Design and Ergonomics
The Advantage has two usage models: clamshell mode a la notebook and slate mode (like a PDA or slate tablet computer). When in slate mode you can use it in landscape or portrait orientation, with portrait being perfect for eBook and PDF reading. The Advantage has a few wow-factor features, and one of these is the wafer thin keyboard that attaches to the machine via a magnet. That's it: put the two close together and the ultra-strong magnet clamps them together. And boy, do they stay together: no chance that the Advantage will topple off the keyboard when bumped, jiggled or shaken. It takes a bit of effort to separate the two. In fact, there's a warning sheet under the keyboard in the box that tells you to keep two inches or so between the Advantage and your credit cards, lest the cards be demagnetized. Pacemaker users are warned as well. And this warning is repeated throughout the manual. You get the idea: the magnet is nifty, ingenious and cool; but keep your credit-card toting wallet away. The leather case has a metal plate in one side that bonds with the Advantage when the keyboard is in place as a screen cover. This keeps the case closed (it's magnetically attracted to the dual purpose keyboard/cover).
The keyboard itself is beautiful, and when clamped to the Advantage the package looks downright attractive. It's only 3mm thin, yet it's extremely rigid with no torsioning at all. It doubles as the screen cover when carrying the unit: put it with the clear plastic end at the bottom and the magnets do their thing to hold it all together. That clear section is there for a reason: when the cover is in place, a quick press of the power button turns on a sub-display feature that shows you carrier status, time, date and signal strength. According to the manual, if WorldMate is installed, you'll also see the weather and world times. The Advantage knows when the cover is on, and changes the display to show you these goodies at the bottom, there is no separate physical sub-display.
The keyboard's keys have little travel and just a bit of tactile feedback. You need only press very lightly on a key, no serious button-mashing required as on some QWERTY slider Windows Mobile phones like the T-Mobile Wing and Cingular 8525 (HTC TyTN). I personally like this: it's hard enough to press a small target accurately, pressing it with force is even harder. The keyboard is sufficiently large for rudimentary touch typing, but narrow enough that you can thumb type while holding the Advantage in your hands (again, the magnet is strong so you can hold the Advantage with keyboard just as if they were attached with a latch or hinge). The keys are square, flat-topped affairs with good spacing in between. The white letters are large and contrast well with the black background, and secondary function keys are visible in blue, but they're not distractingly popping. The top row has keys that launch IE, email and brightness settings, along with the two usual Windows Mobile softkeys, and OK button, Start Menu button as well as call send and end keys. Unlike the HTC Universal, there is no dedicated number row but there is a Ctrl key next to the space bar which makes cut, copy and pastes a breeze. There are 4 arrow keys in the lower right section of the keyboard that become page up/down when the blue Fn key is pressed. The Fn key is sticky, so you need not hold it down while pressing the desired key. Letters, symbols, spacebar, enter and other keys are in standard locations.
The Advantage weighs 12.66 ounces-- 3/4 pound. It measures only 5.25 x 3.85 x 0.63 (0.79 with the keyboard/cover attached) making it pocketable, depending on your fashion tastes, but you'll know it's there. Use a belt . In the world of haute mobile technology populated by the likes of the OQO, Sony Vaio UX and UMPCs, the Advantage is still relatively small and light. It looks good, very good when mated with its keyboard. The combination of gloss and matte black finishes suit the device, though it makes the iPhone seem fingerprint-resistant in comparison. The X7501 picks up fingerprints and hand oils like crazy, and they aren't easy to get off.
On the front bezel you'll find the 5-way joystick that illuminates when charging (amber is charging, green is charged). It's on the left, I assume so your right hand is free to use the stylus or a finger. OK and Windows Start Menu buttons live on the left side of the display and the web browser launch button is on the right. Use that button to also activate VueFLO in the browser. VueFLO is another neat parlor trick: tip the Advantage sideways to scroll a web page sideways, tip up and down to scroll up and down. It works quite well and you can adjust the sensitivity. At the middle it worked well, but at higher sensitivity settings it reminded me of a marble that wouldn't stop rolling once started (and I discovered that I rarely hold a device perfectly still). When in a web browser (IE or Opera) with VueFLO enabled, you'll see a small ball with center dot at the top of the menu bar. The little dot rolls around as it senses movement.
The power button is on the right side: press it to put the Advantage sleep, press and hold to turn the unit completely off. Also on the right are the 3.5mm stereo headset jack, buttons for HTC's Comm Manager (press and hold to launch Voice Recorder) and the camera (this button has a 2-step press since it acts as the autofocus/shutter button, so press it all the way in to the second stop). The volume slider is on the top left side, and the combined proprietary HTC VGA/USB host 1.1 port are on the left. A VGA cable is included in the box, but you'll have to spend $25 to get the 4-in1 video/S-video/VGA/USB host cable. We got a hold of that cable, and it works fine with USB flash drives, card readers and mice. The Advantage can't supply much power to USB devices, so only low-powered and self-powered devices will work (or plug in a powered USB hub). There are speakers on each side of the X7501 (dual mono, as far as we can tell).
The battery, miniSD card slot and SIM card slot live under a plastic door on the bottom edge. While the device and keyboard are extremely well-build and exude quality, that plastic door feels a bit flimsy. The miniSD card slot is hot-swappable, but you must remove the battery to insert or remove a SIM card. The miniSD card slot is SDHC compatible. The camera lens and flash are on the Advantage's back, as is the reset hole. The stylus slides into a silo on the top right edge of the PDA.
Data, Phone and Reception
The HTC Advantage X7501 is a quad band 850/900/1800/1900MHz GSM world phone that works anywhere in the world GSM service is available. It has EDGE for data as well as 3G, and the faster HSDPA flavor at that. It's sold unlocked, which means you can use it with any carrier's SIM. HTC's network settings wizard detected our two SIM cards (T-Mobile and AT&T) and offered to create the correct settings for each. No need to find APN, MMS server and other settings and enter them yourself-- nice. You will have to remember to turn off HSPDA if your carrier doesn't offer it or if you're not in an HSDPA coverage area. This is a somewhat odd device to use for voice calls given the distinctly non-phone ergonomics. That said, voice quality is excellent and signal strength on the 850 and 1900MHz bands is quite good. If you make or receive a call with no wired or Bluetooth headset connected, the Advantage uses speakerphone mode, which is both louder and clearer than most phones. Note that there is no vibrate mode on the Advantage, though you do have the usual selection of ringtones and can use your own MP3s as ringtones.
The real purpose of the Advantage's phone radio is data, and it is indeed a pleasure to use on AT&T's HSDPA network. In the Dallas area, we got 565k- 929k on their 3G HSDPA network using the included IE Mobile and Opera with DSLreports's mobile speed test. Web pages don't load quite as fast as WiFi 802.11g, but it's close enough that we were never bothered by page load times. The Advantage's 624MHz processor's speed also makes for fast page rendering. On T-Mobile's US EDGE network, we averaged 120k, which made for quite bearable load times, but not the whiz-kid speeds of HSDPA. The Advantage loads pages more quickly than the HSDPA-enabled AT&T 8525 on the same network with the same SIM.
HTC includes Cyberon's Voice Speed Dialing, as per usual. This is version 1.2 and it supports dialing over headsets, including Bluetooth headsets and car kits. The application works well, with the only drawback being you have to record voice tags since it doesn't use true speech recognition. As with all Windows Mobile phones, the Advantage has smart dialing, so you can type in a few letters of a contact's name to bring up a list of matches from which to to dial. And it supports the standard goodies like call forwarding, conferencing and call barring. The Advantage X7501 is no different from other Windows Mobile phones when it comes to phone features (minus vibrate and an earpiece speaker for against-the-head calls).
Horsepower and Performance
By Windows Mobile standards, the HTC Advantage is fast, thanks to its Intel PXA270 processor running at 624MHz, which is still the fastest processor used on a Windows Mobile phone or PDA. Menus pop down quickly, the Programs group opens quickly and the icons are all there, no leisurely roll call and drawing of them as we found on the old T-Mobile MDA with its 200MHz processor. PDF files scrolled more quickly compared to most other handhelds and Office documents didn't send it crawling. The handheld has an ATI Imageon W2282 graphics chip, which handles digital video capture and playback, camera image processing, photo viewing and even audio according to ATI. Sorry, this isn't a killer 3D graphics processor for gaming.
The HTC Advantage has a double-helping of RAM and flash ROM. The 128 megs of RAM is a luxury, since we often see Windows Mobile devices with 20 to 28 megs of free RAM at boot, and that's just not enough to run several memory hungry programs at once. The X7501 has 83 megs of free RAM at boot! This means you'll rarely have to end programs to free up memory and speed up the device. This really helps move the Advantage out of the disadvantaged PDA segment and into more robust laptop replacement territory. As does the the 8 gig Hitachi microdrive inside, with ~ 7.625 gigs free for storage. No more praying for high capacity flash memory cards, the HTC has plenty of space for documents, images, videos and more. Though the Hitachi microdrive's specs are impressive in terms of speed, in our test flash memory was faster, so we recommend storing applications on the X7501's flash memory when possible. There's 130 megs free for use, so you'll likely not run out of room for new programs.
But should you need even more storage, or just a handy way to transfer files, the Advantage has a miniSD card slot that supports high capacity SDHC cards. The card is hot-swappable and lives under a plastic door on the unit's bottom. We tested it with a variety of cards up to 2 gigs in capacity (we don't yet have an SDHC 4 gig card) and all worked well.
Display and Multimedia
The Advantage has a 5" LED backlit display that's capable of displaying 65K colors. As we've noted, it's VGA resolution, and like all Windows Mobile Professional Edition and Pocket PC Edition PDAs and phones, it works in both landscape and portrait orientations. The display is clear, saturated and bright, though not the brightest we've seen (set it to near max and it's quite bright, but the mid-setting is average). The machine has a proprietary HTC connector for both VGA out and USB host 1.1. The VGA cable is in the box, and you can hook up the Advantage to your TV, monitor or projector. Get the $25 HTC 4-in-1 cable or the $120 HTC docking station with VGA and 2 USB host ports and you've got the makings of a low resolution mini-desktop when you attach a monitor, mouse and keyboard (we suggest a Bluetooth keyboard given the power requirements of USB keyboards). Use the included cable and a projector to give PowerPoint presentations-- pretty handy for the traveling business woman or man. HTC includes a settings applet called TV Out that allows you to turn on this feature, set NTSC or PAL and select between S-video and VGA-out (the included cable is VGA only, you'll need that 4-in-1 cable for S-video).
For those who have eagle eyes and want everything to run in VGA mode, there's a free utility called MvRTrueVGA. Note you may experience some bugs using the app, and beware of mixing it with other utilities that manipulate the screen. If you've used the old Toshiba e805 or a Dell Axim X51v with VGA utilities, you know the look and quirks associated with hacking everything to VGA. Personally, I'm happy with the large, finger-friendly targets of standard Windows Mobile 6 and the option to use high res modes where it counts-- IE and Opera, along with zoom and font changes in Office Mobile, eReader and Acrobat LE. Several GPS mapping applications, including the free Google Maps, run in full VGA resolution as well.
Given the 8 gig microdrive, the Advantage is a capable MP3 player replacement. As with all Windows Mobile devices, Windows Media Player Mobile is included, and it handles MP3, WMA and AAC files. Media Player Mobile supports playlists, protected PlaysForSure tracks (i.e. Napster), and background playback and can sync to Windows Media Player on the desktop. For those who want more features, there are several third party players, several of which are covered in our Pocket PC MP3 player review. Sound out through the included stereo headphones is excellent, and quality through Bluetooth stereo headsets is very good, though not quite as good as the keenly music-oriented HTC Touch. We tested regular headphones with the X7501 since it has a 3.5mm jack and had no problem using a variety of headphones.
Video playback is quite good thanks to the Advantage's fast CPU and ATI graphics processor. Files up to 600kbps played well and our killer 1400kbps test file that plays at 2 fps on most Pocket PC phones played at 9 fps on the X7501. Windows Media Player supports WMV, ASF and some MPEG4 format videos. Again, there are third party video players such as The Core Media Player Mobile which support many more formats. Regardless of which you use, watching video, especially VGA video on the 5" is a treat. HTC also includes their Streaming Media player for watching 3GP and MPEG-4 video streamed from web sites.
GPS and TeleNav
The Advantage has a full GPS, not a 911-only version. The 20 channel GPS managed to acquire 9 satellites from a cold start under partly cloudy skies in a minute, with faster warm starts. The Advantage held onto 4 to 5 satellites on the first floor of a two story brick-front home as long as we stayed within 10 feet of a wall with a window. To speed up acquisition time, HTC includes QuickGPS which downloads basic satellite data over 3G/GPRS, WiFi or ActiveSync (we couldn't get a download most of the time over a solid HSDPA connection, but WiFi worked fine, though a bit slow). The machine doesn't ship with mapping or navigation software, though there is a link to download TeleNav which is a very good product, though it requires a $9.95 monthly subscription fee and a data connection. TeleNav is a joy to use on the Advantage, with large intuitive icons that are perfect for finger control and viewing in-car. Though like most Windows Mobile Professional devices, the Advantage's screen isn't fantastic outdoors, the screen remains viewable in-car (turn up the display brightness as needed to improve readability). Even if you haven't used a GPS before, you'll get going with TeleNav in no time; it's one of the most friendly navigation applications available. The only drawback is you can't load maps on the device, instead they're downloaded as needed over HSDPA, EDGE or even WiFi if the Advantage is in range of your hotspot.
When you launch TeleNav, you'll see large icons for Drive To, Search, Maps and Traffic and Tools/Extras. Maps and Traffic are likely where you'll spend most of your time, and these include Current Location, Favorites, Recent Places, Intersections and more (see screen shot below). TeleNav's POI database isn't the best we've seen for some categories: Shopping/Electronics shows lots of Radio Shack and local software companies but not the several Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA or Fry's locations within a 7 mile radius). That said, we could easily search by business names to find each of these stores. When you select a business, you can route to that location or call that business. We did note one bug: there are two icons for Gas Station and Gas Stations under the Business POI screen-- oops.
Directions are shown on-screen in 3D and are spoken in a loud and clear voice. Routing is solid and there are options for fastest or shortest route. Maps download very quickly over 3G HSDPA and it's still usable over EDGE. We love the traffic feature which shows traffic levels along your route, so you can spot slow-downs easily. The device can also notify you with spoken traffic alerts, show 2D or 3D maps, allow for fastest/shortest/avoids highways/prefer highways/avoid traffic routing and it has a toll free call-in number if you wish to dictate your destination rather than type it. When updates are available, TeleNav notifies you and gives you the option to download them to your device (don't forget your 4 digit PIN, because you'll have to enter it again when running the new version for the first time). All in all, good stuff.
For those who prefer other solutions, any Windows Mobile 6 compatible solution should work such as TomTom or CoPilot. For those on a budget who don't spoken need-turn by-turn directions, both Google Maps and Virtual Earth Mobile work fine with the X7501 (you'll have to tell Virtual Earth that the GPS uses COM 4, but Google Maps figures it out by itself). The VGA display makes for wonderful mapping and large on-screen directions. The two side-firing speakers are loud enough to be heard in not terribly noisy cars. As with all Pocket PCs, the screen isn't at its best in direct, bright sunlight, so geo-cachers and hikers, stick with a dedicated handheld GPS meant for outdoor use or shield the Advantage's display from the sun.
The camera interface is the same as that used on other recent HTC Windows Mobile Professional phones such as the HTC Mogul, 8525 and Wing. The entire screen is the viewfinder, and that seems immense on a 5" display. There are intuitive icons to common settings and there's even an option to take a photo by pressing half way down on the shutter button (the camera button on the unit's side) or all the way down. It's a bit hard to press the button all the way without creating camera shake, so we love this option. Press half way down and the camera focuses relatively quickly then takes the shot. There's a post-view screen and there are options to save images and video to internal memory, the microdrive or a miniSD card.
The camera can take photos up to 2048 x 1536 resolution and has up to 8x digital zoom (not available at the highest resolution). It can take photos at a variety of lesser resolutions including those suitable for picture caller ID, Today Screen backgrounds and MMS and there's a panorama mode. The camera has options for center vs. average metering, 4 quality settings, white balance, image effects, burst and timer modes.
Video is more impressive and we liked the quality, which competes well with the Nokia N73 (but not the Nokia N93 or N95). The camcorder can shoot video with audio at CIF 352 x 288, QVGA 320 x 240 176 x 144 and 128 x 96 resolutions. It saves files in MP4 format that Quicktime under Windows but not Mac OSX could play.
The X7501 has a 2200 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's user replaceable. Unlike most PDA phones, the battery isn't under a door on the back, but rather there's a plastic door on the bottom edge of the unit that conceals the battery. Lift a metal slider-latch integrated into the battery's end, and slide the battery out. The Advantage uses HTC's usual 5v, 1 amp world charger, but it's a more compact travel charger design with US prongs. You can use chargers from other recent HTC devices like the TyTN/AT&T 8525, HTC Universal (e.g.: i-mate JasJar) and HTC Wizard (Cingular 8125, T-Mobile MDA).
For a powerful device with triple wireless and a 5" display, the Advantage has excellent battery life. Put the Advantage in flight mode overnight and the battery level doesn't drop at all. You can literally read eBooks all day and into the night with the screen brightness set low. It can play MP3s with the screen offer for over 11 hours. For business use (email, web, Office docs), it should last all day with the 3G radio on and in use. That's certainly better than a UMPC or notebook. We'll update this section as we have more time to test the battery under more scenarios, but so far it looks very good by handheld computer standards.
The Value Proposition and a Few Comparisons
If you need full Windows Vista, then look elsewhere. And yes, the Advantage is expensive. You'll need to have the money and a need for extremely mobile computing. If you're nodding yes on both counts, then the X7501 offer excellent value and utility compared to other micro-mobile solutions currently on the market. It's a large screen portable GPS. It's half the price of the pint-sized Windows Vista micro computers: the OQO model 2, Flipstart and the Sony Vaio UX 380/390N. It's priced a few hundred below UMPCs like a decently-appointed Samsung Q1 Ultra and import UMPCs. It's one of the few solutions to offer integrated, unlocked worldwide WAN networking in the form of triband HSDPA 3G, and of course it's well-connected with Bluetooth 2.0 and WiFi 802.11b/g, as are most Vista competitors. A $1,500 HSDPA version of the Q1 Ultra is due out, to be fair. Since the Ultra has only an SD card slot, you can't use a PC Card or ExpressCard WAN solution. Ditto for the Sony UX, which has only a Memory Stick slot. The OQO model 2 has an EVDO option, but that won't work in Europe or Asia.
While HTC markets the Advantage's 3G capabilities (they are a PDA phone and smartphone company after all), the stronger selling point may well be that thisWindows Vista. I like Vista just fine, but so far all of the micro PC and UMPCs we've reviewed or used running Vista (and that's most all of them) are too darned underpowered to run Vista decently and their battery life is significantly shorter. Simple tasks take much, much longer to execute on these compared to standard notebooks, and even booting up or waking from hibernation can be a 2 minute affair. In some cases boot times can can be shortened by removing bloatware, but only the Sony Vaio UX is guilty of overdosing a tiny machine with too much trialware, sell-ware and browser toolbar overload. Even if you don't need instant-on, big plus though it is in an extremely mobile device, you'll save time avoiding Windows Updates, anti-virus updates and other time consuming foibles of full Windows.
We have qualms with Windows Mobile as a phone OS in terms of its UI which is too complex and takes too many taps-- but it makes a wonderful handheld computer OS that's simpler to operate and maintain than full-blown Windows, is quite powerful and reasonably responsive. If you need Word, Excel, PowerPoint presentations, email (including push email), good web-browsing (though still not as good as the iPhone's in terms or rendering), easy file transfer and syncing with Windows desktops and Exchange server, the HTC Advantage is an excellent choice. And there's enough room for a little fun inside thanks to 8 gigs of storage and the ability to play music and video.