HTC P4350 Communicator
Simplicity seems to be the selling point
Review The P4350 is a modest device, containing already-proven technology. There's no HSDPA or 3G, just GPRS EDGE; no 802.11n WLAN, just 802.11b/g, leading one to hope that the user concerns of previous models has been ironed out.
Herald attempts to deal with a basic conundrum facing mobile device designers: reading documents is optimal on a page-oriented portrait screen, while data entry (at least in the West) requires a keyboard, which forces the screen to be in landscape mode. Herald solves this by adding a sliding keyboard to what's primarily a pen input device, the screen and device rotating 90 degrees. It's an approach taken by the more fully featured, but larger, HTC Wizard, and it has its merits.
At 109x59x17mm the P4350 is an agreeable size for what in essence is a tablet device, although it feels extremely heavy: at 168g it appeared to be made of some extremely dense, heavy material originating from outside our Solar System. It certainly felt heavier than the advertised weight.
The 320x240 screen supports 16 million colours, although our unit only reported 65,000 colours, and expansion is possible via a MicroSD slot. As already mentioned WLAN is supported, but not 3G, although Bluetooth 2.0 finds its way into the device. Physical connectivity is provided by HTC's USB implementation, ExtUSB, which supports audio in addition to data transfers. It also sports a 2 megapixel camera, taking acceptable pictures in daylight but useless in darkness.
Under the hood, there's a TI OMAP 850 application processor running at 201Mhz, an ideal trade-off between performance and uptime. HTC claims a battery life of five hours in use and 200 hours standby time - which weren't far off the mark and may have been more than adequate a year ago. The surprise success of Nokia's E61, however, puts it in the shade. The E61 is lighter than the P4350 yet boasts a larger battery and superior power management: giving it nine hours talk time on GSM/GPRS networks, and all-day (and longer) always-on WLAN, so it can be permanently set as a VoIP phone.
In practice, the HTC performed well as a PDA, and better than expected overall, but radio communications (voice and WLAN) really drained the battery. The slideout keyboard, given the limited space, feels cramped, and although it's backlit, there's no sensor. The user must type in the dark to activate the keyboard although Windows Mobile offers a wider choice of pen entry methods than competitive platforms.
The 38-key thumb board sports two additional hard buttons for activating the softkeys, but we found it too easy to press these accidentally while typing: there's no special dispensation given to the Start or OK keys, the two most important keys on the device.
The P4350 excelled in some areas, but the overall user experience was disjointed and confusing. Let's start with two things it does very well.
Contacts look-up is much more efficient than in UIQ or Nokia's S60. The Contacts applications performs substring matches on any field, not just first name or last name, and not just on the initial letters of the name. It also performs "first initial firstname - first initial lastname" lookups that have proved so popular on Palm's Treo range.
Once configured, ActiveSync also performed smoothly and reliably. We also liked the SMS notifications, which tell you who the sender is, and the first line of the text message, without any user intervention. Since it can take 10 seconds or more to view the contents of a text message on some of Nokia's S60 phones, one wonders why rivals couldn't incorporate this feature, as it saves a great deal of time.
Not by accident, all three positives derive from one team, or a team within one organisation: Microsoft itself.
However, in many other areas it appears Windows Mobile had been thrown together by teams who'd never met – even until the release of the product. And apparently, no top-down oversight in the Q&A department spotted these anomalies.
While SMS notifications are helpful, other instances of Windows Mobile notifications are quite infuriating. For example, the device informs the user that it's receiving data. It doesn't say how much or how fast, as there's no progress display. The Dialog contains a "Hide" option but can't be "hidden", nor can it be moved.
In another instance of poor quality control, for example, the basic WLAN configuration offers two almost-identical control panel icons, one labelled "Wi-Fi" and the other "WLAN". One turned out to be a near replica of the Windows XP network dialog box, the other a formidable five-tab dialog, which also invited one to "enroll". And additional "Comms Manager" pane simply led to one or the other.
Once WLAN was configured, the device constantly informed us of new networks in the vicinity. Which, since this reporter lives in an apartment block, was about once every 45 seconds. In this sense, at least, Windows Mobile perfectly replicates the Microsoft Windows desktop experience: with endless popups you don't need to see.
HTC also has added another distracting feature: blinking lights. The control panel also proved to be something of a tarpit: more than once it required a reboot to exit the Connections tab.
On the telephony side there's been progress, although device was strangely hesitant about hanging up a call. Call quality was average, although boosted by a decent loudspeaker. In landscape mode it was not possible to start Word Mobile or Tasks. There seems to be no sense behind this decision. And while the variety of pen input methods was welcome, there seemed no logic to when the text entry box would appear or disappear. Sometimes it just liked to hang around.
Cursive handwriting recognition was impressively accurate, but the agonising delay between inputting and rendering the text makes using it feel too much like a game show. It'll get there, with more processing power.
We also longed for more logical navigation than using the Start menu as a task-switcher and a more sensible option than an OK button, which also closes, or sometimes dismisses - one is never sure - the application with focus.
The parts of the Windows Mobile that work best are the parts that Microsoft has written, or had the most control over. This business model permits original design manufacturers (ODMs) to innovate and customise their devices, but there's little evidence of innovation and the "customisation" has resulted in a user interface disaster. Perhaps it's because the ODMs rarely meet the end-users, being insulated by operators, and other companies who re-badge the product.
The parts of the Windows Mobile that work best are the parts that Microsoft has written, or had the most control over. This business model permits ODMs to innovate and customize their devices, but there's little evidence of innovation and the "customization" has resulted in a user interface disaster. Perhaps it's because the ODMs rarely meet the end-users, being insulated by operators, and other companies who re-badge the product.
IT departments whose primary need is contacts, calendar and mail sync do look for a native Microsoft option, but the quality of the Windows Mobile devices in so many other areas is severely compromised. It's little wonder they've turned to Blackberry devices, or Good software, or a third-party Exchange sync running on a superior, easier to manage mobile device.
Nokia offers far superior hardware to anything Microsoft's Asian ODMs can offer, and Motorola's return to the UIQ fold gives it a first-class product with global reach to market. With only incremental improvements on the horizon in Windows Mobile 6, Microsoft should look at new development models and routes to markets. The current approach offers users few disadvantages, and a great deal of trouble. IT departments with considerable investments in Microsoft infrastructure deserve much better than this.