What’s hot in handhelds?

In the notebook PC realm, there have long been two camps on the issue of input devices: Those who prefer the joysticks made famous by IBM Corp.’s ThinkPads, and those who like touchpads. People tend to have strong opinions on the matter. Buying decisions can hinge on whether a product has the customer’s favourite input technology. This is one reason why Dell Inc. and IBM Corp. put both devices on some of their notebooks; they don’t want to lose any customers because of their input choice.

For people like myself, the debate is moot: I don’t much like either, so I pack an optical mouse whenever I travel with my notebook. Even on a plane I usually find someplace to use the mouse — often my lap.

But I digress. Somebody at Hewlett-Packard Co. must believe that users of handhelds would also like input options beyond a stylus or, in some products, a jog wheel. Hence we have the IPaq Hx4700 series of Windows Mobile 2003-based Pocket PCs, which sport a touchpad in place of the navigation button on most IPaqs.

The Tiniest Touchpad

I have to admit, the notion of a touchpad on a PDA struck me as strange — and my first experiments with a shipping IPaq Hx4705 did little to change that perception.

I should first describe the touchpad. Trapezoidal in shape, it occupies the central inch or so at the bottom of the charcoal-gray-and-black PDA. The touchpad’s matte surface is punctuated by four slightly raised points — called Tap Zones — laid out in a diamond measuring about 0.75 inch wide by 0.25 inch high.

Surrounding the touchpad is a larger and wider shiny black trapezoid with tiny white icons at each corner. If you press these icons, you feel a button click underneath the surface: These are the Hx4705’s version of the application launch buttons on more traditional personal digital assistants (PDAs). While you can program these buttons for a variety of tasks, by default they launch (going clockwise from the lower left) the calendar, the contact list, the e-mail application, and ITask, a custom menu that affords quick access to frequently used applications.

The Hx4705’s installation CD includes a Macromedia Flash tutorial by Synaptics, and it’s a good idea to take advantage of it. (HP partnered with Synaptics, a major touchpad technology company, to create the Hx4705.) Trying to use the touchpad otherwise left me puzzled; I couldn’t figure out what effect my clumsy attempts to navigate would produce.

From the tutorial, I learned that the touchpad operates in two modes. Its default is a navigation mode in which you are supposed to scroll around by tapping or swiping the touchpad. For me, this was an exercise in frustration. Sometimes I got where I was trying to go, other times not.

A Cursor for a Handheld

I had more luck with the touchpad’s cursor mode, which produces a small cursor on screen. For starters, the cursor always let me know where I was on the screen, and it generally behaved like a cursor on a notebook with a touchpad. When I swiped, the cursor moved; when I tapped, it highlighted and selected a menu item or icon.

But the cursor mode ultimately proved frustrating. It reminded me of why I don’t like touchpads on notebooks: They don’t always produce the desired results, and I don’t like the constant friction of fingertip on touchpad.

Another annoyance: Switching between navigation and cursor mode is by no means intuitive. You can go into the Programs menu to toggle a NavPointMode icon, program one of the application buttons to do the same, or go into the Settings menu to choose the mode from a screen that also lets you customize such attributes as lightness of touch and how much scrolling happens in a finger swipe.

Of course, the whole touchpad concept loses a lot of appeal once you need to do anything that requires using the stylus. Since you instinctively want to use the touchpad with your writing hand, you wind up juggling the stylus (and possibly dropping it) when you could just as easily be using it to navigate faster and more efficiently.

A Fatal Flaw?

In many respects, the Hx4705 is a fine PDA. Its built-in Wi-Fi adapter was easy to set up; and the Bluetooth adapter looked to be equally user-friendly, although I didn’t try it. Other hardware specs are also impressive, including both Secure Digital and Compact Flash slots; Intel’s 624-MHz Bulverde processor for handhelds (the fastest available); and a roomy four-inch LCD that you can easily toggle between landscape and portrait modes. The unit I tested had 128MB of ROM and 92MB of SD-RAM (135MB of the combined memory is available to users).

The business-oriented software bundle, which includes several trial versions, should delight corporate customers. (Since PC World is standardized on Lotus Notes, I was happy to see CommonTime’s Cadenza MNotes synchronization software–more on that in another column.)

But at US$649, the Hx4705 commands top dollar for a handheld. And even diehard touchpad fans might balk at paying such a premium to get their favorite technology on this type of device. I’d save my PDA big bucks for something more useful, such as HP’s IPaq H6315, which delivers a phone, a camera, and a snap-on keyboard as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity — and works just fine with a simple stylus.

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