Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Dell Axim

My newest toy showed up on Friday, a few days ahead of schedule. I got a Dell Axim X3 pocket PC. I know I’ve railed on Windows CE devices in the past, especially as a former Palm OS user. I’ve always thought they were underpowered, with an anemic version of Windows trying to run full-sized apps in a downsized way. But as the Palm becomes more and more lacking and the hardware behind mobile Windows becomes more powerful, I’ve become more interested in these machines. And I haven’t been entirely happy with the Danger Sidekick, either. It’s a good machine for a few things, like mail and instant chat, but it’s entirely worthless as a game machine, and I don’t like the fact that you can’t add or modify any of the existing apps.

So I think the sweet spot in price and performace finally happened, mostly due to Dell offering the X3 at a slightly reduced rate. Most Pocket PC machines start at about $300, and price modifiers include processor speed, WiFi, or Bluetooth, with features like physical size, looks, memory, and expansion slots fitting in there also. I thought about getting some sort of wireless, but as neither my work or home is equipped, I worried that it would become a huge money sink, with me eventually spending a grand on routers and wireless access points and cards and whatnot. So I hemmed and hawed on different configurations and different manufacturers before I finally went to Dell.

Dell originally released the X5, and now came out with the slightly smaller X3. The X3 is also available in a WiFi version that’s called the X3i, and I decided not to spend the extra $50 on it, although now I wonder if that was the right decision in the long run. (In defense of the no-WiFi version, it gets much better batter life, and I don’t need to rush out and buy all that extra shit and spend the next 9 weekends configuring it.) Anyway, there’s a low-end X3 with half the memory and a slower processor, but I spent about $270 on the version with a 400mhz XScale processor and 64mb SDRAM and another 64mb of flash ROM. I’ve had pretty good luck with my Dell laptop and other Dell machines at work, so I figured I’d be okay with trying them out with this, too.

My first impression was that this thing is LIGHT. I mean, it’s lighter than the cheap 4-function calculator you get free with a fillup at your local Marathon station. There’s absolutely nothing inside of it, and the battery, which is smaller than a nine-volt and a third as thick, also feels completely hollow. It’s also a very good-looking unit. The cradle is very strange, because the front of it is chromed, but the chrome is see-through, like mirrorshade glasses. There’s a blue glowing Dell logo inside the cradle, and when it is on, it looks like a hologram or something.

Windows Mobile 2003 (the marketspeak name for the latest WinCE) is pretty weird at first. Many of the GUI rules are different than Windows or just not there. Instead of right-click menus, you click and hold on an item, and a menu comes up. And because every window takes up the whole display, it’s a bit off when you are running more than one app at once. There is this switcher app you can run that lets you swap in and out of things fast, but it takes a few minutes of dicking around to get the hang of everything.

The interface dumps you into a “Today” page by default, where you can have your appointments or other various things show up. There are a lot of apps included, like pocket versions of IE, Word, Excel, a book reader, and Windows Media Player. I immediately got the Bubb Rub video and dumped it to the device. It was pretty easy to do: there is a link on my desktop of my Windows PC that now goes to the Pocket PC. So I just dragged the file to that directory, and a couple of seconds later, it was on the handheld. The Windows Media Player lets you do a landscape full-screen mode, and the 3.5″ screen showed the video with as much color and clarity as a TV set, if not better. This thing will be excellent for watching movies on a plane.

There is a single Secure Digital slot on top of the unit for memory cards and expansion. I almost wished I would have paid $100 more for the X5, which includes SD and CompactFlash, because there are far more peripherals with CF. I hope that the new generation of SD-only handhelds will push manufacturers to make more devices for SD. I went out on Saturday and picked up a 256mb card, which should last me for a while. I also eyed some of the shrinkwrapped software; there are a couple of dictionaries and games out there, in the $20-$40 range, shipping on SD cards. Maybe when I grow bored of the freeware on the net, I’ll consider that.

I now need to install a bunch of junk. I didn’t bring the cradle home this weekend, so I filled the SD card with stuff from the web. Most freeware consists of an installer that runs on a desktop machine and shoots the installation through the ActiveSync conduit and onto the handheld, so I can’t do that without the cradle and it’s assorted services. I did manage to get AvantGo set up before I left work on Friday. This runs a program on your Windows machine to grab various web news articles and then smash them down into a handheld-friendly size and push them onto your PocketPC. So I’ll be able to catch the news and a few articles from Wired on the train.

Not much else going on. I finished reading Idoru by William Gibson, and had mixed feelings about it. There was a lot of cool imagery, neat technology ideas, that made part of it really appealing to me, in a Snow Crash sort of way. But it also really felt like he phoned this one in, and it’s one of those “two people with plots colliding” thrillers where halfway through the book you know how it will all end. It was not horrible, but it wasn’t Gibson’s best. I started reading something else that I am not really into, and I have a huge Amazon order that got delayed that is finally shipping, so I’m finding it hard to commit to anything in order to keep my plate clean.

P.S. a random aside – if you read this and you have an AIM username that I don’t know about, mail it to me. I always keep mine open, but I feel stupid looking for those of friends or whatever. And if, for whatever reason, you don’t feel comfortable emailing me or commenting about anything (tinfoil hat, etc.) you can use this to write me. It tracks your IP and hostname, but maybe for some reason this would be better than putting my name in a mail program and hitting send, who knows. I mostly use it so I don’t have to put my real email address on all of my web pages, although I still get more spam than ever.

over and out.