Reviewed Feb. 6, 2006 by Lisa Gade, Editor
in Chief and Tong Zhang, Senior Editor
The ASUS A636 and A632
are the first Windows Mobile 5.0 Pocket PCs with integrated GPS to hit the US market. We'll take a look at the full-featured A636 which offers the SiRF Star III GPS chipset, WiFi, Bluetooth, an SD card slot, 256 meg SD card with Destinator navigation software, Destinator PN navigation and mapping software on two CDs (US, Canada, Route USA) and a brilliant QVGA display (the A632 is the same but lacks WiFi and adds a mini SD slot).
In the Box
The A636 comes with a Lithium Ion rechargeable battery, charger, car charger, USB sync cable, car cradle (you can plug the car charger into the cradle), flexible arm for in-vehicle mounting (attaches to cradle), software CD, manual, 256 meg SD card and Destinator software with maps of the US and Canada on two CDs.
Design and Ergonomics
Looks-wise, the A636 has a face that only a mother could love. For those of you who've been long time Pocket PC users, the A636 reminds me of the old Casio E-200. Despite its unabashedly gray rectangular looks and reasonable bulk, the unit is actually extremely well designed and thought out. It works equally well in portrait and landscape modes (nice for mapping), has a slim GPS receiver panel that folds flush into the back of the PDA and sports large, easy-to-use when driving controls. It might not have the stylish good looks of the non-GPS ASUS A730w, but its ergonomics are excellent. The large 3/4" speaker grille faces front and ensures that you'll hear voice guidance in the car, and the A636 has both a directional pad and an application launcher pad that's arranged much like a d-pad for easy use.
The 1" x 1" GPS receiver flips out toward the right side and swivels so you can keep the antenna's flat panel facing the sky for best reception. The receiver has a socket should you wish to connect an external antenna. The recessed power button and SD card slot are located up top and the IR window is on the right side. The combined sync and charge connector are on the bottom edge, as is the soft reset button. The casing is made of plastic (mid-gray with dark gray accents) and the ASUS A636 has a 3.5" 240 x 320 display. The mic sits just below and to the right of the d-pad, and the 3.5mm stereo headphone jack with rubber cover is on the bottom right edge. The A636 is on the big side but not terribly heavy at 6.5 ounces. It's similar in length and width to the Garmin iQue M3 and Garmin iQue M5 but is thicker. Keep in mind that the A636 manages to fit WiFi and a user replaceable battery into that added thickness, both worthy causes. Interestingly, the ASUS and Garmin are similar in size overall but the ASUS seems bigger because of its brick-like form factor.
As with prior ASUS Pocket PCs, you can't plug the charger directly into the PDA. Instead you'll plug the USB cable into the A636, then plug the charger into the pigtail adapter on the USB connector. You need not bring the USB cable with you in the car though, since ASUS provides a car cradle with charging adapter that works with both the included car charger and the AC adapter.
Horsepower and Performance
The A636 runs on a 416 MHz PXA 272 Intel XScale processor which is fast by integrated device standards (those that combine a PDA with a GPS or mobile phone). The fastest Pocket PCs run on a 624 MHz XScale processor but battery life takes a hit at those speeds. ASUS opted for better battery life and still solid performance which are important to GPS users. By Windows Mobile 5 standards, the A636 is responsive and applications run with good speed after a slight launch delay. Windows Mobile 5 devices use the slower but persistent flash ROM for storage rather than RAM, hence it takes a bit longer to launch an app for the first time or read fresh data from flash ROM.
The ASUS A636 offers CPU speed settings in the battery applet and you can set it to run at Maximum, Normal, Power Save or Auto setting. Auto does a good job of maintaining decent battery life while stepping up CPU performance as needed for demanding applications.
RAM, used like memory in your PC, is plentiful on the ASUS with 64 megs installed, 58 available and 49 typically free with no programs running. The device has 128 megs of flash ROM with 59 megs available for storage and an additional 25 megs available as a Flash Disk. While Flash Disk/File Store and other flash memory storage partitions under a variety of names were common under Windows Mobile 2003SE and earlier, they're rare in WM5 devices which only use flash ROM and not a mix of RAM and ROM for storage.
We use Spb
Benchmark to test Pocket PCs. We compared the ASUS A636 to the 520 MHz HP iPAQ hx2490 and the HP iPAQ rx1950 running at 300 MHz, both of which run Windows Mobile 5.0 with QVGA displays but do not have GPS. As you'd expect, the ASUS falls in between the other two models on most tests. It does extremely well on graphics thanks to its impressive GAPI performance (GAPI is a library used for graphics by applications).
How about video playback? We threw our usual test file
at it: "The Chosen" (a neat BMW flick with Clive Owen) which
is a 4:26 minute long, 10 meg MPEG1 file recorded at 320 x 240, 308 kb/s.
We tested the A636 using TCPMP,
an extremely fast open source free video player that supports MPEG1,
DivX, ASF, WMV and AVI files. TCPMP played back "The Chosen" with
strong benchmarks of: Average speed: 457.38%
Bench Frame Rate: 109.77
Bench. Data Rate: 1.4 Mbit/s
Orig. Frame Rate: 24fps
Orig. Data Rate: 310 kbit/s
Those are respectable results and the A636 does make a good portable video player, handling encodings up to 700 kbps well.
HP iPAQ rx1950, 300 MHz
HP iPAQ hx2490, 520 MHz
ASUS A636, 416 MHz auto mode
Spb Benchmark index
File system index
Write 1 MB file (KB/sec)
Read 1 MB file (MB/sec)
Copy 1 MB file (KB/sec)
Write 10 KB x 100 files (KB/sec)
10 KB x 100 files (MB/sec)
Copy 10 KB x 100 files (KB/sec)
Directory list of 2000 files (thousands of files/sec)
Internal database read (records/sec)
Graphics test: DDB BitBlt (frames/sec)
Graphics test: DIB BitBlt (frames/sec)
Graphics test: GAPI BitBlt (frames/sec)
Pocket Word document open (KB/sec)
Pocket Internet Explorer HTML load (KB/sec)
Pocket Internet Explorer JPEG load (KB/sec)
File Explorer large folder list (files/sec)
Compress 1 MB file using ZIP (KB/sec)
Decompress 1024x768 JPEG file (KB/sec)
Arkaball frames per second (frames/sec)
CPU test: Whetstones MFLOPS (Mop/sec)
CPU test: Whetstones MOPS (Mop/sec)
CPU test: Whetstones MWIPS (Mop/sec)
test: copy 1 MB using memcpy (MB/sec)
Display, Sound and Multimedia
Screen size and quality are important when viewing maps and the ASUS A636 doesn't disappoint. Its 3.5" transflective color display is vibrant with strong contrast, excellent color saturation and brightness. Like all transflective displays, it looks better indoors than out, but thanks to its brightness remains visible in daylight and in a car's partially shaded interior. The unit runs at the standard Pocket PC QVGA (240 x 320 pixel) resolution and supports both portrait and landscape modes.
Sound through the large front-facing speaker is plenty loud, again important for a GPS, so you can hear voice guidance in the car. Sound out through stereo headphones is very good when listening to MP3s and movies with audio. Like all Pocket PCs, the ASUS has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, mic and a voice recorder application.
All Windows Mobile 5.0 Pocket PCs come with the
operating system, Mobile Office suite including Outlook Mobile
and desktop Outlook,
Windows Media Player Mobile 10, Terminal Services, Pocket MSN (Hotmail,
MSN Messenger), File Explorer, handwriting recognition (print and
cursive), Solitaire, Bubble Breaker (the game formerly known as
Jaw Breaker), Calculator, a GPS applet (driver, not mapping or
navigation software) and support for secure certificates and VPN
connections. Outlook on the PDA is comprised of the calendar, contacts, tasks,
notes and Messaging applications, which you can sync to a Windows desktop running
ASUS adds several useful utilities, including their ASUS Status program which resides in the taskbar (the icon is a red script letter A) and in the Settings group. Tap on the taskbar icon to see a useful summary of CPU speed setting, available memory, storage, battery and backlighting. The full applet allows you to select which items appear in the status panel, and whether or not the icons for quick rotation, and system status should appeal on the taskbar. As you've guessed, ASUS provides a screen rotation utility on the taskbar, along with shortcuts to Bluetooth and WiFi. Use the Bluetooth and WiFi icons to turn these radios on and off and to access the Bluetooth and WiFi managers.
The audio applet offers customizations for balance, volume, treble, bass and 3D effect along with mic gain settings and AGC (automatic gain control).
WiFi and Bluetooth
GPS enabled Pocket PCs aren't know for their connectivity. The A636 changes that, offering both Bluetooth 1.2 and WiFi 802.11b. Bluetooth software is full featured and user friendly. Rather than relying on Microsoft's spartan Bluetooth software ASUS uses the much nicer Broadcom stack and software (version 1.71). This features a wizard that walks you through connecting to a variety of other devices (no wondering what activies and profiles are supported). These include high quality audio / audio gateway devices such as stereo headphones (A2DP), connecting to a mobile phone for wireless internet access (DUN), ActiveSync, hands-free / headset profiles, connecting to a Bluetooth access point, business card exchange, HID (human interface devices) such as keyboards and mice, serial port profile and FTP / OBEX. Not bad!
WiFi 802.11b likewise doesn't make due with Windows Connection Manager, but rather adds on ASUS' Wireless Manager application which tells you a great deal more than Microsoft's terse utility. Yes, Connection Manager handles the actual connection to a wireless access point but the ASUS application provides you with useful data about your connection such as status, current SSID, data rate, signal strength and IP address. The settings section allows you to set the preamble, power saving, auto power off, radio power usage and more. IP Info provides you with complete info on your current connection (with ping and renew buttons), and Site Survey shows you all access points in range with SSID name, channel, signal strength and the base station's MAC address.
The A636 has a 1,300 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's user replaceable. It gives surprisingly good runtimes and has enough staying power to easily outlast a full length movie played using Windows Media Player and can play MP3s for over 13 hours with the screen turned off and CPU set to Power Save (ASUS claims 18). The device has a hold switch on the rear so you can keep the A636 in your pocket when using it as a portable music player with no fear that an accidental button press or screen tap will turn the unit on and drain the battery. When using the GPS features for 1.5 hours with screen brightness set to 75% the ASUS used 50% of its battery capacity. Most of the time you'll likely use the GPS in car with easy access to the car charger but it's nice to know the ASUS has decent staying power for those bike and foot trips.
Display:65K color transflective
TFT color LCD. Screen size diagonally: 3.5". Resolution:
240 x 320, supports both portrait and landscape modes.
Battery:1300 mAh Lithium
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
AC and car chargers included.
XScale PXA 272 416 MHz processor. 64 MB built-in RAM
(58 megs available). 128 MB Flash ROM with 59 megs
available for your use as main storage and an additional 26 megs as a "Flash Disk".
x 2.88 x .76 inches. Weight: 6.56 ounces.
GPS:SiRF Star III chipset, 20 channels. Destinator PN maps of US and Canada plus Route USA.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Voice Recorder and Windows Media Player
10 Mobile included for your MP3 and video watching pleasure.
WiFi 802.11b and Bluetooth 1.2.
Mobile 5.0 Pocket PC operating system.
Microsoft Mobile Office suite including Mobile versions
of Word, Excel, PowerPoint (view only), Internet
Explorer, and Outlook. Also, Terminal Services, MSN
Instant Messenger for Pocket PC, Windows Media Player
10, Solitaire, Bubble Breaker (game), Voice Recorder
as well as handwriting recognition. Additional applications: Destinator GPS navigation and mapping software, ASUS Status program,Wireless Manager (WiFi) and Bluetooth Manager (Broadcom).
ActiveSync 4 and Outlook 2002 for PCs included.
SD (Secure Digital) slot supporting
SDIO and SDIO Now!.256 meg memory card included with Destinator application installed.