Purely because of its size, even the smallest PDA isn’t something you’re likely to feel comfortable holding to your ear as a phone for long periods of time. And, despite its slim curves and great physique, the Xda II is no exception. Only Handspring’s Treo 600 (January 2004, page 53) comes close to getting the compromise between size and features right and, despite many an improvement to the Xda II’s interface and the inclusion of a new operating system, the Treo 600 still wins over the Xda in terms of ease of use.
However, O2 has put in some heavy work to redesign its initial Xda format, which in its day was the first mobile phone-cum-PDA to reach these shores. It’s now a little bit smaller than the original, no longer has the cumbersome and pocket-ripping aerial, and sports a corrugated back to help keep it safely tucked in your palm. The latter is a great improvement, as the first Xda tended to slip around in your hand too much when you were on the move.
The Xda II’s innards are very impressive too, so much so that it outclasses many of the more traditional high-end PDAs. It runs on a 400MHz XScale processor - the fastest going - and has a massive 128MB of RAM and 64MB of flash ROM, 31MB of which is available for storage use. The end result is a device that feels fast, with very little lag when jumping between functions.
The Xda II is again only available through O2. The company has continued its ground-breaking pedigree by being the first to release a device using Microsoft’s Pocket PC Phone Edition (PPC PE) 2003. While including all the enhancements to Pocket PC that come with version 2003, PPC PE features some functions that were sorely missing from the original incarnation. As well as some gimmicky add-ons such as the ability to use ringtones, PPC PE now features handy options such as separate caller and speaker volume controls, call barring and muting. Searching your address book is also far simpler. You can now punch in any part of either the first or last name of the address you need and PPC PE will bring up all possible matches. The only downside to this is that, if you know who you want, it takes longer than it used to.
Using Pocket PC also has the immediate advantage of hassle-free synchronisation with Windows and, in particular, Outlook - version 2002 is included in the box. This is its biggest benefit over the Treo 600. The 3.5in, 240 x 320 screen is also more pleasurable to look at than the Treo 600’s duller 160 x 160 affair, as it’s both crystal clear and bright. Granted it’s not the best PDA screen we’ve seen, or the largest, but it’s good enough for its intended uses. It’s also a great help when using the VGA camera, which is the best we’ve seen on either a PDA or a phone. Images come out particularly well given the low resolution, and it’s the first time we found ourselves using a built-in camera and enjoying the experience.
The screen may be excellent, but as there’s no QWERTY keypad all data entry has to be done through Pocket PC’s software. This means tapping on the tiny on-screen keyboard or using character recognition, neither of which are ideal. Fortunately, external keyboards are available (some of them wireless) to make this easier.
Another issue is that Pocket PC isn’t the most phone-friendly interface; Palm OS’s immediate access to programs is better in that respect. The real problem is the need to access the Start menu for the majority of functions. The front of the Xda provides hang-up and dial phone options, as well as shortcuts to your Contacts and Calendar folders, but that’s it. Therefore, accessing text and email functions takes quite a while - we’d have preferred some user-definable shortcut buttons.
To counter this problem, O2 has introduced its own shortcut toolbar called Active. This takes a reasonably large leaf out of Palm’s book by displaying the most often used functions such as phone, text and camera features, as well as access to some exclusive O2 online content, on the left-hand side of the screen. This still leaves enough room on the right for the standard PPC PE interface. Active certainly makes it a faster device to use, but if you prefer the more traditional method you can remove the bar.
Surfing for a long time won’t be an issue either, as battery life is very impressive. The Xda II lasted for five-and-a-half hours of constant talking before it dropped out - an hour-and-a-half longer than the Treo 600. Standby times were good too, as even after being on for three days there was only a 30 percent decrease in the battery meter.
Recharging the device using the cradle is quite tricky, as O2 has chosen style over function where this is concerned. It’s incredibly difficult to mount the Xda II onto its elevated stand. That said, a gap at the back for a spare battery has been included.
Build quality of the device is excellent. There’s an infra-red port, Bluetooth and SDIO slot for expansion or adding wireless, as well as camera and dictation shortcuts on the left-hand side. Sadly, though, the headphone socket is at the bottom of the Xda II so you can’t use it and have it docked in the cradle at the same time. It also sports an extra small mini-jack, so you can’t use your own headphones, only the ones provided.
These gripes aside, the Xda II is an excellent device. For long talk time and easy synchronisation, it’s unparalleled, although we still feel the Treo 600 is a more practical, easier-to-use option, as well as being half the price of the Xda II.