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HP iPAQ 5450 Pocket PC

HP's new flagship includes Bluetooth, wireless LAN, and even fingerprint identification

(Pen Computing Magazine, March 2003 issue) -- To be honest, ever since HP absorbed Compaq, it has become a bit difficult to figure out where things are headed with the two companies' Pocket PC offerings. Judging by HP's website, the Jornada 560 Series of Pocket PCs, the first model where HP got almost everything right, is gone. The only Jornada model that remains is the mini-clamshell 728. The former Compaq iPAQs are now HP iPAQs, and that lineup consist of the sleek and diminutive h1910 ($299) reviewed in this issue, the "classic" h3900 series which includes the base h3950 at $499 and the Bluetooth-equipped h3970 at $599. The latter two are also offered as the 3955 and 3975 for home and home office users. The two differ in slightly different software configurations. All of the above use Intel's new Xscale PXA250 processors. The 1900 has a 200MHz version whereas the 3900 Series uses the 400MHz model. All have transflective displays.

So where does the new 5455 fit in? In short, it is HPs new high-end model offering a overhauled design, comprehensive built-in wireless, and a novel integrated security feature in the form of a biometric fingerprint reader. These extra capabilities cost another $200 over the h3950 model and an extra $100 over the Bluetooth-equipped h3970. Specs and features are roughly the same as the 3900 Series models, so the choice may well come down to some basic math. If you don't need Bluetooth, and at this point not too many people do, you're looking at an extra $200 to get integrated 802.11b wireless and fingerprint authentication. The latter may be important to some in our increasingly paranoid corporate world, but the real clencher is the integrated wireless LAN. In order to get that for a 3900 Series iPAQ you need an 802.11b CompactFlash card and a jacket to put the card into. The base CF card expansion pack and an 802.11b card cost about $200 (or you can wait for one of the soon available SD-size LAN card for which you won't need an expansion jacket), so if you need wireless LAN, buying the 5455 is a no-brainer. It is a newer model and packs a number of features into one package that would cost more to add on to the older one.

That said, having built-in 802.11b maybe somewhat of a mixed blessing given the impending emergence of 801.1x as the likely wireless LAN choice of corporate customers, given 802.1x's ability to provide port-based authentication services to existing wireless networks allowing for secure password authentication, dynamic WEP keys, and even VPN capabilities. While the new standard runs on top of 802.11, I am not sure if a built-in 802.11b implementations will support it. So that is a serious question for any potential corporate 5400 Series customer. HP's comment is that "802.1x is not yet a standard for Pocket PCs, and it will be addressed once it is a standard."

Assuming that this is not an issue, what does the 5450 have to offer on top of the price advantage of an all-in-one solution? If the Biometric Fingerprint reader is attractive to you, here's how it works. It is a small, unobtrusive indentation strip below the navigation disc. According to HP, it is actually a thermal sensor that reads the unique data of your finger print. You can set the 5450's security setting such that it will require a fingerprint identification upon startup. If the system cannot read your print, you're out of luck, unless you want to hard-reset the device which removes all stored data.

Unlike earlier iPAQs, the 5400 Series has a removable battery pack. I very much applaud that for a number of reasons. First, I've always felt a bit leery about having an internal battery that could only be replaced by sending the device back to the vendor. Second, it precludes having a freshly charged spare battery or the option of a larger battery. With the 5400 Series, HP offers both: you can get a spare power pack, and you can even buy an extended pack with twice the punch (2,500mAH instead of the standard 1,250mAH). A backup battery means you can replace power packs without losing data. However, unlike in the Dell Axim, the backup battery is not user-replaceable. The 5450's power supply plugs directly into the dock, but requires a two-inch-long adapter to plug into the iPAQ's standard docking connector. Unlike in the last 3900 Series iPAQ we reviewed, the adapter is no longer permanently connected to the power cord, but is attached via a separate rubber strap. Don't lose it. The iPAQ's power brick is fairly small and includes the power prongs.

Compared to earlier models, the 5400 Series' ROM has been upped from 32MB to 48MB. This leaves an abundant 20MB of non-volatile flash ROM for data backup. Data backup is a department where HP/Compaq have been doing a good job, even offering a handy scheduling utility to have backups performed automatically. In my opinion, this is a must!

Despite Casio's glorious transmissive TFT displays in its early Pocket PCs, Compaq took the lead with its reflective screen technology that was quickly copied by everyone else. Compaq then upped the ante when it introduced, with the 3900 Series, a transflective display that combined the reflective LCD's superb outdoor readability with a much brighter display indoors that eliminated the annoying sidelight of the reflective displays. With the 5450 display, HP retains that leadership position. Not only does the 5450 have a large and very crisp 3.8-inch display, it also has a better and brighter and more even backlight than any other Pocket PC I have seen.

In terms of software, there's been much praise in the press for HP's Universal Remote Control software. The 5450 has it and it works as advertised. Pen Computing's executive editor liked it very much in a preview of the 5450 in our December 2002 issue. Me, I don't have much use for it, though I must say that it is a remarkable application that can make your life easier if you study and use it. Why it is necessary in a device designed for corporate markets I am not quite sure. The 5450 also comes with a "iPAQ Wireless" icon that provides access to all wireless functions: Bluetooth Manager, iPAQ Wireless LAN, Nevo, and an overall wireless control. On the application side there is the iPAQ Image Viewer which lets you view and manage images on your iPAQ.

Interestingly, we found a SIM slot under the battery of your 5450. HP included that for potential future use of the model as a WWAN device. It is not functional yet, so don't get your hopes up. So the only way you could possibly use the 5450 as (sort of) a phone is by locating a third party Voice-over-IP application.

The 5450, being a top-of-the-line device comes with the Pocket PC 2002 Premium edition that does not require loading of any PPC core components. The 5450 Series comes with a new cradle design that is not compatible with older iPAQs. The dock is designed so that you can insert the iPAQ even with a sleeve. The flipside to that approach is that the bare iPAQ doesn't sit very securely in the dock even with the pop-up side guides that are supposed to provide stability when the bare device is docked. The cradle's PC connection cable has both a USB and a serial connector, thus supporting legacy devices without USB.

We used Virtual Office Systems Inc's VOBenchmark 2.12 to test performance. CPU and memory performance was virtually identical with those of the Dell Axim running at 400MHz, but the iPAQ benched considerably better in graphics. The 5450 performed substantially higher in all benchmarks than a 206MHz StrongARM-based iPAQ 3670, though those benchmark edges did not translate into noticeable improvements in everyday use. This, I suppose, must wait until all software has been optimized for XScale.

All in all, the iPAQ 5450 is an impressive, fully loaded Pocket PC with a superb display and the kind of fit and finish and attention to detail you'd expect from the leader. All that comes at a hefty US$699 price and the 5450 still needs a jacket if you want to use CF or PC Card peripherals, of which there is a large variety: scanners, cameras, GPS, wireless, you name it. If you need all the 5450's features and the iPAQ's unparalleled third party support, look no further. -

Contact: Hewlett Packard www.hp.com