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HP grooms iPaq for business

Slick, versatile smartphone builds on Windows Mobile 6.1's features to deliver Exchange e-mail support and more

There are enough smartphone choices to make you dizzy. Yet in the business world, it arguably comes down to RIM's BlackBerry and select Windows Mobile-based devices -- with the strong possibility of Apple's 3G iPhone stealing some of their thunder.

Not surprisingly, enterprises that have standardized on Windows Mobile also have an affinity for HP's iPaq line. While often late to the party, the iPaq portfolio offers solid hardware and, most important, the manageability large organizations need. In the case of the latest iPaq 910c Business Messenger, however, customers were ready to leave the party because the guest looked like it would never arrive. But it has -- and staying up late was worth the wait.

The iPaq 910c is only the second Windows Mobile 6.1 device to ship (HTC's Touch Dual was the first). I just finished testing one of the first preproduction units for two weeks and discovered several notable design changes from the blueprint announced last year. These improvements, HP utilities added on top of Windows Mobile, and top-end specifications should make this device very appealing to on-the-go professionals and the IT departments supporting them.

Unpacking the iPaq

First, the specs: Business Messenger now has a stylish piano-black design, and the prototype's larger navigation wheel is replaced by a smaller five-way navigation button with center select. Standard memory's been boosted to 128MB, and the removable battery now has the highest capacity I've seen so far in a smartphone: 1,940 mAh.

Unlike older models, including the iPaq 6920 and 6925 that were first locked to a particular wireless carrier, the 910c is only sold unlocked and works worldwide. Connectivity includes tri-band UMTS/HSDPA (up to 7.2Mbps) and quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE. Additionally, there's 802.11 b/g wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.0 with EDR.

At 5.4 ounces, the iPaq 910c is about one-half ounce heavier than the BlackBerry Curve 8310. HP's new offering is also slightly longer than its BlackBerry counterpart and slightly deeper. Still, the iPaq 910c is comfortable to hold and has a more solid feel compared to the Curve.

The controls on the iPaq are nicely arranged, and there's one-button access to all major functions. More importantly, this unit gives you multiple ways to work. I easily switched among the 2.46-inch (320-by-240 QVGA resolution) touchscreen, the QWERTY keyboard, and the side-mounted scroll wheel. If there's one wish, it would be a larger display. Still, the screen was very readable in daylight.

You'll find plenty of opinions on Windows Mobile 6.1, so I'll just say that I found this a good upgrade. The many smaller changes from 6.0, such as new browser display options, added up to a decent Web-viewing experience. Microsoft and third-party applications ran fast on the HP's Marvel PXA270 416MHz processor. I had no problem configuring and receiving push e-mail from an Exchange server as well as my personal POP3 e-mail accounts. Moreover, for working tethered, the iPaq 910c was automatically recognized by my Vista laptop and configured for Windows Mobile Device Center.

Similarly, I didn't encounter any problems using my AT&T 3G SIM card or connecting to various Wi-Fi wireless networks. The HP's battery, which is almost twice the capacity of the BlackBerry's, delivered an excellent performance: about 7.5 hours talk time and more than 10 days (250 hours) of standby juice.

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Easy to navigate

HP adds value on top of the stock Windows Mobile 6.1 in several ways. For example, the Start menu is preconfigured with specific HP or often-used Microsoft applications, so you don't waste time looking through the Program menu.

Such tools include links to built-in Google search and Google maps, with the latter taking advantage of this smartphone's included multimode GPS navigation. HP's tricked-out GPS hardware was not only extremely accurate; it got satellite fixes very fast. Instead of waiting the typical two minutes or more for an initial fix, the iPaq 910 did it in 15 seconds. Moreover, you don't need a SIM to take advantage of GPS. And while GPS is very functional as-is, you'll need to invest in a separate application, such as ALK Technologies' CoPilot (US$80), for turn-by-turn directions.

The included Cyberon Voice Commander software responded a bit more accurately compared to my older iPaq 510 for placing calls by speech. Yet Voice Commander provides the same ability to listen and reply to e-mail hands-free. It would be nice, however, to have voice search for Google Maps -- a function recently added to three BlackBerry models (8110, 8120, and 8130).

Interestingly, HP is only releasing one version of the 910, the "c" model containing the 3-megapixel camera with autofocus, LED flash, and 4x digital zoom. According to an HP representative, the idea is that enterprises can disable the camera remotely if security is a concern and if the device is administered through HP's Enterprise Mobility Suite (a separate product for managing mobile devices). In testing, the photo and video quality were very good. Further, there's nice integration of the camera application with other programs; this makes it easy to e-mail pictures or, unsurprising, upload to HP's Snapfish service. Video playback was smooth using the embedded Windows Media Player.

BlackBerry, beware

After testing, I have a hard time faulting the HP iPaq 910 Business Messenger as a Windows Mobile 6.1 device. It combines well-constructed hardware with versatile connectivity, plus a very good collection of contemporary features, including camera and GPS. The various input options, dedicated feature keys, and special software configuration contribute to fine usability.

Based on specifications, the iPaq 910c edges the BlackBerry Curve, although HP's offering will be surpassed in several ways by the new BlackBerry Bold (which hasn't shipped as of this writing). Therefore, I suspect few will be swayed to jump ship; rather, current users of either platform have a lot of reasons to upgrade their existing devices. And that surfaces the one gripe I have with HP and its mobile products: It's rare for the company to provide OS upgrades to existing iPaq users. So if you want Windows Mobile 6.1, plan to pay for this new hardware.