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ASUS A730 Pocket PC

Editor's rating (1-5):
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Review posted September 13, 2004 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief

Trust me, VGA is a lovely thing to behold, and ASUS has a winner here. The ASUS A730 was one of the first VGA Pocket PCs with native support for VGA resolution in the US market, along with the HP iPAQ 4700 and the Dell Axim X50v. The venerable and always hard to find Toshiba e805 was the first VGA Pocket PC but it ran Windows Mobile 2003 rather than the 2003 Second Edition (SE) OS. Toshiba offers a free upgrade to SE now, but has discontinued the e805. What's the big deal with SE? It adds native support for VGA and features screen rotation to landscape on the fly. For those of you who are new to Pocket PCs, all other models have a QVGA (240 x 320) display and don't rotate to landscape without the help of 3rd party software add-ons that don't always work ideally.

While the Toshiba e805 was a large Pocket PC, thanks to its 4" display, wireless radio and dual slots, the A730 is remarkably compact given the features it packs. It too has both a CF and SD slot, Bluetooth, a 1.3MP camera and a VGA screen that's a tad smaller at 3.7". While HP, once the bastion of Pocket PC style, has moved to less attractively designed iPAQs with their new Fall 2004 models, the A730 is a beautifully designed machine that's reminiscent of the iPAQ 4150 and 1945.

ASUS A730
ASUS A730 back

 

ASUS is a well-known motherboard manufacturer, and has moved into the notebook and Pocket PC arena with their S5Ne notebook and A620 and A716 Pocket PCs. The A620 was their first US release in the Fall of 2003, and its great graphics and gaming performance made it a hit with gamers. The A716, released this Spring, catered to business users who craved integrated Bluetooth and WiFi. ASUS told us that they're known as a quality motherboard manufacturer and are targeting the same mid to high-end niche with their Pocket PCs. That doesn't mean the A730 will cost you an arm and a leg: the list price is $499. It should be available at the end of September 2004, with a model that adds WiFi following at the end of October.

Features at a Glance

The A730 has a 520MHz Intel XScale processor, 64 megs of RAM, a CF type II slot and an SD slot supporting SDIO, a 1.3 megapixel camera with flash, a user-replaceable battery, Bluetooth and USB host capabilities. And of course, it has a 3.7" VGA display and runs Windows Mobile 2003 SE. To use USB peripherals, you'll need to get ASUS' accessory cable which connects to the PDA's sync port and terminates in a standard USB connector. You can enable and disable USB host in the ASUS System Settings applet. We did not receive the USB host cable, so we weren't able to test the A730 with USB peripherals. However, USB mice, keyboards and mass storage devices such as hard drives and card readers generally work with Pocket PCs that have USB host capabilities, while other devices require drivers which are hard to come by for Pocket PC. If you like the A730 but want WiFi and more RAM, check out the ASUS A730W which offers these improvements.

 

 

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Design and Ergonomics

The A730 is a very attractive PDA, which is refreshing given the lack of styling on many recent Pocket PCs. The bottom is curved and feels good in the hand. The top has a more subtle curve and is capped with shiny black plastic. The front is matte gray while the side and back are silver. Despite the plethora of features packed inside, the A730 is about the same size as the Dell Axim X30, which is considered a reasonably small Pocket PC. The A730 is a few millimeters thicker than the X30, but they are quite close in all dimensions.

 

A730 and iPAQ 4700

Comparing VGA models: The iPAQ hx4700 and A730

ASUS A730 and Dell Axim X30

The A730 and the Dell Axim X30

ASUS A730 Pocket PC

The top of the A730 with the SD and CF slots and headphone jack.

While other PDAs with user replaceable batteries have a battery door on the back, the entire rear cover of the A730 slides off, making for a more unified and attractive design. To unlock and remove the back cover you'll first use the slider switch on the right side of the unit. On the rear of the unit you'll find the camera lens, a small self-portrait mirror, a flash (really a capture light like that used on the Sony Clie NX80) and the speaker.

You'll find standard Pocket PC controls on the front face: four application buttons (user-assignable) and a five-way directional pad. The d-pad has a trapezoidal shape that's easy to use and the buttons are raised rather than recessed as with the iPAQ 2215, which makes them good for gaming. You can prevent accidental button presses from turning on the machine using the ASUS Settings control panel. When Bluetooth is on, a blue LED located under a very thin clear plastic strip above the display lights up. The alarm and charging LED is also located in this strip but on the right.

The CF and SD slots as well as the standard 3.5mm headphone jack are located on the top. The power and camera launcher buttons are located on the left side while the back cover lock is located on the right side.

Horsepower and Performance

The ASUS A730 uses the Intel XScale PXA270 processor which is the latest, greatest processor for PDAs. Prior generation Pocket PCs ran at 400MHz tops, and the new PXA270 currently tops out at 624MHz. While Dell offers an X30 at 624MHz as well as 312MHz, ASUS has chosen the 520Mhz version for their unit. That's a darned fast clock speed for a PDA and the unit is a fast performer and even does decently in the graphics department thanks to ASUS' graphics tweaking just before release. Keep in mind that VGA requires more graphics processing power and memory, and so the model's benchmarks and perceived performance are affected. While the now discontinued Toshiba e805 used a high performance ATI graphics processor with 2 megs of RAM, the A730 doesn't sport fancy graphics hardware. Still, screen redraws are fast and games and video playback applications perform very well.

The A730 has 64 megs of RAM with 45.45 megs available to the user. This is the one spec I'd love to change if I could. A full 64 megs of RAM is much more useful and several competitors offer that amount or just a bit less. Still, for a device with this many features and a relatively low price tag, it's forgivable. In addition, the ASUS has 19.22 megs of NAND flash storage. NAND is non-volatile memory that is slower than RAM but survives hard resets. It's a great place to store backups or apps you can't live without (but aren't demanding in terms of speed).

ASUS includes a System Settings control panel applet that allows you to set the processor speed to Turbo, Standard or Power Saving mode. In addition it has an automatic mode that does a very good job of matching processor clock speed to the current task.

Benchmarks

We used Spb Benchmark to compare the A730 with the 624MHz and 312MHz Dell Axim X30 models running WM2003 SE, and the 400MHz HP iPAQ 5555 which represents the prior top of the line processor for Pocket PCs. As you'd expect, the 624MHz X30 comes out on top. The A730, which was in Turbo mode for the test, does respectably against the other models, including graphics. Since the ASUS is the only VGA Pocket PC in this comparison benchmark, and VGA requires more processing power and graphics memory than does QVGA resolution, these numbers are quite good.

Graphics, Sound and Gaming

As you're no doubt aware by now, the ASUS has a VGA display that has 640 x 480 pixels while standard QVGA Pocket PCs have 240 x 320 resolution. That means you'll see a great deal more on screen, though Microsoft's implementation of VGA, while attractive and slick, doesn't compress text and graphics as much as I'd like. However, it is easy on your eyes, and unlike the Toshiba e805 running a VGA hack, you likely won't suffer eye strain. Microsoft's new Screen control panel allows you to rotate the display on the fly from portrait to right handed landscape or left handed landscape. You can also set the text to one of five sizes. Great stuff: those of us who are fond of tiny fonts and have great eyes can have our way, as can those who need larger text.

  ASUS A730 (Turbo mode) HP iPAQ h5550 (2003, 400MHz) Dell Axim X30 312Mhz Dell Axim X30 624Mhz
Spb Benchmark index
1007
1112
1474
2086
CPU index
1952
1874
1673
2474
File system index
1140
1061
1050
1452
Graphics index
838
527
3916
5295
Platform index
1247
978
1142
1506
Write 1 MB file (KB/sec)
1481
1237
1030
1856
Read 1 MB file (MB/sec)
26.7
27.2
28.6
33.3
Copy 1 MB file (KB/sec)
1474
1240
1029
1860
Write 10 KB x 100 files (KB/sec)
897
773
705
1157
Read 10 KB x 100 files (MB/sec)
8.38
7.32
9.51
11.4
Copy 10 KB x 100 files (KB/sec)
709
674
629
945
Directory list of 2000 files (thousands of files/sec)
21.3
20.6
19.8
26
Internal database read (records/sec)
1465
1435
1280
2003
Graphics test: DDB BitBlt (frames/sec)
104
51.7
308
333
Graphics test: DIB BitBlt (frames/sec)
5.37
23
21.4
40.9
Graphics test: GAPI BitBlt (frames/sec)
147
54.8
913
952
Pocket Word document open (KB/sec)
67.4
37.5
36.1
50.9
Pocket Internet Explorer HTML load (KB/sec)
7.59
5.88
6.73
8.06
Pocket Internet Explorer JPEG load (KB/sec)
206
217
206
296
File Explorer large folder list (files/sec)
562
544
592
708
Compress 1 MB file using ZIP (KB/sec)
250
259
230
342
Decompress 1024x768 JPEG file (KB/sec)
750
609
501
918
Arkaball frames per second (frames/sec)
105
48
262
313
CPU test: Whetstones MFLOPS (Mop/sec)
0.999
0.076
0.059
0.119
CPU test: Whetstones MOPS (Mop/sec)
71.8
55.3
43.2
86.6
CPU test: Whetstones MWIPS (Mop/sec)
6.46
5.01
3.88
7.8
Memory test: copy 1 MB using memcpy (MB/sec)
93.8
107
115
118

The display is very crisp, contrasty, color-saturated and has good brightness. It offers a wonderful viewing experience. Below you'll find examples of Pocket Internet Explorer running in both landscape and portrait orientation, as well as the Dell X30 in QVGA landscape. On the ASUS, the Screen control panel font settings were set to smallest and Pocket IE was also set to use the smallest text size. So this is as much as you'll be able to squeeze into a Pocket IE screen on a VGA Pocket PC. All were using the "Default" layout mode in IE.

screen shot

A730 in portrait mode.

screen shot

A730 in landscape mode, font size set to medium in IE.

screen shot

The Dell X30 with QVGA display in landscape, font size set to small in IE.

As you can see, you'll still have to scroll since most web sites are designed for XGA 1024 x 768 resolution these days, but you will see a little bit more on screen using a VGA Pocket PC. The layout also flows better in VGA with less odd rearranging of web page elements. Since the ASUS has a VGA 640 x 480 resolution display you'll see more on screen compared to a regular QVGA Pocket PC, but not four times more, even though VGA is four times higher resolution that QVGA. Why? Microsoft's implementation of VGA is designed to make the display very attractive and readable rather than cram true VGA into a small screen. That means those with good or poor eyes can use a VGA Pocket PC, but if you were hoping to see four times more on your screen, you'll be disappointed. Note that this is true of all VGA Pocket PCs running Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition, and is not ASUS specific. If you do have a hankering for true VGA and have excellent eyes, you can download the free SE_VGA utility which allows you to run a VGA Pocket PC in standard Microsoft VGA mode, true VGA or QVGA. However, unless you have excellent eyes, you'll discover why Microsoft didn't go with a true VGA experience: it's not easy to see things or read text. Do check out Tweaks2K and the hack listed on their site to get individual apps running in true VGA mode. That way you can run the device in normal (and readable) standard MS VGA mode, but have certain apps such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, NetFront 3.1 and ebook readers running in true VGA mode.

When running applications that aren't written for VGA, the OS uses pixel doubling to stretch QVGA screens to fill the entire display. Microsoft did an excellent job, and pixel doubled apps looked sharp and ran well.

Want to watch videos on your Pocket PC? The A730 did very well using PocketTV Enterprise Edition, turning out 23.61 average fps on "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. Similarly, PocketMVP and the A730 also made for an excellent movie watching experience using the same test file. Out of 6394 total frames, 6 were dropped and the movie played at 23.65 fps. PocketMPV is a great free player that handles MPEG1, AVI, DivX and MP3 formats. Since the unit runs in VGA, you're no longer limited to 320 x 240 resolution movies, so go burn some high resolution videos from DVD or other sources and put them on a CF card for viewing on the A730.

Many games that we tested ran fine on the A730. Keep in mind that you won't see more stuff on screen when gaming, but rather will see the same stuff you'd see on a QVGA device unless the developer has released a VGA version with enhanced graphics. Games will run in the orientations and resolutions they're coded to support, and the operating system's resolution and screen orientation setting won't make a game run high res or landscape unless it was written to do so.

Here are some games we tested:

- PocketQuake did not run. It launched into the main game window but didn't respond to menu presses and didn't draw game graphics.
- Bust 'Em and Bust 'Em 2 ran fine.
- Bejeweled ran fine.
- Metalion 2 ran fine, but the game ran a bit fast (it doesn't adjust well for CPU speed) and the graphics are jaggie compared to other 400MHz fast graphics machines like the XDA II. Try using the Normal CPU setting rather than Turbo when playing this game for a better game speed.
- Blade of Betrayal ran well.
- Hexacto Bounty Hunter Pinball button assignment didn't work right (seems to be a WM 2003 SE incompatibility).
- Trivial Pursuit ran fine.
- MorphGear ran fine (we tested NES games).
- Age of Empires ran well, though the graphics aren't quite as stunning when stretched.
- SIM City 2000 ran fine.

Sound through the built-in speaker is good and great through stereo headphones using the standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Internel speaker volume is good and alarms are easy to hear in rooms with average noise levels. Like all Pocket PCs, the A730 has an integrated mic for recording voice notes and can play MP3s using the included Pocket Windows Media Player or the 3rd party MP3 player of your choice.

Bluetooth

The ASUS uses Widcomm's excellent driver software and Bluetooth Wizard which is powerful and user-friendly. It walks you through connecting to a variety of devices, from your ActiveSync partner (if you have a USB Bluetooth adapter installed on your PC), to mobile phones to access points and headsets and GPS units. The Bluetooth software is version 1.4.1. I ActiveSync-ed wirelessly, connected to the Red-M Bluetooth access point for Internet access and, transferred files to other Bluetooth enabled Pocket PCs. Speeds when ActiveSyncing and surfing the Net were good, though not as fast as using WiFi, which is to be expected since WiFi offers greater speeds. I tested the A730 with the BlueTrek G2 headset and while it paired, no sound came through on the headset and the ASUS crashed after 30 seconds. The Jabra BT250 didn't pair successfully and the Logitech had problems as well.

Camera

The A730 is one of the few PDAs to have a higher than VGA resolution camera. The camera is 1.3 megapixels and can take photos up to 1280 x 960 resolution and supports lower resolutions as well. As with most PDAs and phones, the unit has a CMOS camera. CMOS cameras take decent pictures but CCD cameras take much better pictures (most consumer digicams are CCD, while most PDA and phone cameras are CMOS). That said, the ASUS takes good pictures that are large enough to use on personal web pages or for emailing to friends, co-workers and relatives. The ASUS also stands apart because it has a flash, which is really like the capture light used on the discontinued Sony Clie NX80. When you turn the flash on, a small light located just below the lens illuminates until you turn the flash off. It's handy for close range shots in poorly lit areas, but don't expect it to light up even a small room.

When you launch the ASUS Camera application you won't go directly into the image capture application. Instead you'll see a screen with four applications listed: "soft corder" (the camera app), "photo viewer", "photo editor" and "photo album". While these are handy apps and it's nice to have one place to get to all of them, I would prefer it if pressing the camera button took me straight into the capture application. The added step means one might miss those precious moments.

Soft corder has a variety of settings that will allow you to fine tune your photos. You can select settings for various ambient lighting situations such as sunny, cloudy, shade (night) and twilight. You can also manually set brightness, contrast and exposure using individual sliders. And of course you can specify where photos are saved and the resolution (1280 x 960, 640 x 480, 352 x 288 and 320 x 240). Soft corder and the photo management apps ran a bit slowly but were usable.

How good are the A730's photos? They're decent and are suitable web quality photos. You won't want to print and frame the ASUS' photos, but the same is true of most PDA cameras. The camera has problems with low light and very bright daylight situations and is sensitive to hand movement when capturing photos. Though it's a 1.3MP camera, some VGA resolution PDA digicams actually take more light-balanced photos than the A730. The sample photos below were taken at 1280 x 960 at highest quality setting. Click on an image to see the full size, unedited original.

auto
sammy
fruit

 

screen shot

 

 

Software Bundle

Included in ROM are the ASUS camera applications (image capture, photo viewer, editor and album), a backup program that can backup all data or just PIM (contacts, calendar, tasks, notes) data to the NAND flash storage area, or an SD or CF storage card, and ASUS Launcher which is a customizable program launcher. Bundled 3rd party software is the same as the ASUS A716: Pocket Painter is a very nice painting/drawing program, Presentation DX PowerPoint viewer, MoneyTracer finance manager, RealOne Mobile Player, Engineering calculator and a few games such as Dung Cleaner and Reversi. Since ASUS sells Pocket PCs in Asia, there are also two mapping programs (maps of Hong Kong and Taiwan, not the US), and Monster Chinese and Monster SIP for displaying and inputting Chinese characters on English language Pocket PCs.

Battery Life

The A730 has a user replaceable 1,100 mAh battery, and an optional 1,800 mAh battery is also available. That's a decent sized battery for a unit with a fast processor speed and a 3.7" display. In our tests the unit lasted about 2 hours on a full charge in a mix of use with brightness set to 66%: access PIM info, working with Pocket Word and Excel, playing MP3s for 30 minutes, watching a five minute video, shooting 10 photos and playing games for an hour. If you have Bluetooth turned on, battery life will be reduced by about 30 minutes. We tested the unit in Turbo mode, and Power Saving mode should increase runtimes significantly.

While most PDAs have rear doors that pop open to reveal the battery, the entire back panel slides off on the ASUS. This design gives the unit a very clean look. Slide the locking switch located on the right side of the unit to release the door. The switch is quite stiff so it won't accidentally unlock the back panel.

Conclusion

There aren't many VGA Pocket PCs on the market and your choice boils down to the A730, HP iPAQ 4700 and the Dell Axim X50v. If you're in Europe, you can also consider the LOOX 720, which we hear is a very nice VGA Pocket PC. That said, the ASUS is more affordable, compact, stylish and has a great feature set. The 1.3MP camera, fast processor, lovely display and dual slots make it an excellent choice! If WiFi is your thing, ASUS should have a version of the A730 that adds WiFi by the end of October. It's a definite winner!

Pro: VGA display that's bright, sharp and contrasty. Fast processor, user replaceable battery, 1.3MP camera and Bluetooth. Compact and very attractive. Dual card slots make the most of expansion. USB host (with ASUS' $20 accessory cable) capability opens up more expansion possibilities.

Con: The camera is good but shots could be more evenly exposed. Look to 3rd party camera software for improved shot quality and quicker shutter response. Bluetooth headsets don't play nicely with the A730. So-so battery life with standard battery.

Web site: usa.asus.com

Suggested list price $499

Shopping: Where to Buy

 

Specs:

Display: Transflective TFT color LCD, 64K colors. Screen Size Diag: 3.7". Resolution: VGA, 640 x 480. Supports both portrait and landscape orientations.

Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. 1100 mA. 1800 mA extended battery available for purchase.

Performance: Intel XScale PXA 270 520 MHz processor. 64 MB built-in RAM (45.45 megs available). 48 MB Flash ROM with 19.22 megs available for your use.

Size: 4.62 x 2.87 x .66 in. Weight: 5.99 oz.

Audio: Built in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone jack. Voice Recorder and Windows Pocket Media Player 9 included for your MP3 pleasure.

Networking: Integrated Bluetooth.

Software: Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition operating system. Microsoft Pocket Office suite including Pocket Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and Outlook. Also, Terminal Services, MSN Instant Messenger for Pocket PC, MS Reader and Voice Recorder as well as handwriting recognition. 3rd party software: Pocket Painter, RealPlayer, MoneyTracer, Presentation DX, Engineering Calculator, Dung Cleaner, Reversi, Gobang, Monster Chinese and SIP. ActiveSync 3.7.1 and Outlook for PCs included.

Expansion: 1 SD (Secure Digital) slot supporting SDIO and one CF type II slot that accepts CF type I and II cards. Standard SIR IR port (115 Kbps).

 

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