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ASUS A730W VGA Pocket PC

Editor's rating (1-5):
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Review posted Jan. 1, 2005 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief

Power users rejoice: the feature-packed A730W has every feature you can pack into a Pocket PC except a mobile phone. This VGA device has WiFi, Bluetooth, a 520MHz XScale processor, 1.3 megapixel camera, dual expansion slots and a user replaceable battery. Impressive. Does this top of the line ASUS live up to its feature set? Read on!

The A730W arrives on the heel of the A730 which we reviewed in September 2004. The units are identical in most respects, using the same casing and having many of the same features. Thus our reviews of the two units share some editorial text. The A730W adds WiFi (that's what the "W" stands for), has 128 megs of RAM rather than 64 and thanks to firmware improvements does a bit better on benchmarks and camera performance.

ASUS A730W
ASUS A730W

side view

 

A Look at the VGA Pocket PCs

2004 was the year of the VGA Pocket PC, and that's a good thing. Standard Pocket PC resolution was stuck at QVGA (240 x 320) resolution for many years. In theory VGA Pocket PCs let you see up to four times as much on screen, though most of the built in applications such as Word and Excel aren't yet VGA optimized so you won't see 4x more on screen. VGA models have support for both landscape and portrait modes thanks to the Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition OS. The A730 and A730W compete with the HP iPAQ hx4700 and Dell Axim X50v in the US.

While the HP and Dell models have a faster 624MHz processor, they lack the ASUS' integrated megapixel digital camera. If you're a photo buff, the AUS should be on your short list thanks to the camera and VGA display which is perfect for viewing photos. Despite the difference in processor speed, the A730W manages to fare well against its 624MHz rivals, having an overall higher benchmark score than the Dell (due to the X50v's weak GAPI graphics numbers) but bested by the hx4700.

The curvy ASUS and X50v have very similar form factors and are very close in size, while the HP is larger and more angular. Both the X50v and ASUS have a 3.7" transflective color display, while the HP has a 4" transflective display that's easier on the eyes but makes for a noticeably larger unit. The ASUS and Dell have plastic casings, while the HP is all metal. The ASUS A730W is priced right at $569, which is a bit more than the Dell but you do get the camera, two batteries in the box and a USB host cable. Speaking of USB host, the ASUS A730 models are the only VGA Pocket PCs that offer it. So if you have a hankering to use USB mice, keyboards and mass storage devices, the ASUS will please you.

size comparison

The HP iPAQ hx4700, Dell Axim X50v and the A730W

 

 

Deals and Shopping

 

 

 

Features at a Glance

The A730W has a 520MHz Intel XScale processor, 128 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, WiFi 802.11b 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 use the included USB host 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.

In the box you'll find the PDA, stylus, two Lithium Ion batteries, a charger, cradle, USB host cable, software CD, manual and a horizontal case with belt clip.

Design and Ergonomics

The A730W 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 dark gray while the sides and back are silver. Despite the plethora of features packed inside, the A730W is by no means a large Pocket PC, being a little smaller than the X50v and a tiny bit narrower than the HP hx2750.

While other PDAs with user replaceable batteries have a battery door on the back, the entire plastic rear cover of the A730W 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 WiFi or Bluetooth are 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 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 A730W 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 and HP offer 624MHz VGA Pocket PCs, ASUS has chosen the 520Mhz version for their unit. That's still a very fast clock speed for a PDA and the unit is a fast performer that does well against the competition, particularly the X50v, despite its lower clock speed. ASUS tweaked the firmware to get even better performance than we saw in the A730 and does decently in the graphics department for a VGA Pocket PC. In fact, the ASUS is as responsive as the HP and a bit faster than the Dell in everyday operations such as opening windows and menus.

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 HP has an ATI graphics processor with dedicated video RAM, the A730 doesn't sport fancy graphics hardware. Still, screen redraws are fast and games and video playback applications perform very well and seem on par with the HP. The Dell X50v has very impressive graphics hardware, but doesn't do well on standard GAPI performance and tests. That's because its graphics processor, the Intel 2700G, isn't optimized for GAPI (which most Pocket PC apps, including games, use for graphics) but rather for Open GL which isn't commonly used on Pocket PCs yet.

The A730W has 128 megs of RAM with 107.43 megs available to the user. This is the maximum amount of RAM that you'll find on a Pocket PC, and beats out the Dell and HP VGA offerings which have 64 megs of RAM. For those of you who are new to Pocket PCs, RAM is used for program execution (like RAM in your PC) and for application and file storage (like the hard drive on your PC). 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. For best battery life when not playing intensive games or videos, set the processor speed to Standard.

Benchmarks

We used Spb Benchmark to compare the A730W with the 624MHz Dell Axim X50v and HP iPAQ hx4700 VGA models running WM2003 SE, and the ASUS A730 model (before the recent firmware update which improves speed a bit). The HP hx4700 comes out on top. The A730W, which was in Turbo mode for the test, does respectably against the other models, including graphics. The numbers are truly impressive given the slower clock speed on the A730W and its lack of a separate graphics processor. Good going, ASUS!

 
ASUS A730W (520MHz, subject of this review)
ASUS A730 (520MHz, VGA, no WiFi)
Dell Axim X50v (624MHz,Max mode)
HP iPAQ hx4700 (624MHz)
Spb Benchmark index
1514
1007
1234
1621
CPU index
2074
1952
2280
2412
File system index
1248
1140
1372
1477
Graphics index
1090
838
489
890
Platform index
1249
1247
1091
1298
Write 1 MB file (KB/sec)
1590
1481
1785
1854
Read 1 MB file (MB/sec)
28.6
26.7
30.7
33.6
Copy 1 MB file (KB/sec)
1565
1474
1789
1848
Write 10 KB x 100 files (KB/sec)
1130
897
1159
1195
Read 10 KB x 100 files (MB/sec)
11.2
8.38
10.8
11.7
Copy 10 KB x 100 files (KB/sec)
914
709
951
986
Directory list of 2000 files (thousands of files/sec)
20
21.3
23.9
26.4
Internal database read (records/sec)
1724
1465
1940
1972
Graphics test: DDB BitBlt (frames/sec)
150
104
261
63
Graphics test: DIB BitBlt (frames/sec)
8.62
5.37
22.9
10
Graphics test: GAPI BitBlt (frames/sec)
162
147
45.7
122
Pocket Word document open (KB/sec)
33.1
67.4
34
39.2
Pocket Internet Explorer HTML load (KB/sec)
9.55
7.59
7.64
8.51
Pocket Internet Explorer JPEG load (KB/sec)
237
206
244
247
File Explorer large folder list (files/sec)
639
562
617
652
Compress 1 MB file using ZIP (KB/sec)
276
250
307
322
Decompress 1024x768 JPEG file (KB/sec)
767
750
885
918
Arkaball frames per second (frames/sec)
115
105
41.1
97.4
CPU test: Whetstones MFLOPS (Mop/sec)
0.999
0.999
0.117
0.119
CPU test: Whetstones MOPS (Mop/sec)
71.8
71.8
84.8
86.6
CPU test: Whetstones MWIPS (Mop/sec)
6.48
6.46
7.67
7.81
Memory test: copy 1 MB using memcpy (MB/sec)
102
93.8
104
117

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 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.

The screen is very bright and sharp, making photo viewing and movie watching a real pleasure. Perceived graphics performance is good in portrait mode, with occasional refresh slowdowns in landscape mode (all current VGA Pocket PCs are a bit slower in landscape mode, with the HP doing best).

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 A730W, like the A730, did very well using PocketTV Enterprise Edition, turning out 23.69 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. 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 A730W. The A730W runs Windows Media Player 9 rather than 10 which means it won't stretch QVGA movies to full screen. If you have a library of QVGA (320 x 240) WMA or ASF files you'd like to play full screen, download the excellent free BetaPlayer which can play those formats full screen.

Many games that we tested ran fine on the A730W. 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:

- Bust 'Em and Bust 'Em 2 ran fine.
- Warfare Inc. ran well.
- 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 QVGA Pocket PCs due to pixel doubling. Try using the Normal CPU setting rather than Turbo when playing this game for a better game speed.
- Blade of Betrayal ran well.
- 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. Internal speaker volume is good and alarms are easy to hear in rooms with average noise levels. Like all Pocket PCs, the A730W 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, 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 used the Audiovox SMT5600 MS Smartphone as a wireless modem 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.

WiFi

The ASUS has integrated WiFi 802.11b wireless networking which worked flawlessly in our tests connecting to public access points and our office access point using WEP encryption. The device has good range and maintains reliable connections. You can turn on WiFi and manage your connection using the icon in the taskbar. Connection management features include general connection information such as status, current SSID, encryption status and signal strength in both dBm and bar graph format. Site Survey allows you to see access points in range and shows their names, channels, signal strength and BSSIDs. IP info gives you all your current IP info, as you'd expect: IP address, DNS servers, gateway, MAC address, DHCP and more. If you select the Configure WiFi item from the taskbar icon's popup menu, the device will run the Windows Mobile Connection Manager included in the OS. The Connection Manager gets you started connecting to access points and is standard on all Windows Mobile 2003 and newer operating systems. The ASUS doesn't come with VPN software, but the standard Windows Mobile OS does offer support for Certificates, 802.1x, WEP encryption (open, shared, WPA and WPA-PSK).

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 a bright white LED light. 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/video 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.

The ASUS can shoot video as well, and offers separate quality settings for audio and video. It can shoot videos up to 352 x 288 resolution with audio and also supports lower resolutions. You can record videos in AVI or 3GP format.

How good are the 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 there is a 1 second delay after pressing the shutter button before the photo is actually captured (you'll hear an audible shutter sound so you'll know when it's safe to move your hand). Colors tend to be over saturated (the sky in our outdoor photo below wasn't that blue nor was the walkway that colorful or rose-tinted) and indoor shots are dark compared to many other integrated cameras. 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
guitar

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, ASUS SmartKeeper which can backup your PDA automatically when the battery level gets low, and ASUS Launcher which is a customizable program launcher. Bundled 3rd party software is the same as the ASUS A730: 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.

Expansion

The A730W has an SD slot supporting SDIO and a CF slot that's compatible with type I and type II cards. In addition, you have Bluetooth and IR for further expansion. The USB host feature works well with keyboards, mice and USB mass storage devices. We tested USB keyboards, mice, an Iomega Zip 750 drive, a USB thumb flash drive and a four slot card reader and all worked! We tried a USB CDROM drive but that didn't work. In general, mice, keyboards and flash drives will work. For other devices you'll likely need a driver and USB drivers for Pocket PCs are scarce.

Battery Life

The A730W has a user replaceable 1,100 mAh battery, and two batteries are included in the box. An optional 1,800 mAh battery is also available for separate purchase. 1100 mA is a small capacity battery for a unit with a fast processor speed, WiFi 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 60%: 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. Standby time wasn't terribly impressive either, with the unit losing 10% charge per day (standby means the unit is not used at all).

We tested the unit in Turbo mode for the results above, but found that Standard mode increased battery life about 25% while still offering good performance. Certainly if you're using WiFi which drains the battery significantly, you'll want to avoid Turbo mode. Using Turbo mode with Automatic power savings checked, we surfed the web using Pocket IE for 85 minutes before hitting the 30% power remaining warning. In Standard mode (also with Auto power savings enabled) we got 1 hour and 50 minutes. Even by VGA Pocket PC standards, these runtimes aren't very good. WiFi (when turned on) and the 128 megs of RAM are power hungry, and that is likely why HP and Dell went with 64 megs of RAM and a larger helping of ROM in their VGA offerings. RAM must be powered at all times (even when the unit is turned off) in order to preserve the contents of memory. In contrast, flash ROM does not require power. But our complaints about battery life are ameliorated by the inclusion of a second 1100 mA battery in the box. We do wish that the cradle had a slot to charge that second battery though. Instead, you'll need to swap batteries in and out of the PDA to charge them.

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

Looking for every feature in the book and a VGA display? Then the ASUS A730W is for you. The device is powerful, has lots of RAM, great expandability thanks to the dual slots and USB host which is a rarity on PDAs. The 1.3MP camera takes decent photos and videos. Certainly it's a lot of PDA for the price.

Pro: Compact by VGA Pocket PC standards, attractive styling. VGA display that's bright, sharp and contrasty. Fast processor, user replaceable battery, 1.3MP camera, WiFi and Bluetooth. Dual card slots make the most of expansion. USB host with cable included opens up more expansion possibilities. Two batteries included.

Con: Battery life is so-so, but the included second battery certainly helps! Cradle can't charge that second battery however, so you'll need to swap batteries into the PDA to charge them. The camera is good, but could handle low light better.

Web site: usa.asus.com

Suggested list price $569

Comparison 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 capacity, and two are included in the box. 1800 mA extended battery available for separate purchase.

Performance: Intel XScale PXA 270 520 MHz processor. 128 MB built-in RAM (107.43 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 ounces. 117.5mm x 72.8mm x 16.9mm (L x W x H). 170 grams.

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 and WiFi 802.11b.

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. ASUS and 3rd party software: SmartKeeper, 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).

In the Box: PDA, two styli, two Lithium Ion batteries, a charger, cradle, USB host cable, software CD, manual and a horizontal case with belt clip.

 

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