O2 Xda II

29 Jan 2004

Product: PDA/mobile phone
Price: €450

The cellular operators have been working hard to make the mobile office something more than marketing speak, but none have been as single-minded as O2 when it comes to bundling all the elements of business communications onto a single device. The second-generation Xda is its most compelling piece of kit to date, harnessing twice the memory (128MB of RAM) and twice the speed (400MHz Intel processor) of its predecessor, all dressed up in Windows Mobile 2003, the latest version of Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system.

Such high-flying computing credentials put it in on a par with desktop machines of a few years ago, but that’s only half the story. For the uninitiated, the Xda is a phone-cum-PDA, a segment of the device market that is littered with clumsy and confusing bits of kit that aspire to be Jack-of-all personal communications and end up as master of none. The Xda doesn’t fall into this trap. Call quality and signal strength are up there with the better mobiles. Losing the stub antenna from the first Xda appears to have made no difference to its ability to hold a call.

It works well as a phone but doesn’t look much like one. The silver livery is dominated by the 3.5-inch touch-sensitive screen which also provides the number pad when in phone mode. Just as O2 has been careful to source leading IT names like Intel and Microsoft for the insides, it was smart enough to use HTC for the shell and assembly. This is the same company that manufactures the iPaq, arguably the best PDA on the market. So think of the Xda as an O2 iPaq and you won’t be far off the mark.

New features include an obligatory onboard camera. What’s nice here is that the pictures can fill the entire screen while retaining reasonable quality. As with all mobile camera phones, the quality of picture messaging barely survives beyond the desktop, a limitation which is even more true of its ability to grab video clips in a number of formats including MPEG-4. Don’t expect too much of images, but it’s a nice additional feature that hasn’t seemed to hurt the price of the product.

GPRS networks with their faster transmission speeds were always going to be crucial for products like this and the Xda really does its bit to make mobile data more viable. As well as multimedia messaging you can send hefty files over email, boosted by the fact that the Xda can now accommodate Acrobat PDF attachments as well as standard Word files. True, it can still take an eternity to send and receive big documents, but it’s possible. For the business customer with their xda configured to connect to the corporate server it becomes a real boon. And what more proof do you need of its white-collar prowess than the fact that it can now handle Power Point as well!

The addition of Bluetooth for wire-free connectivity, be it to your desktop PC or simply to the handsfree kit, is another welcome addition, while the ability to replace the battery with a fully charged spare is crucial for such a power hungry device. Believe it or not, you couldn’t do this on the original model.

O2 claims a fully charged battery will deliver 2-4 hours of talktime and 13 hours of PDA operation. This is on the optimistic side. You wouldn’t feel very comfortable with a day going by without a recharge even after modest usage. Buying a spare battery would be a must.

Full marks to O2 for pushing the boat out on features while keeping the Xda affordable. The brighter screen, more intuitive menus and easy set up (routing your own email to it is a doddle) make it as user-friendly as you could expect from such a feature packed handheld. You have to familiarise yourself with a lot of sub menus and folders to discover certain features and applications but it’s a small price to pay for bundling so much into so little. Because it’s Windows based, with everything from Pocket Excel and Explorer to Media Player, it will be reassuringly familiar to most users for them to quickly find their way around. There are also some nice personalisation touches such as creating your own screen ‘skins’ with the camera or reconfiguring the controls to access what you want more quickly.

Sitting on its cradle, synched up to your PC, the Xda will soon become as integral to your desktop as your computer and glued to your hand when you’re out and about. Accessories include SD cards for extending the memory, a Bluetooth headset and a fold-out QWERTY keyboard. For heavy Word users, the latter becomes a must and helps turn the Xda into a viable alternative to a notebook. The one caveat is that the keyboard attaches via the power socket and doesn’t supply an alternative so you’re dependent on battery power when you’re typing.

Glitches? After a mad night out shooting video and mailing pictures, the device mysteriously lost its ability to connect to the O2 network. The connection was only re-established when I carried out a full system restore. Not as drastic as its sounds because I copied my data onto my PC for instant retrieval.

Around this time last year I nit-picked over the absence on the original xda of Bluetooth and the fact that it was incompatible with GSM 1900 in the US. The new tri-band model has not only addressed these issues but it has also added a camera and still managed to bring it in under the original xda asking price. It really is a piece of kit that’s hard to fault.

By Ian Campbell