Reviews: Hardware (Devices)

Dell Axim X3i Pocket PC

     Unlike some manufactures who release a large number of devices in a variety of forms, Dell tends to stick to one design and offer it with various internal components.  After their first entry into the market with the Axim X5, Dell has decided to make some changes in the Axim X3.  Additionally, instead of just introducing a basic and advanced version of the device, Dell has also decided to add a wireless model to the line up.  This review specifically takes a look at the Axim X3i, the version of the device with wireless embedded.

Basic Internals
     The Dell Axim X3i includes relatively standard specifications.  It is based around an Intel XScale running at 400 MHz.  Both the RAM and ROM of device are 64 MB, but allows for expansion via the Secure Digital slot.  The devices SD slot is an SDIO slot, so Bluetooth and WiFi SDIO cards can be used with the X3i.  The screen is a standard 16-bit color screen, displaying Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC.  The wireless module is a standard 802.11b unit with the antenna sticking out of the top of the device.  Even though the device has wireless, its battery is the same size as the other editions of the X3, 950 mAh.

Device Style
     The style of this device is simple.  It is slightly rounded, but still square.  It is an ultra-thin size, only slightly thicker than the width of the stylus.  Unlike most devices, the back of the device is not flat.  Where the battery is, the back is slightly raised.  The back is also slightly raised near the jog unit and headphone jack due to their size and placement on the device.  Overall I am a fan of the style of the device.  I like the size and the general feel of it.  It isn't so small that it is hard to use but it isn't so big that I can't just put it in my pocket.

Buttons
     Dell did something a little different with the buttons.  All the buttons are on the face of the device.  The record button is a smaller more difficult to press button on the far left and is mirrored on the right side of the device by a button specifically for controlling the embedded wireless.  The middle four buttons are nice sized and easy to press, and as usual are completely customizable by Windows Mobile.  The directional pad is interesting.  Instead of being round, it is an oval.  Again it is small and in some ways hard to control.  I like it better than the Axim X5 directional pad specifically because the action button is a separate button in the middle.  On the side of the device is the scroll up, scroll down control.  I actually found that with device I used it quite a bit while I was on the internet.  The scroll toggle has an action button built in too when you press into the device.  This makes IE navigation almost one handed.  The soft rest button is on the back next to the battery compartment.  The power button is right at the top of the screen and is similar in feel to the four buttons for application launching.  The power button is much better than the Axim X5 in size and "press-ability."  It also contains a light to show if the device is charging (amber) or fully charged (green).

Wireless
     This is the second device I have had with embedded wireless.  Since my first device with wireless, I decided that embedded wireless was a good idea for how I use my device.  I like to connect to a lot of different networks and don't like to have to worry about wireless cards.  At first, the Axim X3i seem strong wirelessly like other devices.  While the antenna protrudes, it gets a strong signal.  Also it has a blue light built it which shows the wireless activity.  Having the light in the antenna is nice because you can usually tell if it is having problems connecting (because the light flashes about once a second) or connected (a variety of flashes every second).  At this point, I thought the wireless module was great on this device like on others I have tired, but I have had some problems.  The biggest problem is if the device locks while the wireless is on, it usually takes at least two soft resets to get the device back in a state where the wireless can be turned on.  Another is just connecting to network.  Often times the internal unit had troubles negotiating with the network or jumping between different networks.  I also used a SanDisk SDIO WiFi card with device and had a lot better experience than the embedded unit. 
     Also included is the standard IrDA port which is located on the top of the device.  Seriously, I didn't even try the port.  With a USB sync cradle and WiFi, I don't really see IrDA as being a major need though it is nice for easy connection to other devices like cell phones.

Expandability
     Some people are disappointed to find the device only has a Secure Digital slot.  But remember, it is SDIO.  For most users, having SDIO will be as good as a CF slot because you will only use memory and maybe Bluetooth.  Since the device already has WiFi, you aren't going to use the expansion slot for that (unless you are crazy like me) and in the future there like will be other types of SDIO cards.  The slot is on the top of the device which makes for easy access.

Screen and Battery
     As you should be able to tell from the pictures, the screen is extremely vibrant.  It is one of the strongest screens I have seen.  I have been using the Axim X3 with its brightness set near the lowest setting.  This helps to conserve battery life, which can sometimes be a little scarce.  The wireless module uses a lot of battery life.  There is about a work days worth of general use when the wireless module is on and the screen is at a moderate brightness.  There is a little less than a work days worth of use if there is an SDIO card in use as well.  I found that I really had to plug the device in everyday if I used it for more than about 30 minutes.

Cradle
     The first thing I thought when I saw this cradle was, "this is huge."  I wouldn't really say it is big, I would say huge.  I think this is probably the biggest cradle I have seen.  The Axim X5 cradle was much more stylized than this one.  While it does have an extra battery charger built in, I have seen other cradles that have integrated the whole system much better.  The USB cable is built in, and the AC adapter can be removed as needed.  The front of the cradle will light up with the Dell logo to show charging.  The bottom of the device only includes a sync connection for connecting to the cradle.  In order to just use the AC adapter, you need to use the included AC to sync adapter.

Other Features
     Also included on the device is a headphone jack on the side of the device.  For some reason it is a little hard to get a standard 1/8" headphone connector in there, but it is meant to go in there.  I like it on the side, though it is bad if your headphones cord connects on the right size of the headphones.  In any case, it is nice the cable doesn't have to drape over the device.  The microphone for the device is on the front face near the power button.  I am not sure if it is better have it here versus on the top, though I would imagine for a more directional recording it would have been better for it to be on the top.  The units speaker is on the back of the device...which I don't think I have to explain why is a bad idea.  Also included in the device package is a nice simple case with a belt clip which I have been using with the device for the last couple weeks.

Final Thoughts
     The Dell Axim X3i has some pros over its predecessor, but also some drawbacks.  My favorite thing about the device is its style and size.  Also I really like the screen quality.  My least favorite thing is the wireless module which I didn't like as much as an SDIO card.  Also I really don't like how the speaker is on the back because the audio goes the wrong way (the person in front of me hears it better than me...or my hand hears it better).  In any case, the Axim X3i is a good device and is relatively inexpensive.  I would recommend the device, though I would just want to make sure the purchaser knows some of the drawbacks.

Dave's Score - 8.0
This means, this product is a very good product, though has some features which could be improved.  This product embodies quality in its design and application, and is something I would use though I think there are still areas for improvement.  Weigh the pros and cons before purchasing, but in my opinion this device is a good buy.

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For more on Dell's handheld products
or to purchase an Axim, visit their website at:
www.dell.com/axim/

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Feel free to email me about your own PDA, questions, comments, articles, rumors, and reviews.  I can be reached at dave@davespda.com.