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**Update made on 08/08/02 at end**
There’s no doubt that when it comes to looks the iPAQ H3850 is the classiest PDA available. Combine that with 64MB RAM and 32MB ROM, an excellent 65,536 colour screen (offering a resolution of 240 x 320), a headphone socket and microphone and an infra-red port and you soon realise that its beauty is not just skin deep (a full specifications listing can be found at http://www.compaq.co.uk/products/ipaq/pocketpc/h3850/specs.stm).
The 3800 series is the latest incarnation of Compaq’s iPAQ series of PDAs. The other model in the series is the H3870 - the only difference between the two is that the H3870 is Bluetooth enabled - which is great except that Bluetooth devices won’t be widespread for a while yet so the extra cost (about £60 on average) is hard to justify.
I picked one up a couple of weeks ago and although I was slightly sceptical about how useful it would be on a day to day basis I was pleasantly surprised at how practical I found it - I have no doubt it will soon be indispensable.
Part of the reason for that is that the Operating System (OS) it runs is PocketPC 2002 - Microsoft Windows for small devices. This means you get cut down versions of Outlook, Excel and Word pre-installed as well as access to countless ‘pocket’ versions of other Microsoft Windows software from various web sites. You keep your data synchronised with your desktop PC via a cradle provided with the iPAQ and connected to your PC either by a serial or USB connection (infra-red connectivity for syncing is also possible but I found that problematic and gave up in the end). A small synchronisation program (Microsoft’s ActiveSync available on a CD provided with the iPAQ) starts up as soon as you insert the iPAQ into the cradle and synchronises your iPAQ data with your PC. Input into the iPAQ is via a stylus and either an on-screen keyboard display or handwriting recognition software - Microsoft Transcriber which comes pre-installed is surprisingly good at understanding my squiggles - when I can write without my palm coming into contact with the touch-sensitive screen. A mini-keyboard which you can clip onto the front of the iPAQ is available as an accessory. Optionally, you can also make voice notes to yourself via the built in microphone.
Don’t be too impressed by the memory that comes as standard - PocketPC is a miniature version of Microsoft Windows so it is a bit bloated and after you install a few more apps you don’t have much memory left to play with. If you intend to carry a lot of space hungry files around like music files you will need to increase your memory capacity which can be done in a number of ways; microdrives, SD (Secure Digital) cards and CompactFlash cards. CompactFlash memory cards are cheapest but you will need to buy an external jacket. An SD memory card can be inserted into a slot at the top of the device itself and requires no additional hardware, but SD memory is expensive and difficult to get hold of. Microdrives are miniature hard-disks and again need a jacket (PCMCIA or CompactFlash) to be purchased as well. As they are mechanical devices they tend to be power-hungry so your battery life will be affected. The PCMCIA and CompactFlash jackets can be used to plug in extra devices like network cards, memory, hard-drives, modems, spare batteries etc, although they will add weight and bulk to the device. If you want to surf the Internet you can either do this via your PC when the iPAQ is in its cradle or via your mobile if it has an infra-red port and modem - I have a Motorola T250 cellphone and got this working with the iPAQ surprisingly easily, although the less than stunning max connection speed of 9600bps means this method is really only useful for sending and receiving email. Alternatively, faster connections are available through GPRS cellphones and add on cards (and Bluetooth enabled devices - one day!). If you really want to impress your friends, buy Microsoft AutoRoute 2002 (to get hold of Microsoft Pocket Streets 2002 for the iPAQ) and a GPS receiver for the iPAQ and you’ll have yourself a mobile direction finder which will tell you exactly where you are on the map being displayed on the iPAQ. Not only is it cheaper than anything you buy for similar in-car systems, it’s also portable! Spend a few quid more and you can buy a full navigation system for your iPAQ which will give you voice directions. On the downside, the H3850 is a bit expensive (average price of £500 inc. VAT) and accessorising it via jackets can add to its size and bulk meaning you can’t exactly slip it into your pocket anymore (but the enhanced functionality should make up for that). Some of the accessories themselves can be pricey and difficult to get hold of, but do shop around - on the web a 64MB SD card can be picked up for £54 inc. vat - one of the ‘major’ high street retailers will sell you one for £99! The stated 10 hour battery life is also a little on the optimistic side - you have to be a real scrooge to get your iPAQ to last anywhere near that long and software which monitors your battery life and available memory is a must-have. The OS (PocketPC 2002) is what you’d expect from Microsoft, big, slow and somewhat flaky - you’ll find yourself resetting your iPAQ rather more than you like as PocketPC decides it is going to hang. But Microsoft Windows users will be used to that anyway.
If, like me, you have trouble remembering things and tend to scribble things down on loads of post-it notes the iPAQ will be invaluable. Corporate users will like the connectivity options and the fact it runs a cut down version of Microsoft Windows meaning it can be used virtually as a laptop - as long as you’re not doing a lot of typing! And that’s the crux of it - this little thing is a miniature laptop - practically all the advantages of a laptop (especially with a miniature keyboard plugged on top of it) and a lot less bulk and weight.
All in all, the iPAQ H3850 is a hugely impressive, very slick machine and I would recommend it to anyone.
Below is an update as of 08/08/02*
After a bit of prodding I've decided to give this op a quick update. I still like my iPAQ and during my recent house move found it to be an invaluable tool not just for keeping names and address but also to keep track of conversations etc;in case things got awkward I would know who said what to who and when they said it. It's size meant I could take it with me 'on the move' so I could always update it wherever I was.That brings me onto a slightly irritating disadvantage; if you leave your iPAQ without charge for a couple of days you lose everything you've installed onto it and it goes back to a 'virgin' installation. It's a bit like coming back to your PC after a couple of days and finding your machine has been wiped and you're just left with a default Windows installation.
Fortunately, there is a quick and easy fix; backup to your iPAQ file store (or storage card) frequently, restore it after you've recharged it and everything will be as it was - up until the last time you backed it up of course! Doesn't take too long either.
Another point in its favour now is that the price has dropped significantly and I've seen it advertised for under £400.
The only cloud on the horizon for PDAs like the iPAQ is the convergence of mobile phones and PDAs. First was the Sagem thingy and Trium’s Mondo, but they really were crap. However, the XDA being offered by O2 at the moment (ZDNet review at:http://reviews.zdnet.co.uk/review/2/2/1359.html) looks like it’s going to change all that. It's a mobile phone running Microsoft's Pocket PC 2002 Phone Edition, the same OS as the iPAQ but with extra communications stuff (surprisingly enough!). I know the iPAQ can be converted into a mobile phone as well, but it involves buying additional sleeves and attachments which makes it rather bulky and even more expensive. I’d feel also feel rather self-conscious talking into it.
So, after 7 months of use, I still find my iPAQ useful, but if I was looking for something like it today, I'd take a very close look at the XDA or wait until XDA's competitors emerge. The main reason (for me) is that it has all the advantages of a PDA plus it's a mobile phone as well - I don't need to hook it up to a PC or another mobile to surf or pick up email, and I can write SMS messages on something resembling a keyboard. It also means I have one bulge in my pocket instead of two (ooh-er). If your budget doesn't stretch that far, as the XDA and its competitors are going to be expensive, keep your existing mobile and get the iPAQ as it's cheaper now.