The ASUS MyPal A600 computer based on the Pocket PC is the first offering from this manufacturer. The ASUS's experience in production of mobile equipment lets us hope that its first product won't be spoiled, as it often happens in small companies. A share of this company on the world market makes me think that the production volumes of the MyPal will be quite large and the delivery will be regular. As you know, ASUS is known for high-quality products offered at moderate prices - I believe the policy regarding the PDA will be the same, and the A600 will sport an advantageous price/quality ratio.
Let's pop into the box with the new PDA. Inside we find the computer itself, a cradle of a funny shape, a charger, a cover of thick fabric covered inside with soft nap, a relatively small user manual and a CD with software. The Deluxe version comes with an additional CD with programs and utilities meant for the PDA. Well, the accessory pack is standard for a mid-level assistant.
The design of the MyPal A600 is ordinary at the front - this is a usual case made of aluminum alloy of an unsophisticated shape; however, it's not deprived of elegancy which will please those who like a strict business style. The application shortcut buttons are recessed into the case, first they are not easy to press, but then, after a click, they easily go into the case; their are equal in diameter to the finger-pad - all these things prevent from occasional pressing when the device is in your pocket. The joy-stick is small and tight, - on the one hand, it won't loose or produce sounds for the speaker located behind it, but on the other hand, it's easier to work with a bigger joystick - as that installed in the iPAQ.
Being 12.8 mm thick, the MyPal A600 is one of the slimmest Pocket PCs for today. This gadget is thus an excellent stylish accessory for a businessman. From the ergonomic standpoint such solution has both supporters and opponents. I think that it's quite convenient to hold this PDA, and the fact that it's very comfortable to wear makes up for minor drawbacks. But such a thin case with smooth side panels must be carefully held as it can easily slip out of your hands. Its even and smooth edges, in contrast to the Fujitsu Siemens Pocket LOOX, won't let us forget that we are dealing with an expensive egg-shell.
The left panel sports a semi-JogDial (it has a limited degree of rotation), a record button and a power button. When you hold the PDA in your left hand, your thumb falls onto the record button with a probability of 80%. But it also can get onto the power switch. The buttons do not jut out of the case's surface, but they are very soft, and occasional pressing is not excluded. The upper panel traditionally offers a headphones jack, a mic-in, IrDA and a SecureDigital slot with a protective door.
A plastic solid stylus of an average size has a circular section, which makes easier to put it into its nest; the stylus is handy enough, though it might seem to be too light for some users. A touch screen, like in most Pocket PCs, is soft and pleasant to press on.
A pleasant blue backlight of the application shortcut keys goes on when these keys are pressed. That pleases much, especially when you are working in the dark.
The cradle is not the best. Having an effective look, the device doesn't allow putting the PDA in the connector at one stroke. The back of the cradle is flexibly connected to the base, and the PDA moves towards the connector at a certain angle to its axis, - the connector thus sets against the slot and you have to move the PDA forth and back to establish the connection.
A screen of the MyPal A600 is a standard for a Pocket PC 3.5" reflective TFT matrix of 320x240 pixels with a backlight whose source is located along the lower edge. Brightness doesn't fluctuate sharply along the screen, but it smoothly decreases to the upper edge, - it's unnoticeable in most applications but well seen when reading e-books. Saturation and contrast of the matrix are typical of the Pocket PC, only the iPAQ 39xx can boast of better quality. The screen's backlight can be adjusted gradually - there are 255 steps. At the maximum, the PDA turns into a flash-light.
The PDA's battery from ASUS is Li-Pol, 1200 mAh. It's hidden under the solid back panel and you can't take if off. Well, if you are going to use it intensively, the computer must be charged up every day, and it's impossible to replace the battery with a new one.
As you know, the Xscale processors have reduced power consumption, which must alleviate power supply problems. To check that we fulfilled several tests. But before I turn to them let me draw your attention to a utility that allows manual switching between power consumption modes of the CPU (i.e. clock speed). The Power Management mode is set to automatic by default, but you can choose standard, power saving or turbo modes. Their impact on performance will be discussed later, and now let's estimate the time of running from a full battery. The first test was a continuous playback of MP3 files with a built-in Windows Media Player in headphones, backlight off (it switched on from time to time for a short operation with the PDA), maximum volume level. In the power saving mode the player stopped working in 11.5 hours. In the turbo mode the duration was 5 hours. At the peak load we played a small video clip in the PocketDivX 0.8. The processor was set to the turbo mode. The device could endure that one hour, and after that we could send and receive data vie IrDA and synchronized information through the cradle during 40 minutes. This approximately amounts to 1 h 20 m - 1 h 30 m of playing video, i.e. this handheld does not yield to its rivals in this aspect. On the whole, the ASUS MyPal A600 has the edge on the run-down time as far as many other Pocket PCs are concerned, though this strong point becomes weaker because of the unremovable battery construction.
The weakest point of the MyPal A600 is that it determines battery's charge incorrectly. It's probably caused by errors in the algorithms of calculation of time of operation of the PXA250 processor in the specific modes. The most problems show up in the turbo mode - when we played video in the turbo mode we got the first warning that the battery needed to be charged yet at the 10the minute (though it was charged up by 70%), after that the gadget worked 40 minutes more, then several more warning messages followed at the interval of 1 minute and then the computer switched off. In other conditions it was the same: in the turbo mode the first warning came onto the screen when the battery was still full, then it appeared again when the battery level was 30-35%. In the other modes the system isn't so persistent, but there is another trouble, - the battery's level is determined incorrectly. After a long charging process (several hours, - the system must have shown 100%) it indicated just 90%, the indication might remain unchanged for a long time and then go down rapidly and freeze at another level (in this case a user will be annoyed with persistent warning messages). If we switch to the less power consuming mode the battery level will go up, which, though, looks logical as this parameter actually shows how much time (percentage wise) from the maximum is left.
Standard software bundle
The ASUS MyPal A600 incorporates just the Pocket PC 2002 platform without any additional programs. It misses shell modifiers and program launchers which are often installed by other manufacturers (and quite often they are unremovable). I think it's the best solution as the original interface of the Pocket PC isn't less interesting than any other, and experienced users can always organize it to their liking by adding new features and programs.
There is the only add-on - ASUS Settings located in the Settings menu in the System tab. We have already mentioned its most interesting function - forced switching of processor modes. Besides, it can provide information on a type and size of flash memory and firmware version, adjust screen contrast (separately for power supply from battery and from mains), adjust MIC sensitivity, set hot keys to wake up the PDA and control auto start-up of applications from memory cards. Well, the utility doesn't set the world on fire, but it pleasantly supplements capabilities of the Pocket PC with new features.
Speed of operation
Performance of the new model is what we are mostly interesting in as this is the first thorough test of a production sample of the Pocket PC 2002 based on the Intel PXA250. Efficiency of such computers running under the current OS in applications not compiled for a given CPU doesn't differ from a typical one. We are going to test it, especially because we can change the processor's speed and compare performance in different modes.
In my opinion, in the standard, power saving and off-line modes the MyPal A600 works at a usual rate, though in the power saving one the interface has a lot of delays, and when lengthy files are processed the delays become considerable. In the power saving mode video in the DivX format plays jerkily, in the standard mode some frames drop out and dynamic scenes are too pixilated. But in the turbo mode all programs flies, the interface responds without any delays, the movie is played in the PocketDivX smoothly and with high quality.
Below are the scores obtained with the VOBenchmark program:
First of all, let's see how different processor modes affect the overall performance. As you can see, the standard mode is almost twice better than the power saving one in all tests. And the turbo mode is twice speedier than the standard one.
The tests also shed light on operation of the automatic power consumption management. It turned out that when the charger is connected the processor is turned into the power saving mode. It's interesting that notebooks which support automatic CPU frequency management are turned into the most efficient mode in case of external power supply. But the ASUS's solution has a logical explanation: the processor consumes less energy so that the battery can be charged up as fast as possible. Besides, in none of the tests the PDA's performance gets higher than in the standard power consumption mode. Well, the test has no really tough tasks and the algorithms keeps the CPU in the standard mode. Unfortunately, the VOBenchmark suite doesn't measure PDA's performance when MP3 or DivX are played and we couldn't check whether the processor works to its full capacity when fulfilling these tasks.
Now I'm going to compare might of the ASUS MyPal A600 with that of the StrongARM 206 MHz based NEC Mobile Pro 300E which is equipped with the same stuff. In the turbo mode which entirely enables capabilities of the CPU XScale the MyPal A600 performs always better than its rival, and in most cases it outpaces the latter by a great margin (by 25-30% - in this case a user can notice the difference without making special measurements). But in the standard mode, which is used most of all, the MyPal A600 is almost always slower than the Mobile Pro 300E. It seems that it's caused by the software which is optimized for the StrongARM, though the flaws in the ASUS's solution can also take place. I think the gap is not critical because it causes no discomfort in typical applications (looking through an address book, reading books, simple games, MP3 playback), and for tough programs the A600 has its ace - the turbo mode.
What this amounts to is a handheld of a nice look, handy and bugless (except problems with warning messages on charging). Its run-down time is rather lengthy, though it still keeps you tied to the mains, and although it doesn't break records in performance, it is able to speed up marginally. At $620 it's more expensive than models bundled with 64 MB RAM and StrongARM 206 MHz processor from brand-name PDA makers, but at the same time it comes with the latest CPU PXA250. ASUS didn't shift down the price bar for middle-level PDAs, but it enhanced the appearance and add more clever features to such computers. Well, it's a rational solution from the marketing standpoint. Missing wireless interfaces (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi) is not a disadvantage because they usually come with high-level PDAs, and here you can use respective expansion cards.
The ASUS MyPal A600 answers the call from the mobile users who want
a mid-level PDA of the best price/capabilities ratio (the A600 is the cheapest
Xscale based computer and shows an excellent performance in the turbo mode),
do not escape from civilization achievements (it's necessary to charge
it up every 1-3 days, removable accumulators or batteries can't be used),
are going to handle it carefully (it's slim, the metallic casing is smooth
and the edges are even, the cradle needs attention), and like an appealing
but not extremal design (thin, elegantly shaped). I'm sure there are quite
a lot of such people out there...
Ivan Melnichuk (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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