Dell Axim X50v in a Palm User’s Hands

It seems like Microsoft’s typical entry into a market goes something like this. It sees an interesting market built up by someone else, and releases a product in that space. The product is crap compared to the existing market leader. Microsoft revs the product a few times until it is competitive, and uses whatever means available to push it. Then, they release something that is actually good, the former market leader starts to crumble, and Microsoft dominates. Then, Microsoft, having won the war, lets their product rot. Examples? Visual Studio over Borland development tools (though Java has spurred competition again), Internet Explorer over Netscape, Office over WordPerfect, etc.

I’ve been a long time Palm1 user, having bought the original Palm Pilot within days of its release, and upgrading at the watershed devices: Palm V, Tungsten T. In the fall of 2004, my Tungsten T was getting pretty beat up, and I was expecting great things for the next palmOne release cycle. They put out the Tungsten T5, and it was a supreme disappointment for me. Where was the next generation OS? Where was the Wi-Fi support? They want how much for it? Then PalmSource instills chaos and confusion with Linux and its relationship to what had been Palm OS Cobalt. Is that crumbling I hear? I thought that Windows Mobile devices might be getting into that competitive-to-good range compared to Palm devices, so it was time to take a serious look. People were raving about the Dell Axim X50v, so I took the plunge and switched at Christmas time.

Let me be clear about something. I’m not the kind of person who trashes all things Microsoft. I don’t want to kick Bill Gates’ dog or set fire to Windows XP CDs. I even like some of Microsoft’s stuff, and their strategies are apparently pretty good business-wise. But my six months of experience with Windows Mobile 2003 SE on the Dell Axim X50v have been sort of disappointing.

First let me mention some of the things I’ve liked about my Pocket PC, though.

  • Lots of bang-for-the-buck
  • The screen is great (but too bright at its dimmest setting for viewing in the dark)
  • I love having a Wi-Fi connection, and the ability to do high speed data exchange with my PC over it
  • I like the prospects of being able to do .NET programming for it
  • A removable battery is a nice touch
  • The first time I browsed to a web site and played a Windows Media file, I laughed out loud
  • I like being able to play a movie on my handheld through WMP
  • YanCEyWare Reader is a great free application for my church-going needs
  • I can use the original Graffiti that has disappeared from recent Palm devices

But I started noticing a disturbing trend. The built-in applications — PIM apps, Pocket Word, Pocket IE, etc. all seemed really lousy. There are painting glitches, weird behaviors, embarrassingly poor use of screen space, seemingly arbitrary limitations and various other things that I was unhappy about. When I’d post something about a problem on a Pocket PC forum, some people wouldn’t understand what I was talking about. Others would say something like, “Oh, yeah. Pocket Word sucks. I use TextMaker instead,” referring to a $50 third-party replacement application. It’s great to have options, but it’s sad when you feel like much of what came with the device needs to be replaced to get quality applications. And some of the applications that folks rave about, like Pocket Informant, might give you some neat features, but at the cost of baroque feature sets and massive resource consumption.

In fact, my device was running through quicksand with Pocket Informant installed. But then you pick up the helpful bit of advice about Windows Mobile’s not so wonderful memory management. Yeah, the idea to have inactive applications continue running in the background doesn’t work very well. So the X50v ships with an application to thwart that behavior and actually shut down applications when you’re done with them (though I prefer the freeware Magic Button, because a battery meter is kind of a nice thing to have in the top-level UI). The odd thing is, you’ll get Pocket PC enthusiasts tittering about how Palm devices can’t run multiple processes simultaneously.

When confronting general device sluggishness for the Axim X50v, advice is readily available about cranking up the processor’s clock speed. By default, the Axim throttles the clock speed according to what you’re doing, but you can configure it to run at full speed all the time. That does help with performance, but it slurps power from the battery so fast that it isn’t practical for me.

Then there’s ActiveSync. Even enthusiasts have posted comments like “All in all, ActiveSync must die.” I synchronize my Axim with two desktop machines, which is probably the less rigorously tested scenario, but I get a lot more errors and “unresolved items” than I did with Palm’s Hot Sync. I have a To Do item that has been like whack-a-mole. I’d mark it complete in one place, but the other two would keep bringing it back to life. It seems to be permanently unresolved on my work machine. The worst aspect, though, is the utterly useless messages ActiveSync emits when there’s a problem. Even though I happen to be pretty conversant in HRESULTs, “8004011B” isn’t the lucid explanation leading to resolution that I’d hope for. There was a sadly comical posting on a forum about how to get ActiveSync into a more severe error situation so that it would finally divulge enough information to fix a synchronization issue.

The Axim’s five-way navigator is another disappointment. Many applications, including built-in ones, don’t take good advantage of it, if at all. The one-handed operation on my old Tungsten T was pretty decent, and it’s clear that some thought went into making the navigator consistent and useful. Then you get something like Windows Media Player on the Pocket PC, where it actually has reasonable functions mapped to the navigator — but there’s some bug in the button settings so that only the navigator works. If you want to map one of the other hardware buttons to, say, turn off the screen while you listen to music you’re out of luck. You have to overwrite one of the navigator functions. Who ever wants to scan backward through their play list anyway?

This one is a bit of a nit, but the close/OK button that always appears in the upper right corner seems like a human factors experiment that got wadded up, missed the trash, and landed in engineering. At a very superficial level, it sounds great: Anytime you want close the current form, just go right here! But what if you have some truly bizarre interaction where you could dismiss a form with either an “OK” or a “Cancel”? Application designers are faced with having a Cancel button spatially divorced from the OK button, or creating a redundant OK button next to Cancel where you would expect it in the first place. 

So, what is one to do when neither Palm nor Microsoft satisfy? Maybe palmOne and PalmSource are actually getting their act together with newer offerings. Maybe Windows Mobile 5.0, to be released later this year, will get my Axim into that as yet unrealized competitive-to-good category. Maybe the right thing is to root for Palm, because at least as long as they’re around the product category won’t stagnate under a Microsoft monopoly.

Notes

1. You know, Palm, palmOne, PalmSource, etc.

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