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November 22, 2005 6:54 pm

Range-topping iPAQ has more features – but less appeal

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Four years separate the iPAQ hw 6515, Hewlett-Packard's latest top-of-the-range personal digital assistant, from my aging iPAQ 3850. So is the revamp enough to rekindle an old love affair, or have the march of time and the arrival of smartphones taken their toll on the iconic iPAQ?

First off, the iPAQ has been on a diet. It now fits nicely in your hand and in an inside jacket pocket or handbag, although diehard traditionalists can still wear their iPAQ on their belt if they so wish.

The communications capabilities of my iPAQ 3850 were limited to a serial cable. The new hw 6515 comes with quadband phone, Bluetooth and, amazingly, built-in GPS receiver.

Cool as it is, this latter feature is probably less useful than it might appear, at least for corporate globe-trotters, because taxis and rental cars increasingly come with GPS.

A set of maps covering Europe costs an extra €129 – a set for the US is coming  soon – bringing the total cost to over €750.

The hw 6515 also has a 1.3 megapixel camera, although camera-shy corporate users can buy a version that does not have one.

For me, the 6515’s most useful new feature is the keyboard. The original philosophy of iPAQ was to get rid of the keyboard and let you perform any task using the touch-sensitive screen, joystick and a couple of buttons.

But lazy folk like me never mastered handwriting with the stylus on the screen. HP has belatedly recognised this by adding a keyboard, albeit a tiny thumb-operated one.

To help you find the right, elusive key, the keyboard glows blue when in use, which also allows you surreptitiously to answer e-mails in a darkened conference room.

With practice, I soon became proficient at pecking out e-mails but if you regularly need to type 2,000-word reports on the move, the foldable Bluetooth keyboard, or your laptop, may be a better option.

Unfortunately, the built-in keyboard is not well-integrated with the Windows Mobile 2003 operating system. So, you still need to tap on the screen to close windows, access menus, launch new programs and so on.

I ended up holding the stylus between my teeth, because you need to use it so often.

Microsoft says these keyboard integration issues will be fixed with its new Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system, which will also support 3G networks – the big failing in the hw 6515 is the lack of 3G.

Adding a keyboard has forced HP to squash the iPAQ's traditional portrait-shaped screen into a three-inch by three-inch square.

Because of this, photos and videos do not fill the screen properly, and much software designed for the iPAQ does not yet support this new 240 x240 pixel format.

The  hw 6515 is HP's brave attempt to make the PDA relevant in a world of newer wireless devices like the Palm Treo and BlackBerry. Hence the addition of the thumb keyboard, the quad-band radio and the push e-mail capability, available as an optional extra.

The iPAQ hw 6515 works reliably and well, which is no small feat for such a complex device.

But trade-offs have clearly been made, and it probably would have made sense for HP to wait for Windows Mobile 5.0.

Ironically, Palm is using Windows Mobile 5.0 in its new Treo 700w smartphone.

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