Reviews: Hardware (Devices)

T-Mobile MDA

     After releasing the T-Mobile Phone Edition, T-Mobile dropped out of the PDA landscape for some time. While they have had success with the Blackberry and the Sidekick, it has been years since they have introduced a device that included more advanced PDA functionality like that of Windows Mobile. Designed by HTC, the T-Mobile MDA is a small and portable device that features a slew of wireless functionality and a keyboard that rivals competitors on all platforms and carriers.

Basic Internals
     Like many a couple new Windows Mobile PDA/Phone devices, the T-Mobile MDA is based on the HTC Wizard design. Similar editions of the device are available from T-Mobile Europe and from Cingular in the US. The MDA is powered by the TI OMAP 850 processor running at 200 MHz. The device includes 128 MB of ROM space and 64 MB of RAM. For expandability, there is a miniSD slot. Wirelessly, the MDA is connects to GSM/GPRS networks (though would need to be unlocked to connect to a non-T-Mobile network) and supports EDGE for faster wireless connectivity. Outside of cellular wireless, Bluetooth is included for local connectivity and 802.11b WiFi for more extensive network connectivity. While it is stated that the WiFi is only rated at 802.11b, but there has been extensive discussions of the ability to support 802.11g through a registry key change. The screen of the MDA is QVGA (240x320 pixels) showing 16-bit color. The battery is rated at 1200 mAh and 1.3 megapixel camera is included on the back of the device. One of the major hardware features of the device is the slide out keyboard, which I will discuss more later. The T-Mobile MDA runs Windows Mobile 5.0 and includes some additional T-Mobile specific software.

Device Style
     While the HTC Wizard has a specific set of internal features, the face and some of the device design differs between the carriers offering the product. The T-Mobile MDA has a rounded front face. The speaker end of the phone is at the top of the device with two LED lights. The left light shows WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity while the right light shows the cellular connection and battery related notifications. Just below the speaker are two buttons. By default these buttons are setup as for starting Mail and Internet Explorer. Below the screen is a number of other buttons, the first two being the soft key buttons for onscreen one handed control. The send and end buttons for the phone is below the soft keys with the directional pad and action button between them. The left side of the devices includes a button that defaults to the Communication Manager and an up/down slider that is unusually used for volume control. The top half of the front of the device pushes from left to right to reveal the keyboard. The keyboard has 39-keys for keyboard functionality with two soft keys (as the ones on the front face do not line up when the screen turns to landscape mode. The keys on the keyboard feature blue lights behind them for visibility in the dark when the keys are pressed. (Note that the light does not turn on when the keyboard is opened, only when the keys are used.) The right side of the device includes a button that defaults to voice speed dial and one for launching the camera software. On the bottom of the device is the USB port for connectivity to a desktop or laptop computer. There is also a 2.5mm connection for a headset and a latch to open the battery compartment. The devices stylus is accessible from the bottom of the device. The stylus is only about two inches long but extends to over three inches. On the back of the device is the camera with a light that can be turned on or off from in the camera software. On the top of the device is the miniSD card slot as well as the power button. While the MDA boarders on being nearly an inch thick, it feels relatively small in the hand and has a sleek style. The buttons make the face look smooth and finished.

As A Phone
     Because the MDA is available directly from T-Mobile, the phone functionality of the device is even more important because it was sold by a phone carrier. While the MDA does bring unique PDA functionality, being that most users will have to either purchase or extend a contract to get the device, I place a pretty high importance in the phone functionality since users will probably also be using the MDA as their primary cell phone. The sizing of the MDA is much like many non-flip-phone devices. The speaker is easy to feel as it is right on the front face of the device. While it is only a slit, the sound quality is loud and vibrant. I actually run the in-call volume on a relatively low setting. On most devices, I run it on the high even of the volume meter. This is both good and bad. It means I have a lot of room for people that speak quietly, but it can be a problem if someone is loud (because it is hard to make it quieter) and it, in some cases, may make it easier for others to overhear the conversation. The speaker does double well with speaker phone functionality. It is easy to hear the other end of the conversation. The microphone is on the bottom of the device like with most Phone Edition products. While it isn?t as visibly defined as on same devices, the quality is still clear to those on the other end of the conversation. While the quality of the phone connection is important, another important consideration is the dialing functionality. Because this is a Phone Edition device and not a Smartphone, there is a not a numeric-pad built into the hardware of the unit. The numeric-pad is launched on screen by pressing the call button. The MDA does have voice dialing support built in that needs to be configured, but instead of pressing the call button the voice dial button can be pressed. While dialing, the phone software will attempt to find contacts that match the data entered, this is functionality built into all Windows Mobile devices. With the MDA?s keyboard open, dialing can be done from the numeric row on the keyboard. When the phone application is on the screen, the keys will automatically default to the special character or number for each key. You cannot search contacts from the phone screen using characters, only using numbers. You have to go into the Contacts list to search by name (unless you want to use the number representation of the letter). Unlike some other devices, the MDA does not have a defined numeric area on the keyboard that emulates a phone numeric pad. The numbers are only place like a standard QWERTY keyboard. I particularly like the integration of phone (and other) notifications in Windows Mobile 5.0 with the hardware. When a call is missed or a voice mail is left, a notification appears on screen or is collapsed to the soft key. This makes it easy to get to without having in to tap the screen.

As A PDA
     Like with the phone functionality of the device, a lot of the PDA functionality is very similar to that of other Windows Mobiles devices because the same features are built into the operating system. The device runs Windows Mobile 5.0 which means there are a significant number of benefits for smaller devices like the MDA when it comes to usability. The device is easier to use one handed because of the soft keys. But on top of the software, the form factor also comes into play in how useable the device is. With all the one handed functions built in, one question is how easy is it to use the device one handed? I found the MDA to be structured so it is easy to hold in my hand. The directional pad is easy to use with my thumb and the directions are well separated (though this could be a downside for gaming). It is interesting that it was decided the two quick launch buttons should go at the top of the device, but actually it is still fairly easy to reach them with one hand and it is likely that you will not have to use them as off as buttons like the soft keys and directional pad. It is an interesting use of space because many manufactures might have simply put nothing at the top of the device. The buttons are soft and easy to press but still give some feedback as to when the have been pressed. I find it too bad that the up/down control are always mapped to volume. While this can be good for easy access to the functionality of the sound controls, my thumb often rests over this button and it would be useful sometimes to use it instead of the directional pad. As I referenced earlier, there is not a whole lot different about the PDA functionality then other Windows Mobile devices, though the keyboard is really where the full experience of using the device comes into play as it really advances the functionality of the device. With the keyboard, I can use Word Mobile more extensively, writing longer documents and making easier edits to documents. I find it a lot easier having the keyboard because you do not lose screen real estate when you need the keyboard and can still use the stylus to augment the usability experience. I often find that I both use the keyboard and the stylus on the screen together in some cases, combing functionality to allow me to do more.

The Keyboard
     Inside the MDA is a QWERTY keyboard that is accessible by sliding the screen from left to right while looking at the front face of the device. Opening the keyboard flips Windows Mobile into landscape mode so it lines up with the keyboard. The keyboard features five rows of keys. The top most row features only two buttons, which are the soft keys. The soft keys are not as directly below the on-screen buttons like on the front face, but that does not have much effect on the usability. Unlike a desktop computer keyboard, the letter keys of the keyboard are placed in a grid but since you use your thumbs to type, the layout has little effect on being able type effectively. The top full row of keys doubles as a numeric input when the function key is pressed (not held). The other keys feature symbols found on the keyboard and additional symbols not shown (like international characters) can be found via the space bar. The only symbol that has its own button not requiring the function key to be pressed is the period. Tab and enter both have unique buttons with no other functions. Backspace doubles with delete and the arrow keys also include symbols as their secondary function. The keyboard includes a Windows key (also known by some as the Start menu key) and an OK key. The Windows key will drop the start menu while the OK button will ?tap? the OK or the Close button for the active window. This makes navigating from the keyboard possible if you remember about using tab to go between fields. With the keyboard open, the directional pad on the front face of the device can also be used as opposed to the arrow keys on the keyboard. Initially I was a little worried about the keys simply because they were buttons. (I do not know why I was really worried as I have liked other button keyboards that are on devices.) I think I also worried that the keys would be hard to use being flush with the device. Unlike other devices where they keyboard is always exposed and they keys can be raised, with the design of the slide out keyboard on the MDA, the keys need to be nearly flush with the piece the bottom half of the device to it will slide under the top half. Even with relatively large fingers, I find it easy to type on the MDA and not hit or miss hit keys. The keys click when pressed so there is a feel when you have pressed the key successfully. They are placed just right so you do not often hit two keys at once and the space bar is large for easy pressing by either thumb. Each of my thumbs can easily reach to any point on the keyboard so there is little worry of not being able to reach a key. Once you begin pressing keys on the keyboard, they will become lit with a blue light. Both the primary and the secondary functions of the keys are lit, which is a bonus for using the device low light or simply to highly the letters on the keys and make them easier to read. One final concern that I initially always have when it comes to devices with keyboards is the weighting. When it comes to the MDA, the weight of device is in the part of the device with the keyboard. The screen only has a minimal weight, which means it will not easily flip out of your hands while you are using it. Unlike devices that simply have a built in keyboard, the slide out functionality means that there is an easy place for your pointer fingers to hold and grip the side of the device that is under the screen while letting you middle fingers old the device from under the keyboard. Overall I have been impressed with the keyboard and have found it easy to use. I even use it to respond too many of your emails that I get through the site so I can answer questions on the go. While the buttons do work well, I do like the style of the square gray buttons found on other versions of the HTC Wizard and on the HTC Universal. I think those buttons would have given the device more style though I do not know if they would have improved or hurt performance. One thing that is missing from the MDA (and may other similar style devices) is the ability to easily see when locks are turned on. When you are using a desktop keyboard, there almost always are three lights to show if the caps, num, and scroll locks are enabled or disabled. On most mobile devices, you cannot easily see if the caps lock is on or if you have accidentally double tapped the function key and now it is locked. This would be easy functionality to either be included by Microsoft on screen or to be included by the device manufacture in the form of hardware lights on the keyboard. (If you are unsure why this is such a big deal, just wait until you try and enter a password and can?t figure out why it does not work. It is probably because the function key or caps lock was turned on.)

Wireless Features
     The MDA is packed full of wireless. Being that the expandability is limited by having only a miniSD slot (which it can be difficult to find a memory card for in a retail store) it is good that all three types of wireless are included. Of course there is GSM/GPRS functionality because otherwise it wouldn?t be a phone device and otherwise it wouldn?t be on T-Mobile. T-Mobile presets the GSM/GPRS settings so that the device will automatically connect via cellular wireless if it does not have another connection. This is nice functionality though beware of it if you do not have a data service plan as the feature could become costly. The WiFi and Bluetooth functionality is pretty standard. There hasn?t seemed to be any major limitations to the functionality. There is a lot of talk about the WiFi being 802.11g but the functionality being disabled by the registry. I have not tried this functionality though there is a lot of talk about if it really does allow for g access or just access to g-only access points at b speeds. The battery life becomes less when the wireless features are enabled, but that is to be expected when wireless is turned on. The battery life on the device is strong on the device though. I normally don?t even get below 50% in a day of on and off use, only leaving the wireless functionality on when I am using it.

Other Features
     One interesting feature of the MDA is the stylus. Instead of being full length like in some other similar products, the MDA is about half size but extends to be near full length. This is an interesting take as it is even smaller than previous extended styli that have come to market in devices. With the style of the MDA, I actually find it useful. It is very small in the hand when you are trying to use the keyboard and tap the screen at the same time. Since the MDA has a keyboard, the writing functionality with the stylus is not really used as often. The MDA does not come with a cradle. It uses a standard USB interface so it easy to find connectors and there are some custom cradles available. In the box with the MDA is a pretty simple case. Most HTC devices come with some kind of cases and this case is nearly identical. The MDA comes with a case that holds the device landscape. There is a belt clip built-in. The case is not great for in the pocket because of the belt clip, so it is too bad it can not be removed as it would make the sizing a little smaller.

Final Thoughts
     It has been some time since T-Mobile has offered a Windows Mobile based PDA/Phone product. The T-Mobile Phone Edition was the first, but T-Mobile, like some other carriers in the US, have held of carrying new Phone Edition devices. With the success of the Blackberry, Sidekick, and Treo, new style Phone Editions like the MDA have entered the market. The MDA brings a new style to the T-Mobile line up, and one that brings the unique functionality of Windows Mobile 5.0 for both the business user and the general consumer. Obviously the MDA is geared more toward users who are data centric and want a PDA with phone functionality as opposed to a user that simply wants a phone. The keyboard is of great benefit to text messaging and the software features of Windows Mobile like Word Mobile (where some of this review was written). There are some drawbacks to the device. The size is one issue I have and another is fear of damage to both the device in general and the touch screen. Priced at under $400 with a contract, the MDA is a moderately price PDA but a high priced phone. I am impressed with the quality of the product and functionality. I think many users will find it to significantly augment their mobile lifestyle.

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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.