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Dell Axim X50v Pocket PC with VGA Display

Editor's rating (1-5):
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Review posted Oct. 12, 2004 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief

Check out the Dell Axim X51v running Windows Mobile 5.0, which replaced the X50v on Sept. 20, 2005!

The VGA Pocket PC marketplace is getting interesting now that we have three brands to choose from in the US, and more overseas. The Dell Axim X50v is the newest VGA model on the block, sporting a 3.7" transflective display, dual wireless and dual slots. Dell has never been known for their sleek and sexy industrial designs, but that's changed with the X50. The X50 models which replace the chunky Axim X5 line have curvy designs that look and feel good, and an attractive two-tone color scheme. The HP iPAQ line has always been praised for their attractive designs, but in Fall 2004, HP has gone rectangular and business-like while competitors such as Dell and ASUS are breaking out in style.

So far, VGA models are at the top of each manufacturer's lineup, and each shares much in common having both CF and SD slots supporting SDIO, a good amount of memory and at least one wireless networking technology built-in. The Axim X50v fits in between the ASUS A730 and HP iPAQ hx4700 VGA Pocket PCs in terms of specs and performance. It's also middle of the road in size, being just a bit larger than the ASUS but smaller than the large, slate-like iPAQ.

Dell Axim X50v
back of X50v

 

For those of you who are new to Pocket PCs, VGA models are new for Fall 2004 with the release of the Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition OS from Microsoft, which adds support for VGA displays and the ability to switch from portrait to landscape mode on the fly. Previous Pocket PCs (with the exception of the discontinued Toshiba e805) had QVGA 240 x 320 displays with fixed portrait modes. The 640 x 480 VGA display shows you four times as much on screen in theory, though Microsoft's implementation of VGA rarely goes that far. MS went for readability which means you'll see approximately twice as much on screen when using applications that support VGA rather than four times more. We'll cover more of that in the display section of our review.

Features at a Glance

The Dell Axim X50v runs on a 624MHz processor, has 64 megs of RAM, 128 megs of ROM, a CF type II slot, an SD slot supporting SDIO, IR, Bluetooth and WiFi 802.11b wireless local area networking. It has a user replaceable 1100 mA battery and comes with a charger, cradle, slip case, manual and software CD.

Design and Ergonomics

Yes, this Dell has curves and good looks. Like ASUS, Dell went with the curvy bottom designed that last year's best selling iPAQ 1945 and 4155 sported. Everyone loved that look and it lives on thanks to HP's competitors. Though not as small as those diminutive iPAQs, the X50v is certainly not a very large Pocket PC and is mid-sized. It feels great in the hand thanks to the bottom and back curves and weighs in at 6.2 ounces.

The X50v has a plastic casing. The back is matte black and curves to cover the sides of the PDA. The front has a silver surround that wraps around the gloss black plastic upper and lower front faces. It looks sleek, contemporary and was designed by HTC. Those of you familiar with the Dell Axim X3 and X30 will immediately recognize the 5-way directional pad, though it takes a smaller form on the X50v. In fact, the d-pad is as small as you can go without forgoing usability, and it's a very sensitive control as are the application and side buttons. Gamers may have to lighten their touch when playing on the Dell.

size comparison

Above: comparing the size of the iPAQ hx4700 and the X50v. The ASUS A730 (not pictured) is just a hair shorter than the Dell.

The four front application buttons also look like shrunk down versions of the X30's buttons. From left to right they launch Calendar, Contacts, Outlook Inbox and Dell's Home launcher. As with all PDAs, you can assign different applications to these buttons; and as with all Windows Mobile 2003 SE Pocket PCs, you can press and hold a button to launch a secondary application.

The power button is located top center, while the voice recorder and wireless radio on/off button are located on the left side. Above these two buttons on the left side you'll find the hold slider switch which will prevent all buttons (even the power button) from turning the unit on accidentally. Since the side buttons are easily accidentally pressed, that's a good thing. The SD and CF slots are on the top edge, as is the IR window and the standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. The user replaceable battery lives under a door on the back and there's a battery lock switch to keep the battery in place. The metal and plastic stylus lives in a silo on the top right corner. The stylus end is small so you'll want to have a good fingernail to get it out.

The mic is located on the top left corner and the speaker is under the d-pad, so if you want to use this with VoIP apps, you'll likely need to hold it upside down or get a stereo headset with mic. The unit has a single LED on the top right corner which flashes blue when one or more wireless radios are on. As with other Axim models, the power button lights amber when the unit is charging and glows green when fully charged. The power button flashes amber when a reminder goes off.

Horsepower and Expansion

The X50v is in the top tier of current Pocket PCs thanks to its 624MHz "Bulverde" Intel XScale PXA270 processor. Currently, only the high end Dell Axim X30 model (QVGA) and HP iPAQ hx4700 run the same 624MHz processor. As you'd expect, the unit is fast, though you may see the slightest delay opening menus and windows since the device is running at VGA resolution. It is up to the task of even the most demanding applications including action games and video playback.

The unit has 64 megs of RAM with 61.76 available to the user. In addition, it has 128 megs of flash ROM, 91.43 of which are available as "Built-in Storage". Dell always uses Intel StrataFlash memory for flash ROM which is faster than NAND. Though flash ROM is slower than the SDRAM used in main memory, it's fast enough to run applications well.

For expansion, the Dell offers standard (not consumer) IR, Bluetooth, a CF slot compatible with type I and type II cards and an SD slot supporting SDIO and SDIO Now! All these expansion options make for a very versatile and expandable device that will work with CF cellular cards, GPS, presentation, modem and networking cards.

VGA Display and Sound

The X50v uses the Intel 2700G graphics processor with 16 megs of RAM. That's an impressive amount of video memory for a PDA, and beats out all other models on the market. The 2700G comes in two versions with 384k and 704k of on-die video memory, but the chip can address additional external memory and that's how Dell got 16 megs into this model. The graphics processor also offers 3D acceleration, while all other PDAs except the gaming oriented Palm OS Tapwave Zodiac have only 2D acceleration if any at all. The 2700G was designed by Intel to work with the PXA270 family of processors, and it has a fast pipeline between the CPU and graphics processor. In fact, I was surprised that the 2D benchmark tests and video playback performance weren't higher. I spoke with Intel about the 2700G's benchmark performance and they stated that the graphics accelerator really shines for GDI and Open GL based software rather than GAPI which is currently most commonly used by Pocket PC applications, especially games. Since the benchmarks thus weight GAPI tests more heavily than GDI tests, the X50v with its 2700G processor doesn't get overall high scores in benchmarks. In our graphics benchmarks below, the two tests where the Dell gets very high numbers are GDI tests, while the other two tests where it scores low are GAPI tests. Dell released ROM update A02 in late January 2005 which offers some modest GAPI improvements and we include benchmarks for both the original and updated ROM below.

Certainly, the potential seems high for this graphics processor if and when we see apps that use GDI and Open GL rather than GAPI for graphics. For those of you who aren't mega-graphics chip geeks, GAPI stands for game API (application programming interface), GDI stands for graphics device interface and Open GL is a common standard for 3D used on many desktop games. GAPI and GDI provide software developers with two ways of sending data to a graphics device, with GAPI being the commonly used standard put forth by Microsoft for Pocket PCs. GAPI allows a program to write directly to graphics memory and is in some ways the Pocket PC version of MS Direct Draw for PCs.

The X50v ships with two Open GL games that show off the unit's 3D performance: Fathammer's Stuntcar Extreme driving game and the 3D puzzle game Enigmo which look gorgeous and run well on the Dell. If and when other games take advantage of the 2700G's 3D acceleration, we could see some exiting games. Will we see games that make use of this graphics processor? If other models use it the odds are better, but if only the X50v bears the 2700G, we may not see many titles because application developers need sufficient market share to make their efforts worthwhile. In the meantime, game performance on the X50v was certainly good enough for even demanding games.

The 3.7" LCD is sharp and reasonably bright. Text is clear even at the smallest type settings. While not stunningly vivid like the iPAQ hx4700, the screen is still very good and will please those who want to view photos or videos. The 2700G supports video mirroring, and the X50v has a Mirror Mode control panel that allows you to enable mirroring when using a presentation card to connect the Dell to an external display.

The Dell has a VGA 640 x 480 resolution display, while standard QVGA Pocket PCs have QVGA (quarter VGA) 240 x 320 resolution displays. That means you'll see more on screen, but not four times more, even though VGA is four times higher resolution than 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 Dell 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.

Below: Comparing Pocket IE on the Dell Axim X30 and the X50v

Dell X30 IE screen shot

Dell Axim X30, QVGA display, with fonts set to small in IE.

X50v IE screen shot

The X50v, with fonts set to smallest in IE.

The Dell has great sound and its built-in speaker is easy enough to hear in all but extremely noisy environments. MP3s and movies sound great through stereo headphones plugged into the 3.5mm headphone jack and volume is quite good. Like all Pocket PCs, the X50v has a microphone and can record voice notes. Dell includes a Microphone control panel that lets you use AGC (automatic gain control) or set mic gain manually. The mic is located on the top left corner and the speaker is under the d-pad. Like the iPAQ hx4700, the X50v's 3.5mm headphone jack works with standard stereo headsets and headset mic combos that have 3.5mm 3 ring plugs. That's good news for those of you who want to record better quality voice notes or use the unit for voice over IP applications.

 

Benchmarks

We use Spb Benchmark to test PDAs. Since the Axim offers a variety of CPU speed settings in the battery control panel applet, we benchmarked it in both Auto mode, where the PDA sets processor speed relative to current program demands, and Max mode which sets it at a fixed 624MHz. On prior Axim models we've been impressed with Auto mode's ability to step up processor speed whenever improved performance was needed and found that Auto and Max benchmarked similarly. The X50v is no exception, giving nearly identical benchmarks for both modes. In fact, Auto mode beat out Max mode narrowly in a few tests!

The X50v does well on benchmarks thanks to its 624MHz processor. While the VGA iPAQ beats it in many tests, the numbers are fairly close with the exception of graphics where the iPAQ wins. We do wonder if the X50v could do better in the graphics department with some driver tweaks since it has the new Intel G2700G graphics processor and 16 megs of RAM. While the 2700G is promoted as a 3D accelerator it does offer some 2D acceleration which should help it in 2D graphics benchmarks and in general responsiveness when using non-3D applications (games make use of 3D while most other apps would not).

How does the unit feel? It feels very fast, though you will see some lag in screen re-draws when opening menus and windows such as Programs and Settings. This minor graphics lag is no stranger to VGA Pocket PCs but given the X50v's spiffy graphics processor I didn't expect to see it. The lag is not apparent inside of applications and is only noticeable when navigating the OS, Using a utility like RegKing 2003 (free) to increase the Glyph Cache to 32,768 will increase screen re-draw speed.

Video Playback and Gaming

Video playback is excellent on this unit. Watching videos stretched to full screen is a lovely thing and will sell you on VGA Pocket PCs. We tested the unit with PocketTV Enterprise, PocketMVP and BetaPlayer, three excellent 3rd party video applications as well as the built-in Pocket version of the new Windows Media Player 10. Intel tells us that the X50v has a codec for the 2700G graphics processor to optimize video performance in WM10, and it shows because playback, even in full screen is impressive.

PocketTV plays MPEG1 files and we threw our usual test files 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. PocketTV played the file at 24.06 fps with smooth video and perfectly synced audio. We tested the Spider Man trailer file commonly found on the web (240 x 136, 452Kb/s encoded MPEG 1 file) at 24.11 fps.

PocketMVP, an open source free video player got 23.95 fps with 12 dropped frames out of 6394 for "The Chosen", and 23.87 fps with 14 dropped frames out of 2640 for the Spider Man trailer. That's very good performance.

 

  Dell Axim X50v Auto mode
Dell Axim X50v, Jan. 2005 A02 ROM Update
ASUS A730 520MHz
HP iPAQ hx4700 624MHz
Spb Benchmark index
1243
1380
1007
1621
CPU index
2288
2285
1952
2412
File system index
1400
1398
1140
1477
Graphics index
490
643
838
890
Platform index
1102
1146
1247
1298
Write 1 MB file (KB/sec)
1786
1809
1481
1854
Read 1 MB file (MB/sec)
31.6
30.7
26.7
33.6
Copy 1 MB file (KB/sec)
1786
1807
1474
1848
Write 10 KB x 100 files (KB/sec)
1162
1169
897
1195
Read 10 KB x 100 files (MB/sec)
10.9
10.7
8.38
11.7
Copy 10 KB x 100 files (KB/sec)
951
958
709
986
Directory list of 2000 files (thousands of files/sec)
24.8
25.1
21.3
26.4
Internal database read (records/sec)
1929
1947
1465
1972
Graphics test: DDB BitBlt (frames/sec)
260
260
104
63
Graphics test: DIB BitBlt (frames/sec)
23
23
5.37
10
Graphics test: GAPI BitBlt (frames/sec)
45.8
61.8
147
122
Pocket Word document open (KB/sec)
34.7
34.4
67.4
39.2
Pocket Internet Explorer HTML load (KB/sec)
7.72
7.72
7.59
8.51
Pocket Internet Explorer JPEG load (KB/sec)
245
245
206
247
File Explorer large folder list (files/sec)
617
600
562
652
Compress 1 MB file using ZIP (KB/sec)
310
311
250
322
Decompress 1024x768 JPEG file (KB/sec)
885
882
750
918
Arkaball frames per second (frames/sec)
41.1
54.1
105
97.4
CPU test: Whetstones MFLOPS (Mop/sec)
0.117
0.117
0.999
0.119
CPU test: Whetstones MOPS (Mop/sec)
84.8
84.8
71.8
86.6
CPU test: Whetstones MWIPS (Mop/sec)
7.67
7.66
6.46
7.81
Memory test: copy 1 MB using memcpy (MB/sec)
105
104
93.8
117

BetaPlayer is an extremely fast open source free video player that supports MPEG1, DivX and AVI files. There are also plugins for ASF and WMV format, though we found that the X50v and BetaPlayer couldn't play these formats using the plugin (it does work on ATI-based machines like the iPAQ hx4700). BetaPlayer has similarities to PocketMVP, another free open source player. But PocketMVP doesn't support full screen playback and showed some artifacts below the movie window on the X50v. BetaPlayer did an awesome job. BetaPlayer played back "The Chosen" with benchmarks of:
Average speed: 271.60%
Bench Frame Rate: 65.18
Bench. Data Rate: 10,040 KB
Orig. Frame Rate: 24fps
Orig. Data Rate: 310 kbit/s

All in all, the X50v offers good video performance and should please most folks. It is beat out in benchmarks and screen quality by the iPAQ hx4700, but then the Dell is $150 cheaper. The iPAQ has an ATI Imageon 3220 graphics chip, and these players have ATI optimizations which may help the iPAQ get the best numbers, along with HP's excellent video driver.

Most recent games ran fine on the Dell. Again, if the games weren't designed for VGA mode, they will run in QVGA mode stretched to fill the entire screen using pixel doubling. Despite the stretching, games like most apps look quite good.

We tested Bust 'Em 2, a new VGA game called Acky's XP Breakout, Warfare Inc., SIM City2000, Blade of Betrayal, EverQuest and Metalion 2. They all ran well, as did the included 3D and VGA enhanced games, Stuntcar Extreme and Enigmo.

The popular emulator MorphGear didn't give the best performance, clocking in an average of 5 to 9 fps playing GameBoy Advance titles like Tony Hawks Underground 2, Starsky and Hutch and Megaman Zero 3. It faired better with NES games which are less demanding, and we got 28fps playing Galaga and Super Mario Bros. 3. MorphGear had trouble drawing its own on-screen program controls when the game was running, though the game window and virtual controller rendered correctly worked fine.

WiFi and Bluetooth

The X50v has integrated WiFi 802.11b wireless networking and Bluetooth 1.2. To turn on the wireless radios, simply press the button on the left side of the PDA. As with the Dell Axim X30, this button will turn on both wireless radios, which seems a little odd, but you can turn them off using the on-screen management utilities. WiFi has excellent range and was reliable for us connecting to 802.11b access points using WEP encryption. The X50v comes with Funk Odyssey VPN client and supports 64/128 bit WEP, WPA and CCX 1.0. Dell includes their excellent WLAN application for managing WiFi connections, and this full-featured utility that lists available networks in range (shows SSID, channel, signal strength and mode), shows data transfer stats, lets you set the default network and power saving mode and more.

For Bluetooth, Dell uses Broadcom's (formerly Widcomm) excellent Bluetooth drivers and software, version 1.5.0. The software helps you connect to Bluetooth enabled mobile phones, ActiveSync, browse files on another Bluetooth enabled device, connect to Bluetooth access points for LAN connections and even supports Bluetooth headsets using headset and hands-free profiles. The Dell supports the new Bluetooth 1.2 standard which is backward compatible with 1.1.

Software Bundle

Though the Axim X50v is reasonably priced for the hardware you get, Dell has included a nice software bundle. You get Funk Odyssey VPN client, WLAN (a full-featured WiFi manager), Resco Picture Viewer (an excellent photo viewer), Data Backup which backs up your PDA to a storage card and the cool VGA 3D games Enigmo by Aspyr and Fathammer's Stuntcar Extreme (previously a Tapwave Zodiac exclusive). Both games look fantastic on the Dell and really show off its VGA and 3D capabilities.

Battery

The X50v has a 1100 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's user replaceable. That's an average capacity battery for a Pocket PC, and a little low for a 3.7" display VGA model running at 624MHz with dual wireless (large displays, wireless networking and fast processors consume lots of power). That said, battery life is average for a Pocket PC, giving about 3 hours of actual use in average conditions consisting of PIM use, working with MS Office documents, surfing the web for an hour using WiFi, gaming for 45 minutes and playing a few short videos. If you need more power, Dell sells an optional 2200 mAh battery which will increase the thickness of the PDA. If you're a heavy wireless user, you may want to consider this extended battery or a second standard battery. In our video test, the X50v used 50% of its charge playing a 1 hour 20 minute film using Windows Media Player 10. Brightness was set at 66%, WM10 was set to stretch video to full screen and we had sound piped out through stereo earbud headphones.

let's face it, we don't need 624MHz all the time, but we may need longer runtimes when on the road. That's why Dell allows you to set the CPU speed to Power-Saving (208MHz), Normal (520MHz), Maximum Performance (624MHz) or Auto which sets processor speed relative to demand. Auto can set the CPU from 104MHz up to 624MHz depending on load and gives great performance overall. I found the Power-Saving mode to be too slow even for PIM lookups and working with Pocket Word documents, but Normal mode is just fine and may get you 15 minutes more out of your battery compared to Max mode.

Like prior Dells, you can charge the unit in its cradle or use the included dongle adapter to plug the charger directly into the PDA. This world charger is the same model included with the X5, X3 and X30, but the connector and thus dongle adapter are different. This means you can use chargers from your old Dell with the X50v as long as you use the X50v's adapter, but you will not be able to use cradles meant for other Dell models.

Enigno screen shot

Above: Enigmo, below Stuntcar Extreme

Stuntcar Extreme screen shot

Comparing the X50v, HP iPAQ 4700 and ASUS A730

If size really matters to you, the ASUS is the smallest VGA Pocket PC, with the Dell being just a a hair taller and the HP being the largest. The iPAQ is the only unit in this trio to wear a magnesium alloy metal casing, while the other two have plastic casings. While the HP is the largest, it needs more space to accommodate its 4" display which bests the 3.7" display on the Dell and ASUS. Given that Microsoft's version of VGA doesn't make things terribly tiny, the screen dimensions may not matter to you unless you have tired eyes or want to view lots of photos and watch videos frequently. The iPAQ does have the best quality display: that Sony LCD is unbeatably vivid and no other Pocket PC display rivals it.

When it comes to performance, the iPAQ wins, though the Dell is close in many benchmarks. Though the Dell has an amazing amount of video memory for a Pocket PC, the iPAQ still beats it on graphics benchmarks. But honestly, all three look great playing games and videos encoded at fairly high bitrates. As with PCs, the megahertz wars mean that our machines are often faster than most tasks we can throw at them. Battery performance is another matter: today's fast PDAs with large color displays don't run as long as we'd like. That makes the iPAQ and its very large standard 1800 mA battery a real winner.

If you want an integrated digicam, the ASUS certainly wins since it's the only VGA model in the US with a camera.

Gamers will likely favor the Dell and ASUS over the iPAQ since the hx4700's touchpad isn't the most responsive or usable for action gaming.

On the pricing front, the ASUS A730 and Dell X50v are $499 which the iPAQ is $649. We'll leave it up to you to decide which combination of form factor, size, features and performance match your budget and needs.

Conclusion

An excellent offering from Dell at a nice price. The unit should suit power users and those who crave the VGA experience. It offers excellent expandability, dual wireless and enough memory to hold your favorite programs. Not only that, it's attractive and feels good in the hand.

Pro: Overall, a very good device. Attractive and ergonomic design, good price, VGA display, fast processor, both CF and SD slots with SDIO support for the SD slot, Bluetooth 1.2 and WiFi, has Windows Media Player 10 which unlike Windows Media Player 9 can play videos stretched to full screen (handy if you want to watch your QVGA movies full screen).

Con: The buttons are too easy to press and the d-pad is a little small. Standard battery capacity is a lean: consider the extended battery. The screen isn't as nice or as large as the iPAQ hx4700 nor is current 2D graphics performance as good. But the Dell costs less and we may see driver improvements in the future.

Web Site: www.dell.com

List Price $499

Deals and Shopping

 

Specs:

Display: Transflective TFT color LCD, 64K colors, Screen Size Diag: 3.7", Resolution: 640 x 480, VGA. Intel 2700G graphics processor with 3D acceleration and 16 megs of video memory.

Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. 1100 mA. 2200 mA extended battery available for purchase.

Performance: Intel XScale PXA270 624MHz processor. 64 MB built-in RAM 61 megs available. 128 MB NOR Intel StrataFlash Flash ROM with 91.43 available in File Store for your use.

Size: 4.7 x 2.9 x .7 in. Weight: 6.2 oz.

Audio: Built in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone jack. Can accept 3-ring 3.5mm stereo + mic headsets. Voice Recorder and Windows Pocket Media Player 10 included for your MP3 pleasure.

Networking: Integrated WiFi 802.11b and Bluetooth 1.2.

Software: Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition operating system Microsoft Pocket Office suite including Pocket Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and Outlook. Also, Terminal Services, MSN Messenger, Pocket Windows Media Player 10, and Voice Recorder as well as handwriting recognition. 3rd party software: Resco Picture Viewer, Dell Diagnostic Utility, Enigmo (game), Fathammer's Stuntcar Extreme (game), Funk Odyssey VPN Client, Data Backup. ActiveSync 3.7 and Outlook 2002 for PCs included.

Expansion: 1 SD (Secure Digital) with 4 bit data bus supporting SDIO and SDIO Now!. 1 CF type II slot that works with type I and type II CF cards. IR port.

 

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