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HP iPAQ hw6515 Mobile Messenger Pocket PC Phone

Editor's rating (1-5):
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Editors's Note: The iPAQ hw6915 replaced this model.

Reviewed Sept. 20, 2005 by Michael Thwaite


What would you do if your first foray into QWERTY phones turned out to be a dud? Well, that was the dilemma that HP faced when they introduced the 6300 series QWERTY phone. Having launched it to a number of big players it soon gained a reputation for poor performance and serious reliability issues. It was quickly pulled from the shelves. HP took it on the chin, had a chat with their friends at HTC in Taiwan and came back with a bit of a winner.

HP iPAQ 6515

The HP iPAQ hw6515 shares the same goals as its predecessor; it's a PDA/Phone cross-over that includes a good sized thumb keyboard to turn the unit into a Blackberry and Treo-busting mobile communicator. This time they came back with mostly good specs; an Intel XScale PXA270 312 MHz processor, 64MB each RAM and Flash ROM with about 57 megs and 12 megs available to the user. The biggest improvements to the specifications are the inclusion of a quad-band GSM phone, a great implementation of Bluetooth 1.2 and a defining new feature on a PDA/Phone- Integrated GPS. The iPAQ hw6515 and hw6510 (same device, minus camera) are available from Cingular in the US.

Design and Ergonomics

Built by top O.D.M., HTC in Taiwan the unit feels solid and you're not left feeling that you've been cheated on the price, as high as it is. Weighing in at 5.8 ounces(165g) it falls at the midpoint between the lightweight Smartphones from i-Mate and QTEK (also built by HTC) and the heavyweight communicators like the i-MATE PDA2K (aka Siemens SX66) … Also built by guess who?

The design of the unit has placed some interesting restrictions on the product; in an attempt to create a 'hand-sized' unit the space taken up by the keyboard has eaten into the space given to the screen; the result is a screen that's been chopped down from the common QVGA 240 x 320 to just 240 x 240 - it's square, and missing 80 lines!

iPAQ h26515

Into the 4.65 x 2.8 x .71 inch (118 x 71 x 21mm) case HP have managed to include two memory card slots; a regular SDIO and a mini-SD giving a maximum storage boost of 3 gigs with today's cards.

Around the back is a 1.3M pixel camera with LED lamp, a speaker for speakerphone mode and ringing, and a removable battery pack that contains a 1200 mAh battery.

In addition to the back-lit 39-key keyboard there is a sound 5-way joystick, buttons for call pickup and clear-down, Contacts and Email. On the side you'll find volume up/down and a camera button. The power button is on the front at the top next to the seemingly obligatory flashing LEDs that, for me would be better dispensed with; I don't need an LED flashing angrily at me whilst I'm trying to read my email; I don't need to know that Bluetooth is on; I never turn it off.

Also on the front is a fold down, removable, acrylic cover for the screen; good for protection but at a cost of an additional 3mm thickness.

In the base of the unit is the headphone socket - a bit of a blunder really as it's inaccessible when the unit's in the docking station, so no listening to music at work whilst you sync. On the plus side, you can charge whilst you're syncing from the USB interface so you can keep the supplied charger in your bag or at home and keep the included docking station at work and charge in both places.

Phone Features and Reception

The new phone electronics shine through; this is about as good as it gets today in Pocket PC world. The Quad-band radio is sensitive and holds on to a weak signal with tenacity. EDGE gives download speeds around 100k which is much better than GPRS' 30k average, though far from Wi-Fi and 3G speeds.

All that said, the good hardware is let down by mediocre software. The standard phone application is as ponderous in use as any other Pocket PC phone; it can be frustrating at times, when you hit hang-up and it takes what seems to be an age for the UI to respond; it takes discipline and a lot of quietly counting to ten in your head to resist angry outbursts. Anyone used to the snappy response of a Symbian or Palm based device will be disappointed.

Being a Pocket PC Phone rather than a Smartphone means that we loose the fantastic T9 contacts location feature that allows dialing 764 to find all of the 'Smiths' in your phonebook, instead you must hit contacts, type in part of the name, select it from the list, click on the entry, etc, etc, etc.

This is time for some third-party software and in this case I have to recommend Microsoft's own Voice Command software. At $30 it's a must and flips over the usability; Reconfigure the Camera button to be voice command and suddenly it's all different. To call simply press the Camera button and say "Call Home" or "Call John Smith on Mobile" and it's away, with surprising accuracy and all this with no training at all. I carry about 500 contacts, each with one, two or three numbers and it hits the right target four out of five times on the first go. You can also issue commands like "What's my Schedule for tomorrow" and it'll read it right out for you. You can also start applications by saying "Start …" however; calling out "Start Solitaire" to your phone is a little sad on a few levels.

Voice Command is so good; Microsoft offers it to manufacturers in the latest release of the Windows Mobile 5 software.

Horsepower and Performance

Powered by an Intel XScale PXA270 312 MHz processor with 64MB each RAM and Flash ROM it has about 57 megs and 12 megs available to the user. This is light but, there won't be much need to install many apps as I'll go into a little later.

In day-to-day email, calendar and web browsing the CPU is fine. It'll play full screen MP4 videos using TCPMP, and it runs games smoothly (those that actually work at 240 x 240 resolution). Its biggest stretch is with Skype; it can run the application and even make voice calls over Wi-Fi if you plug a Wi-Fi card into the SDIO slot. The CPU speed falls below Skype's recommendation but the PXA 272 CPU seems more efficient than its predecessor.

Though integrated storage is light; the unit includes both mini-SD and full sized SDIO slots; you can load up 3GB of storage using today's cards or, keep 1GB in the mini-SD and use a Wi-Fi SDIO card in the top slot.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to provide Spb Benchmark results, as it's one of the casualties of the iPAQ's 240 x 240 resolution: certain key elements are off-screen and thus inaccessible.

Display, Gaming and Multimedia

When HP decided to keep the unit hand-sized they took the decision to incorporate a square 3" diagonal 240 x 240 resolution. This was a mistake; I can't sugar coat it; it was a bad choice. At 3" across the screen is big enough for you to see the pixels; they're sliced up with thick black lines between them. Ok, perhaps I exaggerate but with such amazing displays as the 320 x 320 screen used in the Palm Treo 650 why did we get short changed? The visual issue is only the beginning of the problem; with 80 rows of pixels chopped off the bottom there are few programs that have been written to fully accommodate the standard. The result is that so many apps render controls; buttons, drop down lists and text below the screen and there is no way to scroll the screen, let's dwell on that for a moment… no, way... Say it with me "Why did you do that HP?"

The upside is that it keeps your memory free; if the apps don't work, you won't install them so the weak 12MB available in ROM isn't a problem. The apps that do work, feel a little cramped compared to the usual 320 x 240, web browsing, already at a pinch on 320 x 240 is pushed to the limit; it's just a lot more scrolling. If HP had chosen a 320 x 320 screen I suspect that apps would have worked; we might have seen some black bars at the side of the applications but at least they might work, and wow would it have looked good! It's vitally important then, when looking for software, that you confirm compatibility with the lower resolution square screen. It will be interesting to see what the rumored upcoming Palm Treo 670 looks like running the Windows Mobile OS, I do hope that they retain the 320 x 320 screen and don't drop to the 240 x 240 standard, perhaps they'll go up to the 480 x 480 Pocket PC standard?

The integrated applications include the standard Pocket PC fair; email, calendar, contacts, Pocket Word and Excel plus web browser. Each of these applications has been tuned for the low resolution and all operate normally which shows that it's possible to do 240 x 240.

Included is Windows Media Player 10 which is a welcome upgrade to version 9. It adds strong DRM support so accepts protected content from the likes of Napster and Yahoo but also offers a managed "Library" to allow play by artist, album, genre, etc. Nice. Audio quality is modest; the unit has quite a high noise floor so sensitive headphones yield an annoying background hiss. Bass is thin, Treble is a little brittle, it's in the territory of an iPod Mini, it is good for blasting MP3's but don't plug it into your high-end gramophone.

Video playback is solid; Windows Media Player 10 works well, so too does TCPMP; my favorite free player that seems to reliably outperform WMP10 giving MP4 video playback at 30fps with ease. The screen resolution doesn't hurt here but the square aspect ratio yields very thick black bars top and bottom on wide screen content.

In summary; the iPAQ 6515 makes a strong enough audio and video player to negate the need to buy a dedicated alternative.

GPS

One of the defining features of the iPAQ 6515 is its integrated GPS. Using a standard serial output of NEMA data (the standard) it will feed pretty much any GPS software (whether it will display ok is another thing!).

The most obvious choice of software is navigation and, with the right stuff: a car mount and an SD card full of maps you have a budget solution assuming you've swallowed the cost of the iPAQ already! However, in time I predict that we'll see some more interesting stuff like IM clients that know where you are and alert you when friends are near; actually, physically near! Perhaps we'll see more location based services such as automatically configured weather reports, accident and congestion avoidance and no-doubt advertising like "Fancy a beer? Turn left".

So how does the GPS in the iPAQ 6515 compare; well, it's a bit slow to get an initial lock; it uses assisted GPS which means that it collects updated reference data over GPRS or active sync periodically to speed up its lock acquisition time but, in pretty much all cases, it takes ages to get a lock, if at all! In a car it needs to be held forward under the windshield, out walking it's ok when it's away from tall buildings. Out in the open it can take a few minutes to find itself so it's no good for opening, checking position and closing; it's too slow for that. Even acquisition from warm can take half a minute which is very frustrating. Once locked it holds well compared to dedicated units from Garmin and CoPilot, so for car navigation it does work.

It'll be interesting to see if drivers in Windows Mobile 5 will improve the situation.

Depending upon where you purchase the iPAQ 6515 you'll probably receive some GPS "Starter" Navigation software; I'd budget about $200 to bring that software up to scratch.

Camera

The integrated 1.3M pixel camera offers image quality comparable to its peers. Bright daylight pictures yield some saturated pixels and the LED 'flash' is, mostly, well… useless.

With a maximum resolution of 1280 x 1024 the pictures are generally poor and far below a 'Proper' digital camera, even one of the original 1.3M pixel ones; A good way to compare is to take a picture shot on a 4+M pixel digital camera and display it on a 1280 x 1024 display; should look the same yes? No. The integrated camera in the 6515 has a very small lens and a simple CMOS photo-sensor so the results don't match.

In video mode, the compression is H.263 which is basic MPEG4, at 352 x 288 I'd say it hits a few frames a second, at the lower resolutions it's faster but gets too fuzzy to use. I don't really know why they add this feature; I think it adds a negative to the overall score that a complete absence of video wouldn't attract.

All in all, it's as good as its peers but, it's a phone - great for party snaps and that nasty fender-bender. Plus, I've seen them recently used as a traffic cam to provide documentary evidence to spouses to explain late returns home. The flash however makes a good flashlight; I'd like to see a simple application to switch it on and off, I'd use it more than the camera!

Bluetooth

Bluetooth support is top-notch; rather than relying on the weak integrated stack built into Windows Mobile 2003SE, HP stepped up and brought in the industry leaders; Broadcom. The result is an unparalleled support; profiles for Hands-free as well as headset, High Quality Audio, ActiveSync, Network Client, Network Server, OBEX and Keyboard. The iPAQ has support for Bluetooth 1.2 with backward compatibility with 1.1.

What's really good though is just how slick it is, you can place a call in the car on the integrated Bluetooth, transition to the handset then to a Bluetooth Headset without dropping the call or pressing a button - that is slick. Incoming calls search for devices and connect reliably. All this, whilst typing an email on an external keyboard.

Connecting to a Bluetooth network access point yields transfer rates for over 700Kbps; easily enough for surfing and reading the news; even music streams well over BT networking.

HP chose not to include Wi-Fi in the 6515, the rumor is they're reserving that for the 6700 series due soon. The WLAN access will be at the cost of the SDIO slot so I'm not 100% convinced it's worth the wait especially if you have good EDGE coverage or a BT Network.

sample photo

sample photo

Above: photos taken with the HP iPAQ 6515

Battery Life

The iPAQ ships with a 1200 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's user replaceable. Battery life is average; the equal of its peers; it really should see the charger each night if you're to rely on it the following day. 4 hours talk time is good; if you need a little more; shop around for the i-Mate JAM replacement battery; the 1500 mAh fits for an extra half hour or hang on as there are rumors of an HP 1800 mAh that'll bulge out a little but give an estimated six hours.

Software

The basic OS is Windows Mobile 2003SE; HP had the product in the market place before Windows Mobile 5 became available; rumor has it that the upgrade will in fact be available; all I can say is that they'd better make it so! I've not had the pleasure of trying WM5 yet but I understand that the BT stack is improved and the navigation has become more keyboard friendly which is good as the current OS scores badly in that area; it is difficult to use the included apps; email, calendar, contacts, word, excel, etc without touching the screen; it's not that I mind that much but Palm and Symbian both allow almost full control one handed, when you master that, performance goes up exponentially. Push email from MS Exchange 2003SP2 will also appear in WM5.

In addition to the standard Microsoft apps, HP adds TodayPanel, a Home Screen plug in that shows battery, memory and storage levels and allows the display brightness to be adjusted. HP Profiles; a promising app that allows settings like Phone on/off, Bluetooth, power and brightness settings to be controlled together in a Profile like Home, Work, Meeting, Silent, etc. but then make it difficult to activate those settings. HP audio to muck about with things like Bass and Treble boost, HP Backup to save it all and iPAQ wireless; a good central point to control Phone and Bluetooth activation.

Clearvue provides PowerPoint and PDF viewers; both good and finally the Camera and pictures are managed by HP Photosmart and Image Zone. Both good solid performers.

Conclusion

The HP hw6515 is a pretty rounded device; it's strong on phone (reception and audio performance) and Bluetooth, weaker on audio quality, screen and OS navigation.

I look for a combination of Form, Function and Features, a good device feels good, works well and carries out the tasks I need to get on with in business. In a jam when things are hectic I can flip between calls, contacts and calendar without thinking about the device. If the device holds me up or isn't intuitive to use I fall out with it pretty quickly. The hw6515 pulls this feat off despite not having any particular strong feature; sure other devices shine in individual areas; the Motorola RAZR is a great phone, the i-Mate JASJAR is a great data device and the BlackBerry is a great emailer but the hw6515 seems to pull those together in a really unifying manner. Using the internal apps modified for the small screen and a few choice apps for news; Egress RSS, video; TCPMP and WMP10 and file management; Resco Explorer it shines as a get work done sort of companion.

Is the hw6515 the ultimate Phone / PDA crossover then? No, there never will be one… A phone with a 10" screen, which fits in your shirt pocket and lasts a month on a charge - are you joking? Perhaps the Motorola Q might be the next step towards that but I'm not nearly young enough to believe a Q1, 2006 delivery date from those boys; MPx anyone?

In summary, the HP iPAQ hw6515 is, at the moment, the best, most feature rich QWERTY phone for "everyday use". My fear is that it's about to lose the crown to those that decided to wait for WM5.

Web Site: www.hp.com, www.cingular.com

Price: $499 with 2 year contract from Cingular, $649 without contract extension from HP

Shopping: Where to Buy

 

Specs:

Display: Transflective TFT color LCD. 64K colors, screen size diag: 3". Resolution: 240 x 240.

Battery: 1200 mAh Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.

Phone: GSM with EDGE and GPRS for data. Quad band world phone: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz.

Performance: Intel XScale PXA 272 312 MHz processor. 64 MB built-in RAM (55 megs available). 64 MB Flash ROM with 12 megs available in File Store for your use.

GPS Software: Varies by market and country.

Size: 4.65 x 2.8 x .71 inches. Weight: 5.8 oz.

Audio: Built in speaker, mic and 2.5mm stereo headphone jack. Voice Recorder and Windows Pocket Media Player 10 included for your MP3 pleasure.

Camera: 1.3 megapixels capable of taking both photos and video. Max. photo resolution 1280 x 1024. Max video resolution: 352 x 288.

Networking: Integrated Bluetooth 1.2.

Software: Windows Mobile 2003SE Phone Edition. Microsoft Pocket Office suite including Pocket Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and Outlook. Also, Terminal Services, MSN Instant Messenger for Pocket PC, Voice Recorder and handwriting recognition. ActiveSync 3.8 and Outlook 2002 for PCs included.

Expansion: 1 SD (Secure Digital) slot supporting SDIO and SDIO Now!. 1 Mini-SD slot. Standard IR.

 

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