Dell Axim X3i

3 Jun 2004

Product: Handheld computer
Price: €410

Much has been said and written about the future for handheld PCs in the face of more feature-laden mobile phones but you can be sure that Dell wouldn’t be in this market if it didn’t think there was money to be made and market share to be grabbed.

In fact, with Dell the argument more often than not comes down to money, squeezing every last drop out of its supply chain and manufacturing model to give us, the consumers, cheaper IT kit. The company’s Axim X3i handheld is no exception. Sure enough, priced at €410 including Vat and delivery, it is slightly less expensive than many similarly powered devices from rival manufacturers.

It might not win too many design awards but the Axim’s matt silver finish is easy on the eye. The closest it comes to having a funky design is the flashing blue light on top that signifies any nearby Bluetooth short-range wireless connection – straight out of Starsky & Hutch.

As for the technical details, the Axim X3i is powered by Intel’s XScale 400MHz chip. It comes with 64MB RAM and runs the Windows Mobile Pocket PC 2003 operating system.

The unit is extremely slim and light; at 140g it barely registers any weight as it sits in the hand. The 3.5in display is excellent, crisp and clear with adjustable brightness levels, reproducing colours and images very well even at arm’s length. There are quick access buttons on the front of the housing that allow you to jump directly to some of the applications and navigate around them, as well as the ever-present stylus.

The handwriting recognition is an enormous improvement on earlier efforts and it’s not bad at all if you’re a compulsive scribbler. Though my preference is generally for the slower onscreen ‘soft’ keyboard for tapping on with the stylus, it’s worth noting that when browsing through the contacts list, I was able to write in freehand a surname in the ‘find a name’ window and the results were spot on every time. If you’re planning on doing a lot of typing, Dell has a keyboard, available for an additional charge, which fits onto the bottom of the X3i.

I have to confess a sneaking regard for these devices. Even in their basic form, an organised person such as me (ahem) benefits greatly from a calendar telling him where he needs to be and what he’s supposed to be doing.

But calendaring and tasks are only a fraction of the features to look out for – these days, synchronisation is what you need. You could almost lose count of the number of different ways that it’s possible to match or exchange data with other devices. The Axim X3i comes bundled with a CD-Rom for installing ActiveSync on the PC. The software is a doddle to run and it means that when the handheld is in its USB-enabled cradle and is connected to the PC, contact information, tasks and the last few days’ emails tally between my desktop computer and the Axim. Backing up data and restoring it again are made very quick and easy with this feature.

The X3i also has a slot for a secure digital memory card – very useful for transferring large files from peripherals such as digital cameras, for instance. All that plus Bluetooth, infrared and wireless networking too. What is more, it can browse the web, connect directly to an email server or swap data with other devices. Got the message yet? A standalone device this is not.

Such features are critical as the PDA market tries to stop encroachment from mobile phones. Industry watchers say that connectivity will be the key to keeping customers. On that count, added to its ease of use, the Axim X3i certainly delivers.

By Gordon Smith