Handheld manufacturers have done their best: the market is crammed with dozens of models, which are only slightly different from each other. In most cases a potential PDA buyer meets with a problem of choice. What's more preferable – USB Host or two expansion slots? Bluetooth or WiFi? It's real luck when a buyer can express his/her requirements to the device. But even in this case there will be hard to formalize parameters and personal preferences. The prices are low enough to forget super-profits from the PDA market. In the hard competition setting a company or a department passes all evolution stages for several years – from an undertaking promising tempting prospects to closing the department as nonearning. Customers only benefit from this situation, while manufacturers have to run hard just to remain on the same positions. PDA service life is long, no consumables are required to use these devices. Manufacturers can use the old proved method to lure customers into spending another sum of money to improve their financial positions: to offer devices with new features at the old prices. In other words, to create a new market segment (it sounds much "tougher", but it does not alter the particularity of the fact).
Mass production of handhelds with VGA resolution displays (640x480) has served as an occasion to create a new niche. Toshiba was the first to register itself in this field with its E800 model. But this device did not gain ground for the lack of OS support for this resolution and its terribly high prices. The release of Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 SE, which major difference from the previous version was in VGA display support, gave rise to the tide of announcements. There appeared Asus MyPal A730, HP iPaq hx4700, Dell Axim X50v, Fujitsu-Siemens Pocket LOOX 720. You can easily guess that all mentioned models belong to the top echelon and they will compete only in their price range (higher than $500). These devices have similar specs: VGA display, two expansion slots (CF, SDio), Intel XScale PXA27x series processor, Windows Mobile 2003SE, and other stuff. Thus, the quality of handheld models (ergonomics, battery rundown time, additional bonuses) and their prices will be the basis of the competition for customers among the manufacturers.
Fujitsu-Siemens Pocket LOOX 720 is currently the most expensive representative of the new wave. Let's see what the customers may get at this considerable price (at the moment this article was written it was over 600 dollars).
We can forecast specification of this model only by how this model is positioned. But no harm will be in recalling features of high-end PocketPCs in Autumn 2004.
Having heard the voice of reason, manufacturers stopped packing tiny computers into huge boxes. Going to a store to buy a handheld, you don't need a big rucksack: the elegant package of LOOX 720 will fit into a medium bag.
Inside the box you will see a standard bundle of an expensive device: the handheld, battery, extra stylus, PDA case, cradle, USB cable (aka USB host adapter), charger with a set of plugs for different sockets, CDs with ActiveSync and programs, warranty, voucher to get software from www.pocketloox-choice.com, and other printed documentation.
Design and construction of the handheld merit the highest award. This PDA conquers sympathies at the first touch. The device lies conveniently in hand, thanks to the original form of the side panels it will not slip out of your grip. This new model can be even compared with HP 2210 by its firm grip in a hand.
The case is made of light plastic. This makes the device lighter, but it doesn't contribute to its durability. Color quality is high, no scratches were found on the device after I carried it a week in a case and without it. But you should use a case anyway to protect the display and the lens of the built-in camera.
Round grooves at the sides of the PDA suggest a cover a la Palm.
Assembly quality is very high. No creaking, flexing, and other petty dirty tricks. Battery is fixed not only by a cover, but also by an additional lever. Don't forget about it when replacing a battery: the bay will not close until the lever fixes the battery.
On the whole this device has a strict design. The only tiny flaw – the application buttons are too close to each other and to the 5-way navigation button. Sometimes it's not that easy to grope for a button you need.
There are two LEDs above the display. The left one indicates wireless interfaces, the right one – external power/alarms. Additional speaker is located right between them, which operates only in the WiFi-phone mode. The traditional power button is in the right corner.
The infrared port, headphone jack, CF/SDio slots are located on the top side. Stylus bay is also accessible from the top. Admit it, the traditional solution is much more convenient than that in ASUS A730. The metal stylus is 92 mm long, 4 mm in diameter, a thin needle is hidden inside the cap to reboot the handheld. You won't be able to soft reset with a stylus tip.
The left side pleased us with its 3-way up-down-enter jog dial and an additional fast access button, which unexpectedly launches FSC Speed Menu instead of usual voice recorder. But engineers provided for almost all customer wishes: the voice memo button is also available (on the right side of the handheld).
A rubber band is built into the cover of the battery bay. It slightly raises the handheld case, providing additional protection to the camera lens and eliminating slipping on the table (or any other horizontal surface).
Application buttons are a separate story. They respond with a noticeable delay, which is unacceptable in arcades. Gamers will dislike the joystick as well: Closely set applications buttons will interfere. Our attempt to test the functionality with our favourite Bomberman failed (we'll review the reasons below), in other games the joystick was so-so.
This handheld comes shipped with a 1640 mAh battery. The monstrous battery capacity successfully compensates for the multiply increased power consumption. At present only HP iPaq hx4700 (1800 mAh) surpasses LOOX 720 by this parameter. The manufacturer claims 12 hours of operating time. We managed to get this result in our tests only when using this handheld as an mp3 player (the display is off, average music volume, music files are stored in the main memory, wireless interfaces are disabled, operating mode of the processor – Power Saving). Minimum operating time is 1 hour 45 minutes. To obtain this result you should enable all wireless interfaces, set the maximum LED backlight, and watch a DivX movie via WiFi. The battery in this mode will heat very much: for the first time in my life I saw a battery overheating warning window in Windows Mobile. With this tendency, we are going to see active cooling used...
In regular usage mode (dictionaries, book reading, web-surfing GPRS via bluetooth, games, and music) this handheld operates from 6 to 9 hours. A worthy result, I should say! Enabled WiFi halves the operating time.
Interesting peculiarity of LOOX 720: it uses a Ni-Mh backup battery. This exotic solution has its pros: you have fewer chances to freeze by accident the backup battery. Customers may be worried to see a completely discharged battery in a brand new handheld, but that's exactly the way this battery (Ni-Mh) should be stored. Fujitsu-Siemens guarantees the safety of data for only 30 minutes with a fully discharged main battery. In practice, the backup battery holds on much longer (at least 3-4 hours, it's quite enough to find a power source).
Another important moment should be noted: the handheld consumes power even when it's off (to maintain memory). According to the manufacturer, LOOX 720 will drain its main battery for two weeks by simply lying on a shelf.
Such a capacious battery takes long time to be charged. This process will take from 2.5 to 3 hours from a standard electricity supply network. Charging from USB is still a more meditative process (the charge level grew by 60% for 6 hours), you'd better not take this feature seriously.
We should additionally note the special design of a cradle, which allows to charge the second battery (installed behind the decorative plastic cover) together with the battery in your handheld.
Display diagonal – 91 mm, which is a cool centimeter smaller than in Toshiba E800 or iPaq 4700, LOOX 720 outscores them by dimensions instead. Display processing technology is also different. Unlike Toshiba E800 and ASUS A730, where Sharp CG Silicon (Continuous Grain Silicon) is used, the display in LOOX 720 is manufactured by Sony. Fujitsu-Siemens model is a little better at the viewing angles and colors: the colors are more vivid and less faded when looked at a large angle. It's difficult to select a winner in comparison with HP iPaq hx4700 (they have got the same display type). Due to a smaller pixel size, LOOX display looks sharper. But an extra centimeter is a noticeable bonus when you read books.
The display reads comfortably at night with the minimum LED backlight. Maximum LED backlight turns the handheld into a rather bright flash light – the range of backlight control will be appreciated even by exigent users.
We have mentioned many times that the display resolution is 480x640. It's a new standard taking root only in the most expensive devices. When the manufacturers will skim the cream off the most impatient buyers, there will also appear middle end VGA handhelds. We can say almost for sure that it will happen already in 2005. And in a couple of years later QVGA will become a thing of the past. And users will have to buy VGA devices, willing or not.
Allow me to digress for a minute and try an ungrateful thing – forecast. The further increase of display resolution of handhelds has no sense – pixel size is already so small that a human eye cannot make out separate pixels. Does it mean that another "display revolution" cannot be repeated? No! Until customers buy "megahertz" and "megapixels", manufacturers will not stop producing "novelties".
The quality of the sound section of this handheld is a pleasant surprise. Built-in speaker is traditionally good only for groaning, crackles, and clicks. But the quality of output from the headphone jack (standard 3.5" jack) is pleasantly surprising.
Audio test results in RighMark AudioAnalyzer demonstrated that the audio quality can be compared to that in modern mp3 players. Subjectively, listening to music from the handheld is better than from an mp3 player, if you don't pay attention to inconvenient controls (in comparison with players).
Sound volume is more than enough to listen to music in a very noisy environment (metro train). No overloading even at maximum settings. Using the audio applet you can control treble and bass frequencies. The 3D option widens the stereo base and spoils the sound quality.
The input turned out a match for the output: voice recorder provides excellent sound quality, being almost on a par with self-contained units. User can select one of several amplification and noise reduction modes: Short range recording, Normal, and Conference recording. The automatic mode will manage just fine in most cases, but some cases may require manual control.
Thanks to the long operating time LOOX 720 may be successfully used as a player and a dictating mac.
As we have already mentioned above, a camera in a handheld is rather a matter of prestige than a necessity. Until scientists find a way to con optical laws, the quality of pictures taken by miniature cameras will be low. No "multi-pixels" can help in this trouble. These days, 1.3 megapixels come into fashion with photo resolution of up to 1280x960. Similar cameras are installed in palmOne Zire 72, ASUS MyPal A730. At first the quality of photos taken by LOOX 720 seems a tad higher than in those competitors. In particular, the color noise is not that noticeable. But if you take a closer look, you will notice that the image is blurred. Perhaps, the photo processing algorithm includes a blur step to make the color noise less noticeable. Such a photo looks much better on a handheld display. On the contrary, the blur filter is evident on a large display. Photo samples: (click a photo to enlarge it)
Standard camera settings (brightness, contrast, etc). There is also a parody of a flash (LED) and a self-portrait mirror. Ultra-close-up mode is not available (infinity focusing).
The camera can shoot 288x352 video clips. Initial admiration at the file extension (mp4) was replaced by the utter disappointment: it's the same 3GPP inside. Video sample is here.
We should mention another camera mode: patterned shooting. Good old fun is back again. 960x1280 file can be used as a pattern, black pixels on a picture will be replaced with the pixels taken by the camera. This function is much fun, though useless.
So, we have got a standard set for a top handheld.
The era of Intel PXA27x processors has started relatively recently. Clock frequencies of currently available representatives of this series are from 312 to 624 MHz. LOOX 720 uses an intermediate modification: its processor operates at 520 MHz. Some competitors (for example, HP with its iPaq 4700) have faster chips, Palm OS models, on the contrary, content themselves with a lower frequency. But the handheld performance depends not only on the CPU clock frequency. Program optimizations for a certain environment provide much higher results: Subjectively, palmOne Zire 72 (CPU clock frequency – 312 MHz) operates much faster than ASUS MyPal A730 (520 MHz). It's partly a fault of the high display resolution (640x480), which requires larger calculating capacities. There is no point in comparing models with different display resolutions using the same tests. The table provides test results of LOOX 720 in popular Spb Benchmark (data on HP iPaq 5550 and ASUS MyPal A716 are provided for a pictorial view: there is no point in comparing VGA and QVGA devices using Spb Benchmark).
It's a meaningless set of figures, at first glance. But in fact, most results have a logical explanation. Firstly, the overall index is small solely because of the low speed of graphics output. Secondly, LOOX 720 processor operates a tad faster than that in ASUS A730, not due to the general device optimization but due to the frequency increased by 2 MHz. In comparison with models based on the previous Intel XScale 2xx series, the new line of processors has noticeably higher performance. Thirdly, the new model from Fujitsu-Siemens features an unsurpassed synchronization speed! However, it's still far from the limitations of the USB 1.1 interface. USB 2.0 in HP iPaq hx4700 did not raise the sync speed.
Graphics system performance is very low. The reasons for this are the increased display resolution (VGA display has four times as many pixels in comparison with QVGA) and the lack of software optimization for the Intel 2700G graphics chip. There is no point in interpreting the results obtained, because the old program code is just not ready to operate with the new hardware. That's what dynamic games demonstrated: Bomberman (Superbomber) worked at the speed of 3 frames per second. Old arcade fans will have to wait until the Microsoft OS is updated and 2700G is properly supported.
In calculation tasks LOOX 720 is outscored only by HP hx4700, which is easily explained by the increased CPU clock frequency of the competitor (624 MHz).
Increased requirements to performance have their effect on the video playback speed. Using a test clip (extract from "Shrek", 512x384 resolution, 1.4 mbps data rate, divxmpg4 v3 encoded) we managed to squeeze only 83% playback speed from LOOX 720. Intel 2700G accelerator support in future versions must increase the playback speed. It means that there will be no need in re-encoding movies into mpeg4 to watch them on your handheld – you will just copy a file from CD to an expansion card.
When testing LOOXstore (built-in flash disk), LOOX 720 demonstrated average performance. The operating speed is comparable with that of HP iPaq 5550 File Store. But nothing more is required from a built-in disk.
A couple of years ago a single wireless interface was considered a luxury. And now nobody will be surprised to see both Bluetooth and wiFi operating simultaneously. A past privilege of the most expensive models (remember HP iPaq 5550) is becoming a standard (ASUS A716 and partially LOOX610). Fortunately for users, Fujitsu-Siemens abandoned their proprietary drivers in this model and decided to use a product from Broadcom (that merged the WIDCOMM developer) tested in dozens of models from various manufacturers.
That's why unlike LOOX 610 we have no complaints about Bluetooth in this new model. This handheld worked fine with mobile handsets, GPS receivers, headsets, other handhelds, desktop computers, and notebooks via Bluetooth.
WiFi was none the worse. All popular secure protocols are supported (WPA, WEP, PEAP). Antenna sensitivity and the power of the receiver are enough to work within a rather large office. What concerns cons, we can note poor settings available in the bundled E2C program (STD version). For example, you cannot create more than one profile. The nuisance is that once you launch E2C, you can get rid of it only after hard reset. Advanced users should disable this program right away, and map its button to something more useful. In this situation when you enable WiFi, the device will report about new networks found and will prompt for WEP keys, you can edit the settings via standard connections in WM2003SE. However, you can also purchase E2C Professional, which works perfectly with several profiles and is an excellent replacement for the clumsy applets to configure connections bundled with WM2003SE. Alas, you cannot buy this program on www.pocketloox-choice.com, the bundled voucher will have to be spent on a different program.
LOOX 720 has a built-in support for WiFi telephony. An additional speaker is added above the display, to make this feature comfortable to use. As it's inconvenient to hold a handheld to your ear, we recommend using a Bluetooth-headset.
We were delighted with the excellent CIR-port! That's very providently of Fujitsu-Siemens to add support for remote control functions via the infrared port. But even here we have an issue to grumble about: the bundle includes neither Nevo nor a similar program. There were no problems with third-party programs (Total Remote) – we controlled our consumer electronics at the distance of 5 m. Synchronization via IrDa is traditionally slow: Fujitsu-Siemens had no juice left for FIR support. Unlike its competitor, iPaq 4700.
USB host cable comes shipped with the LOOX 720 (unlike ASUS A730). USB mass storage drivers are already included into WM2003SE. We had some problems with simultaneous connection to a flash drive and a desktop: the new disk on the handheld was not found, desktop Windows XP found a new unknown device instead and in frustration disabled the USB-mouse. When disconnected from the desktop, we had to soft reset the device for LOOX 720 to detect the flash drive. Drive operating speed is limited by the USB 1.1 throughput and does not exceed 1 MB/sec. You can connect devices with power consumption below 100 mA only. In practice, devices with greater power consumption work as well (for example, Apple iPod). And you can always connect an externally powered disk in the long run.
We had no problems installing an USB-keyboard. LOOX refused to operate with a mouse (we tried various models from Logitech and A4Tech), though the pointing devices were powered. However it didn't ask for a driver either – it's quite possible that the mouse was successfully detected but the handheld found no use for it.
Two handhelds connected via USB don't see each other: the host handheld asks for drivers for an unknown device. Funny thing, the slave starts charging from the first handheld via USB.
But palmOne Tungsten T5 connected to LOOX 720 as a flash drive looked really hilarious. Long awaited compatibility of Windows CE and Palm OS in action ;)
Fujitsu-Siemens made a good job to design a high end handheld. Few can be compared to LOOX 720 in functionality and its implementation. These days, only HP iPaq hx4700 and Dell Axim X50v have similar characteristics. We can also add (at a stretch) ASUS MyPal A730 to the list of competitors, but until the release of the W-version this comparison will not be to ASUS advantage.
Two expansion slots, high resolution display, two wireless adapters, Intel XScale PXA27x processor, Windows Mobile 2003SE – it's a business card of a modern high-end model.
USB host and 128 MB of RAM are serious arguments in favour of LOOX 720. In their turn competitors offer increased CPU clock frequency (624 instead of 520) and larger display (4" in HP iPaq hx4700 and Toshiba E8x0), which can be interpreted both to advantage and to disadvantage (increased weight and dimensions). Some people will like well-engineered layout of controls in LOOX 720, the others will like the touchpad in hx4700. As always, it's up to a user to decide – we cannot call a definite winner, any model will make a user happy. Prices for these devices will hardly be that different: HP handhelds are traditionally expensive, while Dell and Fujitsu-Siemens use the same provider (HTC).
In the nearest future the list of top class handhelds will be augmented by ASUS A730W and Toshiba E830.
For the combination of multiple features and their high quality implementation Fujitsu-Siemens Pocket LOOX 720 is awarded with
We express our thanks to Fujitsu-Siemens for the provided handheld.
Maxim Fedorov (firstname.lastname@example.org)
December 10, 2004
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