C. This is due in part to the fact that the Microsoft Mobile 2003 Second Edition OS has its own built-in tool for setting up a network connection, and then Dell added their own WLAN utility. Finally, there is also the Odyssey Client software for use with 802.1x security. The first time I set up the Axim to work on my home network, I had to use the Odyssey Client software to get the 13 character WEP encryption key to work. After a few weeks, I couldn't connect to the network anymore, and the only way to get it to connect was to eliminate the home network profile from the Odyssey Client and only use the Dell WLAN setup. Why did this happen? I have no idea. What I can say is that getting and keeping the Axim connected has been difficult for me, and I have quite a bit of home networking experience. I think the redundant programs may be causing conflicts, and this certainly doesn't bode well for the average Joe consumer.
The Axim X50 comes with very little additional software, but there is the ubiquitous Solitaire game. Additionally you will find a game called Jawbreaker which seems to be a variation on the popular Jewels game. The calculator is ever present as well as a program called Pictures which works as a photo viewer. Pocket MSN is present but unused on my unit, and finally AvantGo is available for offline browsing of synced pages. I have played the two games which are present, but very little else of the additional software is utilized.
The Dell Axim X50 was not something that I wanted. I would have been very happy to stick with my Tungsten C, as I prefer the open OS and ability to do your own programming. I had several self-programmed applications for calculating yields, efficiencies and the like as well as some free steam table, conversion and periodic table programs. I have been sucked further into the Microsoft realm by being forced to switch my PDA over to Microsoft, and I am unhappy with the concept in general.
That being said, the Microsoft mobile OS works well, and the Internet Explorer for the Pocket PC works better than any I have found for the Palm OS. The massive capability for add-on memory is great, and Windows Media Player Mobile 10 works like a dream. The 520MHz processor is more than sufficient for either a business or multimedia user, although I would recommend watching the Dell site for sales and upgrading to the X50v if you want the best in multimedia experiences. The Axim X50 more than meets my needs and I would recommend it for someone who is locked into the Pocket PC realm. It seems that you can get all of the functionality of the IPAQ lines for about $100 less from what I have seen.