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Dell Axim X50 and X50V

New top model brings VGA display into Pocket PC mainstream

It used to be that you could look at a new iPAQ and know it was an iPAQ, and the same for a new Pocket PC from Casio when they were still in the game, or one from Toshiba. Family resemblance has been a big thing in brands and product lines. Apparently, no more. The Dell Axim X3 and X30 looked nothing like the initial Axim X5, and the new Axim X50 line doesn't look anything like either. In fact, the new X50s look more like iPAQs than the new iPAQs do. And the major design influence, if any, seems to have come from Dell's notebooks. Put a new X50 next to an Inspiron 700 and you see a lot of common design DNA.

Like earlier Axim Pocket PCs, the X50 consists of several models. There's a basic one that starts at just $299, then a middle of the road $399 model, and then there is the top of the line $499 X50v. The little "v" presumably stands for "VGA," as that is the new flagship's main attraction--a full 480x640 pixel display.

However, unlike the VGA models from HP and Toshiba with their noticeably larger 4.0-inch displays, you can barely tell the VGA Axim from its more pedestrian siblings. The VGA display measures 3.7 inches diagonally versus the standard 3.5 inches for the 240x320 LCDs.

And while both the HP iPAQ 4700 and the Toshiba 800 Series look and feel much bigger than the non-VGA models, Dell somehow managed to incorporate the full VGA screen into a device that's as small and handy as we've come to expect for contemporary PDAs. Side by side, the X50 is no larger than the X30 line, and visually it looks smaller. It's a little thicker and weighs a bit more (6.3 ounces for the VGA model), but Dell did a super packaging job on this one. The whole device seems to follow a totally different design philosophy than the X30 models. While those were almost whimsical with their interesting combination of ice cream sandwich housing, industrial design, and array of colorful blinking lights, the X50 is smooth, glossy, and rounded. The rounded backside is all matte black plastic, the front uses the opaque glossy black plastic popularized in numerous iPAQs, surrounded by a U-shaped silvery plastic bezel. It really looks more like a notebook peripheral than a Pocket PC.

Things have changed in the controls department as well. The standard arrangement of a five way navigation disc flanked by two application buttons on each side is still there, but both the disc and the buttons are considerably smaller. The disc still works fine, but its oval size means it doesn't feel the same in portrait as in landscape mode, and gamers may find it just too small to boot. On the left side is the familiar rocker, except that it isn't. What looks like a rocker has actually been replaced by two separate buttons. One to start the voice recorder and one to turn wireless on and off. Above them sits an entirely new "lock" slider. Move it up and the device stops responding to button or touchscreen input. That's probably for when you kick back to listen to some tunes and don't want the device to do things every time you inadvertently touch the screen.

Those who really liked those cool translucent, illuminated docks Axims used to come with may be disappointed by the much more utilitarian new dock. It's a simple affair made of black plastic, a solid design that can accommodate and charge a spare battery. Those older Axim docks used to be veritable conversation pieces. This one just does the job. Speaking of batteries, you'll notice two changes here as well. Whereas the X30's battery was actually part of the device's backside, the X50 uses a conventional power pack that sits under an exceedingly flimsy cover. The battery itself packs 1100 mAh instead of the X30's 850, a switch that's much appreciated, as the X50 has a lot of power-hungry circuitry under the hood. Like most recent Pocket PC designs, the X50 doesn't have a separate power jack. You either charge it in the dock, or you use one of those easy-to-lose adapters that let you charge the device director from the very compact power brick via the docking connector.

A final word about the dock and docking connector: those who have an older Axim and look forward to sharing docks are out of luck. Neither the new dock nor the new docking connector fit any of the other Axims. It would be nice if at least within a product line you could use the same power connectors. Most recent iPAQs can use the same power adapter and it'd be nice if Dell followed that example.

What differentiates the three X50 models priced at $300, $400, and $500? That would be processor speed, memory, communications, and display. In all other respects, all X50s are the same. They all have both a SDIO slot and a Compact Flash slot, and all models come with the USB cradle. A nice touch. The differences are as follows:

The basic X50 comes with a 416MHz version of Intel's XScale PXA270 chip. 64MB of RAM and 64MB of Flash ROM, of which 30MB is available for file storage, Bluetooth, and a transflective 3.5-inch 240x320 display.

The middle of the road model has a 520MHz version of the PXA270 chip, 64MB RAM and 128MB of Flash ROM (about 90MB available for file storage), Bluetooth and 802.11b, and the same 3.5-inch 240x320 display. We definitely would have liked to see 128MB RAM here, but that's the only complaint.

The top-of-the-line X50v uses the currently fastest CPU in the PXA 270 line, the 624mHZ version. It also comes with 64MB of RAM and 128 MB of Flash ROM (about 90MB available for storage) and has both Bluetooth and 802.11b. The most interesting difference is the 3.7-inch 480 x 640 pixel display that's powered by Intel's 2700G "Marathon" mobile graphics accelerator chip. The 2700G is a 2D/3D graphics powerhouse that can process 150 million pixels per second and almost a million polygons per second in 3D mode. It can play back full 30 frames per second 640x480 video.

We've been advocating VGA displays in Pocket PCs for a while now, and so we consider the new display the biggest news. How does it work and how does it compare to the VGA displays in the Toshiba 800 Series and the HP iPAQ 4700?

For some reason, turning on the X50v didn't yield the same "Wow!!" reaction we had with the Toshiba and HP. Maybe it's the noticeably smaller screen or maybe we're already taking the new, higher resolution for granted. I know that ever since I used the iPAQ 4700, every device with a 240x320 display looks crude and unacceptably low res. Fact is that due to its smaller screen the X50v's display has an even higher resolution than the 4-inch devices. Whereas those approached 200 dots per inch, the new Axim sports an incredible 215 dots per inch. High res notebooks have barely over 100 dots per inch. We're talking very high resolution here, and a very, very sharp display. Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition does a very good job taking advantage of the high resolution and all the standard apps have been adapted. Third party apps may or may not support the higher resolution. Those that don't use pixel doubling, the same technique many Palm OS applications used when Palm hardware switched from 160x160 to 320x320.

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of the higher resolution is in text size. It can be adjusted in five steps from smallest to largest. When set to "smallest," text is tiny but so razor sharp that it remains perfectly legible. This makes a huge difference in web browsing and in working with documents. There are no jaggies at all. All text looks as crisp as if it were printed on a white sheet of paper.

That said, there are many areas where even the Second Edition isn't a perfect match yet with these higher resolution devices. Many menus, icons and scroll bars are much too big, taking away far too much screen real estate from the actual data. This, of course, is a Microsoft issue and not a Dell issue.

An additional feature of the VGA-equipped X50v model is that you can output video to a projector or monitor via an optional $79 "presentation bundle." Also optional, unfortunately, is a case. The X50 doesn't come with one. Instead, you can pick from a variety of Belkin and Rhinoskin offerings in Dell's time-honored a la carte ordering system. Personally, I would have liked to see a display lid.

In terms of software, the new Axims come with the standard complement of Windows Mobile apps, which means the devices are well equipped to do just about anything right out of the box. The VGA model also comes with two extra games to show off the graphics accelerator and 3D capabilities. One is "Enigmo," an aptly named Rube Goldberg-style 3D puzzle. The other is StuntCar Extreme, a 3D racing game that we had previously seen on the Palm-based Zodiac. Both nicely show off the powerful graphics engine. Sound is adequate out of the Dell's little mono speaker, and that much better when using stereo headsets.

An interesting advance in the X50's audio design is that the audio jack can be used not only for a headset, but also for a headset/microphone combo. This opens up interesting possibilities for voice commands and Voice over IP.

All in all, there is a lot to like in Dell's new line of Pocket PCs. Those in the market for a mid-prize model may have a hard time deciding between a high end X30 and a low end X50, as both offer roughly the same features. It may come down to style and design where the X30 remains a very strong contender. Those interested in a high end device will find the X50v a very attractive alternative to HP's iPAQ 4700. The HP's gold standard display is larger and it comes with more software plus some other innovations, but other than that the Dell matches it almost feature by feature, and it is a smaller, handier device than the big iPAQ. What Dell has done with the X50v is incorporate a new and long awaited technology, a VGA display, into what otherwise is just a standard, competent, workhorse Pocket PC. By doing so, Dell did what Dell does best, making existing designs ever better. -Kirk Linsky