Danger Hiptop 2
Why should business get all the good gadgets?
Reg review Vodafone's massive marketing campaign for its RIM-made 7100v is proof enough that the mobile phone networks believe that businesses are desperate for mobile email and that they think most handsets' SMS-oriented keypads won't hack it. It's not just the networks - PDA vendors on both sides of the Palm OS-Windows Mobile divide are touting email on the move for businesses as a key feature of their products.
But what about consumers? Are they as hungry for mobile messaging - email, SMS, MMS and IM - that they'll opt for a device dedicated to the function? Danger certainly hopes so, and that its Hiptop 2 will win in the UK the support that it has in the US. There it's offered by T-Mobile as the Sidekick 2 and by Suncom as the Hiptop, and by all accounts it has built up a respectable user base in the "hundreds of thousands", according to our sources.
On the basis of a couple of weeks spent using the latest generation of the device, it's not hard to see why. The second-generation Hiptop is a more compact device than its predecessor, the better to appeal to phone buyers, and with a button layout designed to make handheld games console users feel right at home. Out of the box, the device presents you with its 3.5in colour display. There are our large buttons in each of the corners, separated on the left by a D-pad that doubles up as the speaker, and, on the right, by a scroll-wheel and call make and break button cluster.
On the back is the VGA digicam with flash and large self-portrait mirror. The right side is home to an earphone jack, power socket and, under a cover, a USB 2.0 port. There are two further console-style buttons on the top of the device, positioned for index-finger usage, and power and volume controls on the base.
Pushing the screen area down from the top right causes it to pivot rapidly round and reveal the Hiptop 2's QWERTY keypad, flipping the on-screen image to maintain the correct orientation as it goes. The opened display is held in place with magnets, and while it feels loose, its hinge seems tough enough to withstand the rigours of frequent use. Not to mention the occasional drop.
You can use either the scroll-wheel or the D-pad to run through the semi-circular collection of application icons served up by the UI, itself styled on Japanese graphic design. There are the usual PIM apps, but the Hiptop's focus is communications, so there's an AOL instant messaging client, web browser, email, SMS and phone apps. Most of them display status information as you scroll past: the number of unread messages received, the number of buddies online, to do list items, the two most recent photos you've taken, that sort of thing. It's an approach that makes it easy to get a quick update without having to launch a series of apps individually or filling up the display's device status line with hundreds of icons.
The UI and apps are all coded in Java, running the device's own OS, radio stack and virtual machine. Danger doesn't make a big deal out the Hiptop's hardware specifications and admits its machine isn't at the cutting edge, but I found it highly responsive. It certainly didn't feel underpowered. It's also well thought out, with a consistency across the applications reminiscent of the classic Mac OS era. Better still, there's a very high level of integration between them all, making it easy, say, to extract sender details out of an email and slot them into a Contacts entry. You can phone someone directly from the IM app, based on their Contacts entry. Incoming messages are flagged at the top of the screen no matter what app you're in.
The top right-hand button on the face of the Hiptop calls up each app's single, hierarchical menu - just scroll down with wheel or D-Pad and click. Dialog boxes are handled likewise. Pressing the bottom left-hand button always brings you to the device's main screen.
Only the phone app doesn't work smoothly, geared as it is to pulling numbers out of the contact list or dialling via the keyboard. Dialling with the screen closed isn't easy. Selecting the number one-handed with the D-pad is OK, but you still have to click the scroll-wheel and then turn the device through 180 degrees so the speaker's aligned with your ear. All the time, the display remains locked in landscape mode, not the portrait orientation you might expect in a phone. The Hiptop 2 has a speakerphone facility, but while it sounds fine for the user, the sound coming through to the other end was muffled. Danger claim this issue will be fixed in production units destined for Europe.
But if the Hiptop 2 makes for a so-so phone, the email, SMS and IM features can't be faulted. In the email client, for instance, there's support for multiple POP and IMAP accounts, and you can set up additional folders to file messages in. Only the lack of post-processing rules and spam filtering is a drawback - but that's likely to be less of an issue for mainstream email users than it is for hardcore emailers like myself. And, frankly, few other - if any - mobile email clients provide those kinds of facilities either.
Danger is promising to provide the latter in an update soon, and to improve the look of pages, but it needs to go some way to reach the standard of, say, PalmOne's browsers.
Speaking of updates, Hiptop 2 accepts these over the air and transparently to the user. More cleverly, each device keeps in sync with a back-up store on Danger's servers, usually within seconds of you entering data or receiving a message, whenever that happens. While the device will synchronise with Microsoft Outlook - there's a web interface that allows you to upload files from a few other PIM apps - there's no need to do so, certainly not for back-up. You do it once to get your data on the device, and then never again, Danger believes. Incidentally, the same web interface provides full access to your data when your Hiptop is down or you've left it at home.
You can upload contacts from Palm Desktop, Microsoft Outlook Express or Microsoft Entourage, but alas not from Mac OS X's own iCal and Address Book, though you could argue that's Apple's fault for not implementing a .txt export option. There's no Mac support for calendar entries.
PC users can similarly transfer contacts data from Outlook and Lotus Notes, and calendar info from Outlook or Meeting Maker. Danger will sell you a standalone $20 sync app from PumaTech, but there's no Mac version. Indeed, Danger and T-Mobile appear to be taking an age to authorise Missing Sync developer Mark/Space's Hiptop sync app even though it was completed ten months ago! Linux users are even less well-catered for.
Flaws? Well, there's no MP3 playback, support for memory cards, or Bluetooth, either for PC connectivity or headset support - all features we've come to expect from smart phones. Battery life isn't great, running down in under 48 hours, much less if you make voice calls, so this is one device you will need to charge each night. While the keyboard is great - good quality and perfect for two-thumb typing - it's not suitable for one-hand usage as a Treo 600's might be, but it passes water all over the keypad on RIM's Blackberry 'Charm' (aka the Vodafone 7100v and the T-Mobile 7100t) for usability and speed of text entry, and over traditional SMS keypads.
On the plus side, the hardware is well designed - and well built, by Sharp - and the software suite is excellent. It's hard to think of a better-integrated set of mobile apps, certainly not one focused exclusively on consumers.
Yes, the Hiptop 2 has its flaws, but I like it. The colourful 18-30 'yoof' styling doesn't appeal to me personally, but I can see it striking a chord with the kind of people who say 'like', 'radical' and 'dude' a lot. Beyond such window dressing, it's a solid, easy-to-use mobile communicator - weaker on voice, though - that for once really doesn't require a host computer to see it at its best.
The deal breaker or maker is price. When the Hiptop 2 ships in the UK, probably early next year, its success will depend on how far mobile networks are willing to subsidise the hardware and how much they're charging for GPRS bandwidth. The Hiptop 2 generates a lot of network traffic, sucking down email, IMs and web pages, sending back data to the device's mirror on Danger's servers. An unlimited access tariff will be essential, and it's going to have to be attractively priced.
In the US, you can pick up the T-Mobile Sidekick - how that network brands the device - for around $300, with an unlimited GPRS tariff costing you $60 a month with 600 minutes' of bundled voice, or $30 a month with a pay-as-you-call, 2c-a-minute voice. That prices it alongside devices like top-end Blackberries, the Treo 600 and the Sony Ericsson P900, many of which offer more features. And they're all pitched at business users, not consumers. The Hiptop 2 really ought to come in at a more consumer-friendly price. ®
|Danger Hiptop 2|
|Pros||— Well-designed, well-integrated software; clever auto-backup system; great keyboard; good build quality|
|Cons||— Limited sync support; no MP3 playback; no memory card support; no Bluetooth; expensive|
|Price||UK: TBA; US: $300 plus network tarriff|
|More info||The Danger website|
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