Compaq iPAQ 3650

New design brims with innovation (April 2000 issue)

Despite the gorgeous screen and overall multimedia prowess of the Casio E-100/105 and now 115, and despite the sleek new skin of the Jornada 545, it's been Compaq's stunning new iPAQ Pocket PC that's grabbed the headlines. I am not surprised. From the first time I saw the iPAQ at Microsoft's Pocket PC Reviewer's Conference in Seattle a couple of months before the official launch of the Pocket PC platform, I was smitten with the little Compaq's bold new look and daring design.

Of all the new Pocket PC hardware (or let's say of whatever little there is at this point), the iPAQ is the most interesting by far, and perhaps also the most controversial. I always thought Compaq's "old" Aero 2100 Series was quite attractive, but compared to the iPAQ it looks big and clumsy. The iPAQ is smaller, lighter, thinner, faster, brighter—you get the idea. And virtually every change is one for the better.

Gone, for example, is the thumbwheel on the left side, replaced by a 5-way navigational disk that doubles as a speaker. I much prefer the disk as I never managed to master the one-handed control all those palm-size PC side buttons were supposed to facilitate. The audio recorder is still on the right, properly placed for activation with your thumb. The on-off switch is at the right front of the device so that you don't inadvertently turn the unit off as you do, for example, on the Casio where the power switch sits right next to the menu button and the rocker control.

In terms of size and weight, the iPAQ represents a significant advance as well. Though the iPAQ footprint is only slightly smaller than the 2100's, it looks and feels much smaller. In fact, until you place them side by side, you'd swear the iPAQ is no larger than a Palm V (it is). The iPAQ is also thinner than its predecessor (0.62 vs. 0.75 inches) and weight is down from nine to 6.4 ounces. You'll barely feel this Pocket PC in your pocket. But the iPAQ is more than just a pretty face. Compaq clearly put a lot of thought into this design and addressed a number of shortcomings.

Take the screen: whereas the 2100 Series' indoor/outdoor readable HR-TFT (high-reflective TFT) screen was a breakthrough in LCD technology, it was also more of a compromise than many people were willing to make. While the original Sharp-made HR-TFT was readable in the brightest sunlight it was rather dim indoors. That's because the reflective screen needs a sidelight that simply is no match for the bright, vibrant colors produced by standard TFTs. The flipside, of course, is that even the brightest traditional TFT washes out completely in direct sunlight, making the terrific Casio all but unusable outdoors. To its credit, Compaq realized that a Pocket PC wouldn't be very useful if you couldn't use it outdoors and stuck with HR-TFT screen technology. The iPAQ's screen, however, is a much improved second generation design. It is made by Sony instead of Sharp, and generates a vastly improved viewing experience. The new screen still uses sidelighting but it is much, much brighter than that of the 2100 Series. There are five different brightness settings—all the way from power save to super bright—and an automatic setting that adjusts the screen via an ambient light sensor. At its brightest setting, you can place an iPAQ side by side with a Cassiopeia E-115 and see very little difference. Oh, the E-115's TFT is still a bit brighter and more vibrant, but it is no longer a night and day difference as it was comparing the Aero 2100 with a Cassiopeia E-105.

Outdoors, the iPAQ has no competition. The picture literally glows in vibrant color whereas the Jornada and the Casio simply turn invisible. Amazingly, the new iPAQ screen also beats the 2100 outdoors. It is crisper and offers better contrast. This screen is a real winner, but there are a couple of caveats. First, if all you want is the best possible indoor multimedia experience, the iPAQ is still no match for the E-115's TFT. Second, whereas the 2100's screen and digitizer had almost glasslike smoothness and optics, the iPAQ's digitizer has a bit more spring and distortion in it. Third, since the screen is sidelit, it has a much narrower horizontal viewing angle (the vertical viewing angle is excellent) and a pronounced fluorescent light effect when you look at it from the side. Finally, for as of yet unknown reasons, the iPAQ supports "only" 4,096 colors compared to both the Casio's and its own 2100 Series predecessor's 64k color. Poking through the iPAQ's innards provides a possible explanation. The iPAQ uses a 206MHz version of Intel's StrongARM SA1110 processor. This incredible little powerhouse packs 2.5 million transistors and puts out 235 Dhrystone MIPS. It also has an integrated LCD controller that supports several different color modes. There is a 256 color mode that uses a patented dithering algorithm to pick the proper 256 colors from a palette of 4,096 colors. If 4.096 colors are needed, the frame buffer that picks the 256 colors is bypassed and the dither logic does the job directly. If 16-bit color (i.e. 64k color) is required, both the buffer and the logic are bypassed and the request is handled directly by the processor. A possible explanation for the 4,096 color limitation is that full 64k color might have eaten up an unacceptable part of the StrongARM's performance advantage.

Let's also address another design feature that has been met with, let's say, mixed reactions. The iPAQ does not have a CF Card slot. Any and all connectivity not built into the device comes via one of a selection of "expansion packs." These packs are plastic sleeves that initially add either PC Card or Compact Flash functionality, with promises of much more to come. Compaq also differentiates between expansion packs that add functionality and style packs that add covers or physical protection. At the Seattle Reviewer's Conference, Compaq got heavy flak from the mainstream computer press for omitting at least a CF Card slot. Myself, I can see both sides. While it appears that even the small iPAQ housing could have accommodated a CF Card slot somewhere, it is possible to live without one. The iPAQ has a built-in USB/serial connector for very fast synchronization, so there is no need for a USB CF Card. However, if you intend to use the iPAQ with a modem, it may seem a lot easier to simply pop a CF Card modem into a slot than sliding the iPAQ into a CF Card jacket just so that you can plug in your CF Card modem. Also, while I could probably live without ready access to a modem, I do like to be able to pop in CF memory cards to back up data or use programs that I don't need in internal memory. The basic iPAQ can't do that, and keeping it in an expansion pack all the time gives up a good chunk of the size and weight advantage the iPAQ has over the Pocket PC competition. Compaq may be forced to add a CF Card slot in a future model of the iPAQ, but it's also possible that the USB connector and expansion packs provide all the flexibility most people will ever need. After all, millions of Palms have been sold despite the lack of a CF Card slot. Also, expansion packs can accommodate full-size PC Cards, something that the competition cannot do.

Compaq Windows CE devices have always distinguished themselves with class-leading sound capabilities, and the iPAQ is no exception. Though its major competition also offers a stereo output jack, the Compaq's sound volume is significantly higher, both via speaker and via output jack. The one drawback is that the iPAQ's frontal speaker sounds a bit harsh and metallic. The HP and Casio can't match the iPAQ's volume, but sound richer.

In terms of software, the iPAQ comes well equipped. In addition to the standard Pocket PC software, there are some value-added utilities. Qstart lets you group applications into categories, much like you could on the Newton. QMenu and Qutility provide a host of diagnostic and system management tools.

Since the iPAQ felt so quick, we were dying to run benchmark tests on it. Unfortunately, bSQUARE's bUSEFUL Analyzer benchmark suite hadn't been adapted to the Pocket PC yet. So for now we can only say that the iPAQ with its firebreathing StrongARM processor feels like it is the fastest Pocket PC available. In a number of informal performance tests it was consistently up to twice as fast as the competition. While the StrongARM processor is actually quite energy efficient, the stronger backlight would have taken its toll on a conventional Li-Ion battery pack. As a result, the iPAQ is equipped with a Lithium-Polymer power source. That is quite an accomplishment. Less than two years ago, Lithium-Polymer batteries were still in the prototype stage and their cost prohibitive. Unlike most other technologies, Lithium-Polymer batteries can be of almost any shape. In the iPAQ, the battery is configured as a thin sheet with almost the same footprint as the device itself. Lithium-polymer also doesn't leak, doesn't have a memory effect, and doesn't contain any toxic metals. Compaq claims a battery life of up to 12 hours per charge. Since the battery is totally integrated into the iPAQ's design, another question here is what you're going to do when the battery dies. According to Lithium-Polymer specs that shouldn't happen for several years of average use, but things do happen. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Processor Intel StronARM SA-110 206MHz
OS Windows CE 3.0
Memory 32MB RAM, 16MB ROM
Display 4096 color 240 x 320 reflective TFT
Digitizer Pressure-sensitive panel
Storage Internal RAM or via PC Card or CF card expansion jacket
Size 3.25 x 5.1 x 0.62 inches
Weight 6.4 oz
Power Li-Polymer (up to 12 hours)
Interface Serial, Irda 1.1, USB, expansion
Options CF card and PC Card expansion sleeves
Price US$499 (varies with quaantity and equipment
Contact Compaq

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